The Gospel Is Not Social

Between Monasticism And Transformation

gospel-not-socialEvery culture and generation has been tempted to capture Jesus for their own agenda. The Gnostics portrayed Jesus as a second-century figure (a dead give away) who was a Gnostic opposed to the church and the Christian gospel of free salvation from the wrath to come through faith alone in Christ alone. The Constantinian (post-4th century) church often portrayed Jesus as such a fearsome king and judge that the church began to search for other saviors and mediators. In the Modern era, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) re-made Jesus into his own rationalist image—he produced his own version of the New Testament stripped of supernaturalism. In the Carter 1970s and the Reagan 80s, as the baby-boomer-dominated culture turned inward, Jesus became a facilitator for our personal sense of well being. Now, with the rise of the Millennial generation, the product of the war against terror and a Carter-esque economic malaise, the concern is ostensibly other-centered but once again the Christian faith has become yet another vehicle to carry social concerns. There is renewed talk among young evangelicals and others of the so-called “social gospel.”

By social I mean broader cultural and civil concerns that are not ecclesiastical. It may refer to current events (e.g., Ferguson, Missouri, ISIS) or to persistent social ills (e.g., poverty or racism). By gospel I mean the message of Christ’s incarnation, his substitutionary suffering active obedience for his people, his death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return.  The expression “social gospel,” however refers to a distinctive movement and re-casting of the gospel message.  Before I describe this movement, however, briefly let me say that I understand how such a re-casting happens. When I became a believer in the mid-1970s I did the same thing. I did not know Jeremiah from Matthew. I remember being surprised that there were “minor prophets” in the Bible. I was utterly ignorant of the Christian faith but upon coming to faith in Jesus I immediately imputed my (then leftist) social views to Jesus and criticized the visible church for its indifference to suffering. After all, who is more concerned about the poor and the downtrodden than Jesus? I began to argue with my new friends that the church should support feminism, environmentalism etc. I was a typical child of the social progressive movement and I baptized all my prior social convictions as I came to faith. It would take me a number of years to begin to be able to criticize my own social views, to learn that much of what I assumed to be biblical was not, that I had baptized covetousness and called it Christian. Only as I got to know Scripture more thoroughly, as I came to know a little bit more about the sources of the views I had inherited, as I came to learn the Christian faith on its own terms, was I able to see things a little more clearly.

One of the things I discovered, as I read the New Testament more closely, in its original language, against the background of its original context, is that there is no basis in it for the so-called “social gospel.” As a young, progressive evangelical I had been attracted to aspects of the message and ministry of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), pioneer of the so-called “social gospel.” Rauschenbusch was the son of Pietists, one of the formative movements behind modern evangelicalism. As a young evangelical I was drawn into Pietism, even though we did not call it that. The Pietists were formally doctrinally orthodox, i.e., they affirmed the doctrines of the ecumenical creeds (e.g., the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed) and the Lutheran confessions (from which tradition they emerged) but among the things that really animated them were two great principles: the personal encounter with the risen Christ and social justice. In our (late-modern) time the agenda of the Pietists is known as the “Emergent Church” or sometimes the “Emerging Church.” 1

Rauschenbusch was a Northern Baptist born in Rochester, NY and educated in the USA and Germany.2 He became a pastor in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City in the late 19th century. As the name implies, it was a greatly impoverished neighborhood. Like Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) before him, Rauschenbusch’s Pietism had not equipped him to address the challenges before him. Like Schleiermacher, Rauschenbusch turned to the liberals for answers. He synthesized his Pietist theology with Albrecht Ritschl’s theology of the Kingdom of God. The Social Gospel movement wanted to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. Their optimistic eschatology (doctrine of last things) told them that they could do it. They were inspired by the Modern idea of the universal brotherhood of humanity and the universal fatherhood of God. As many others before them had done the Social Gospel movement harassed the Christian faith to their social agenda.

Other Christians, however, saw in this movement a dangerous re-definition of the gospel and revision of the Christian faith. The Social Gospel movement came to be identified primarily with the liberal (mainline) churches. The message of those churches became, through the course of the 20th century, almost exclusively social and less and less about biblical and historic Christianity so that one could predict what the mainline churches will teach simply by reading the editorial page of the newspaper and then waiting a few moments. The mainline churches, under the influence of the “social gospel,” gave up the biblical and Christian doctrines of God, man, Christ, salvation, and the church. They became just another progressive social institution so that today they are numerically declining at a remarkable rate. Most mainline churches have nothing to offer than cannot be found on Sunday morning talking head shows or on some website. Why watch an amateur social critic in the pulpit when one can watch professionals in the comfort of one’s home?

So there was a dialectical (P and not P) tension between the Pietist impulse to flee the world into a new monasticism and its opposite, to identify the Christian faith with present social concerns. Toward the end of World War II, some neo-evangelicals (e.g., Carl Henry) tried to re-engage the culture while holding to orthodox Christian doctrines and practices but that agenda did not remain stable. The children of the neo-evangelicals have tended toward Pietist retreat or toward liberalism.

About the same time that Rauschenbusch and others were preaching the social gospel there was a contemporary alternative, a minority view within what was then called fundamentalism, in the 1920s. It was articulated by J. Gresham Machen (1881–1936). He taught and defended the old Reformed and Presbyterian idea that the visible church represents a spiritual kingdom on the earth (the spirituality of the church) and that Christians exist in what Calvin called a “twofold kingdom.” Using these categories, Machen engaged the culture and social concerns as an American citizen (from a more libertarian point of view) but, in his office as minister, he refrained from speaking to social concerns because of the teaching of the New Testament. Read on its own terms, the teaching of the New Testament about the Kingdom of God is remarkably silent about the pressing social concerns of the day. Social issues do intrude into the visible church in the NT but none of the Apostles prescribed social or civil remedies for them. They never commented on Nero’s abuses or upon Claudius’ policies. In the NT, Christians are taught how to think about their place in the world but they are never exhorted to flee the world into monasteries nor are they instructed how to transform it. Here’s a brief survey of the NT teaching on the Kingdom of God.

