Christopher J.H. Wright on the Gospel and Social Action

In his book, Knowing the Holy Spirit Through the Old Testament, Christopher J.H. Wright writes about the mission of the Spirit-anointed Messiah being the mission of the church. Wright explains (emphasis mine):

“Historically the church has indeed seen its mission in these broad terms. It is not a matter of engaging in both the gospel and social action, as if Christian social action was something separate from the gospel itself. The gospel has to be demonstrated in word and deed. Biblically, the gospel includes the totality of all that is good news from God for all that is bad news in human life–in every sphere. So like Jesus, authentic Christian mission has included good news for the poor, compassion for the sick and suffering justice for the oppressed, liberation for the enslaved. The gospel of the Servant of God in the power of the Spirit of God addresses every area of human need and every area that has been broken and twisted by sin and evil. And the heart of the gospel, in all of these areas, is the cross of Christ.”

Christopher J.H. Wright, Knowing the Holy Spirit Through the Old Testament (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 118-19.

I think we need to look at this paragraph closely, especially in how Wright considers the relationship of evangelism and social action. If I understand him correctly, social action is in itself an expression of the gospel which is grounded in the mission of Jesus as the Spirit-anointed Servant. Contrary to Wright, I have heard others, including Mark Dever in recent talks, argue that social action are not aspects of the gospel in itself but rather implications of the gospel. I know this sounds like splitting hairs, but this is an important distinction that divides evangelicals on how they understand the relationship evangelism and social action.

So what are your thoughts?

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26 Comments on “Christopher J.H. Wright on the Gospel and Social Action”

  1. John Divito Says:

    You are right–this is not splitting hairs. To read a renowned missiologist argue against the holistic concept advanced by evangelicals like Stott and Wright, check out David Hesselgrave’s Paradigms in Conflict, chapter 4: “Holism and Prioritism: For Whom is the Gospel Good News?”

    Honestly, I am still working through these issues myself, but found it refreshing to read a different perspective from the holistic view I usually heard advocated.

  2. Chad Says:

    I agree with Wright that the gospel and social action are inseparable. Acting as if social action is a side project or an optional church activity does not square with Jesus’ constant commands to serve the poor. Matthew 25 makes it pretty clear the consequences of trying to minimize “social action”.

    “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

  3. John Divito Says:


    As an interesting side note, Hesselgrave has a section in his book dedicated to expositing Matthew 25. He maintains that it is one of the most misunderstood passages in the gospels. I’d give page references and/or a relevant quote, but I don’t have his book with me right now.

    And lest you dismiss Hesselgrave out-of-hand, don’t forget that well-known NT scholar Andreas Kostengerger commends it.

  4. Jeff Says:

    Tim this is something that I have been thinking about for some time, with it being highlighted just recently. I attended the Global Missions Health Conference at Southeast Christian Church last week. it is literally a global medical missions conference, with attendees and speakers from all over the world, and was struck again by the glaring absence of the gospel, the message that we are all sinners bound for hell who desparetly need a savior, Jesus Christ.

    Please don’t here me say though that Christ was not mentioned. Indeed he was mentioned all the time but the focus was on meeting the physical needs, i.e. the physical health of the individual. I lsee that particular issue as a social implication of taking the gospel to people. I think that the church, well intentioned though it may be, is missing what being a missionary is about, medical or otherwise. I am sure many would disagree but having been on medical missions and being a seminarian, I can say that on the medical side of the issue, ther is a heavy skewing to the side of social concerns over gospel concerns.

    Here is my point. If I give a person a medication or do a procedure that corrects what ever physcial malady that person might have and then either leave the village or country, etc. without telling them about the necessity of God’s forgiveness in Jesus and all that entails, I have really done nothing of great significance. You see, that person will get sick again, they will get injured again and they might even die this time. If they have not heard the gospel of Jesus Christ and believed in him, they have now entered a Christless eternity.

    Do we give medicines? Yes. Do we feed the poor and clothe them? Yes. Do we give a cup of cold water in the Master’s name? By all means yes. But if that is all we do, then I do not believe we have given them the gospel or been obedient to what Christ commanded us in Matt. 28.

    We in the church often get confused and lost in our zeal for reaching hurting people. The Gospel is something very specific and every person on the planet needs to hear it. Taking it to them by necessity entails meeting physical needs; an African proverb says, “I can’t hear what you are saying over the grumbling of my stomach” but if we neglect to share the Gospel, we have violated the first rule of medicine, do no harm. For if they enter a Christless eternity, we have committed the ultimate harm.

    Thanks Tim for bringing this issue up.

