Does the gospel include the transformation of society?
The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners by living in their place, dying in their place to bear God’s wrath against their sins, and rising from the grave in order to give his people eternal life and usher in a new creation.
Some people latch on to that idea of “new creation” or the fact that Jesus preached “good news…to the poor” (Luke 7:22) and claim that the gospel includes the transformation of society. They say that the church has taken Jesus’ radical, inherently political message and domesticated it into a nice little religious message about going to heaven when you die.
So who’s right? That depends on what the word “gospel” actually means.
The Bible sometimes uses the word “gospel” to refer to the fulfillment of all of God’s promises and the establishment of God’s kingdom rule through Jesus (Mk. 1:14-15, Acts 13:32). The New Testament says that one day this kingdom will consist in a perfect world in which those who have believed in Christ live in perfect fellowship with God forever (Rev. 21:1-22:5). The New Testament also says that this world will only come about through the sovereign, decisive work of God at the coming of Christ—not a moment before, and certainly not through our efforts. In other words, even this broad use of the word “gospel” doesn’t include the transformation of society here and now.
However, in the vast majority of the New Testament’s uses of the word “gospel,” the word means the message about the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus on behalf of all those who would turn from their sins and trust in him (Rom. 1:16-17, 1 Cor. 15:1-5). This gospel is the good news that Jesus, by his saving work, now offers forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all those who turn from their sin and trust in him.
This gospel will transform the way people live here and now, which may have a tangible impact on the broader culture. But to say that the gospel includes the transformation of society is to go beyond Scripture and confuse distant implications of the gospel with the gospel, a move that has historically caused Christians to lose their grasp on the message itself.