Under the rubric of Calvin’s “twofold kingdom” Christians do have a place to “engage the culture” and to speak to broader issues but they must be willing to do so in their capacity as private persons, as members of society, and not as representatives of the church. In other words, whatever social agenda a Christian pursues is one thing but leave the visible, institutional church out of it. The church, as a visible institution, as the embassy of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven, has no social agenda for the wider civil and cultural world. To use a World War II analogy, as an institution, the church as such is more like Switzerland than it is like Germany. Christians are free to form what the Dutch Reformed used to call societies (committees, organizations) to achieve this end or that but they are not free to impose those agendas on the visible, institutional church by way of programs or in public worship. Christian organizations must stand or fall on their own, without the endorsement of the visible church.

I have my (now more conservative and libertarian) social views, which I express in social media and elsewhere but I am constrained as a minister not to seek to use my office to achieve my social goals. This is not to say that the Christian faith has no social implications. It does but I am not free to use the pulpit or the congregational prayer to impose my social views on the congregation. When it comes to social issues, like everyone else, I must compete in the marketplace of ideas. I may persuade but I may not claim the sanction of the Christian faith or the authority of the Christian church for my interpretation of current events. The history of the church is clear. It is not possible to harness the Christian faith or Christ to some social agenda without imperiling the fundamental message, doctrines, and practices of the church. Such a harnessing has always threatened the mission of the church: the pure preaching of the gospel of free acceptance with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline.


1. For more on this movement see “Whosever Will Be Saved: Emerging Church? Meet Christian Dogma,” in Gary L. W. Johnson and Ronald N. Gleason eds., Reforming or Conforming: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 112–28.

2. This sketch is dependent on s.v., “Rauschenbusch, Walter” in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. See also the entry s.v., “Social Gospel.”

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. So, I guess I would say my issues with this are two-fold. The first is a bit more superficial, but worth addressing, and it pertains to the manner in which the conversation is pursued. I’m guessing you meant it as an olive branch, but the portion of your argument that begins with, “Before I describe this movement, however, briefly let me say that I understand how such a re-casting happens” doesn’t exactly read as one. Instead, it feels a little condescending in a pat-you-on-the-head-and-tell-you-to-run-along kind of way. Just as a matter of common courtesy, addressing a position as something you *used to believe* until you, you know, actually *read* the Bible, doesn’t seem to leave a lot of room for disagreement. It lifts your current view up as the natural consequence of such reading and, out of hand, discounts the idea that anyone else who has actually read the Bible might come to a different viewpoint.

    As to the meat of your post, I would, humbly, suggest 3 things:

    1. It seems you have mistaken the causes of some of these folks for the animating principle behind their actions. That is, it seems you are arguing that folks who fit within this Social Gospel, like that earlier version of you, just *really* care about feminism, or racism, or poverty, or whatever hot-button issue and so they are constantly up on their soapbox or out on crusade for their particular hobby-horse rather than for the church or the Kingdom. I would argue a more generous treatment would be to situate their individual and particular causes within the broad and ubiquitous desire to be a champion for the weak, a desire that also runs throughout all of scripture. Whether through calling Abram out of the city and into the wilderness, or taking up with slaves rather than the empire they served, or through God’s constant demands for “mercy and not sacrifice”, or Jesus’ instruction that we be reconciled with our brother before we enter the temple, or – and probably most emphatically – identifying Himself with the “least of these”, God’s nearness to the broken – to the widow, the orphan, and the alien – is quite impossible to miss. So, when you note that “the teaching of the New Testament about the Kingdom of God is remarkably silent about the pressing social concerns of the day,” you’ve really set up a bit of a straw man rather than an accurate portrayal of the pursuits or desires of the people you appear to be addressing.

    2. About that statement (that “the teaching of the New Testament about the Kingdom of God is remarkably silent about the pressing social concerns of the day”) — have you read Robert Gundry’s commentary on Mark (for just one example)? He makes a pretty thorough case for the Gospel as a direct commentary on and subversion of the dominant cultural view of empire and glory. Indeed, Mark does a pretty remarkable job casting Jesus in the mold of what the Roman world had come to expect from its Caesars (via the specific titles he uses of Jesus and the actions he records) and then shattering that mold. In Mark’s Gospel, the oppressed, the persecuted, and the dead become the victorious, the justified, and the truly living. While, again, you won’t find Nero mentioned by name, or a discourse against slavery, for example, Mark certainly does tap into that stream (mentioned in point 1) that overflows with justice for the oppressed or the unrepresented.

    3. As to your conclusion — that you can have opinions on social issues but that you should never preach your preferences from the pulpit — how you would have felt about Wilberforce (et al) preaching abolition? How do you feel about someone preaching against abortion? When we read passages like “there is now neither Jew nor gentile,” would it be alright to speak about racial diversity and unity within the body of Christ? When we read Isaiah castigating Judea for “adding house to house” while letting the poor starve, is it okay to preach in favor of caring for the poor? Those are all social issues that come directly from the text and would certainly be a part of preaching the whole counsel of the word of God, would they not?

    The fact that this impulse has been diverted into destructive or unhelpful paths in the past or that the same is occurring even now is certainly an issue worth addressing. However, I would argue when you go from that to ditching the idea of social justice – which at it’s heart is simply pursuing true, Godly community over an against the rampant (and bankrupt) individualism of the Modern West – you throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater, and do more harm than good.

    • Bobby,

      Thank you for your reply.

