In this post I may be writing about some inside baseball. Therefore, it may not be that interesting to some readers; however, bear with me if at all possible. :)
Christianity in America today is at war; and the war I would label between people who believe that the, "social" Gospel is the center of Christianity and those that believe the Gospel of, "salvation" is the center of Christianity.
In order to truly discuss what I mean, I have to define terms. For many Christians the most important aspect of Christianity is social justice - freeing people politically, economically, and socially. These Christians see Jesus' words in Luke 4:18-19, " 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" as words that fundamentally speak to this side of heaven and the oppression that exists between men. We, as Christians, ought to be concerned and take action to economically and socially assist those who are politically, governmentally, and socially oppressed. This ought to be done because Jesus commands it.
The 2nd group of individuals, above I called them primarily people that believe a Gospel of "salvation," are individuals that believe that the primary work of Jesus was to die, rise again, and forgive sins. They see Him as primarily a Savior and Redeemer in a cosmic sense - that through His sacrificial death and resurrection He made us right with God so that we would fellowship with God forever. This, "salvation" is granted only through faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, from their point of view, if you believe in the Jesus of the Bible you are, "saved" and if you do not you are, "unsaved" and the ramifications are perilous. These people believe that hell is real and that souls go there forever. They also believe that heaven is real and for those souls that go there is a new heaven/earth awaiting them at the resurrection. Entrance into heaven or hell is based solely on a soul's belief in Jesus' sacrificial death and resurrection for sins. Therefore, giving a person an opportunity to believe in Jesus so they might believe is of first importance.
Those that know me personally already know into which camp I fall. I would quote 1st Corinthians 15:3, " 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…" I am convinced that there is a heaven and there is a hell. We all deserve condemnation but through personal faith in Jesus Christ we are forgiven our sins and made right with God. I believe that through His sacrificial death and resurrection we are forgiven and made right with God. This forgiveness is granted solely and only through personal faith in Jesus. Therefore, sharing Jesus becomes the most important thing someone can do for another.
To many this seems cruel. To those Christians that believe the social Gospel is the most important, this kind of statement seems exclusive and out of step with what Jesus was truly getting at - helping the poor and helpless.
I will never forget a personal experience that I had with our youth group. I took some youth to an event where we were packaging meals for the poor in another country. It was for people that were truly in need. We, who have much, need to give to those who do not have. We packaged the food.
But I asked the person in charge of the food packaging a question, "do we tell the people who receives the packages about Jesus?" Their answer was, "no." In their minds, "feeding the poor is the work of Jesus...." Many of the children that were being fed by these packages were Muslim children. It was work within a predominantly Muslim country with Muslim children. As a matter of fact, the directors were pretty clear that no Gospel presentation would be given.
This absolutely baffled me. It was as if the work of Christianity was being done solely by feeding the poor. Yet, I must tell you, I cannot find this in the Bible. Feeding the poor is good, beneficial, and indeed showcases love. But feeding the poor saves the soul of no one. Jesus does this. More specifically, Jesus grants salvation through personal faith in Him.
Jesus' own words attest to this - John 3:16-18 reads, " 16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son."
Reading the book of Acts informs me as to what was of 1st importance to the Apostles. Paul told the people of Athens to repent of their idolatry. The Apostles told the world that Zeus could not save them. "Zeus" was not God by another name. The legitimacy of other, "gods" is a completely foreign concept in the Bible. Think of the story of Elijah and Baal. If baal were legitimate, there would have been no need for the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of baal. The Apostles understood this and therefore called people to repent of their sins and embrace Jesus. They did not seek to simply feed and care for those of other religions - they sought to turn people from dead religious belief to faith in a living Jesus. They did this through love, care, and patience; but they would never have said that idols were true. Ever.
This, I believe, is the central problem in American Christianity. We are fighting a war within ourselves and the war is very simple. Once again it has to do with truth. Either faith in the Jesus of the Bible is the only way to salvation or it is not. If faith in the Jesus of the Bible is the only way to eternal salvation, than sharing that good news is the most loving thing one can do. Yes, feed the poor. Yes, be compassionate. Yes, love. But do it all for the name of Jesus - in the hopes that an unbelieving world will come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.