  5. Laura Grace Says:

    You have done nothing of great significance?

    I do understand your point, but let me nuance it a bit: we are to meet the physical, tangible needs of those around us because we are commanded to. If you fed the hungry and cared for the sick every day for the rest of your life (joyously sharing the Gospel when you had opportunity, of course) and not one person ever came to know Christ through your ministry, would you not still hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” when you stood before your Maker? I believe you would.

    It’s not about the bottom line — so-called “converts” or even fully discipled believers — as much as it is about obedience. The Lord uses the obedience of the saints to accomplish his purposes, but he isn’t obliged to, nor is our obedience somehow diminished because it doesn’t produce “results.” Does that make sense? I agree with you in essence, but just wanted to emphasize that point as well.

  6. Great discussion. There’s a ton I would like to say. In fact, I am putting together a mini-series on this issue that will continue in the near future. Regarding Matthew 25, one of the issues is whether such social acts are intended for those outside the church or those inside the church (“brothers”). I think some of the mis-interpretations John may be speaking to is the context of who Jesus is referring. But it is hard to deny the reality of such kingdom ethics implied there, isn’t it?

    One theological caveat here: this passage has in contemporary theology used by many to usurpt the necessity of gospel proclamation; however, the error of some doesn’t demand a dismissal by all. Social gospelers will say that salvation is accomplished by such actions (a la Rauschenbush); inclusivists will say that those who have never heard can have an appropriate ethical response to God and be saved (a la Pinnock and his “faith principle”); pluralists will argue for the parity and relativity of all religions, noting that Christians fail in the ethical realm just as much as the other adherents of other religions (a la Hick and “Grading Religions”); ergo, all ways are equal. All these who claim this passage do so wrongly, and that must be clearly stated. BUT, careful exposition and application is needed today.

  7. Don Elbourne Says:


    I’m so glad to see you addressing this topic. Its been the main thrust of my ministry in the last couple of years. I have too much to say to try and squeeze it into a blog entry comment, but the short answer is that deeds and creeds must go hand in hand. Neglect either one and we have a less than full orbed gospel proclamation.

    Could you point to where Dever discusses the issue?

  8. John Divito Says:


    I look forward to your mini-series! As I said before, I am still working through these issues myself, but I know that those advocating prioritism (like Hesselgrave) are not wanting to minimize social ministry or to make it optional. Their main point is the need to prioritize a person’s physical and spiritual needs. We should provide them with bread, but their most important need is the Bread of Life!

  9. Chad Says:

    John, I’m not familiar with Hesselgrave so I’ll have to check it out.

    However, as a general observation, I think this idea of “prioritism” is questionable. The reason I say this is I really don’t see Christ differentiating this way. In reading the sermon on the mount or the good samaritan, etc, it seems that meeting physical needs is commanded right alongside meeting spiritual needs. It’s when we try to do an “either-or” or prioritize that we get into trouble IMO.

    And Tim, you mention whether this applies only to “brothers” in Christ. Personally, this distinction drives me crazy. I know a lot of really smart folks with great theology make these distinctions so I’m trying to understand. But it seems to me that Christ intentionally picks a samaritan in his parable because it’s not about whether the person in need has anything in common at all or whether the person deserves help b/c he/she is a brother or sister. I just don’t see how these distinctions (i.e., how we treat a “brother in Christ” vs. a nonbeliever) are helpful or biblical.

  10. Don,

    Great to hear from you brother. The Dever reference is from his lecture last month here at SBTS when giving an overview of IX Marks. Baptist Press reported on it, though the actual portion where he addressed the gospel and social action was not included. I believe it was in the Q&A session at the end, but it was over a month ago. I bet the audio is available.


    Yeah, I am looking forward to writing on this subject some more. I am familiar with Hesselgrave’s book. I think Paradigms in Conflict is a mixed bag. He is good on some issues and quite bad on others. But it is still helpful for discussion sake. One thing to understand about the trend in missiology today, especially international missions, is to focus primarily on unreached people groups. In reaching these UPG’s, missiologists are currently adopting church planting movements which focus on speed and reproducibility. Anything added to the purpose or function of the church is “excess baggage” (a la Charles Brock) or a “deadly sin” (a la Garrison). Benevolence and mercy ministry does not fit into their paradigm and therefore is not considered a priority.


    What I am referring to is verse 40 in Matt. 25 where Jesus explained, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Therefore, theologians argue that “my brothers” cannot possibly everyone in the world, so it is limited to certain people. Jesus refers to them as “my brothers” which many conclude, is in reference to those in the Kingdom.