      1. I hesitated to use the biographical material but I used it because it is true and because I thought it might serve as an encouragement to others to stop and reflect before making the same mistake.

      2. I think Christians should speak to social ills. I doubt, however, that we will all reach the same conclusions. The question I was trying to address is not so much what Christians should do but what the church as an institution should do. As I wrote above, Christians should form committees (societies) to address matters of social justice. It is important, however, to distinguish what Christians do as private persons, As members of civil society, and what they do as representatives of the visible, institutional church. For example, I have heard Congregational prayers in which the person praying (from both the left and the right) assumed, in the prayer, that their interpretation of events or some social crisis was God’s interpretation. In a couple of instances I have found myself unable to enter into the prayer because I was arguing, in my mind, with both the analysis and the proposed solution for which the person was praying. It would have been better simply prayed for justice and peace rather than prescribing particulars because, in so doing, the person praying unintentionally excluded some of us.

      3. Ministers ought to speak to the whole counsel of God, including the moral law. Man stealing is a violation of the eighth Commandment. Murder is a violation of the 6th commandment but ministers are not called to issue policy prescriptions or legislation from the pulpit. We confess the moral law and the gospel but we don’t confess a particular set of policy prescriptions. The Apostles had many opportunities to speak, in their office, to social ills in the 1st century but they did not. Paul may be implying a disapproval of slavery as it was practiced in the 1st century, in his letter to Philemon but that’s an inference. There were all manner of social abuses on which they did not comment and which they did not seek to correct. We should not set up tests that even our Lord and the Apostles must surely fail. How many times did our Lord himself walk past the man born blind or the various cripples without healing them? Was he indifferent to their suffering? What about those whom he did not heal? What about those pigs he deliberately sent over the cliff? The list could go on. The reality is that our Lord did not come to usher in social justice to but to establish a beachhead, as it were, or an embassy of an eschatological kingdom.

      This is the point of using Calvin’s language of a “twofold kingdom.” We live in both spheres of God’s kingdom simultaneously. We live in tension between them. The church as an institution represents the eschatological but you and I live in both realms. We have responsibilities in both realms. We seek justice in the temporal realm and we do so as Christians, motivated by our faith, according to abiding creational norms but let’s not ask the church to baptize our prescriptions.

  2. Dr. Clark, this post is especially timely due the the 43rd GA of the PCA. I noted this part of a staff article on ‘The Aquila Report’ this morning, referring to the newly elected Moderator, Jim Wert:

    “Wert was nominated by the Joe Novenson, pastor of Lookout Mountain Presbyterian near Chattanooga, Tenn. He noted of Wert, “We need institutional memory and visionary cultural engagement right now. One cannot be sacrificed on the altar of the other. It’s an unusual man who can do that. And I think Jim can.”

    hmmmm ‘visionary cultural engagement’ – as the Preacher said, there is nothing new under the sun.

  3. I have my (now more libertarian) social views, which I express in social media and elsewhere but I am constrained as a minister not to seek to use my office to achieve my social goals (to be left alone).

    Scott, this distinction you’re making between the private opinions of the man and the office he holds is obviously a good one. But I do wonder sometimes if its practice could be better. What I mean is that sometimes this distinction seems a little too convenient, i.e. “I’m not saying this as a pastor, but as a private citizen.” Fine, but doesn’t ecclesiastical office follow a man to places beyond the pulpit, such that perhaps even in private settings the man should still hold his views a little closer to his chest than normal? As you’ve said before, pastors lose some of their private lives (I think you even shaved your beard once because an older lady in your congregation didn’t think pastors should have facial hair, ahem). I’m not so sure personal hygiene is the best example to make the point about the loss of private life. Maybe becoming an undershepherd requires the kind of sacrifice not easily made by simply switching caps. Maybe the pastor even in a non-ecclesial context should refrain from drawing too much attention to his political views for the sake of others’ spirituality?

    In making a similar point you do, Mike Horton has a few times referred to the scene in “The Patriot” in which the pastor removes his clerical collar in order to join the colonies in fighting the British saying something about a shepherd having to protect his flock. I get it, but I’m not so sure it’s on the mark. Maybe he sacrifices his political instincts in favor of his spiritual duties, keeps the collar and goes down with the flock (should it come to that).

    • Zrim,

      I’ve struggled with this but I decided that if there really are two spheres, i.e., if we really live in a twofold kingdom then I’m a member of both spheres and have duties in both. Paul did say, “I appeal to Caesar.” He didn’t agitate for social reform but he did make use of the avenues that were before him. We in the USA live in a representative republic. I’m not an officer of the the common realm and I agree that a minister should not serve in both offices simultaneously. If a minister wants to be a civil officer he should resign his office. Would we ask the same of a civil magistrate? Would a sitting judge or city councilman be barred from serving as elder? What about a bureaucrat in a the city planning office? What about lawyers? They are officers of the court?

      It’s incumbent upon ministers to keep their political/civil views to themselves when speaking on behalf of the church but surely not everything a minister says is or may be construed as “on behalf of the church.” The Holy Spirit did not preserve Paul’s laundry list but he did preserve some of his correspondence to the Corinthians. Yes, ministers do make sacrifices but they don’t cease to be citizens in in both spheres. Machen surely believed in an practiced the spirituality of the church but he also exercised his freedoms as a citizen and no one took him as speaking for the church when he argued against jaywalking laws or when he criticized stupid (Nebraska) laws against learning German or when he opposed the formation of the Dept of Education. I think the same is still true.

  4. I couldn’t figure out how to reply to your reply, so I guess I’ll start a new thread, ha.

    I get the Augustinian two-city dichotomy but I don’t think what he (or later, Calvin) meant that you have a set of rules for how you act as a “representative of the Church” and a different set for how you act “as a private citizen”. It seems to me that dichotomy is more about allegiances — as in, when the demands of each city conflict with one another, we defer to the heavenly city.

