Is God of Missional Gospel to Small?

Johnathan Leeman

It's been said that liberalism often creeps into the church through the doorway of evangelism and mission work. I think that's right. It's precisely where the church interfaces with the world that the church will be tempted to solve the problems which the world says it must solve.

Faced by the Enlightenment critique of historical Christianity, for example, the Protestant liberals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries wanted a Christianity that could fit the new sciences. As J. Gresham Machen observed, "What is the relation between Christianity and modern culture; may Christianity be maintained in a scientific age? It is this problem which modern liberalism attempts to solve" (Christianity & Liberalism, 6). It's as if the world said, "Give us a Christianity which is compatible with naturalism," which the liberals felt bound to oblige.

In our day, there are a number of places where churches, in the interests of evangelism and mission, risk conforming to the world's demands. One area of particular concern is the growing interest in defining the gospel and the church's mission in terms of social justice. More and more evangelical and missional leaders have begun to characterize the gospel of justification by faith alone, penal substitution, and the salvation of souls as a "small gospel." Writers talk about how they once narrowly construed the gospel in such a small and individualistic fashion, and then they describe with excitement their discovery of a bigger gospel, one which addresses the systemic matters of social injustice, poverty, and environmental breakdown.


One writer began his article on the so-called small gospel like this: "Our problems are not small. The most cursory glance at the newspaper will remind us of global crises like AIDS, local catastrophes of senseless violence, family failures, ecological threats, and church skirmishes. These problems resist easy solutions. They are robust—powerful, pervasive, and systemic. Do we have a gospel big enough for these problems?" The big gospel doesn't just occupy itself with petty-minded "sin management," as another author has put it, but with these powerful and systemic global problems.

If the danger of liberalism lies with building the church and its message around the problems the world wants to solve, it's not difficult to see how the area of social justice would be problematic. Christians, no doubt, are called in the Bible to care for the traveler who has been assaulted and left for dead by the side of the road. Wonderfully, therefore, many Christians have thrown themselves into the work of orphanages, inner city renewal, affordable housing, human rights advocacy, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, fair labor advocacy, prosecuting sex traffickers, criminalizing the killing of unborn children, relieving third world debt, and more. Such compassionate work should characterize God's people. The religion which is pure before God is "to visit the orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" (James 1:27).

But are these the primary problems which the gospel and the local church as an institution are called to address? Or do they present subtle temptations for churches to begin viewing their mission in the terms set by the world? "Give us a Christianity that solves the problems we care about, like disease, and enslavement, and poverty."

Here are four reasons why I believe the recent emphasis on social justice indicates not the recovery of a lost or underappreciated biblical theme, as some claim, but a first step toward a new liberalism, at least in many of the formulations I have encountered.


Viewing the message or the mission of the church in terms of social justice often betrays a small view of God. It takes the consequences of the Fall—death, disease, poverty, and so on—and makes those the "big" problems which need to be solved. No doubt the good news, broadly speaking, is that Jesus will ultimately undo all the affects of the Fall. But the Bible doesn't take 66 books and several thousand years of redemptive history just to tell us that. In fact, the entire history of Israel is one giant lesson in the fact a nation can have all the advantages of a just king, just laws, and economic prosperity (see 1 Kings 4:20-25), but that these things are wholly insufficient because the truly big problem still lurks underneath.

The truly big problem does not lie with anything that humanity found outside of Eden. It's not in the effects of the curse. The truly big problem is what got us kicked out of Eden in the first place. It's in the all-important conflict between the nature of the one who issued the curse and the reason we gave him to issue it—our treasonous decision to make ourselves "like God." The problem, in other words, is that God is so exquisitely righteous that his eyes cannot look upon sin, and we have sinned. He is so perfectly good and just that he cannot let the guilty go unpunished, and we are guilty. He is so wonderfully holy that the whole earth is full of his glory, and we have fallen short of his glory. The truly big problem is that, in our sin, we have acted treasonously and hatefully against a tri-personal God who is infinitely glorious and beautiful, the penalty of which is eternal damnation. To say that the gospel is "big" because it solves a human problem instead of a divine problem is, quite simply, to devalue his infinitely divine glory to something less significant than human suffering. I don't mean to make light of human suffering, but we certainly must not make light of transgressions against God's glory.

This should become even clearer after we consider a second problem—hell.


Recent emphases on social justice seem to correspond with an inconsequential view of hell. In other words, one seldom hears talk of hell from missional writers. One recent nearly 600 page book on the mission of God contains only one index entry on hell. Turn to the page itself and one finds that the word merely shows up in a passing biblical quotation. How does a writer talk for almost 600 pages about "God's mission" without discussing hell? Is hell not that big of a problem? Perhaps no one is going there, after all? When hell is mentioned by such leaders, it's redefined as annihilation or as the mere absence of God—the sinner receiving what he asked for, and nothing more.

This is deeply problematic. I have argued at slightly greater length elsewhere that one of the primary reasons we institute laws is to protect something precious. It's against the law to murder because life is precious. It's against the law to steal because property is precious. In that sense, one might say that laws function like fences or security systems. People erect fences and install alarm systems when they want to guard something precious. Furthermore, laws threaten transgressors with a penalty in order to give teeth to the law's value claim. If no penalty follows the transgression of a law, we learn that whatever the so-called law is guarding must not be worth much. If the penalty for transgression is severe, we learn that it is precious.

How valuable and worthy is the glory of God? How precious is he of whom the law speaks? Make hell less and, ironically, you make God's glory less. Make God's wrath against sin less and you make God less. Many Christians, I fear, stretch every which way they can to avoid this conclusion, but doing so suggests that we're still too much under the world's influence than we care to admit. The God of the Bible establishes a direct link between hell and his own glory (Rom. 9:20-24).


