The "Atonement-Only" Gospel

By Jim Wallis 10-28-2011

I really enjoyed the "debate" I had Thursday night with Al Mohler , president of Southern Baptist Seminary, at my own seminary alma mater, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in the northern suburbs of Chicago. It was over the question,"Is social justice an essential part of the gospel and the mission of the church."

I represented the "yes" side and Mohler the "no." The biggest crowd ever for a Trinity debate turned out, packing the chapel and indicating the interest of the student body and community in what became the central topic -- what is the gospel.

I said it is the "gospel of the kingdom," outlined in Jesus initial proclamations in Mathew 4 and Luke 4, with the meaning of the kingdom then elaborated in Matthew 5, 6, and 7 in the Sermon on the Mount and in Luke 6 in the Sermon on the Plain.

I find Paul's later teachings on the justification by faith as fully consistent and complimentary to Jesus' gospel of the kingdom. But I agree with Paul himself that we should interpret the gospel in light of Jesus and not the other way around. Thus, for me, "social justice" is integral to the meaning of the gospel -- a holistic message that includes both personal faith and social transformation.

I shared a story from my little evangelical church's "atonement-only gospel," when a church elder told me, as a 15 year old teenager, that, "Christianity had nothing to do with racism. That's political and our faith is personal." That view put my white Christian church on the wrong side of the greatest moral issue of my generation. It made the church complicit with white racism, opposed to the civil rights movement and completely unsupportive of the black church, which drove me and many other young people away from our childhood churches and faith.

I only came back to faith after reading Matthew and Luke to discover the gospel of the kingdom that wasn't just about "me and the Lord," but about a new order breaking in to change the world and us with it -- a gospel inclusive of justice.

Mohler said he agreed with everything I was saying about the importance of justice, but that it was only an implication of the gospel and not "the gospel" per se. The gospel, he said, is about the singular issue of substitutionary atonement and redemption outlined in the Pauline epistles.

He admitted that his Southern Baptist tradition also had failed on the issue of race and had been on the wrong side in the Civil Rights movement. But Mohler said the gospel was still about atonement and we just needed to do a better job of making the implications of the gospel clear -- and help Christians become disciples committed to justice as well as the evangelism of personal salvation. He also affirmed the role and leadership of the black churches in America, just as I had.

But my post-debate reflection was this: If the atonement-only gospel churches in the America -- like my Plymouth Brethren and his Southern Baptist -- were on the wrong side of both the Civil Rights movement and are still generally not involved in issues of justice, maybe something is wrong with their theology and not just their practice.

The same was true in white South African churches that also had an atonement-only definition of the gospel. They, too, were on the wrong side of justice and were the bulwarks of the apartheid regime, completely opposed to Christian leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, just as white evangelicals in America were opposed to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Conversely, churches that have been on the side of justice, such as black churches both in the United States and South Africa, were always the ones to say that justice was integral to the meaning of the gospel and not just an implication of it. That should tell us something.

If justice is only an implication, it can easily become optional and, especially in privileged churches, non-existent. In the New Testament, conversion happens in two movements: Repentance and following. Belief and obedience. Salvation and justice. Faith and discipleship.

Atonement-only theology and its churches are in most serious jeopardy of missing the vision of justice at the heart of the kingdom of God. The atonement-only gospel is simply too small, too narrow, too bifurcated, and ultimately too private.

A gospel message that doesn't even try to change the world, concentrating only on individuals, only works for those who don't need the world to be changed. Therefore, it ends up being too white, too privileged, too male, and too American.

Today, many in the worldwide evangelical movement mostly reject the atonement-only gospel. Especially in the global south where "good news to the poor" must be central to the gospel, the international Lausanne movement advocates an integral gospel, and the World Evangelical Alliance as well as the National Association of Evangelicals see poverty, creation care, and peacemaking as essential to the gospel and mission of the church.

The crowd and conversation at Trinity Thursday night showed me again how much the evangelical movement is changing, and how much my seminary has changed since I started there almost four decades ago. Thanks be to God.

portrait-jim-wallis11Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street - A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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