    After having slept on it a bit, I think what I’d argue is that it doesn’t actually seem like you’ve changed much from your earlier self. You’ve just got a different set of values you are baptizing. This bright, red line you are pushing — between our public and private selves (or, in this case, our selves as representatives of the institutional Church and our selves as private citizens) — is much more at home in your Libertarian political philosophy than in the scriptures, which are shot through with familial and communal metaphors in regard to the way we treat other believers and those who are outside the faith.

    Your concept of the “institutional church” and the way we relate to it feels more like an employer where, while in uniform or official capacity, my actions are seen as actions of the company but, when the uniform comes off, I may have an entirely different set of beliefs or act in entirely different ways. I would guess there are a number of problems with that, but for one, there just doesn’t seem to be a sense of that kind of “institutional church” in the scriptures. Don’t hear that the wrong way, I’m not anti-hierarchy or authority within the church. I agree that there are good and right structures and offices that the Bible puts in place for the Church to function as it ought. Where I think you go too far is in thinking of the Church as an abstract entity, distinct from the people who comprise it, and, as such, as a sphere in which we operate but can also leave (and thus, act like “private citizens”).

    The thing is, throughout all of your argument and your initial reply, it consistently feels like you are blurring the line between abuses — which are real and identifiable abuses, please hear me say that — with the real, prophetic call of the minister. “Vote for _____!” and “This law should be passed!” are definitely abuses of the office, but that doesn’t then mean we must abandon all social commentary whatsoever. Surely it is within the call of the minister of God to decry the reality that our African American brothers and sisters often labor under a very different relationship to civil authority than we do. Surely it is within that call to rail against the ways that appropriate headship devolves into paternalism. Surely it is within that call to condemn a society that grouses when we question executive compensation and then boils over when some try to look out for those who are crushed under the economic system we Americans seem to hold so dear. (Didn’t the early fathers write/preach against the abhorrent practice of exposure, for example?)

    **In fact, now that I think about it, there were specific ills that Jesus spoke directly against. Think about where he condemns the temple officials for allowing a young man to declare his possessions a promise to the temple (at some future date) and thus absolve himself of needing to care for his parents.**

    As someone who taught for 8 years, I can tell you, abstract calls to be people of justice — to be good neighbors, even — without pairing them with real, concrete expressions of that justice or neighborliness. That’s why, I’m convince, Jesus doesn’t give us a definition of a neighbor, but instead tells us about the good Samaritan.

    Lastly, the bit about Jesus not healing “everyone” is a bit of a red herring. For one, Jesus’ ministry is not our ministry. Jesus came to vindicate the justice of his Father, to proclaim mercy and forgiveness for sin, and to put to death the earthly systems of power and exploitation, thereby laying the foundation for the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Our ministry is to build upon that foundation, to make disciples — which is far more than building a coalition of people who can give intellectual assent to the right list of propositions. We are to *be* people of justice and healing and humility. Christ purchased, through the shedding of his blood and the sending of his spirit, the possibility; we, through lives of confession and community, fight for the actuality. Those are two different ministries.

    Secondly, the fact that his ministry was primarily theological (a reordering of our view of God and of ourselves) does not mean it was not expressed in many ways through the physical mercy of healing and the provision of food. There are several times that we see in the NT that Jesus is met by massive crowds and that he spends all day or all night healing “all who had come.” The fact that he didn’t heal *all* does not mean that he didn’t heal *any*, or that healing was inconsequential to his time on Earth. The fact that he chides even the disciples for their attitudes toward children and that he appears — in all accounts — first to *women* after he is resurrected are not mere footnotes, but concrete examples of the manner in which he aims to reorder our view of power and importance.

    • EDIT:
      As someone who taught for 8 years, I can tell you, abstract calls to be people of justice — to be good neighbors, even — without pairing them with real, concrete expressions of that justice or neighborliness **are often completely ineffective.

    • Bobby,
      I don’t think you are getting the distinction between ultimate and penultimate, or between the church “staying on message” as a ministry of rescue and not (actually) as a ministry of cultural transformation and direction.

      CHRISTIANS are the salt, preserving and improving the context in their discrete amounts here and everywhere. The CHURCH–whether thought of as a whole bunch of salt in a pile, or as an institution of Christ for the processing and disseminating of the salt–is not THE salt Jesus meant (because such a conception interferes with his metaphor).

      Go ahead and be a person of justice and healing and humility. If I’m over here doing what I think is justice or healing with a humble spirit–but it isn’t what you would do, or even seems wrong to you–should we be sitting in the same pew? Or do you want your pastor to lean over the pulpit, look me in the eye, and coerce my conscience to vote/give/march correctly (with the meekness and gentleness of Christ, of course)?

      It sounds great to some people to have the mind and mouthpiece of a corporate body–a big cog in the social machine–sound off or shut down or signal the social change, thus demonstrating “leadership” in culture. The church seems ready-made for that role.

      Except the church isn’t integral to the structures and politics of this world. “My kingdom is NOT of this world.” And the leveraging of its presence and its membership to alien ends siphons off energy that was given for a different end. It’s a hijack.

      It strokes one human ego when the church’s megaphone is put into service of his bailiwick. Contrariwise, if it seems to him as if his special concerns are too lonely, he’s tempted then to find a church where those are the topics. Or else, to seek the path of influence in his church whereby its corporate resources may be directed to his preferred ends. All that–common enough–politicizes the church.

      You don’t expect other corporate entities to behave the way you say the church should. If you have a local grocery, should it be a department store with a grocery aisle? Is it incumbent upon the Library to put on plays and concerts? If the boards of directors of various institutions think many such additions distract from the founding purpose, are they wrong? Even if a dissatisfied group (small or large) think they know better?

