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Gospel-Driven Social Concern

Earlier this month at the Passion 2012 conference over $3 million was raised to fight human trafficking. This makes perfect sense given that one of the marks of the Millennials, who made up probably 90% of the attendees at Passion, is a heart for social justice. We see increasing numbers of people from leaders like David Platt to teenagers wearing TOMS shoes who talk about the relationship between the gospel that changes our lives and its effect on how we use our possessions.

This is hardly new. Acts 2:41-47, the very first summary of life in the new church in Jerusalem, describes how believers not only worshiped God through knowing Christ but how they also sacrificed to help those in need. When the gospel takes root in a soul it spreads its branches to reach those in various needs. Throughout the book of Acts we read that meeting the temporal needs of people was one specific way the gospel was put on display for all to see.

This week I am leading a doctoral seminar on historical movements and models of evangelism. Yesterday we looked at some of the modern, great awakenings. One of the obvious results of spiritual awakenings came in the form of many new believers and thus many new or revitalized churches. But as clear a result as that is, another fact reveals itself again and again, and that is the way the gospel pushed believers to help the broken.

The Pietists at Halle under Francke started an orphanage as well as a school, among others. You will find that caring for orphans often flowed from gospel streams. Whitefield the great evangelist not only preached up and down the colonies fanning the flame of revival, he also established an orphanage called Bethesda in Savannah (it is still there).

Scores of educational institutions from schools for Indians to college to seminaries grew out of the awakenings. Read the stories of these revivals and you will read about declining infant mortality and alcoholism, and in some cases remarkable impact on social evils, such as Wesley’s influence on Wilberforce in the abolition of slavery in England. The rapid missionary expansion seen in the Student Volunteer Movement and others in the 19th century focused on taking the gospel to the nations, but also included a desire to meet the needs of peoples around the world.

When you look at history and see those times of rapid gospel expansion you see a consistent emphasis on combating social ills as well. When the gospel is most richly experienced and understood it will be most passionately shared, both in terms of its message of reconciliation with the one true God and its humanitarian care for people created in His image. However, when the primary driving force for social justice is the needs of people and not the gospel, we see a loss of the gospel and too often a decline into liberalism.

Our motivation for caring for the broken must be the gospel. We need a consistent, radically Christocentric view of the world and its need, and as the gospel changes our own hearts it will impact our hands as well. And our wallets.

Commenting on the Evangelical Awakening led humanly by John Wesley and others, John Richard Green observed:

“A yet nobler result of the religious revival, was the steady attempt, which has never ceased from that day to this, to remedy the guilt, the ignorance, the physical suffering, the social degradation of the profligate and the poor. It was not till the Wesleyan impulse had done its work that this philanthropic impulse began. The Sunday Schools established by Mr. Raikes of Gloucester at the close of the century were the beginnings of popular education. . . . A passionate impulse of human sympathy with the wronged and afflicted raised hospitals, endowed charities, built churches, sent missionaries to the heathen, supported Burke in his plea for the Hindoo, and Clarkson and Wilberforce in their crusade against the iniquity of the slave-trade.”

I pray the growing concern for social justice seen in our younger generation will be fueled in the church by the missional flame of a robust gospel. And I pray that flame will ignite our churches, and we would continue to recover a gospel understanding that cannot be confined to our church buildings. This gospel, as my friend J.D. Greear notes in his outstanding new book Gospel, is revolutionary indeed.

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Alvin L. Reid (born 1959) serves as Professor of Evangelism and Student Ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where he has been since 1995. He is also the founding Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism. Alvin and his wife Michelle have two children: Joshua, a senior at The College at Southeastern, and Hannah, a senior at Wake Forest Rolesville High School. Recently he became more focused at ministry in his local church by being named Young Professionals Director at Richland Creek Community Church. Alvin holds the M.Div and the Ph.D with a major in evangelism from Southwestern Seminary, and the B.A. from Samford University. He has spoken at a variety of conferences in almost every state and continent, and in over 2000 churches, colleges, conferences and events across the United States.