    You do bring up a good point about the story of the “Good Samaritan.” The point Jesus was addressing was, “Who is my neighbor?” So in one text the focus is on “brother” and the other “neighbor”. I am not sure what the difference is per say, but I need to think about that some more. Regarding the “either-or” scenario, you’re right. It should be both-and. The issue is, then, is there a priority of one over the other, and how to balance out word and deed.

  11. Don Elbourne Says:

    On the topic of providing aid to believers, vs unbelievers – we had this issue arise in the days following Hurricane Katrina. For those not familiar with us, the storm devastated our entire community leaving everyone, including 100% of our church membership homeless. When sister churches heard of our plight, they flooded into the area with assistance. Following Mathew 25, many of the Churches wanted to focus primarily on their brothers and sisters in Christ.

    We had somewhat of a controversy in our church over this. Our members, who were living in tents and campers themselves, felt that the priority of aid should be to unbelievers first, because in doing so we demonstrated the love and mercy of Christ.

    Our church folks came to me and asked who was right. I said that they both were. Providentially, I had been preaching through Galatians before the storm. When we picked up the study, the very next passage, Paul says, “do good to everyone, especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:10) This seemed to directly speak to our question. Our sister churches correctly and biblically desired to aid fellow believers, and our Church members appropriately wanted to minister to their unbelieving neighbors, friends, and family members.

  12. gavin Says:

    I may be wrong, but it seems that there are some who want social justice to have a greater emphasis in the life of the Church (which is a good thing) are willing to simply lump it in as part of the Gospel (which is a bad thing) in order to give social justice more clout, or more respect, etc.

    I agree with Dever….it is a Gospel implication.

    And just look to the EC as an example of what happens when the lines are blurred between social action and biblical evangelism.

  13. Don Elbourne Says:


    Thanks. I just downloaded the Dever lecture to my iPod.

  14. Don Elbourne Says:

    btw, just so I do not get lumped in with Rauschenbushites, please see my blog post: Disaster Relief Evangelism.

  15. Don,

    Great story of how this practically works in a real life situation. I think the example of your church is a beautiful picture of what it means to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). And brother, you are far from Rauschenbush! While I laugh at that, it is said that anyone who talks about evangelical social concern is immediately dubbed advocating a Social Gospel. I guess when people wear out one caricature, they have to advocate another one!


    You’re right. The emerging church, in their emphasis on orthopraxy (some are saying they are making an idol of it), have gone too far in pushing social action at the expense of the gospel. Making headway in the biblical social concern involves affirmations and denials, and in contemporary evangelical theology, there is plenty to deny. Nevertheless, there is much to affirm, and I hope we can do justice to both.

    For what it’s worth, I have a historical hypothesis on the evangelicalism’s vascillating commitment to social action. Perhaps that is something I should hash out later in the discussion.

  16. Jeff Says:

    Laura you said that “If you fed the hungry and cared for the sick every day for the rest of your life (joyously sharing the Gospel when you had opportunity, of course) and not one person ever came to know Christ through your ministry, would you not still hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” when you stood before your Maker? I believe you would.”

    To this I would agree but that was not my point. The discussion thus far seems to indicate that sharing the Gospel and meeting physical needs go hand in hand but that does not mean they are the same thing. My point was that many in mission situations focus on meeting the physical needs without mentioning the spiritual. Salvation is a work of the Holy Spirit from beginning to end but before someone can come to faith in Christ they have to hear the Gospel (Romans 10) So meeting physical needs is important but not the most important. So I see social action a hand-maiden to Gospel proclaimation not vice versa.

  17. Kyle Barrett Says:

    At the recent Convergent Conference, JD Grear (sp) made a statement to the effect that social/mercy ministry are comparable to the healings and miracles Jesus performed in so far as they function as confirmation of the gospel message. I’m mulling it over but I think he may be on to something there. I’m curious as to what others thought.

  18. Kyle,

    I was planning to probe into this a little more in another blogpost, but alas, since you asked . . .

    Wright speaks about God’s mission beginning with the people of Israel, to Jesus, and then to the Church. Now, consider the connection Jesus makes regarding Himself and the OT prophecy in Isaiah 61 (note, Jesus “found the place where it was written,” denoting this was an intentional reading):

    “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
    – Luke 4:18-19

    The mission of the Spirit-anointed Messiah is replete with OT imagery and themes, not the least of which includes preaching good news to the poor, set at liberty those who are oppressed (justice), recovering sight to the blind (mercy), etc. Wright concludes that the mission Jesus had in the world, the gospel of the kingdom, is also the mission given to the Church. How are we to explain “pure and undefiled religion” other than caring for widows and orphans in their distress and keeping oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27)? If Jesus defines his mission in these terms, are we to conclude that healings and miracles function as “confirmations” to the gospel message? So going back to Wright, he said,

    “Biblically, the gospel includes the totality of all that is good news from God for all that is bad news in human life–in every sphere. So like Jesus, authentic Christian mission has included good news for the poor, compassion for the sick and suffering justice for the oppressed, liberation for the enslaved.”