      So why should the church and its ministers deviate even slightly from being a dispensary of the means of grace (for which there is no other ordained service in the whole world), and from having no other message besides “Christ and him crucified?”

      I don’t hear you saying you are fine with Christians being good Samaritans. Or even with minister’s preaching they should be. You want the church to instruct its members in a definite agenda. One that is set by… whom? This is the drumbeat of the Activists. They can get along with the inactive so long as they keep coughing up the dough. What do you think the church should do with resisters, the ones who won’t get on board with the New Program?

      The church has a prescribed function and mission and message, Christians another. It’s a bully’s mindset that would wrest the moral-formation work of the church upon the conscience to a definite social and political end–a baptized human construct.

    • Bobby,

      Do this, take some time and read some of the other posts under this category, “twofold kingdom” and perhaps take a look at some of the published (printed) literature on it. Most of your questions/objections have been answered there.



  5. “Christians are taught how to think about their place in the world but they are never exhorted to flee the world into monasteries nor are they instructed how to transform it.”

    Are you sure that Christians are never exhorted to flee the world into monasteries nor instructed how to transform it? It sounds like the only other option you give is adopting the 2 Kingdoms view. Are there not other options you could give without resorting to painting everyone who disagrees with you as either monks, emergent or liberal, social-gosel adherents? I believe in the objective facts of the gospel AND in my biblical calling to transform the world. I don’t think it is necessary to choose between your false dichotomy of monasticism and social gospel.

    • Mark,

      There is an option between transformation and the monastery: it is principled interaction with the culture, which is what I’ve been encouraging here. I should like to see a biblical argument, based on solid exegesis, arguing that Christians are called to “transform” the culture. First, of course, we need to define “transform” and then “culture” but assuming that we know what we’re discussing, that “transform” means to “Christianize” and “culture” means “the surrounding unbelieving society” I think that would be a very difficult case to make from the NT. Christians are called to be transformed but I don’t think there is an explicit passage calling for Christians to transform the surrounding culture. Are there places from which one might even draw that inference? There’s nothing obvious but I’m happy to be persuaded.

  6. One more thing…I see this blog is about recovering the confessions, but where in the confession is 2K taught?

    • Mark,

      1. I think I used Calvin’s language “twofold kingdom.” Do you have a problem with Calvin’s language? Did you read the quotation I linked?

      2. I haven’t claimed that distinguishing between the two spheres in God’s sovereign administration is confessed by the churches but a good case can be made from the confessions for the “spirituality of the church.” Most of what I do here is to comment on the Heidelberg Catechism and if you look at the most recent post on HC 83 you’ll see that we confess that the keys of the kingdom are given to and exercised by the visible, institutional church. I explain more in the post. The same sort of language and thinking is in the Belgic and in the Westminster Standards.

      As for the history of the “two kingdoms” idea that you mentioned earlier, have you read David VanDrunen’s historical survey? There’s a fair number of resources on this here:

      3. If you’ll read Recovering the Reformed Confession you’ll see that I use “Reformed confession” (note the singular) in two senses: the narrow, to refer to the ecclesiastical documents and the broader, to refer to the Reformed tradition. Certainly the nomenclature “two kingdoms” is a part of Reformed tradition.

  7. R. Scott Clark,

    I noticed that you received your BA at UNL. My wife and I are from Lincoln, NE. My wife graduated from UNL in 2002! Even if we don’t agree on 2K, we can probably agree on this: People are really nice in Nebraska!

    As far as 2K goes, I have read “Living in God’s Two Kingdoms” by DVD and “Dual Citizens” by JS. I don’t disagree with many of the points made by the 2K view and the fact that it is an attempt to protect what is sacred. I also just finished “Christianity and Liberalism” by JGM. I do think even Machen, in his brilliant defense of Christian orthodoxy and denial of liberalism, overreacts a bit. What the gospel calls all Christians to is faith AND good works. Good works includes multitudes of things. Many of these good works are things liberals were doing during Machen’s time and many of them are good works that emergent folks have done in our time. All those “holy things” that the 2K is trying to protect (the objective facts of the gospel, the sacraments, the preaching of the Word on Sunday), are all expressions of our faith in the gathering of the saints on Sunday, and these things are great and central to what we do. However, the church also has a mission, and that mission is the Great Commission, and it involves taking the message into the world in which we live. It is what we are to being doing Monday-Saturday. However, we are NOT doing that. Less than 5% of people share their faith and we are commanded and commissioned to take it to the nations. The nations = the world. We are called to bring that message in a million different ways into the world we live in. We are not called merely to be transformed and then forget about the world or refer to it as “common”. We are called to take that gospel into the world every day in the world that God has placed us in. If God can’t transform the world through us then why even bother? The gospel is the power of salvation to everyone who believes, and it does transform more than people and what happens within the church walls. It transforms cultures, work places, relationships, governments, societies, and everything else it comes into contact with. I have read quite a bit about the 2K view, which I believe is not the same as what Calvin or Luther taught. How can the modern-day 2K view make sense out of Calvin stating that the task of the church is to make the invisible kingdom of God visible? It can’t. That would involve something being transformed (ie: Calvin’s Geneva). I think the modern-day 2K view flows out of an antinomian view of the gospel that makes justification the whole of the Christian life, and rids the Christian of their responsibility to be sanctified individually, and to transform the world with the message of the gospel. It is ultimately a deficient view of Christ in His person and work, as Mark Jones wrote about in his book. Christ came into this world not only to pay for our sin, but to leave for us an example of how we should also strive to live. Christ didn’t and doesn’t reject the world. I think the 2K view in a large way does. There has been a whole lot of recent effort to root this modern-day 2K thinking in the reformed tradition, but just because Calvin or Augustine or Luther used similar words doesn’t mean they taught (what mostly Westminster West has propagated) the same view. They are dead. They can’t defend themselves against the people of today who want to make them the poster boy for their theology. Is there some idea of 2K within the reformed tradition? Yes, but many reformed thinkers today disagree that it is the modern-day version put forth by DVD, White Horse Inn and Westminster West. And the rest of us who don’t hold this modern-day 2K view, don’t like being brushed off as “transformationalists” or mocked as trying to out-do the 2nd Adam or pick up where the 1st Adam left off, or being called or compared to emergent thinkers. Or, as trying to earn our justification or legalists, etc. We are just trying to live out our faith and glorify God. We kind of see it as our chief end. The 2K view has no room for a christian to live out their chief end in all areas of their life. Maybe your application of this doctrine looks different, but I see a lot in the church circles I run in of calling things common that Scripture says is holy and sacred. The Bible tells us that fulfilling that chief end involves many so-called “common” things. Whether you eat, drink or whatever you do…fill in the blank. That “whatever you do” includes all of the above, and it does so without qualification or in your words “principled interaction”. The principle is to glorify God in whatever you do, not create separate buckets and false dichotomies. Maybe the next topic should be rewards in heaven. Do any 2K guys talk about rewards? I don’t see how 2K has any place for rewards in heaven. Perhaps you can point me to an essay or work that addresses that issue? The 2K pastor I asked couldn’t give me an answer. Also, one more bonus question: Can we please God?

