an old timer on social action

Jon Trainer and Champ Thornton are talking about social action and whether there is a mandate for the church to engage in such activities. You can read some of their articles here, here, and here.

I am not sure where Jon and Champ will end up on this question, but for myself I see  no mandate at all for social action as a ministry of the church (except perhaps direct help for church members in crisis). As a Christian individual, I believe I should be kind and helpful to all as I come in contact with needs, but this really isn’t the mission of the church.

While I was working away on Romans today, I ran across a little essay in one of my commentaries on the social gospel. It is by William R. Newell, one-time assistant superintendent of Moody Bible Institute (under R. A. Torrey) and a fine Bible teacher and evangelist in his own right.

Newell left Moody in 1910 to take a Presbyterian pastorate in Florida. He published his commentary on Romans in 1938. He died in 1956.

This essay is from the Romans commentary.

William R. Newell, Romans verse by verse, pp. 46-51


This is the doctrine that Jesus Christ came to reform society (whatever “society” may be!); that He came to abate the evils of selfishness, give a larger “vision” to mankind; and, through His example and precepts, bring about such a change in human affairs, social, political, economic and domestic, as would realize all man’s deep longings for a peaceful, happy existence upon earth, ushering in what these teachers are pleased to call, “the Kingdom of God.”

1. Now, in the first place, Jesus Christ came to save sinners, not “society.” He said, “The Son of Man hath authority on earth to forgive sins.” Now, sins are individual transgressions against a personal God; there is no such thing in Scripture as these social-gospellers dream of, — a condition of “society” to be “changed” or “ameliorated.” All that really exists is the guilt of a vast number of really guilty sinners. “Society” does not exist before God at all; and it is a vain delusion of the devil that sins are dealt with en ~nasse.

2. Sinners, having been pardoned, find themselves in a blessed fellowship, a really heavenly thing, constituted by the Holy Spirit, who indwells each of them. But to confuse this fellowship with what these social-gospellers call “society,” is to forget that “except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

3. It flatters men’s vanity, of course, and shelters them from conviction, to be dealt with as “society,” and not as guilty souls needing personal pardon through the shed blood of Christ. Therefore this gospel (which is not a gospel, but a lie, a delu­sion of Satan), draws together vast concourses of unconverted men and women, “church-members” and “non-church-mem­bers.” Its preachers are plausible and popular, for if “society” is going to be saved in a mass, individual repentance need not be mentioned. The Jesus of these men, — the Stanley Joneses, the Sherwood Eddys, the Frank Buchmans, the Bishop McCon­nells, the Kagawas, and a whole host of drifters and on-the-fencers, is not the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world by an atoning sacrifice, not the One despised, forsaken, smitten of God, of the fifty-third of Isaiah! He is not at all the substitutionary Sacrifice drinking the cup of wrath for man’s guilt! But He is “the Christ of the Indian Road” — or the American road, the Canadian road, the English road, as you please; walking by the wayside, teaching the multitudes, as in the Four Gospels. BEFORE HE WAS REJECTED AND DIED. He is not the RISEN CHRIST, with all power in heaven and earth given unto Him, pouring forth the Holy Spirit and doing mighty works, as in the early church days.

I affirm that the present day popular preachers DO NOT KNOW what human guilt, before God, is! DO NOT KNOW that Christ really bore wrath under God’s hand for the sin of the world! DO NOT KNOW that He was forsaken of God, as the whole race, otherwise, must have been! I affirm that they are preaching as if an unrejected, uncrucified Christ were still being offered to the world! They preach the “character” of Jesus, saying “nice things” of Him, and telling people to “follow His example”: while the truly awful fact that Christ “bare our sins in His own body on the tree,” that He was “wounded for our transgressions,” that He was “forsaken of His God”; that “God spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up,” — and that “for our trespasses,” is never told to the poor, wretched people! Nor are they warned of that literal lake of fire and brimstone into which “every one not found written in the book of life” will be cast, and that forever.

One look into the lost eternity to which these last-days “preachers” are leading those who follow them, renders even the briefest consideration of these men who dare to call them­selves “preachers of the gospel,” beyond all enduring. As Jeremiah cries:

“Concerning the prophets. My heart within me is broken, all my bones shake; I am like a drunken man, and like a man whom wine hath overcome, because of Jehovah, and because of His holy words.

“Thus saith Jehovah of hosts, Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they teach you vanity; they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of Jehovah. They say continually unto them that despise Me, Jehovah hath said, Ye shall have peace; and unto every one that walketh in the stubbornness of his own heart they say, No evil shall come upon you… Behold, the tempest of Jehovah, even His wrath, is gone forth, yea, a whirling tempest; it shall burst upon the head of the wicked’ … I sent not these prophets, yet they ran: I spake not unto them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in My council, then had they caused My people to hear My words, and had turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings” (Jer. 23.9,16,17,19, 21,22).

And Ezekiel:

“And the word of Jehovah came unto me, saying, Son of Man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel that prophesy, and say thou unto them that prophesy out of their own heart, Hear ye the word of Jehovah: Thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Woe unto the foolish prophets, that fol­low their own spirit, and have seen nothing! … They have seen falsehood and lying divination, that say, Jehovah saith; but Jehovah hath not sent them: and they have made men to hope that the word could be confirmed. Have ye not seen a false vision, and have ye not spoken a lying divination, in that ye say, Jehovah saith; albeit I have not spoken?

