The phrase “social gospel” is usually used to describe a Protestant Christian intellectual movement that came to prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those who adhered to a social gospel sought to apply Christian ethics to social problems such as poverty, slums, poor nutrition and education, alcoholism, crime, and war. These things were emphasized while the doctrines of sin, salvation, heaven and hell, and the future kingdom of God were downplayed. Theologically, the social gospel leaders were overwhelmingly postmillennialist, asserting that Christ’s Second Coming could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort.
For a Christian perspective on the idea of a social gospel, we need to look to Jesus, who lived in one of history’s most corrupt societies. Jesus never issued any call for political change, not even by peaceful means. He did not come to earth to be a political or social reformer. The gospel Jesus preached did not have to do with social reform or social justice or political change. Rather than attempt to change governments and institutions, which are made up of people, Jesus came to change people’s hearts and point them to God’s kingdom. He preached the saving power of the gospel and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.
Yes, Jesus showed deep compassion for the poor, the sick, the dispossessed, and the outcasts of society. He healed them, but before taking care of their physical or emotional needs, He first took care of their spiritual needs. He was most concerned about the state of their souls and preached the gospel of repentance from sin through Him so they understood that their eternal destiny was far more important than their circumstances here on earth. Several of His parables conveyed this truth, including Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19–31). The rich man, who had every possible social advantage, spent eternity in hell while Lazarus, the poorest of the poor with dire social needs, was comforted in heaven.
Social justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equality. The Bible supports social justice with regard to the plight of the poor and the afflicted, orphans and widows, and people unable to support themselves. The nation of Israel was commanded by God to care for the less fortunate in society. Jesus told us to care for those who are hungry and thirsty, who are sick or in prison, the outcasts of society (Matthew 25:34–40).
Jesus reflected God’s sense of justice by bringing the gospel message to the lower rungs of society. The wealthy also need to hear the gospel message, but it is noteworthy that the well-to-do, the upstanding and respected members of society are less likely to see their utter spiritual bankruptcy before God and embrace the message of the gospel. Christians are under a personal obligation to love their neighbors as they love themselves (Matthew 22:39). We have a responsibility to be good stewards of our own wealth because all wealth comes from and belongs to God. Christians should take a God-centered approach to social justice, not a man-centered approach. We see Christ Jesus as our Savior. When He returns, He will restore justice. In the meantime, Christians are to express God’s love and justice by showing kindness in practical ways to those less fortunate.