A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.
Popular pastor and author Timothy Keller was in Twitter wars recently. It appeared that he made some comments that a lot of people found very controversial, so much so that it generated significant debate.
Here was his comment that generated 445 replies, 1 336 retweets and 5 038 likes: “Jesus didn’t come primarily to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world. He came to forgive our sins.”
As responses started to come thick and fast, it prompted Keller to make a clarifying response, which said the following: “Folks, key word is ‘primarily’. Of course, he addresses economic, political, and social issues. See my book Generous Justice. Please don’t make a tweet of mine indicative of my entire theology.”
While I thought this would help and settle the issue, it did not appear to stop the tweets of disagreement coming his way.
What I found interesting was that none of the disagreements I read (not that I read them all) attempted to point people back to the New Testament and the gospels in particular.
Thinking about the tweet myself, I don’t know how you could argue against it, if we just read the gospels and the New Testament. There are several times when Jesus appears to ignore the economic, political and social problems of Israel at the time. He harboured no political ambition and rejected the demands to make him king. He didn’t advocate for an overthrow of the economic system of the day. He maintained that the people should pay taxes to Caesar. He made no recorded mention of certain social problems of his day.
Then, after His death and resurrection, when the disciples thought the time was apt to restore the kingdom to Israel, He talked instead about becoming a witness of His life to spread his message from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
Forgiving our sins
At every key moment of Jesus’ life, from His birth, the launch of His ministry, the miracles He performed, the new covenant He made, His words on the cross and his commission to his disciples thereafter, we see Him speaking about or being spoken of as the one who came to forgive our sins. Why then the controversy?
Here’s my guess. The Church is at war with itself. You have the progressives on the one hand, many of whom are young millennials, engaging in a world that speaks a lot about social justice (which may mean different things to different people) and how much the church is not doing in this regard, and how this is hypocritical behavior.
On the other side of the spectrum, you have conservative evangelicals, many of whom are older.
Many progressives, looking at this tweet through the contemporary lens of social awareness, are thus of the opinion that Keller’s tweet is simply another cover-up for the Church that is disinterested in the economic, social and political problems of the world, and are simply hiding behind personal spirituality of forgiveness of sins and the John 3:16 message.
That may often be the case, and there are several scriptures that warn us of this very danger. John’s first epistle in particular repeatedly makes a case that a genuine love for God is seen in how we treat people around us. To put it differently, Christianity does not remain in a spiritual cloister, no. True, authentic Christianity impacts the people and society within which we live in practical ways. On that note, I’ll be the first to admit that I have often not modeled this standard as much as I should.
Yet the story does not end there. While much of the Church can do a lot more in practical ways, we are in deeper water when we try to remove or alter the primary reason Jesus came: to forgive our sins and therefore reconcile us to the Father.
When this is removed from its primary place, a lot more happens. We turn our backs of billions of unreached people, effectively demonstrating that a hell-bound eternity is not so bad after all. When this gospel message is undermined, we effectively minimise the Church to becoming one of the many NGOs, pressure groups or political parties, something an atheist by the name of Matthew Parris was encouraging us NOT to do on the African continent. (You can read this fascinating article at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/as-an-atheist-i-truly-believe-africa-needs-god-3xj9bm80h8m)
Without that clear call to preach the gospel and bring people to Christ, we soon question whether we should preach on vast chunks of the Bible. On this slippery slope, the very infallible claim of the Bible is under grave threat, and it is a matter of time before it is no longer received as God’s revelation to sinful, fallen mankind. This slippery slope is not a mere academic postulation: it is the story of several churches and individuals over the last 200 years in particular.
So then, there is an even bigger danger for those emphasising social justice as the primary thing: the danger of hypocritical behavior that may be politically correct, but completely untrue to one’s primary loyalty to God.
Missionary or imposter
As the preacher Charles Spurgeon challenged the Church: “Every Christian is either a missionary or an impostor.”
This hypocrisy is not difficult to perform. After all, in the multi-culturalist world we are living in, what could be more offensive than to share with someone that there is a way, a truth and a life for them that they are not currently following, without which they cannot attain eternity or the life they were called to live on earth?
This danger is probably most pertinent on the university campus, and yet conversely, the university presents itself as one the greatest mission fields for the globe. For this and other reasons, I join with students at this time of year in reaching the next generation with the message of Christ.
Going back to the Tim Keller episode, one of Keller’s points was that the two causes of evangelism and social concern are not antagonistic. Rather, once someone has received and believed the gospel, a by-product of this is a new, God-filled heart with a new motive to practically serve the world.
Someone may say that this new motive of social concern is largely unseen in large numbers of evangelicals. True or not, the correct course of action is to drive them deeper into the gospel, not away from it.
When the apostle Peter and others were guilty of hypocrisy by distancing themselves from Gentile believers in the presence of fellow Jews, the apostle Paul discerned that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel. (Gal 2:14).
Similarly, when there arises an issue of social concern, rather than jumping on the politically correct bandwagon, if we want to truly change the situation for good, we should address the issue, but only by bringing it in line with the truth of the gospel.
That way, we remain grounded in truth as we act in line with the grace we have received.
For Paul, this situation at Antioch wasn’t an opportunity to present on neo-Marxist or postmodern equality studies; it was a momegnt to re-emphasise the gospel.
The same should apply when we look at racism, poverty, or any other social issues we face today. Social ills are not an opportunity for a new man-centred gospel; they are an opportunity for the gospel to go deeper.