Carl Henry on Social Justice and the Gospel

Time was when what it meant to be an evangelical was the affirmation that both evangelism and social action are integral parts of the church’s mission. Not either/or but both/and: both the verbal proclamation of the saving message of Jesus Christ and the pursuit of social justice as a present sign of the coming kingdom of Christ. The postwar neo-evangelical movement deliberately positioned itself as a third way, distinct from the withdrawn and adversarial social posture of fundamentalism, on the one hand, and the heterodox humanitarianism of the Social Gospel, on the other.

Consider the words of the dean of evangelical theologians, Carl Henry:

But in and through its evangelistic mission to the world, the church is to enunciate and implement the revealed principles that God addresses to the human race by exemplary Christian leadership to the whole realm of public affairs. Social justice is not simply an appendage to the evangelistic message; it is an intrinsic part of the whole, without which the preaching of the gospel is truncated. Theology devoid of social justice is a deforming weakness of much present-day evangelical witness

Marxists make a hurried leap from the economic needs of the poor to forced redistribution of the property of the rich. However indefensible this revolutionary alternative may be, it can hardly be challenged and stayed if evangelicals are indifferent to the necessities of the poor as well as the neglected responsibilities of the rich…

Jesus did not limit the signs of his coming triumph only to those who responded to the gospel. Of the ten lepers healed, only one returned to acknowledge his mercy, but this one thereby became the rumor of hope for all the leprous. Jesus became the hope of a new day so that wherever he went some sought him for healing. Not every loaf of bread given to the starving prepares the way for evangelistic commitment—nor need it, for feeding the hungry is a duty whether they respond to Christ in this life or not. They have been kept alive not only for the opportunity to find life’s true meaning and center, but also for God’s sake; unregenerate man bears remnants of the divine image, and God has a purpose in the world even for those who do not respond to the Redeemer. A part of that purpose is that Christians remind all mankind that the Christ that reigns tomorrow is not only Jesus of Nazareth who came yesterday, but is also the risen Lord of the church, who through his redeemed body of humanity signals the tidings that no one need permanently consign himself or herself to a living hell, whether here or hereafter.

Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 4

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