Book Review: Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace, by Harvie Conn
There’s a new interest, it seems, in trying to find the place of social ministry in the proclamation of the gospel. For all the excitement the conversation seems to be igniting, it’s not exactly a new one. Actually, the church has had this conversation many times before. Most recently, it comes mainly in the writings of men who are identified with the New Perspective on Paul (such as N.T. Wright) and with the “emerging church” (Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Rob Bell). The great question, which has been posed so many times before, comes down to this: What is the gospel, and how are we as Christians supposed to proclaim it? Do we proclaim the message of Jesus through works of justice, compassion, and restoration, or do we do so through the proclamation of certain truths about him?
On the whole, it’s not very hard to answer that question. The answer is “both.” No Christian is going to argue for a proclamation that ignores the hungry, and no evangelical Christian, at least, is going to argue for feeding the hungry without preaching the gospel. The difficulty comes when we try to explain exactly how works of compassion relate to the task of evangelism. Are those works part of evangelism itself? Signs of it? Means to it? Does “evangelism” mean—at its heart—”telling” only, or is it ultimately some combination of “telling and doing?”
More than twenty-five years ago Harvie Conn, professor of missions at Westminster Seminary, wrote this short book trying to answer some of those questions. As the title suggests, Conn argues that proclaiming the gospel involves both proclamation and social action. They are “two sides of the same coin,” a coin he calls “holistic evangelism,” or better “Lordship evangelism.” Conn is not talking about an “easy truce” or “even a partnership” between speaking the truth and doing righteousness. What he wants to articulate is “an interdependence” between the two “that guards the integrity of both components and sees them constantly interacting” (9).
The book is in six chapters:
1) “Can the Church Be All Things to All People?” Conn argues that the church is declining because it has lost its ability to speak meaningfully to the world and needs to be more “audience-oriented” and to recover “a theology of scratching where people itch.”
2) “If Jesus Is the Answer, What Are the Questions?” He defines several different groups of people and explains how the gospel can meet their felt needs, and also several ways the Bible itself talks about the gospel.
3) “Evangelism and Justice: Setting Things Right.” He argues that the “doing of justice” is and ought to be the distinguishing mark of the people of God.
4) “Spirituality as a Barrier to Evangelism.” Conn defines both world-centered spirituality and soul-centered spirituality, and tries to plot a theological course between both.
5) “Prayer: Where Word and Deed Come Together.” He uses prayer and its function to underline his main point about the church’s task in this already-not yet age.
6) “Models: How to Change What We’ve Got.” Conn launches into a fairly technical discussion about the use and purpose of models in effecting change.
My general impression of the book is that Conn at least begins to plot a correct course for accomplishing his goal of explaining the interdependence of proclamation (by which I mean verbal proclamation) and social action, though I think he also veers away from that correct course in several places. More on that later.
THE THEOLOGICAL HEART OF THE BOOK
The most important theological discussion in the book is Conn’s explanation of how proclamation and works relate to each other. The best that modern Christians have managed to do with that question, he argues, is a “two-dimensional spirituality” which takes “the best of two worlds” and mixes them together in a somewhat uneasy tension. The first of those worlds is theological liberals’ emphasis on social work, and the other is evangelicals’ emphasis on proclamation. Most Christians, says Conn, have only gone so far as to recognize what is true in each of those worlds, mix them together, and acknowledge that they have two mandates to obey—the “cultural mandate” and the “evangelistic mandate.”
Conn appreciates the gain that represents. “Two-dimensional spirituality” is certainly better than “one-dimensional spirituality.” Yet he’s not satisfied with it because, as he puts it, “Two abstractions do not make a whole.” Despite the realization that both mandates still have their place, there is still an inherent tension between the two, with debates continuing about which mandate is to be “primary,” and just how primary it is to be.
