Think about this quote with me: “Christians who turn from the priorities of evangelism to environmental care are acting like a surgeon who abandons an operation to go and unblock a toilet.”[i] This quote is meant to shake us, and look at our priorities. However, one key area that this quote about evangelism cleverly overlooks is, what is the gospel?
What is the gospel? The gospel is what God has already done (1 Cor. 15:1-2; Gal. 1:11). The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ bore our sins and died on the cross, then triumphantly rose from the dead in vindicated glory, now calling all people into kingdom community. But there is also an intrinsic demand with the good news. People are called to repent, place their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and through obedience be open to ongoing transformation (Carson 2010, 147, 154, 162). This ongoing transformation has an outward manifestation: God’s sending of redeemed people to proclaim that good news (2 Cor. 8:18) and to live as witnesses worthy of that gospel (Phil. 1:27).
Implicit in this discussion of the gospel is the concept of salvation—the mystery of being saved from sin and estrangement by God’s grace through faith, to know forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. The only route to pass through for salvation is Jesus Christ (John 14:1-7), the foundation of our salvation (Romans 3:23-26; 2 Cor. 5:18-21; 1 John 2:2). The visible markers of the believer’s turning away from sin and turning toward God is conversion (Netland “Christian Mission”, 6). This gift of salvation is not based on works but calls us to a response of good works (Eph. 2:8-10).
Holistic mission. Holistic mission is recognizing the link of salvation between the gospel and proclamation as well as social responsibility. Hence, fostering conversion is a key component of holistic mission—not only for the individual’s salvation but also for the responses that flow as new kingdom citizens.
Evangelism and Social Responsibility. Evangelism is the proclamation by word of the work that Jesus Christ has done coupled with an explicit invitation to come to him personally and enter His kingdom community.[ii] Social responsibility is the transformation of how we live, which flows from being born again and entering God’s kingdom.[iii] This responsibility can be further divided into social service and social action. Social service involves directly meeting human needs and philanthropy. Social action is more systemic—it addresses causes of human need, engages with political and economic reform, and seeks justice as well as transformation of societal structures (Stott 1997 “Grand Rapids”, 196). The fruit of social responsibility necessarily involves both social service and social action—the individual and the communal.
Linking evangelism and social responsibility. First, social responsibility is a “consequence of evangelism”. The new life that we know through responding to the proclaimed Word leads to service to others (Gal. 5:6). We are progressively called to take next steps in living out our salvation (Tit. 2:14; Eph. 2:10; James 2:14-26). Second, social responsibility is a “bridge to evangelism”. It is important to see this as a bridge and not a bribe—social responsibility is not advertising or tricking people to like Jesus. Social responsibility is authentic living that provides integrity and credibility to the Christian witness of those who proclaim the gospel. Third, social responsibility is a partner with evangelism. Proclamation and service is not only a link, but there is also overlap (Ibid., 181-2).
So What? What I am advocating for is to seriously consider what living out the gospel means for each one of us. It means public witness of our faith—in Word and deed. It also means going beyond individual social responsibility and engaging in social service at the societal level. That is some uncomfortable territory to venture into, but public witness of faith is just that—it is not simply an individual, private matter. The quote about the surgeon unclogging the toilet ends up to be misplaced–it misses the fulness of public witness of faith based on a robust understanding of the gospel. I am looking forward to our public witness of faith through Word and deed . . . together, in community.
Grace and peace,
Carl Greene, Executive Director, SDB General Conference of USA and Canada
[i] Internet Commentator quoted in David G. Horrell, The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical Ecological Biblical Theology (Oakville, CA: Equinox Publishing, 2010), 15.
[ii] “To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gift of the Spirit to all who repent and believe.” (Stott 1997 Lausanne, 20)
[iii] “When people receive Christ they are born again into his kingdom and must seek not only to exhibit but also to spread its righteousness in the midst of an unrighteous world. The salvation we claim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities. Faith without works is dead.” (Stott 1997, “The Lausanne Covenant”, 24).