    • Mark,

      1. Your chief assumption seems to be that there is “a 2K” view. This is not correct. You didn’t acknowledge that the category with which I’m trying to work here is Calvin’s “twofold kingdom.” To be sure, I want to modify it. I don’t want the civil magistrate enforcing religious orthodoxy. Do you? If you do, then we do have a fundamental disagreement. If not, then we’re not so far apart. In such a case we’re talking about details. Calvin’s Geneva wasn’t the golden age that some people imagine. The sort of transformation you have in mind seems, at points, to require the civil magistrate to enforce religious orthodoxy. Is that what you want? I agree with the American experiment. As I’ve written here and elsewhere, the Constantinian (post-4th-century) experiment was a mistake. Ultimately it damaged the Christian mission. Jesus nowhere empowered the state to enforce Christian orthodoxy. In his sketch of the magistrate’s vocation (Rom 13), Paul never mentioned enforcing religious orthodoxy nor does he even seem to have envisioned it.

      You say that you have read quite a bit about “the 2k view” and so I have. Most of what I read “about” it is not terribly well informed. I hope that you’ll read widely in sources before making a judgment.

      2. “2K” is not a monolithic view. It is an analytical question to which, over the centuries, Reformed people have given different answers and to which they continue to give different answers. The question is fundamentally, how do these two spheres relate under God’s sovereignty. I’ve tried to model what it might look like for Christians to respect the distinction that Calvin made and yet to engage both spheres faithfully. I’m still learning but I do write about civil life and especially civil liberties and religious freedom here a fair bit. Have you listened to the Heidelcast episodes with Stella Morabito or the episodes on science?

      3. I wish that you would spend some time reading VanDrunen’s historical work. I asked if you had read that and you replied about reading a different book. I wish that you would spend some time reading the many resources compiled here to which I linked above. I cannot rehearse dozens of blog posts and comments here in the combox.

      4. On sanctification, again, you seem to be assuming quite a bit. It is a very serious thing to use the word “antinomian.” I’m sure that you are fully committed to honoring the 9th commandment. Thus, you owe it to God’s holy law to see to it that you are seeking to uphold the reputations of those with whom you may disagree. You also owe it to your brothers and sisters in Christ. Here is what the Reformed churches confess about the 9th commandment:

      112. What does the ninth Commandment require.

      That I bear false witness against no one,1 wrest no one’s words,2 be no backbiter or slanderer,3 join in condemning no one unheard or rashly;4 but that on pain of God’s heavy wrath, I avoid all lying and deceit5 as the very works of the devil;6 and that in matters of judgment and justice and in all other affairs I love, speak honestly and confess the truth;7 also in so far as I can defend and promote my neighbor’s good name.8

      1 Prov 19:5,9. 2 Ps 15:3. 3 Rom 1:28-30. 4 Matt 7:1, 2. Luke 6:37. 5 John 8:44. 6 Prov 12:22. Prov 13:5. 7 1 Cor 13:6. Eph 4:25. 8 1 Pet 4:8. * John 7:24,51. * 1 Pet 2:21, 23. * Col 4:6. * 1 Pet 3:9.

      Here are some resources on the 9th commandment:

      Perhaps you’re new here but for the record, I define antinomianism as the denial of the 3rd use of the law. No one can be Reformed and deny the 3rd use. Indeed, no one can be a confessional Lutheran and deny the 3rd use. If you read this site carefully or Recovering the Reformed Confession you’ll see plenty of instruction on the 3rd use. There are several chapters in RRC alone devoted to it. Have you read that book?

      In fact I’ve written a good bit about sanctification here. There are more than a dozen episodes of the Heidelcast addressing nomism, antinomianism, and the law of God. There are more than 12 additional episodes addressing the 3rd use of the moral law. Further, we did an entire series on Office Hours on sanctification. I don’t think that you could have read all those materials and listened to all those episodes and written what you have.

      5. As to distinguishing the common and the sacred, that was a basic Reformed distinction that has came to be ignored or rejected. The confessions make that distinction regularly.

      6. You’re entitled to reject Machen, of course, but you can hardly suggest that those of us who still agree with him are radicals or somehow less than orthodox.

      7. You seem to know a great deal about what God the Spirit is doing through his people. I wouldn’t presume (John 3) to know that. I am confident that he will call every one of his elect through the preaching of the holy gospel. I’m confident that we agree about that.