The problem, Conn argues, is a fundamental misunderstanding of both the cultural mandate and the evangelistic mandate, at least as each is defined by its most ardent proponents. For liberals, the cultural mandate has been “retooled from a call to make the earth fruitful for God’s glory to a welfare mandate and a call to make the earth man’s kingdom by political means.” For many evangelicals, the evangelistic mandate has been reduced to “something less than Matthew 28:18-20, to a spiritual, non-material mission that cannot be ‘primarily concerned with the needs of the body'” (63). Neither of those definitions, Conn points out, speaks to the other. Both have ruled the other completely out of bounds, and so neither will ever be able to correct or complement the other. Nor will they ever be able to exist together stably in a coherent worldview. Those two understandings of the Christian mission, defined in that way, will always be at odds.
I think Conn has his finger on an important problem here. Liberals have in fact defined the kingdom of God as a progressive movement of humanistic endeavor that is devoid of the need for spiritual regeneration. And evangelicals do have a tendency to preach the salvation of the soul and forget that God has determined to save us as embodied people. I remember preaching a sermon once about heaven in which I told my people that they would have their bodies in eternity. More than one person was blown away by the thought. Moreover, even when the divide is not so stark and Christians try to take both mandates into consideration, they do tend to hold them—and thus also the need for social activity and the need for proclamation—in an unhealthy tension, as if the two are at odds with one another or as if they’re two chemicals which render each other highly unstable. And thus we can bring them together only with the greatest of care.
Conn’s solution to all this is to define the Christian mission—both the cultural and the evangelistic mandates—in terms of covenant. Conn argues that Genesis 1:28 is not merely a cultural mandate, but a covenant mandate, “the Creator’s first proclamation of His mission for His image-bearer.” In other words, it is an expression of what God intended for Adam’s life, a statement of his divine purpose for Adam, and it encompassed all of his life—his relation to God, his relation to creation, and his relation to other people. “Adam’s fellowship with God was to be shown in his earthly, material activity, his subduing rule over nature.” With the entrance of sin, however, all those relationships were disrupted. The covenant of life between God and his image-bearers was broken, and chasms were cut between man and God, man and creation, and man and man. Now here’s where the covenant of redemption comes in, Conn says, not as a separate, unrelated mandate, but as the means of fulfilling the first. God’s initial covenant demands on Adam and his posterity still stand, “only it is now grace that must meet its own demands” (63). Here’s how Conn describes the relationship between the initial covenant and the covenant of grace:
Cultural mandate, as an expression of the divine purpose for Adam and his seed in the covenant of life, must await the day of integration for an end to its fragmentation, the day of new beginnings for its fulfillment in Christ. The evangelical mandate, God’s covenant-of-grace call to discipling the nations, the work of Christ’s Spirit in creating the new life of the kingdom come (John 3:3, 5), is the means for that integration, that fulfillment. It is no more two mandates than it is two ways of salvation. It is simply a call to grace, God’s response to man’s sin that man may fulfill God’s call to culture building.
A GOOD START, BUT…
I think that’s a pretty good start for understanding the relationship between proclamation and social action. We proclaim the gospel so that people might have the new life of the kingdom and live as God intended from the first, even in this in-between age as we await the consummation. That life then itself becomes a sign to others of the coming kingdom. Not bad.
Yet I think there are dangers here as well, or perhaps just areas that require further explanation. First, it seems to me that Conn would need to emphasize more that the grand goal of the work of redemption is the glory of God in Christ, not just a way-of-life (even a “kingdom” one) for human beings. We are saved “to the glory of God the Father,” not just “to the living of righteous lives.” Nothing Conn says indicates that he would disagree with that, but it is something that needs to be emphasized more than he does.
Also, I wonder if Conn has sufficiently identified sin and judgment as the great problems which are being addressed through the gospel, rather than mere fragmented relationships or the like. That concern, in fact, comes to the fore in Conn’s discussion of how the gospel addresses various people in chapter 2. In a section entitled “Evangelism in Terms of What the World Needs,” Conn expands on his idea of “scratching where the world itches” to identify several different kinds of people, their major felt needs, and the way the gospel addresses each of those. So for the “boxed-in,” the gospel offers “genuine community.” For the “burned-out,” it offers the “restoration of [genuine] humanity.” And to the “publicans,” on which Conn spends by far the most time, it offers a call to social justice and righteousness. All those are fine, I suppose, as conversation-starters, but it’s also easy when thinking in those terms to miss the fact that all those things—loneliness, the loss of “humanity,” injustice, and the rest—are not the root problems. They all spring from a deeper root—sin, man’s rebellion against God. Therefore, to present the gospel merely as a solution to those kinds of problems is really to sell it short, to present it superficially, and even to allow people to miss its greatest significance—that it saves not just from sin’s effects (like loneliness and a sense of injustice), but from sin itself.
