The So-Called “Social Gospel”

So that is the aim of the social gospel, to establish the kingdom of Christ, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God here on earth, as an outward visible organization.

The following is from Paul E. Kretzmann’s Popular Commentary of the Bible. He appended it to his comments on 2 Corinthians. We have updated the manner of Biblical citation. –The Editors

One of the significant features of the present-day theology is its emancipation from what it sneeringly designates as the “other-worldliness” of Christian doctrine. The movement began in Germany, almost a century ago; it had reached a high point in America even before the World War, and has now, when “reconstruction” has become a watchword, even in religion, assumed alarming proportions. The object of the movement, as stated recently by a prominent speaker, is not the salvation of souls, but “that of Christ Himself, to establish the kingdom of heaven or a celestial civilization on earth, to fight all injustice and sin, individual or social.”

Just where this movement has led its exponents, may be seen from various books and pamphlets which have appeared in recent years. Only a few of the errors which are tending to undermine the foundations of our faith can be noted here. They speak of a “development of the Christian religion,” whereas the content of Christian faith is fixed in Holy Writ. That they regard neither Scriptures nor history is seen from the statement of a writer who speaks of “the new theology of Paul” as being the “product of fresh religious experience and of practical necessities,” who writes of the conversion of Paul in the following words: “Paul’s experience at Damascus was the culmination of his personal struggle and his emergence into spiritual freedom. But his crisis got its intensity from its social background. He was deciding, so far as he was concerned, between the old narrow nationalistic religion of conservative Judaism and a wider destiny for his people, between the validity of the Law and spiritual liberty, between the exclusive claims of Israel on the Messianic hope and a worldwide participation in the historical prerogatives of the first-born people.”

If one can so coolly dissect the miracle of conversion, it is not surprising that all the fundamental doctrines of Christianity fall before his onslaught. The doctrine of the fall and of inherited sin, so plainly taught in Scriptures, is set aside as of little consequence. The existence of Satan and of the evil angels is calmly denied: “The demons have faded away into poetical unreality.” Salvation becomes merely “the voluntary socializing of the soul.” Conversion is  but “our own active break with old habits and associations and our turning to a new life.” Not a word of God’s quickening power. Saving faith does not fit into the new system, and so it is calmly set aside: “It is faith to assume that this is a good world and that life is worth living…. It is faith to see God at work in the world and to claim a share in His job.” With regard to the benefit of Baptism the statement is made: “Original sin and baptismal regeneration seem to be marked for extinction.”

But the climax of blasphemous exposition is reached in the chapter on “The Kingdom of God.” The author expressly says: “This doctrine is itself the social gospel. Without it, the idea of redeeming the social order will be but an annex to the orthodox conception of the scheme of salvation…. The kingdom of God is humanity organized according to the will of God.” So that is the aim of the social gospel, to establish the kingdom of Christ, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God here on earth, as an outward visible organization.

In forming the proper and just estimate of this movement, we are guided by the fact that the Bible stresses the otherworldliness of Christ’s reign and kingdom. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus tells Pilate, John 18:36. And to the Pharisees He says: “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation,” Luke 17:20. Altogether in harmony with this fact, Paul writes to Timothy: “The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal. The Lord knoweth them that are His,” 2 Tim. 2:19. This fact is supported by a great many passages in all parts of the Bible. The believers are called guests, strangers, pilgrims in the world, Ps. 119:19; 1 Pet. 2:11; Heb. 11:13; Ps. 39:12. The Apostle Paul dwells upon this fact in many of his letters. He says of the Christians that they groan within themselves, waiting for the redemption of their body, Rom. 8:23. To the Corinthians he writes: “We are confident, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord,” 2 Cor. 5:8. His eager longing is expressed to the Philippians: “Having a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better,’’ Phil. 1:23. And of all Christians he says: “For our conversation is in heaven,” Phil. 3:20. The Colossians he admonishes: “If ye, then, be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth,” Col. 3:1-2. Cp. Heb. 13:14.

On the basis of these plain passages we Christians reject the social gospel of these latter days with uncompromising emphasis. We know that the life of the Christians here on earth is but a preparation for eternity, that our work as well as our recreation is included in this making ready for our great homecoming. Our money and goods are not our permanent possessions, but are only entrusted to us as stewards, to be used for the glory of God and for the welfare of our neighbor, Ps. 62:11; Jer. 9:23; 1 Tim. 6:17. Husband, wife, and children are gifts of God, and it pleases the Lord if we are happy in the circle of our family and elsewhere, and yet it remains true: “It remaineth that both they that have wives be as though they had none; and they that weep as though they wept not; and they that rejoice as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy as though they possessed not; and they that use this world as not abusing it; for the fashion of this world passeth away,” 1 Cor. 7:29-31.

Only if we keep these facts in mind shall we be able to lead our lives on earth in harmony with the Word and will of the Lord. Incidentally we reject the insinuation as though we, in our care for the world to come, were forgetting the duties of this present life. It is just because we have the right conception and estimation of the eternal possessions which await us that we guard against the loss of these wonderful gifts both by sins of commission and of omission. It is because we know what our Savior did for us in unselfish love that we are all the more ready to serve our neighbor in all works of love and mercy and to perform all the duties which devolve upon us as citizens of the state. In this way we are in the world, but not of the world, and await with eager longing the day of the revelation of the Kingdom of Glory.

Cp. [Walter] Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1918]


Rev. Paul E. Kretzmann

Paul E. Kretzmann, M.A., PhD., B.D. (1883-1965), was a pastor in Shady Bend, KS, professor at Concordia College in St. Paul, MN, and author of The Popular Commentary (1921-1923).

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