The term social gospel is usually used to refer to a Protestant Christian intellectual movement that came to prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Promoters of the social gospel sought to apply Christian principles to social problems, with a focus on labor reform. Other issues, such as poverty, nutrition and health, education, alcoholism, crime, and warfare, were also addressed as part of the social gospel. However, as social needs were emphasized, the doctrines of sin, salvation, heaven and hell, and the future kingdom of God were downplayed. Theologically, the social gospel leaders were liberal and overwhelmingly postmillennialist, asserting that Christ’s second coming would not happen until humanity rid itself of social evils. According to the social gospel, Christians need to concentrate on the world now, not the world to come.
The social gospel is related to theological liberalism. A theologian who lived during the peak of the social gospel movement described the message of the social gospel this way: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (Niebuhr, H. Richard, The Kingdom of God in America, Harper & Row, 1937, p. 193). According to the social gospel, the betterment of society equals salvation. People are basically good, as seen by the social gospel, and society is gradually becoming more moral. If we feed enough people, educate enough children, dig enough wells, and redistribute enough wealth, then we will see God’s kingdom manifest. If we preach enough love, justice, brotherhood, and goodwill toward men, then the remnants of greed and selfishness in mankind will be overwhelmed and give way to goodness.
For a Christian perspective on the social gospel, we need to look to Jesus, who lived in one of history’s most corrupt and unjust societies. Jesus never issued a call for political change, even though many of His followers yearned for political action (see John 6:15). Jesus did not work for social change, per se. His mission was spiritual. He came not to wipe out poverty but to wipe out sin (John 1:29); His cause was not to ensure that all laborers are treated justly but to justify people before God (Romans 4:25). Jesus said that poverty would be a continual problem in this world (Mark 14:7), but money is not the most important thing (Matthew 6:24); we should pursue being rich toward God (Luke 12:21). Jesus did not come to earth to be a political or social reformer. He preached the necessity of faith, the need to be born again, and total reliance on God. His gospel changes people’s hearts through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, and, as hearts change, society will change.
Jesus showed deep compassion for the poor, the sick, the dispossessed, and the outcasts of society. He healed countless people of their physical ailments. His own summary of His public work was that “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Matthew 11:5). He caused much rejoicing among the deprived of society. But, always, Jesus focused on spiritual needs. When He healed the paralytic brought to Him on a pallet, He first told him, “Friend, your sins are forgiven” (Luke 5:20). After He healed the lame man at the pool, He told him, “Stop sinning” (John 5:14). The problem Jesus most wanted to solve was not immobility but iniquity.
The Bible consistently promotes aiding the poor and the afflicted, the orphans and widows, and people unable to support themselves. “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Proverbs 29:7; see also Proverbs 31:8–9; Isaiah 1:17; Matthew 25:34–40; James 1:27). At the same time, the Bible is clear that mankind’s basic problem is spiritual. We are sinners estranged from God, and we need a Savior. Jesus fed the multitudes a lunch, but He then proceeded to offer Himself as the food they really needed—the Bread of Life (John 6).
The social gospel is most concerned about circumstances here on earth. The true gospel, while not ignoring physical circumstances, is most concerned about the state of people’s souls and their eternal destiny. We can dig a well in an arid region and improve the life of a village, and this is good and right to do; but if that same village never hears of the water that Jesus gives, the living water that “will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life,” they are no better off eternally (John 4:13–14).