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MFHW 04 – Is salvation individual or social or both?7 min read

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This post is part of a series.

individuals_groupsIn my current class in seminary, IS502: PRACTICE OF CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY, we read a series of passages where Jesus does miracles that display the restoration of people to society. Those passages include:

  • Jesus Heals a Man with Leprosy (Luke 5:12-15)
  • Jesus Raises a Widow’s Son (Luke 7:11-17)
  • Jesus Heals the Demoniac of Gerasene (Luke 8:26-39)

In all of these cases, we can miss that Jesus’ miracle was restoring the person to society, not just the miracle themselves. The question then becomes, is our gospel merely one of regeneration, or should we also be preaching a more ‘social gospel’ that emphasizes inclusion in the Kingdom of God as ‘salvation.’

I love the idea of salvation as restoration, especially restoration to relationships and society. However, I would like to think more about those passages and what Jesus’ actions meant for our view of salvation.

1. Regeneration can be instant, but can any other types of restoration?

As you mentioned, there is a difference between regeneration and sanctification. It is true, Jesus started the re-socialization of those people right away, but his example may not be directly applicable to us, from the point of salvation, since regeneration wasn’t even a possibility at that point. They COULDN’T be born again at that point.

Were they really being saved, or was Jesus providing rather visible examples to explain the kingdom? I am not saying that we should exclude social restoration from our gospel, and I would certainly include it as part of our work of restoring the person over time.  I’m just concerned that we are in a way reading too much, or the wrong thing into these actions of Jesus. While the Kindgom heals and restores, and the Church is in the same signpost activities while declaring the now and coming Kingdom, no one can even see it until they are regenerated, right?

In a sense, when people are healed in the NT, they are often not saved, but rather, they have ‘come NEAR to the Kingdom (cf. Luke 10:9). Salvation had come to Zaccheus, it seems, primarily because his attitude had changed in response to Jesus’ welcoming him in (I am still researching the tense of those verbs – some claim that Jesus restored him to society because he had already previously been doing good, not because he now intended to ;).

2. A Question of Emphasis

vangelderThere are a couple of other issues I have with overemphasizing social restoration as part of the gospel – we all know that no matter how much we try to restore creation or society or individuals to the society, our efforts will (a) be poor compared to the restoration that occurs in the new heaven and new earth (and new bodies!), and (b) it remains to be seen if ANY ‘building’ (as opposed to ‘receiving’ as van Gelder mentioned) of the kingdom that we do here survives the day of fire and God’s restoration of all things.

What will persist, I imagine, is the Kingdom built in relationships within the invisible church, and the Christ-likeness that people develop. I suppose my fear is that if we prioritize social reintegration over regeneration, we end up essentially being Kingdom Now people (Reconstructionists) who believe that we are actually building or ushering in the Kingdom.

If, however, we prioritize it secondary to regeneration, we acknowledge that any social re engineering we do here is merely a reflection of the Kingdom to come, and not that Kingdom itself. So it’s more evangelistic, as Jesus’ signs were, than actually building the final product.

Of course, as people are restored to God, one another, and themselves, the invisible kingdom is being built in them and their relationships. But the just society we work at creating is a temporary one that merely points to the coming Kingdom. It’s necessary and good, but it is NOT the Kingdom.

Does that make sense? I am reacting to the idea that the social gospel can supersede the importance of regeneration, turning us into a religion of do-gooders who are merely advanced humanists who do more because of their faith.

3. Other types of soteriology at risk of replacing regeneration?

You mentioned soteriologies that are therapeutic, Darwinian, and social. I suspect that all of these (well, I’m not a Darwinian believer in any sense) can replace the gospel of righteousness if we let it. I want to be sure that we are correcting and imbalance, not creating a new one.

One thing I am learning about myself in this class is that I am sensitive to certain doctrinal issues, including my most precious prize of the gospel of grace, which saved me from Arminian holiness. Expanding it to include social restoration scares me a little since I hold tightly to a ‘simpler’ gospel. I guess I have more healing to do regarding my own relationship with the church and its influence on the soteriology it delivers.

I had a similar initial reaction to the New Perspective on Paul, which threatened to redefine the gospel of righteousness to one of covenant membership and legalistic evidential covenant practices (markers). In that case, James Dunn’s balanced work left room for an imputed righteousness, but added the more covenental understandings as well. Perhaps that same approach can be applied here.

4. What did the disciples and Paul preach?

I’ve been thinking more about this. Do we see the same social restoration efforts in the book of Acts, or as part of the Epistles? We see inclusiveness in the church, but I’m not sure we see the same sort of emphasis.

This returns me to my question. The miracles and acts of Jesus – were they primarily prescriptive or instructive about the nature of the Kingdom? And if the latter, I am not saying that we don’t emphasize or represent the qualities of the Kingdom in our churches and in evangelization. I just wonder how much social renewal should predominate in our gospel.

This has been the argument, I suppose, between the two poles of pietists and reconstructionists (am I using pietists correctly? Those who withdraw from culture believing only in private piety or justice within the church but not society? I think I am wrong because I thought abolition came out of the pietist movement).

This goes again to the contrast between building the kingdom (in this world) and receiving it. Where is that line in our efforts to present and live out a complete gospel, realizing that some matters of justice must await the return of Christ?

5. The Most Moving Song About the Gerasene Demoniac

If you are still reading, I urge you to listen to this song by Bob Bennett. His narrative of the restoration of the demoniac is beautiful and moving.