“Because, even because they have seduced my people, saying, Peace; and there is no peace; and when one buildeth up a wall, behold, they daub it with untempered mortar: say unto them that daub it with untempered mortar, that it shall fall” (Ezek. 13.1,2,3,6,7,10,11,12-14,15).


“When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die, and thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way; that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at thy hand. Nevertheless, if thou warn the wicked of his way to turn from it, and he turn not from his way; he shall die in his iniquity, but thou hast delivered thy soul” (Ezek. 33.8,9).

You may say, Those were Old Testament prophets — Jeremiah and Ezekiel; and Those were messages to the Jews. Wait till you meet, as you will shortly, the God Who inspired these prophets. Let us see what you will say to Him, — you who pro­fess to preach the gospel of Christ. and yet preach it not!

And Paul saith: “Though we, or an angel from heaven should preach unto you any gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema.” “For I delivered unto you first of all that… Christ died for our sins, according to the Scrip­tures, … that He was buried; and that He hath been raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” This very declaration of the gospel after Christ died, is that atoning death of His. When you leave that out, and prate about the “beautiful life” of Jesus, you are deceived by the devil and are a deceiver of other souls.

4. We know that this “social gospel,” the false news that humanity is to be reached in the mass, and not by individual conviction, individual faith, individual new birth by the Holy Spirit, is a lie, because Scripture directly contradicts any such notion:

Hear Paul: “In the last days, grievous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, haughty, railers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, implacable, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, no lovers of good, traitors, headstrong, puffed up, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding a form of godliness, but having denied the power thereof: from these also turn away!” (2 Tim. 3.1-5).

Peter also: “In the last days mockers shall come with mockery, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Pet. 3.3-4).

Paul again: “Evil men and imposters shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3.13). And our Lord plainly says:

“In the day that Lot went out from Sodom, it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all: after the same manner shall it be in the day that the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17.29-30).

How dare you call yourself a believer of Scripture, while you deny such plain words as these, and preach a fool’s dream, that the world, with the devil still here, its prince and god; and man still unregenerate — that the world will by some “social gospel” gradually change in character? It is a lie! and those that preach it, preach a lie. The words of God shall be fulfilled, and not the mouthings of a McConnell or the fumings of a Fosdick.

And, O social gospeller, if you are looking for a changed state of “society,” who is going to help you bring it in? The Holy Ghost will not, for He has inspired men to write that the very opposite will occur! that men shall hate one another, and that the world will grow worse, to the very return of Christ. And we know that enlightened Christians will not go about to bring in what they know from God’s Word is not coming in!

And ignorant Christians cannot help you — for they know not how. And we know that this selfish world will not go about to bring in your social dream: for you and we know they are set on their own interests, and will remain so. And Satan cannot do it, if he would!

So, O social gospeller, who would go about to bring in a “new social order,” you are left to do it yourself, without that regeneration by the Holy Spirit which alone truly saves men; without any message of pardon for guilty souls through the shed blood of a Redeemer (for you do not preach that!) with­out the help and prayers of true believers: for, these pray, “Thy Kingdom Come”; but they know that Christ must return to earth to bring in that Kingdom; and they know that all other promises are false and lying hopes!


I just love Newell!

Some of our mild-mannered modern sophisticates, who know better, will probably blanch at his manner, but he was a man who knew well how to call a spade a spade. May God give us more Newell’s and less Nancy Nuance’s.



  1. Thanks for the material. I’ve been wanting to do more of a study on this issue. It sort of dovetails with our election with Obama and Liberation Theology. Do you know if there is a solid presentation on the relations of the NT church to poverty/hunger/social, based on exegetical materials?

  2. One more thing. I preached a message years ago, entitled, What Is “Good” and What Is “Help”. People say “that’s good” and it’s actually bad, and they say “I’m helping him,” when they’re actually hurting someone.

  3. Hi Kent

    No, I don’t know of anything specific. But reading Newell in conjunction with the comments of others was refreshing. A breath of fresh air instead of the bafflegab we seem to get these days from supposed fundamentalists.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  4. Andy R says:


    I am amazed by the extent to which so-called evangelicals in our fair city will define the gospel almost entirely in terms of social action or social justice. And to propose to them, as you have, that the social gospel is not Biblically accurate, is nearly incomprehensible to them. I would like to be charitable and not charge them with preaching another gospel, but more and more, I wonder…..

  5. Give us time, Don, but I think you will be fine with where we land. We see no mandate in scripture for the church, per se, to be engaged in social action (as the assembly), but we do believe the individual believer should be salt and light as he/she pursues their vocation. Even this pursuit, though, gives those of the household of faith first priority. The church should certainly be encouraging/equipping believers for the task. We do think there may be times when christians/church voluntarily engage in some tasks together simply because they cannot be accomplished alone. Keep in mind that we are writing this series in response to a local movement that has embraced the political left and social action whole hog. Thanks for taking notice!

  6. Hi Jon

    I appreciate your philosophy as outlined above, Jon. It is essentially the same as mine. I suppose we might apply it differently at different points, but in the main I think your view is biblical. From some of your comments, it appeared to me that was the way you were thinking anyway.

    My post here is not critical of what you are doing, but it was interesting to me to run across this in Newell while seeing this discussion going on at your place. And we have discussed it elsewhere before, I think on Chris A.’s site and maybe a couple of other places.

    Newell, though, just stirs me up! I am sure his commentaries may well not be thought to be politically correct by some these days, but he is forthright in his opinions, and faithful in his exposition. He fits perfectly into my oxgoad mindset.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3