      8. You seem to assume that God’s people are not talking to others about their faith. That may be the case but perhaps it’s partly because we’ve confused the special office of minister with the general office of believer. I’ve written at some length here about Christian witness and so-called every-member ministry.

      Nowhere are the laity clearly commanded to do the work of evangelism. I’ve argued a case for lay witness to the faith (objective) and our faith (subjective appropriation) from John 9. That’s forthcoming, D.v.

      It’s also worth remembering that the confessional Reformed churches in North America represent a very small number of people (probably no more than 500,000 out of 60 million evangelicals). That sociological and historical reality has to be considered when assessing what we’re doing or not doing.

      9. Above I asked for a biblical case for cultural transformation. I didn’t see that in you reply. Perhaps I missed it. What I see in Scripture is instruction like this:

      aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you (1 Thess 4:11)

      10. The gospel does gradually transform believers. Who questions that? There has long been disagreement among the Reformed over the degree to which we are sanctified in this life. Remember it was Arminius who first rejected Calvin’s reading of Romans 7. Here is the 1st of a 3-part series:

      I still agree with Calvin and Heidelberg 60 and Heidelberg 114 and 115 on Rom 7.

      FWIW, I am nearing the 3rd part of the catechism, on sanctification, here on the HB. You can follow the series here:

      11. As to doing everything we do to the glory of God, who disagrees about that? I certainly don’t. It’s the clear teaching of God’s holy Word!

      12. As to rewards, I’ve addressed that here:

      Here is an essay by Tom Wenger on this that is quite helpful:

      Mark, I’ve spent a fair bit of time (a couple of hours) taking your questions seriously and have provided direct quotations and links to a great deal of material (hours and hours of audio alone). I hope that you will take the time to engage this material seriously patiently. These are great questions that cannot be resolved quickly in a combox.

  8. Scott,
    I would like to get your response to a couple of thoughts that I had.

    First, I believe that there are two separate roles for the church and government. In a nutshell the church is the administer of God’s grace and the state, which is apart of culture, is the administer of His justice (RR). The two should not cross over their boundaries and do what the other was called to do by God. However, I believe the Bible speaks to both spheres here and transcends any walls. The Bible defines their roles and purpose because they both have the same authority, which is God. The church has the responsibility to “preach the whole counsel of God,” which may include biblical principles that pertain to the cultural/political involvement of its members. So individual Christians (apart from the church) take biblical principles and apply them to their line of work for God’s glory. But overall, I think you make a good point between the role of the church and of the Christian individual. Christian individuals have more freedom to do what the church can’t. In essence, the teaching of the gospel along with God’s moral law belongs to the church and the application belongs to the individual.

    I would have to agree that Christ came to redeem people not culture, but I think that a redeemed culture is only a natural byproduct of redeemed people living out Christ within them. Redeeming culture should not be our goal; glorifying Christ should be. But what happens when the church is doing its part to teach Christians to live out biblical principles and the Great Commission? The appearance of cultural transformation may be unavoidable. You could pick another name if you want, but change happens when Christians are salt and light. Racism declines; bars shut down, abortion mills close; divorce decreases; human sacrifice ceases; theft stops, terrorist are saved. God’s moral law addresses these social issues, but that does not mean that a social gospel is being preached. The social gospel is dangerous as you have pointed out.

    Could you further explain from your point of view how a Christian individual is to engage culture without his biblical roots and foundation? It’s ok to speak out on social issues but not mention that they came from the Bible or church? Is mentioning the Bible ok without naming the church? I agree that the church doesn’t need to be named, but the Bible might. Or how about using biblical principles without naming the Bible (I know of several Christian politicians who do this)? Where does the Christian get his moral foundation in order to judge social and cultural issues if he can’t use the Bible or the “Christian faith”? And how do you reconcile the “Christian faith” having “social implications” but not allowing for its “interpretation of current events.”Your argument seems to limit the scope and depth of the Bible in the pulpit by divorcing the gospel from God’s moral law and isolate the Christian from his moral foundation, the Bible, in the public square.


    • Hi Nathan,

      1. We agree that God’s Word speaks to both spheres.

      2. Yes, the principles of God’s Word must inform the whole life of the believer. There is a Christian worldview, as I’ve argued here repeatedly (e.g., but we must define that term “worldview” carefully.

      3. Christians use language like “a redeemed culture” but has there ever been such a thing? Are we led to think that such a thing is possible short of the consummation? This really goes to eschatology. To be honest, “a redeemed culture” seems, speaking strictly, like speculation, i.e., starting from a premise and reasoning to a conclusion. The entire thing rests on a premise and not an inference from Scripture or an explicit biblical teaching. I have serious doubts about whether it is a proper use of the word “redeem.”

      To the degree this is about eschatology, we may disagree about what to expect. As I read the NT I see no expectation of any sort of future transformation, apart from Christ’s return. I don’t see any evidence of any such cultural transformation in the NT.

      4. I don’t think that a Christian can or may address or engage the culture without his biblical roots and foundation. I’ve never said that Christians should set aside their faith. What I have said repeatedly is that I don’t see any evidence in the NT that the Christians made explicitly biblical arguments for this or that social goal. Further, as I’ve said many times, natural revelation is revelation.

      We can argue from that divinely given revelation to the culture, as I’ve tried to do here. If people want to argue from special revelation go for it. I’ve never said that Christians may not do that. We’re really talking about rhetorical strategy. Go to the city council and announce that Scripture says x or y and see how far you get. The questions I have are: where did the Apostles do as you suggest? and why isn’t natural revelation sufficient for civil life?

      5. I’ve been trying to engage civil life on the HB. See these categories:

  9. Scott,

    Two explicit examples of social issues taken on in the NT are racism and poverty.

