It is not unusual to hear statements which tend to pit social justice concerns against evangelistic concerns. Do we have to choose between “saving souls” and “saving society”? Evangelism, in this usage, is about the proclamation of the good news that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, sinful people can be forgiven and reconciled to God. Social action, in this usage, refers to the church’s cultural mandate to express God’s love practically through tangible acts of compassion and justice for the poor, the homeless, the sick and the disenfranchised.
Sometimes, though not always, the phrase “social action” vs. “social justice” is distinguished between those who focus on immediate needs (e.g. housing the homeless) and those who focus on larger structural evils and laws which mitigate against the poor (e.g. world bank policies, laws which inadvertently protect sex trafficking, etc.) Is there room in the church for both Mother Teresa and Billy Graham?
Most Christians agree that we must embrace both. The problem comes in the relationship between the two. To put it plainly, is social action a bridge to evangelism? Is social action a natural consequence of evangelism? What, exactly, is the relationship?
The gospel embraces the in-breaking kingdom and the New Creation claims the whole sphere. Christians can’t simply choose to play in one small corner of the chessboard. We must work strategically on the whole board, or we will lose something precious in the gospel. The gospel must be embodied in a redeemed community and touch the whole of life. That is why the Wesley brothers set up class meetings, fed the poor, wrote books on physics, gave preachers a series of canonical sermons, catechized the young, preached at the brick yards, promoted prison reform, rode 250,000 miles on horseback, preached 40,000 sermons, superintended orphanages, were avid abolitionists, and wrote theologically-laden hymns for the church, etc.
You see, they were capturing every sphere with the gospel. The New Creation does not simply break into one little square on the chess-board—it crashes into the whole of life! If Wesley teaches us anything, it is that salvation is not something which is merely announced to us, it is something which God works in us—the forceful intrusion of his holiness into our history.
Another way of putting this is that in the New Testament there is a fundamental unity between word and deed. This is most seen in and through the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.
So, let’s not talk about either one being a bridge to the other, or about one being the natural consequence of the other. Let’s talk about a complementary unity whereby the church of Jesus Christ reflects the very incarnation itself.