To attempt to set forth the “social principle or principles” of a particular portion of God’s Word, certainly presupposes that such “principle or principles” are to be found.

But the question immediately arises, are there such principles? Does the Word of God purpose to set forth “social principles?” Furthermore, is not this term “social” a dangerous one? These, of course, are only a few of the many questions that can and, no doubt, do arise when considering a subject such as the one assigned. 

Perhaps the asking of these questions can be justified when we consider the strange use to which the modern-day church has put that term “social.” For, the fact of the matter is there is a fearful use of that which has been characterized as “social” and, this is especially so in some ecclesiastical circles. The matter has been aggravated by the additional fact that the term “social” has been associated or employed with the term “gospel.” We hear a great deal of the “social gospel.” Therefore, to attempt the setting forth of any “social principle or principles” of the Word of God, necessitates the elimination of any possible misunderstanding of such terminology, as has been employed and now is employed by the church world, generally. 

Hence, we must ask the question: Is there any sense in which we have a “social gospel?” We ask this question because the gospel, being the good news of salvation for God’s people, embodies the principles according to which those people of God live. It is the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, the Lord; and in this gospel—in Christ is that principle of new life which He imparts to the hearts of His children. Well, then, may we speak of a “social gospel?” May we speak of the gospel with social implications? If you mean “social gospel” as the modernist understands his gospel to be, then we certainly may not speak of such a gospel, for then the gospel, and its principles take on new meaning. With his gospel, the modernisthas, a “religion” for the entire world. Because its principles are “social,” the modern-day religionist stresses that false idea of doctrine being relatively unimportant and emphasizes the prime significance of “life.” Jesus, he will say, taught men how to live. And, when pressed for an explanation, he will point to the life of Jesus as the “Great Example and Pattern” in whom are set forth all the principles for proper social conduct and intercourse among men. Hence, this“social gospel” purports to reach all men—calling them to follow this “Great Example” and to exercise the same “principles” which were enunciated and applied by Him. 

You can see, then, if you mean “social gospel” with its “social principles” in this sense of the word, then we can never subscribe to such a notion.

Nevertheless, the question is still there. May the Reformed man—may the Protestant Reformed man speak of “social principles—implying, of course, a “social gospel?” If he may, then just what does he mean when he speaks of “social principles?” The term “social,” (as it applies to our discussion) according to the “New Century Dictionary” is defined as: “living or disposed to live in a community, rather than in isolation”—pertaining to the life and relations of human beings in a community.” The term “principle, (as it applies to our discussion) according to the same dictionary, is defined as: “a beginning or commencement; also, “an originating or actuating agency or force; also, “a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend; also, a fundamental doctrine or tenet”—”right rules of conduct.” 

Combining the elements in these definitions, according to the common and hackneyed use of the phrase “social gospel,” it has come to represent a general call to any human being who maintains social relationships with others and, to exercise in these relationships, “right rules of conduct” as, of course exemplified in Jesus Christ, the “Great Example and Teacher.” 

Actually, this is a very superficial, shallow, and therefore a very wicked understanding of the “social gospel” on the part of those who would lay particular emphasis upon it, for the sake of stressing the necessity of exercising the “social principles” that that “social gospel” implies. Superficial and shallow and wicked it is because they call upon all men to live fromor out of the principles of Christ. The wickedness of this is seen in the fact that they assume that all mencan do this, i.e., live out of the principles of Christ, which is simply another way of saying from theprinciple of new life. You can see, too, how thatArminianism is nothing but incipient modernism. For the Arminian also has a general call to everyone “to come to Jesus”—”accept Him as your Savior” and “let Him show you the way.” The Arminian, too, wickedly assumes that all this is possible for man to do. Therefore, essentially, he speaks the same language as the modern-day churchman who invites everyone to come and embrace and practice the teachings of Jesus. 

Now, we must not hesitate to note that we have a social gospel,” but it is the true—the biblical—the God-given “social gospel.” It is the gospel first. That is, the good news—the promise of God that He will surely save His people from their sins, in Jesus Christ, their Lord. Furthermore, it is the good news that He will also bless them with all the blessings of this Salvation, and He will so work in them “to will and to do His good pleasure” that His people will live out of that principle of new life which He imparts unto them, in Jesus Christ. And this, they will do so that they reveal themselves as the children of light. It is the gospel firstand then it becomes “social,” as the principles of this gospel are applied by the people of God in the midst of the world. 

Here, we see the error of the modern-day church world. It fails to see that you must have a people of God if the true “social principles” of the scriptures are to be exercised or applied. As J.G. Machen stated in quoting an article entitled, “Christianity and Today” by F.S. Downs: “there can be no applied Christianity unless there be a Christianity to apply.” In other words, those who prate about the “principles of Jesus” and endeavor to mold the sinful natures of men by the application of these “principles” are completely blind to the biblical truth that there must be a radical spiritual transformation. 