    First, we see Jesus taking on racism in one of his most famous parables of the good Samaritan. This parable has some powerful implications. One of them is how Jesus redefines what it means to be a good neighbor by making a Samaritan, who was hated by the Jews, the hero of the story. He tears down racial stereotypes about the Samaritans in the Jewish mind. Next we see God dealing with Peter’s perception of other races (Acts 10). He viewed them as unclean, but it was God’s plan to include all races into His plan of salvation. Paul also confronts Peter on his racist attitudes in Galatians 2. This issue became so big within the NT church that the first church council meeting was held in Acts 15 over whether the gospel was for other races or just for the Jews and how it applied to the Gentiles. Racism had to be dealt with first in the church before they were able to obey the Great Commission, which was “to make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). So racial transformation within the church spilt out into many other cultures impacting not only individuals but whole communities. Colossians 3:11 along with Galatians 3:28 declare that “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.”

    However, in the American church today we have failed to grasp this racial ethic that we are all made in the image of God and therefore should love everyone. The church should be leading our nation with a righteous example that is set forth in the NT, but instead we are divided into white churches, black churches, Hispanic churches, Korean churches, etc. Racism is one of the most explosive social issues of our day and the church seems to tremble at the thought of it. In this case, we don’t even need to go outside the walls of the church to be an example. God has called His church to racial unity.

    Second, poverty was a concern for Jesus and the NT church. Jesus made the gospel social when in Matthew 25 he judged the goats and the sheep on judgment day based upon their acts of kindness to those that were “hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and in prison” because they were doing as unto Jesus Himself. Jesus set up the social goal on that one, but I think it was because He made the poor to be “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” as James 2:5 says. That is not to say by any means that our salvation is based upon good works, but only upon the good work that Christ established on the cross. Many times we see Jesus ministering to the poor throughout the gospels through feedings, healings, and salvation. Likewise Paul and the NT church were concerned with remembering the poor (“least of these”), which was a spiritual goal that happened to be social (Galatians 2:10).

    I would like to point out that sometimes it is advantageous for Christian individuals to go on the offensive on a social issue on behalf of the church. Take the area of sexual ethics. For over three centuries American culture exemplified a biblical sexual ethic. This would be considered an area of cultural transformation within a society. However, Christians have gone on the defensive in the last several decades and the result has been devastating. The church has been invaded by the sexual perversion of our culture. Not only do we not have a sexual ethic to combat this attack, but the church is participating in the sins of our culture. Now we face a show down between the homosexual revolution and religious liberty in our culture as a tidal wave of perversion is about to be unleashed. The fight has come to our door regardless of whether or not we think the gospel is social.

    I agree with you that we will not see a complete transformation of this world until Jesus returns; however, Christians have the desire for good works, which can lead to community transformations in a variety of ways. This is what should be emphasized. The prime historical example is Wilberforce and the issue of slavery in England. Then there is Amy Carmichael in India who saved 900 girls from temple prostitution. The pilgrims and puritans along with the American founders had a vision of a nation built on biblical principles and gave history one of the most amazing countries the world has ever seen. William Booth founded the Salvation Army in an effort to share the gospel with the “least of these.” He engaged the social issues of theft, prostitution, and drunkenness in the process of evangelism. I know that it is an OT story but Jonah is a wonderful book of the social transformation in Nineveh. This list could go on and on.

    Thanks for the discussion,


  10. Could you provide some names of modern social gospel teachers? It seems the sojourn network has a strong emphasis in this area.

    • Joe,

      The best thing is to learn the criteria and to read authors/texts critically (not necessarily negatively but asking questions and not simply accepting whatever they say). You should decide for yourself whether an author is advocating the social gospel? Not every expressed concern about society = the/a social gospel, but when when the Kingdom of God is wholly identified with this world, that’s a clear sign. One example of the “social gospel” that we’re seeing right now is the claim that the USA (or other nations) must admit “refugees” from the Middle East (Syria et al) because the Christian faith requires is. This argument assumes an identity between the Kingdom of God and a nation-state that must be shown rather than assumed. I reject the premise. After the crucifixion, God has no nation-state, no national covenant. National Israel was, in that regard, utterly unique and temporary. Yet there are those on both the Christian right and (in this case) the Christian left who make essentially theocratic arguments because they fail to make this basic distinction consistently. In my experience they respond, “Yes, but….” There is no “Yes, but…” here. There is only “Yes, there are no more national-political peoples of God.” Now what? We may only argue on the basis of wisdom and general revelation and the general equity of the civil law but not on the basis of God’s commands to national Israel.

      Should a nation decide to admit “refugees” then we may say that the commands to Israel about hospitality belong to the visible, institutional church but that’s quite a different thing than arguing that they belong to the USA or Canada or any other nation-state.

      So, one of the key indicators for which to look is an over-identification of the Kingdom of God with this world, in this case, an over-identification of the church (“the Israel of God”) with a political entity. That’s a social gospel. Any program that wants to lead the visible church away from its true threefold vocation (pure preaching of the Gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, the use of church discipline) to a broader, social-civil vocation is an example of a social gospel.

  11. Scott, I listened to your interview about this subject with Janet Mefferd this week and I wholeheartedly agree and am disturbed especially by prominent men in reformed evangelicalism espousing the social gospel & performing terrible exegesis to justify their position. Tim Keller is notorious for this and yet seldom if ever gets challenged publicly from prominent, reformed sources, even though his poor exegesis is quite public and the young, restless and reformed celebrity pastors like Chandler are pushing the social gospel dogmatically to the point of telling people that they should leave their churches if they don’t like it. Chandler spent the entire second half of this book, The Explicit Gospel, pushing this agenda based on the faulty exegesis of 2 Corinthians 5 concerning the ministry of reconciliation. These men are publishing this stuff consistently and pushing it quite publicly yet I seldom see them confronted publicly, which in this instance is certainly appropriate. I would be interested in your comments.

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