The dangers of a ‘spiritualized’ Gospel

In the last year, my church took up the subject of ‘Social Justice and the Gospel’. I nearly wept with joy: as the main preacher in the series pointed out, social justice has been on the backbench in many evangelical circles over the last half a century at least. I had been thinking about issues to do with social justice for a long while and, after a number of discussions with various Christian friends, thought I’d share my thoughts and encourage people to give me their thoughts on the matter.

My main line of thought is this: I think motivation for social justice can only be understood in terms of the Gospel, and not as separate from it, and that evangelicals have had a tendency to read our own hermeneutic into what ‘the Gospel’ means. Working to bring about God’s Kingdom must therefore include striving for social justice. Now I can’t think of any Christian I know who would say that social justice isn’t important. But I’d argue that ‘salvation’ means much more than ‘spiritual renewal’: shrinking the good news about Jesus to a simply ‘spiritualized’ meaning, which I think we are sometimes in danger of doing when we evangelise, results in a faulty idea about creation, which may manifest itself in unhelpful ways, which I address below.

If it’s true that evangelicals have stressed preaching ‘spiritual’ salvation with the result that ‘social justice’ slid off the agenda somewhat, I sense that this has led to something quite unhelpful: the shrinking of ‘the Gospel’ into a ‘spiritual’ one, plus ‘social justice’ as some sort of add-on (which is nevertheless compulsory). I believe, passionately, that they are inextricably linked and must be understood as one, bound tightly together, and I think the New Testament supports this. What proceeds is, I suppose, some kind of justification of why I think this is the case.

I suppose it depends on what we understand by ‘the Gospel’. To figure this out, I asked some of my evangelical Christian friends what they understood by it. Most said, ‘the good news that Jesus died for us so that we can go to heaven when we die’. This concerned me, because, while it is in some sense right, it is at best only half the truth. If this were all there is to the Gospel, we would have to come up with a theology of this world as well as having one of the next. What’s the point of creation if we’re just chugging away, waiting to live with God in heaven?

As far as I can tell, the NT suggests that the good news about Jesus is that God, in spite of our rebellion, is going to restore/renew his creation and he has already begun this work through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who reconciles us to God by dying on the cross for our sins and rising to new life: it being our rebellion that caused the world (and us as individuals) to be out of joint with God in the first place. This is, I think, what Ephesians 1 is all about, esp. verses 7-10, i.e. that God will bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. Jesus is the first fruits of them that sleep (1 Cor 15:20), i.e., God has brought into the present the start of this new creation, this union of heaven and earth, which will be fulfilled at the end times as portrayed in Revelation 21. By acknowledging our sins and trusting in him, we share in his inheritance: we too shall be raised, and we live now as Christians in anticipation of that new creation (2 Cor 5:17 etc). So far so good, but it means that trusting in Jesus is less about ‘going to heaven when you die’, still less about disembodied heavenly bliss, a philosophy which I worry a great proportion of the (perhaps lay) worldwide church subscribes to and which is more Aristotelian than biblical, but rather seeking God’s Kingdom in anticipation of the new creation, living as aliens and strangers in this world. To my mind, yes of course that means telling everyone possible about the good news of Jesus Christ, just as we are commanded to do. But it’s not only that we can share in ‘eternal life’ in the sense that it will go on forever, but that that ‘life’, which we have a foretaste of as Christians in this world, obviously also involves the total renewal of creation so that there will no longer be any death, sickness, broken lives, etc.

I think this means, if we are truly to live as ambassadors of Christ in anticipation of new creation, that ‘social justice’ or whatever we want to call it really is part of the church’s mission and must be part of the ‘message’ of the church, because the Gospel cannot be understood fully without it. That’s not to say we should abandon evangelism – of course not, and I grant that there may have been this tendency in some parts of the church. Rather, the two go hand in hand, at best not separated at all, at least in theory. How this works out practically is, of course, another matter. Nevertheless, helping others’ physical needs is central to building God’s Kingdom, and not only to make our faith look attractive, although this is an important and noble motivation.

After all, Jesus spends most of the gospels telling people to give to the poor and help the needy, so keen is he to stress that he has come to turn the world as we know it upside down: to put down the mighty from their seat, and exalt the hungry and meek, etc. I can’t think of an example where he adds the caveat ‘but you should only do this so that people believe in me’. Moreover, I can think of no example of Jesus’ healing where he distinguishes between spiritual and physical healing (e.g. Mark 2). For him, the two are one: in the new creation, our whole being – mind, soul, body, the lot – will be renewed altogether. I’m not suggesting for a second that this means, when someone becomes a Christian, their physical ailments will definitely, simultaneously, miraculously disappear. Of course not – we know that this can sometimes happen, but there’s no guarantee that it will. But we can be sure that in the (fulfilled) new creation, it will. And since Jesus embodies this new creation, he is the heaven-come-down-to-earth, God-with-us foretaste of the fulfilled new creation, when heaven and earth will be irrevocably sewn together in the New Jerusalem. All this suggests to me that ‘salvation’ cannot be divided up into ‘spiritual’ and ‘physical’, at least ideally not.