    As far as Jesus’ miracles and healings are concerned, he healed many of whom the gospel message was not confirmed (e.g. the ten lepers of which only one came back). Are we to say that the miracles and healings of the Spirit-anointed Messiah are not in part revealing the inauguration of the Kingdom as expressed in the fulfillment of Isaiah 61?

    Or, in more simple terms, what do you make of Luke 4:18-19?

    Lastly, while it is not the gospel, is social action not a part of the mission of the Church?

  19. Kyle Barrett Says:

    Let me clarify what I mean by confirmation. I think a better word might actually be vindication. In other words, our acts of mercy vindicate or declare our message to be right in the same way that Jesus’ actions as the Spirit-annointed king vindicate his message and declare him to be right. Jesus’ message is that the kingdom is here now and will be here soon and that all who trust him will experience his gracious reign. Jesus’ actions say, “He’s right.” Our message is that the kingdom is here now and will be here soon and sinners can experience Jesus’ gracious reign. Our actions say, “Jesus is right.” Jesus’ miracles and our acts of mercy are unintelligible apart from interpretation through the lens of the gospel (i.e., that the Kingdom is here and will be here and that all who trust Jesus his gracious reign) but the gospel is unbelievable apart from something that tangibly says, “This is right.”

    I think that’s the problem I have with viewing mercy ministry/social action as implied in the gospel rather than intimately connected to the gospel. Implication language, for me anyways, seems to make mercy ministry secondary. If it happens, that’s great; Jesus said it’s good to be kind to the poor. If it doesn’t, well, we still have the gospel so it’s okay. I think it misses the fact that the gospel is either vindicated or condemned by our actions and that the gospel is a tool not only for maintenance but for construction.



  20. Ah, I see. Thanks for clarifying Kyle! I agree with you brother, and my prior thoughts track right along with what you are saying, especially my concern with making mercy ministry an optional aspect (secondary) of the kingdom.

    You know, while on my way to work last night, I began thinking about my last comment, and to the continuity of Jesus’ earthly mission and the mission of the Church. How many times did Jesus say that we will do what he did, expect to get (from the world) the same treatment he got, are to obey the Father just as he did, etc. Indeed, it is enough for a student to become like his teacher. Yet, when conservative evangelicals began talking about mercy ministry, it seems like this aspect of Jesus’ ministry is ignored and even sometimes suppressed for fear of being dubbed a liberal or minimizing the thrust of evangelism. Others will go the extreme and say it is not the work of the church at all. But I don’t see how such thinking is possible, especially if we are called to be “the body of Christ,” carrying out his work in the world in the power of the Spirit.

    Today’s post deals a little with this, where Ajith Fernando’s concern is that there are many who want to talk kingdom and justice without proclaiming *the gospel* of the kingdom.

    I hope the discussion and conversation continues. It’s an important one, at least in my mind.

  21. John Divito Says:


    I am enjoying the discussion. And as a Christian in the process of going into the mission field myself, I also believe these issues are tremendously important!

    (P.S. I completely agree with you on your earlier statement regarding Hesselgrave’s book–it is definitely a mixed bag. His chapters on Calvinism/Arminianism and the Kingdom of God are horrible! But I still have found it to be one of the few available places to turn for a quick introduction to contemporary missiological issues.)

  22. Curtis Hill Says:

    I asked Dever at a recent conference about Greear’s assertion. He said he gets the “willies” when people begin comparing the role of the church with the role of Christ. He said he would put social concerns in the realm of Matt 5:16 – let your light shine, or the reference in Peter that is similar. But, if I understood him right, he does not see the church (in mercy ministries) as doing the same things Jesus was doing by the signs in John.

  23. Kyle Barrett Says:


    Did Dever give any reasons why he gets the “willies”?



  24. John,

    Yeah, you knew exactly the chapters which I was referring to! But you’re right. It is a good starter book–one that is particularly helpful in getting your feet wet when it comes to missiological issues.


