Personal Salvation or Social Revolution?

We have shrunk Jesus to the size where He can save our soul but now don’t believe He can change the world. – Anonymous

I am still processing Jimmy Spencer Jr.’s post, “Digging Deeper: The Coming Evangelical Split“ which I shared a little about in my most recent post.  One of the insights that Spencer shared was that the split seems to be forming along the line of what he terms “methodology.”  He sees the divide as “scripture” verse “practice” which are terms I am not sure I would have used but the distinction between the two camps rang true to me.

Spencer writes:

The Traditional View: Christianity is a set of beliefs that are rooted in the inerrant Word of God, the Bible. The scriptures are the primary filter thru which traditional evangelicals engage others, and metaphorically ‘hold it tightly and heavily’ in their right hand.

The Progressive View: Christianity is a lifestyle modeled by Jesus—to be imitated and practiced. Growth happens in community first and foremost thru practice. Social justice and practice are metaphorically ‘held tightly and heavily’ in their right hand.

I find this comparison interesting because at different times in my life, I have identified with both positions.  In my early walk as a Christian, I attended a very “traditional evangelical” church that rooted me and grounded me in scripture which I am very grateful for.  However, God’s call led me to take that foundation and build on it through my call to social justice oriented ministry.  My theology and faith is now grounded in scripture but deeply shaped by practice.  For me, scripture was the raw material God used but it was only through practice that these materials took shape in my life.  I think most mature “progressives” would say the same thing.

As I have reflected on Spencer’s post, I was reminded of the book “The Hole in our Gospel”, by Richard Stearns the president of World Vision.  Stearns crafts one of the most compelling arguments for the centrality of every Christian’s call to social justice.  Below, are a few insights gleaned from Stearns:

 “If your personal faith in Christ has no positive outward expression, then your faith – and mine – has a hole in it.  Christ’s words in the Lords prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” were and are a clarion call of Jesus’ followers not just to proclaim the good news but to be the good news, here and now. (Matt. 6:10)  This gospel – the whole gospel – means much more than the personal salvation of individuals.  It means a social revolution.”

“It’s not what you believe that counts, it’s what you believe enough to do.”

I think seeing this debate between progressives and traditionalist as either “scripture” or “practice” is flawed.  I think those from the “traditionalist” side of the debate are dismissing “progressives” by claiming that they are not biblical.  However, if you listen to the progressive voices who are living out their faith through practice, you will find that their faith is deeply rooted in scripture.

None of the progressives that I know would be engaged in social ministries if they were not seeking to be faithful to the biblical teachings of Jesus to “love our neighbors.”  I do however concur with Spencer’s assessment that scripture is held more loosely by those in the practice camp.  I think that is because it is really hard to judge those you are seeking to love with the love of Christ.  In other words, when the “sinner” is standing in front of you and has a face, a name, and a story, it is really hard to tell them they are going to hell if they do not repent of their wicked ways.  In working with those so easily judged by the “traditionalist” camp, I am often humbled by their journey and honestly do not know what I would do if their shoes.  They cause me to realize just how short I fall of faithfully living out my faith.  That is where the rub started for me and in the end “love” won.  I realized pretty quickly that I have no right to judge anyone and decided to simply be Christ in the world as best I could and leave the rest up to God.

I think the more helpful distinction in this debate is found in Stearn’s words.  It is the distinction between “proclaiming the good news” and “being the good news.”  It is a shift in focus from “saving” others to “being” Christ to others.  Of course, the real question becomes, “What is the good news?”  For traditionalist, it is personal salvation with an emphasis on the afterlife and for progressives it is social revolution that transforms all of creation now.  Most traditionalists I know are primarily interested in what you say you believe, whereas most progressives are more interested in what you believe enough to do.

While all labels and generalizations have limitations.  Without this kind of naming, we would never be able to understand the shifts and growing tensions that are causing the divisions within the Body.  Without understanding these growing divides, we will never be able to hear each other or respect each other.  While I don’t agree with some parts of Spencer’s analysis, I am thankful for his willingness to name these trends and for the opportunity to add my own thoughts to the discussion.


Filed under Spirituality, Theology

8 responses to “Personal Salvation or Social Revolution?

  1. Thanks, Wendy. Interesting thoughts here…

  2. I completely agree about the problem of the “hole in the Gospel” problem. At times a common Evangelical argument has been that we shouldn’t be concerned about changing the world but changing people’s hearts, and they would change the world. I think it was John Stott (and doubtless others) who pointed out the paradox, “In that case, just who will be the people who will change the world?” If we teach new disciples not to change the world but simply to make new disciples with changed hearts, who will ever change the world?

    In my very conservative church upbringing, we were taught that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and parable of the sheep and the goats were teachings given “under the law” rather than “under grace;” although they represented God’s will, they really didn’t apply to us as far as our salvation was concerned. Whatever the formal theological truth of that viewpoint, it certainly seems to be one reason for the “hole in the Gospel.”

    In your view, what is the role of repentance in the Good News that we proclaim and live out before others? Or how does that fit in to the “progressive” view? Can we “be Christ” to others without calling them to repentance as he did?

  3. wmccaig


    Interesting question regarding “repentance.” I work with a lot of people who have made a lot of mistakes – addicts, prostitutes, convicts. What I have found is that the “calling to repentance” is the work of the spirit not the work of man. Over and over again people have shared with me how God, not man, spoke into their lives. They have shared countless stories of how people tried to share the Christian faith with them before they were ready and it simply fell on deaf ears or pushed them further away.

    I know this was the case in my life. I grew up completely unchurched and never saw anything in those who called themselves Christians that made me want to join their club. My coming to faith was a total God encounter. I am thankful I found a loving church that helped me grow. However, had I walked in that church and been told I was a sinner and needed to repent or burn, I would have turned and ran. Thankfully, they shared the love of Christ through their actions and allowed me to ask hard questions and never bullied me into accepting their theology but instead let me discover my own.

    For me it comes down to trusting the Holy Spirit, creating space for the spirit to move in people’s lives, listening deeply to where people are in their spiritual journey and then being willing to move when the spirit moves. I don’t hide my beliefs, everyone knows I am a follower of Jesus. But most importantly they know that no matter where they are spiritually, they are accepted and not judged. God gave me that kind of space and that is what I desire to create through our ministry.

    Trusting the spirit is hard, messy, often slow moving but in the end the only way I can keep from messing up God’s divine plan.

  4. Jay Van Groningen

    I love the little word AND. What if Christians would work towards Personal Salvation AND Social Revolution. Seems like our language and categories fuels the divide rather than blurring the line between them.

  5. LLM

    Another great post! Thanks for your challenging thoughts! I recently put a quote by Jim Wallis in a post of mine on John 15 that relates to this… “Churches today are tragically split between those who stress conversion but have forgotten its goal, and those who emphasize social action but have forgotten the necessity for conversion.”

  6. Pingback: I Have a Dream that John Piper and Rob Bell will one day walk side by side in the Kingdom of God both here on earth and in the age to come | Wendy McCaig

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