I realise that, for the purposes of everyday trusting in Jesus, what I’ve described above amounts to little more than subtle differences in definition. All traditions in the church tend to stress something at the expense of something else, and at least evangelicals stress repentance and forgiveness of sins! I think there are, however, a couple of dangers that one risks falling into the trap of if one (perhaps inadvertently) allows the Gospel to be shrunk down to a ‘spiritual’ (and most often, ‘individual’) reading.

First, I fear this may manifest itself in a faulty idea about creation. So immersed are we in the West in the shade of Aristotle that there’s a hint that we buy into the idea of escaping a wicked, evil creation on this earth to enjoy everlasting bliss with God in heaven, which, of course, is Gnostic nonsense and thoroughly unbiblical. God created the world and saw that it was good, after all. When we evangelise, we often play this down, in order to stress individual forgiveness of sins. From experience, I’ve found this can lead to the tendency for non-believers to perceive God as a petty judge, ‘needing’ to be ‘satisfied’ by the blood of Jesus if he wants to let us in to heaven, and a holier-than-thou attitude on our part stressing our own individual eternal salvation: neither is right, or ideal.

Second, I think some Christians within evangelical circles risk losing a sense of the importance of space and buildings, because we’re so keen to stress that Jesus is our holy temple and that we can pray to him anywhere (again, with such good reason!) Space is important, church buildings and tradition too, if for no other reason than they’re the place where the saints have been meeting for two thousand years, and we worship with those saints, given that God stands outside of our understanding of time. Several unbelievers have told me how they have felt drawn to Christian teachings because of the peace they experience within the walls of a church building – the only quiet they can find in their otherwise hectic lives. We shouldn’t condemn this. We should encourage people to seek the truth behind that feeling of peace.

Eucharist is another difficult topic. It’s easy for us to play down its importance, because, inheriting the church’s past and coming from a tradition that rebelled against that past, we’re fearful that our congregations will start thinking we have to ‘do’ things to earn God’s favour. Your average evangelical doesn’t, by and large, spend a lot of time contemplating the Eucharist. But obviously it’s recorded in at least three gospels and in 1 Corinthians in an almost identical way, i.e. it was important from the Church’s very beginnings. I once read somewhere that Jesus didn’t give us a theory of the atonement, he gave us a meal. For in the new creation there will be a banquet, and when we celebrate the Eucharist we share in that feast with the church past, present and future. I’ve read that the Greek for ‘eat’ in John 6 is more literally ‘munch’. God’s Kingdom is not just a spiritual one; it involves all the senses. This does not, of course, have to mean that anything necessarily sacrificial is going on, or that bread and wine ‘become’ body and blood of Christ, etc etc. But it does mean that the Eucharist is a profound and important part of the life of the church which, if I put my hand on my heart, I don’t always feel is the case in some of our churches, because we ‘spiritualize’ it away for fear of misunderstanding it. Importantly, I believe that both our hesitancy regarding the Eucharist and physical space as somewhere to meet God have their root in a shrinking of the Gospel into a ‘spiritual’ one, with renewal of creation as a sort of extra doctrine.

Much of the main thrust of this post is elucidated far more coherently in Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope: it’s not something I’ve come up with myself! Some of you will know that I’ve read a fair bit of Wright’s theology, but I believe this book is among the most important Christian books written in recent years, and I heartily recommend it if you’ve not read it. There’s a a fair review of it here on the UCCF’s apologetics website:

These are just my thoughts on having been a member of a couple of large evangelical church families for three years, coming from a background somewhere in middle Anglicanism, and are not intended to rebuke or criticise at all, rather to encourage discussion. Because I’ve sung in many church choirs and musical groups over the years, I have been blessed to get to know Christians of all types and experience their witness as members of churches of all different traditions, from the very high to the very low, from the very conservative to the very liberal, from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal. My experience is that most Christians, like me, are walking the long road with Jesus towards the new creation, usually taking three steps forward but then two back. Let’s continue to pray for the church in its walk with the Lord as we seek to work for God’s Kingdom in hope, looking forward to that day when-

‘ … creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.’

