Last week there was a major dustup in conservative evangelicalism. It was precipitated when an anti-abortion activist, from the group Abolish Human Abortion (AHA) organized an angry protest outside of Heritage Grace Community Church in Frisco, Texas, demanding they repent of the “sin” of not opposing abortion in the exact same way they do. Heritage Grace is a small church (they don’t even have their own building to meet in), less than 100 people, but it that rarest of things, a faithful biblical church that is deeply committed to evangelism. [That is almost certainly the only reason HGCC wound up on the radar of AHA. Heritage Grace is pastored by Emilio Ramos, the husband of Trish Ramos of “Fish with Trish” fame, a guest frequently featured on Wretched Radio.] Aside from the obvious problems of attacking a faithful local church for not doing exactly what these non-members think they should be doing, demanding that a non-sin be repented of, and failing to follow the command not to forsake the corporate gathering (Heb 10:25), this is really an issue of abortion and the social gospel.
Now I want to be clear, as far as I’m concerned abortion is murder; it is evil, it is sin, it is a crime against humanity, it should be abolished and every doctor, administrator, fundraiser, PR person, receptionist et al involved in the abortion on demand industry should be prosecuted for conspiracy to commit murder. It is a violation of the sixth commandment (Ex 20:13), and it is one of the great shames of western society. But it is not the greatest sin or what the church should be focused on.
The greatest sin is of course unbelief. It is unbelief that brings condemnation and damnation. Consider the words of Christ:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. – John 3:17-18
Ultimately the primary problem of mankind is sin and the willful rejection of the only savior that can offer true forgiveness for sin. Of course the only way anyone will embrace the only savior who offers forgiveness and eternal life is through the gospel. As Jesus said He is the way, the truth and the life and the only way to be reconciled to God (John 14:6), and that is the essence of the good news.
It is the proclamation of this message that is central to the Christian life. In fact, Scripture itself says this message is the most important of all truths.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. – 1 Corinthians 15:1-5
Notice that Paul, writing to the church at Corinth, a city so wicked that “to corinthianize” meant at that time to live a wicked and debauched lifestyle, said that the most important thing was the proclamation of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It was not putting an end to the sexual immorality of the city, it was not putting an end to the gladiatorial games, it was not even putting an end to the practice or exposing of otherwise killing of unwanted infants (and even older children). Those things are evil, and there are certainly passages in Scripture that speak to those evils, but those things are not of first importance. What is of first importance is the gospel, the means by which sinful men can be reconciled to holy God. When anything else supplants the cure for the sin of belief, the gospel has been replaced by a social gospel.
The social gospel movement was a movement within the mainline denominations of (mostly) English and American Protestantism of the late 19th century that sought to change the focus of the church away from the proclamation of the gospel of grace to using Christian ethics to solve societal problems. Whether it was ending illiteracy, poverty, child labor, or any other societal ill, advocates of the social gospel movement, said these things were far more important that the proclamation of the gospel. Essentially they argued that the ending of earthly, temporal evils trumped warning people that their souls were in eternal peril.
[A fascinating study in this is the two approaches taken to combat the sin of drunkenness. Both the establishment of the Guinness brewery and their low alcohol “stout” and the temperance movement that culminated (in the U.S.) with prohibition were attempts to apply Christian ethics in an attempt to “solve” the problem of drunkenness.]
For some the issue of abortion, and the quest to end it has supplanted the primacy of the gospel of grace. This is nothing more than a new manifestation of the social gospel. There is no qualitative difference between an organization whose focus is on ending abortion, than one whose focus is on ending racism, sex trafficking, or child labor. These are all good and admirable goals, but they are secondary to the salvation of sinners through the gospel of grace.
Many would be quick to say a church, or a group of Christians that has made the drilling of wells in Africa, or the feeding of the homeless primary over the proclamation of the risen Christ, has abandoned the biblical gospel in favor of a social gospel. Yet when the social evil that is placed in the position of primacy is abortion, hardly anyone realizes that the gospel has been supplanted by a social gospel. When the gospel of grace is lost in favor of any social gospel, all is lost. The church or group has cast aside what Scripture says is of first importance.
What is lost is the actual cure for the evils of society. Society changes one person at a time. What is required for a person to truly change is for God to replace their heart of stone with a heart of flesh and cause the Holy Spirit to indwell them for the purpose of causing them to walk in obedience (Ezekiel 36:26-27). That requires the proclamation of the gospel, as Paul asked “how will they believe if they have not heard (Rom 10:14)? Add to that that we know that society will never be completely cleansed of evil until the new heavens and the new earth and the accompanying eternal state come (Rev 21:1-4).
In the meantime, we are called not to combat societal ills and evils, but to make disciples, converts who walk in increasing obedience (Matt 28:19-20). When a group devoted to a particular flavor of social gospel attacks a local church that faithfully proclaims the gospel of grace, both inside and outside of its walls, for failing to pursue social transformation in the way they think they should, they are opposing the cause of Christ. Saying a faithful local church must repent of not opposing abortion in the same way and by the same means you do, is no different than saying a church must repent for not drilling enough wells in southeast Asia or not feeding enough of the poor.
By all means, as Christians, we must oppose all sin be it rape, murder, theft, greed or anything else that the Bible calls sin, and that includes abortion (which biblically is murder). But how we oppose them is a matter of Christian freedom. Any good church will recognize that, and keep what is of first importance first, the biblical gospel of grace.