When God is small and hell isn't so bad, it stands to reason that the doctrine of conversion will find itself sitting quietly on the bench, if not kicked off the team altogether. Hence, missional writers talk about doing good and inviting non-Christians to do good with us (as if sacrifices and charity were more important than a broken and contrite heart). The house builders Habitat for Humanity, I have read, can be said to do kingdom work (as if good actions apart from faith are notsin). And Christians on mission, we're told, have as much to learn from others as they have to teach (as if the church's message and mission is just one more good idea, and not the result of the Holy Spirit entering history and inaugurating a new creation).

At bottom, it can sound as if the missional gospel is built atop a more positive view of humanity. It's almost as if non-Christians aren't really lost, blind, enslaved, and dead in their sin. They're just misguided or oppressed. They don't need the Holy Spirit to create them anew; they just need someone to be nice to them, and to offer them a safe place for asking honest questions. 

In their defense, many leaders work hard at calling for the both/and: conversation and conversion; structural and individual transformation. This sounds okay, but it's sort of beside the point. Does the New Testament emphasize such both/ands? Conversation is nowhere the goal; conversion is. And any talk of structural transformation is the necessary result of individual transformation in the context of the church body. Again and again, the New Testament writers—from John 17 to Ephesians 3 and 4—emphasize how these changed individuals become a new people together. They are the display of God's glory. In fact, how much does the Bible actually say about the transformation of societal structures? Which leads to the next point…


Emphasizing things like social justice and creation care represents a strangely reductionistic reading of the biblical storyline at best. Brave attempts have been made to tie them to the story and purpose of the whole Bible, such as the aforementioned work on the mission of God. Yet what's striking to us is how scarce the biblical material is for describing the church's mission in terms of social justice. We've all seen the proof texts of Jeremiah 29, Matthew 25, Galatians 6:10, and the ancient laws calling Israelites to care for foreigners. But is that what Leviticus is about? Or Isaiah? Or the Gospel of John? Or Romans? Or Hebrews? Or 1 and 2 Peter? Sometimes I wonder if we're all reading the same Bible.

I don't have time to trace out the storyline of the whole Bible (see Andreas Kostenberger and Peter O'Brien's Salvation to the Ends of the Earth for this purpose), so let me offer my "prooftext"—the story of Jesus' anointing in Bethany (Mark 14:3-9). Some were indignant that a woman poured perfume on Jesus' feet because the "ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor." But Jesus instead commended her extravagant act of worship. Now, caring for the poor doesn't have to be pitted against worship. No doubt, one can worship by caring for the poor. But right here, Jesus does pit them against one another. And worship wins.

In this passage we learn that the worship of God's inestimable glory constitutes the church's primary mission. This means, further, that any form of social activity should serve the purposes of evangelism and discipleship—since evangelism is what produces worshippers. Does this mean that an act of service done for evangelism's sake is hypocritical, as even John Stott has suggested in his book Christian Mission in the Modern World? It is if it's done with a heart of hatred or indifference, sure. But if it's done in love for the person? How is that hypocritical or a bait and switch (Stott's term)? Should we accuse Jesus of a bait and switch for performing miracles in order to demonstrate that he had the power to forgive sin (e.g. Mark 2:10-11)? 

Again, our concern in all of this is that evangelical churches have increasingly allowed the world to define which problems need to be solved—which salvation needs to be gained. It does not take supernatural, born-again, new-creation eyes of faith to see that death is a problem, or AIDS, poverty, sex trafficking, and every other horrible consequence of the Fall. Eyes of flesh can see such problems quite well, which is precisely why they become the pet projects of Hollywood stars and global intergovernmental organizations. And these are good projects for Christians to undertake together with the world. On the other hand, it does take supernatural, new-creation eyes of faith to see what it means to fall short of God's glory and why this is more significant than death, which is why proclaiming the gospel is the unique mandate of the church and its uppermost priority.

Christians should care for the poor and seek the justice of the city for a number of reasons. In order of priority, Christians should do this (i) to provide an occasion for sharing the gospel of Christ's salvation of sinners, (ii) to provide an extraordinarily dim picture of God's generosity and justice, and (iii) to give expression to the compassion which God has planted in our hearts for those who suffer.

That said, were we to feed every mouth and level every unjust inequality on the planet, we would have, at best, the restoration of Israel in the high days of King Solomon, when all Israel "lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree" (1 Kings 4:25). But how long did that last? Was there not a bigger problem to be solved? Didn't God's people have a more important task to accomplish?

In fact, would it not merely be a return to Eden? Is that what we're after?


To say that liberalism sneaks in through evangelism is to say that other places of one's doctrine might be orthodox. For instance, the God of the missional church can sound big. Karl Barth, whose writings are sometimes credited with standing at the fountainhead of missional thinking, begins his chapter on the reality of God in Church Dogmatics with two short but very big words: "God is." All theology, he goes on to explain, can say nothing more than "God is." Barth's God sounds like a big God. Yet Barth, like so many missional thinkers, reformulates hell such that it's not clear if anyone is going there. Say what you will about the "big God" of the neo-orthodox. Talk as much as you like about the Trinity, as many missional writers do. Still, any missional gospel which gives equal weight to addressing the cause and the consequences of the Fall brings, at best, an internal contradiction into the entire system.

The big gospel is the gospel which address the big problem a big God has with sinful human beings. Say that our big problem is something which humans experience and you will eventually end up with a different gospel, no matter what else you say about God.


Jonathan Leeman is director of communications for 9Marks and is the author of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love (Crossway, 2010).  

January/February 2010
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