Romans 8.21

8 thoughts on “The dangers of a ‘spiritualized’ Gospel

  1. This is really good Vicky. I think you’re spot on, and that people are starting to get that the New Creation will be physical and that God cares for creation leading to social justice etc. And you’re right, ‘preaching of spiritual salvation’ (your words I think, although I will use the term ‘evangelism’ for the sake of ease) and social justice go hand in hand – and they mutually strengthen each other. Two thoughts though. (1) The requirement for entry to the kingdom is simply trusting Jesus (repentance and faith) and not understanding any of this. This means that while your evangelical friends may not have an entirely rounded view of salvation, they understand what they need to understand. And they understand what the next person needs to understand. Trust Jesus and be saved. I don’t think that’s peddling a half-truth, but rather giving the essential, simple (not simplistic) answer. As for the ‘go to heaven when you die’, while this may perhaps be the language they use (although I don’t think many I know would put it like that!) I doubt any single one of them would believe that heaven is disembodied harp strumming on a cloud. Rather the word ‘heaven’ is used as a shorthand for ‘the awesome thing that God has for us for eternity’ (whether what that is is understood by them or not). Now that is not saying that it would not be good for this imbalance to be corrected, but what it is saying is that they get ‘Repent and believe’ and that is enough for Jesus and so must be for us. (2) As for the practical implications, we should remember that for our evangelism to be joined with social action we must know people well enough to know what their needs are and try to meet them. Now to be honest, I think as people get to know others as friends that happens anyway – otherwise are you their friend? We don’t necessarily need sermons encouraging us to ‘do social action’ however that might be worked out. That’s not to say we can’t love people more sacrificially and care for the needy better – of course we can, and it’s good to be challenged in that way! But I think that this alerts us to the fact that this whole social justice thing which is now on the agenda is actually less something that we need to ‘learn to do’ as individuals (which would have the danger of it becoming something to ‘tick off a list’ rather than something which flows naturally as we’re transformed by grace) but is more a correction in ‘from the front’ preaching. However, I thoroughly agree that it is a good correction to make, because as you correctly say, it is Biblical (something evangelicals should always be seeking to be), it solves some of the issues with which non-believers struggle (and so strengthens ‘evangelism’), and it makes the New Creation something to be excited about, not ‘disembodied heavenly bliss’.

  2. Gosh that was a bit long! Sorry! Didn’t say anything about space or eucharist, but add the arts in as an area where there are big implications….

  3. Hi Ali – I’ve a moment to reply more fully. Before I get into the nitty-gritty, just want to say thanks so much for reading and providing your thoughts, as the post is a bit of an epic 2000 words or so, and as we’d already discussed a lot of what’s in it before. So thanks 🙂

    As regards point 1): Absolutely agree with you, and perhaps I should have made that clear. The Gospel is absolutely NOT about intelligence. That’s one of the (many!) things that is so wonderful about it. However, we ARE called to love God with our heart, soul, MIND and strength, so I think we do have a duty (if we are to fulfil that command) to engage our mind with God as much as we possibly can, if we are to love him as much as we can. But this is a bit of an idealised principle, and I’ve no idea how it plays out in reality.

    I also think it would be mightily helpful if ‘heaven’ WASN’T used in Christian circles to refer to the new creation, because heaven exists now as something different, and the new creation will be heaven AND earth joined together. I can only think that the use of ‘heaven’ for new creation has had its influences in the Platonic idea of disembodied heaven where you go once you die.

    2) I hadn’t thought about that, and indeed made no attempt (being theoretical as I was) to define what social justice actually means – a weakness. I suppose what I had in mind was on a more global scale e.g. engaging fully with social injustice where we live as well as abroad i.e. helping out at homeless shelters etc., but of course there’s no reason to assume it doesn’t also refer to helping friends in that way. Though I’d argue it is something we can ‘learn to do’, if we believe that the Spirit guides us into all truth.

  4. Thanks for sending this link to me and I enjoyed reading it.

    I was struck by your comment ‘Rather, the two go hand in hand, at best not separated at all, at least in theory. How this works out practically is, of course, another matter.’ I think how we actually do this bringing together is the key task facing the church – how it integrates the explicit message of God’s love – the verbal exchange of the good news – with the more implicit outward working of that love through social action and social justice. We need to do this in practice – I have found that a concern for social justice is the best way to evangelise – if you are prepared to be brave and speak up when opportunities present themselves (which I have found they do) and not go all soggy theologically and pretend everyone believes the same thing. So all the best in finding practical ways to hold these things together – it makes reading Tom Wright even more enjoyable and nourishing! Thanks and God bless, Jon

  5. Having tripped over this through connected links, may I leave a comment. I work with the Anglican church in rural Africa, so my perspective is from there, and our involvement with ‘integrated mission’, and seeing something new happening amongst the growing church here in the last few years. I believe deeply that churches/Christians in the developed world have much to learn from the ‘Third Church’, and, in the context of these links, something to learn about throwing away old definitions (eg ‘churchmanships’), seeing the new, and (if we listen to Philip Jenkins of ‘The Next Christendom’ fame) joining in with what God is doing in these ‘returning-to-roots’, poorest of the poors’ hope- and life-filled churches.

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