    My only issue with that is that it feels really arbitrary to me. No doubt, there is discontinuity between the work of Christ and the work of the Church (atonement! for example). However, what are we to make of such verses as John 14:12 which says,

    “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”

    Do the works that I do – what does that entail? Also, when Jesus talks about leaving an example (as in John 13 and 1 Peter 1), are we not in some sense to look at his earthly ministry as prototypical of the ministry of the church?

    The signs in John no doubt are unique – they are “miracles with a meaning” – namely to show that Jesus is that Messiah and cause people to believe. John writes,

    “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

    Yet I am not sure how one can arbitrate between Christ’s earthly ministry and the ministry of the church. Did the early church in Acts think this way? My guess is that they didn’t. And *if* they didn’t, then why should we?

    Lastly, in John 14:16, Jesus says that he “will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper . . .”. We know that “another Helper” means another one just like previous one (Jesus). So can it be argued further, that when when the second Paraclete comes to empower us for ministry, then will we not find ourselves being led to do the same things the first Paraclete (Jesus) did? Is that not why he has sovereignly also given gifts such as “mercy” to the Body of Christ?

    These are just some thoughts that are running through my head when I hear that. I may be off, but I am struggling to find the biblical rationale behind those who are advocating the stance that mercy ministry, benevolence, social action, etc. is not a part of the mission of the church.

  25. Timothy, I know this is an old thread, but Elborne’s use of,” do good to everyone, especially those of the household of God,” I think is wrong. I believe the word especially, means “in particular,” we might say “namely,” or to stretch it out, “do good to everyone; by name they are called the household of God.” You had mentioned the good Samaritan. But, is it not true that these men were all Jews? Brothers in other words? It was a man who went down from Jerusalem, a priest, and a Pharisee, then the Samaritan came along; but he was of the ten tribles, but still Jewish. So, I do not think that this can be extended to the care of the desparate, generally. However, I think that there is this, it was a peculiar, not a common circumstance occurance; it was a robbery. The peculiar cannot be used to norm the common. On, the other hand we remember Naaman, and there is clearly a call to compassion. This also is peculiar, and not the norm. But, it was done to a non-believer. I would think here though, that there was, as there was with Jesus, a commandment of obedience to the prophet’s Word. It is clear that Jesus did not carry out a generalized ministry to all poor people. If we look at Israel. They were to do good to their neighbor. That is where the second great commandment is derived from. The context though reveals that a neighbor is on of the nation. There is also the stranger among them. And, the key is ‘among.’ One of the Mosaic laws was to exclude the stranger unless they submitted to the Word of the Covenant and obeyed the Law of Moses. Then there was a third class. The sojourner. The soul passing through. They were accorded only bare essentials to spead them on there was. It was a passing hospitality.

    Througout the Scripture there is the delimiter that Christ himself reestablished when he said, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have not part in me.” And Paul makes clear that the “table” of the Lord is only for those who discern the body of Christ rightly.

    When approaching the ‘social gosple’ we must make it clear that to take from the house of God and use his vessels, is death. So, we should extend as Jesus commanded the disciples to do, the Word first with the warning of the curse. If, Jesus said, the message is accepted, then leave a blessing. If not, leave a curse and then leave town.

    It sounds cold until you understand the eternal consequence. Has the world ever been satisfied with what the church has provided it?. And is not this controversy over the fact, that we are not providing enough. I would contend this, it is entangling the church in the affairs of the world. Should not Jesus have opened the door to give his mother a seat in the house? Social convention would say yes. Would it not have been kind and compassionate? Would it not have been better for God just to have healed the world, each and everyone? There then seems to be a real problem with the way things are shaking out. Do you feel guilty enough yet. Condemn perhaps? Then go sell all you have and give to the poor. Stuck for an answer? There is much more to this isn’t there?

  26. Don Elbourne Says:


    I disagree. Jesus in fact did show benevolence indiscriminantly and did not extend mercy contingent on the recipient. You mentioned John 6. Notice the full context of the chapter. Jesus fed the people who he later rebuked for following him with less than pure motives. Although they rejected him as Lord, he still fed them when they were hungry. You confuse categories when you place John 6:53 before John 6:11.

    Christian acts of goodness to unbelievers include feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless etc. but does not include welcoming unbelievers to the communion table as you imply. Those who reject Christ will be eternally separated from Him, but the rain still falls on the just and the unjust.

    To place conditions on acts of mercy does violence to the gospel message they are designed to demonstrate. God shows us salvific mercy, not because we deserve it, earned it, or have met conditions to receive it. He shows us mercy because of his own character. Likewise, we extend mercy, to the undeserving, as pictures of God’s grace.

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