This neglect of sin in favor of sin’s effects seems to be a pretty common mistake in these conversations going on today. Broken relationships, dehumanization, and the loss of meaning all seem to have more cache among edgy Christians than does sin. And I have a bit of a hard time seeing why that should be the case. After all, the central event in the Christian story is the death of Christ on the cross, and while you can (with a little flexibility) connect the story of the cross to any of those en-vogue problems, the heart of the story is blood-guilt sacrifice. You just can’t get around that. That, all by itself, ought to be enough to anchor Christians to the very basic fact that our very basic problem is guilt before God, and God’s judgment of us.
Something similar should be said about Conn’s emphasis on preaching to people as “sinned-against,” not just as sinners. That’s a fine thing to keep in mind, of course, but I have to insist again that the gospel does not come to us primarily as “the sinned against.” It comes to us primarily as sinners. Paul does not begin the book of Romans by sympathizing with those to whom he is preaching. He charges them—and declares them convicted. Yes, the whole story of the Bible ends with the eradication of injustice, and that is an unspeakably beautiful promise, especially when one puts details to the world’s injustice as Conn does with his story of the Korean prostitutes (44-45). But if the gospel story ends with the eradication of injustice, it begins with the charge that “there is no one righteous, not even one” and continues with the fact that Christ died to save us not from somebody else’s sin, but from our own. In our efforts to sympathize with those to whom we preach—however noble a goal that may be—we must be careful not to present Jesus to them as if he were some kind of white knight coming to save them, The Innocent Ones, from their evil oppressors. We are not just the victims of a fragmented world; we are the cause of it.
By none of this do I mean to detract from what I think is the heart of Conn’s plea—that the people of God are a people marked by the doing of justice, and that in our doing of justice we both struggle toward fulfilling what God intended for us from the beginning, and we perform the ambassadorial function of showing the world a glimpse of what life in the coming kingdom will be like. Works of justice are both the fruit and the sign of the kingdom.
Let me mention, too, that there are a few other places in the book where I believe Conn simply overstates himself, saying more than (I hope) he would finally affirm. For example, he says on page 15 that “God scratches where the world itches; He accommodates His revelation to the agenda set by the world.” (15) Well, no he doesn’t. Not really. It’s one thing to say that God “lisps” in his revelation to finite, fallen men. It’s quite another to say that the world gets to set the agenda for what God reveals about himself. Actually, the reverse is most often the case. Human beings think they need one thing, when what they really need is actually something very different. Israel thought it needed release from Babylonian exile; that was true, but even more deeply, they needed release from sin. The lame man in Mark 2 thought he needed to walk; Jesus forgave his sins first, made a theological point to the Pharisees standing around, and only then healed the man—and that to prove that he had authority to forgive. The same point, incidentally, could be made about Conn’s statement that the gospel should be “audience-oriented.”
I should say, too, that the chapter on prayer is fantastic. Conn builds a strong biblical theology of prayer, showing that when we pray, we call on the Lord to make true now what will be true in the kingdom. Thus our prayers should be larger than they are. We should pray for justice, for the end of oppression, and for the reign of peace in the world. If you’re teaching a class on prayer, read that chapter.
All in all, Conn’s book is an important contribution to the conversations going on right now about the gospel and social activity. It’s probably not the best book to give a young Christian struggling with these issues. After all, while Conn’s outline of how the cultural and evangelistic mandates fit together in terms of covenant is good and helpful, his treatment of it is too short and thus leaves several important issues unaddressed. Even so, for a mature Christian who is thinking through these issues, Conn’s discussion will spark thoughts and will at least begin to chart a course in the right direction.