Acton Institute Powerblog

The Social Aspect of the Gospel

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In preparing for the paper I’m giving this week on Bonhoeffer’s views of church and state, I ran across the following quotes, which nicely illustrate his view of the gospel and its relation to alleviation of social oppression and suffering. In his essay, “Ultimate and Penultimate Things,” he writes,

It would be blasphemy against God and our neighbor to leave the hungry unfed while saying that God is closest to those in deepest need. We break bread with the hungry and share our home with them for the sake of Christ’s love, which belongs to the hungry as much as it does to us. If the hungry do not come to faith, the guilt falls on those who denied them bread. To bring bread to the hungry is preparing the way for the coming of grace.

But even more important than feeding the hungry is the spiritual bread of the gospel. The physical bread derives its importance, in fact, from its value in “preparing the way” for the reception of the gospel. Giving mere bread is a penultimate thing.

Thus he writes, “Preparing the way is indeed a matter of concrete intervention in the visible world, as concrete and visible as hunger and nourishment. Nevertheless, everything depends on this action being a spiritual reality, since what is finally at stake is not the reform of worldly conditions but the coming of Christ.”

This coheres pretty well with a traditional view of the social responsibility of the Church as an important, albeit secondary, aspect of gospel proclamation. Richard Baxter once wrote,

Do as much good as you are able to men’s bodies in order to the greater good of Souls. If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings; not as if it were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men: God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily senses to the Soul.

It seems to me that Bonhoeffer and Baxter are in close agreement on these issues, in contradistinction to the so-called “social gospel,” which confuses the penultimate with the ultimate.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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