The Reformed man has the only true “social gospel” with its “social principles.” And, again, by “social gospel” he means the application of all the truths of scriptures in his entire walk and life and therefore, in all his contacts with men—whether they be the spiritually-minded or the ungodly and the profane. 

This is beautifully illustrated for us in Paul’s epistle to Philemon. In this letter to Philemon, a “fellow worker,” the apostle concerns himself with the matter of Philemon’s slave who, having run away, had come into contact with the apostle, and had also been called upon to perform the unheard of act of voluntarily returning to Philemon and putting his neck once more beneath the yoke of servitude. 

This letter, of course, is genuine and not a mere piece of “fiction,” as some higher critics have considered it to be—receiving it only as “the embryo of a Christian novel, in which the author purposed to illustrate by a short narrative this great idea: that that which is lost in this world and for time, is found again in Christianity for all eternity.” 

On the other hand, we certainly cannot agree with such men as A. McLaren who, in commenting on this Epistle declares: “If the N.T. were simply a book of doctrinal teaching, this Epistle would certainly be out of place in it; and if the great purpose of Revelation were to supply material for creeds, it would be hard to see what value could be attached to a simple short letter from which no contribution to theological doctrine or ecclesiastical order can be extracted. But if we do not turn to it for discoveries of truth, we can find in it very beautiful illustrations of Christianity in action.” Here, again, we see the repeated error of those who desire to divorce doctrine from practice or life. For, what kind of “Chistianity in action” does one have if it is not founded upon “truth?” All of which we read in the Epistle to Philemon is rooted and grounded in doctrine. The “social principles” in this Epistle, and there are many, find their basis in doctrine

Consider the problem. Paul finds himself in possession of property belonging to another. Onesimus, according the awe-inspiring institution of Roman slavery, is nothing more than mere chattel. If we were to consider the “social principles” involved in this problem, we would be compelled to enumerate them and inquire: Does the apostle have a right to retain possession of this slave, Onesimus? What does he owe, not only to Philemon, but to Roman society, in general, which has sanctioned the institution of which this Onesimus is a member? What is the relation of Christianity to slavery? May the apostle retain Onesimus without sinning against the eighth commandment? Furthermore, what about Philemon? What should his attitude be toward one such as Onesimus, who has offended him? Then, too, what about Onesimus? From v. 11, we learn he is “now profitable.” Paul no longer considers him a servant, but “a brother beloved.” Must Onesimus again return to Philemon? 

One immediately senses how complex the problem truly is. But Paul, in his own inimitable way, resolves all these questions involving “social principles” or, the “right rules of conduct”—resolves them all into the one question of “love.” What does the fundamental principle of the love of God, in Jesus Christ require of us? Whatever the “social principles,” they are to viewed in the light of God’s love to His people, in Jesus Christ. And Paul means to convey this idea to Philemon; that all our doings are not only to be prompted and permeated, but are to be a demonstration of the great love wherewith God has loved us. Therefore, Paul proceeds—takes his departure from the great doctrine of the love of God to His people and purposes to apply this principle of love and thereby, very tactfully and diplomatically, show Philemon what his attitude should be toward Onesimus. And this, he does without the use of any flattery nor any failure to counsel high duties, but reflecting upon that love of God in Christ, which has called us friends, Paul exhibits the perfect model of Christian friendship. 

Again, it must be borne in mind, that Onesimus is a “brother beloved,” not only to Paul, but to Philemon: “both in the flesh, and in the Lord.” Hence, Paul heeding his own injunction, “Let your speech be always with grace seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6), pleads in the name of Christ, his Lord, for Onesimus; and he does so as though the “greatest interests of his apostleship were involved.” 

Nevertheless, he doesn’t approach his brother and friend, in Christ, clothed with his apostolic authority. This, it seems, is so when he addresses his epistles to the Churches and when he knows the opponents will challenge him, as in Galatia. 

In such instances, he defiantly claims to have received his “commission” not of man, but directly from heaven—by the revelation of Jesus Christ. But here, he purposely limits his apostolic authority even though he declares: “I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin (order or command—EE) thee.” Of course, whatever authority he has is in Christ; he has nothing in himself. In quietness of voice, Paul thus speaks to Philemon—even as Christ had spoken to him, and waives his authority as an apostle and, instead of commanding appeals on the basis of love. That, alone, is the ground for his pleading in behalf of Onesimus; “for love’s sake” (v. 9)—not simply because of his love to Philemon or because of the love of Philemon to Paul, but because of that strong bond of love that unites all the people of God together, and binds them to Christ. That is the principle that motivates the conduct of the apostle so that he puts away his authority, and “beseeches” or “entreats.” 

Where the bond is love—the love of God in Christ, then “grace is poured into the lips,” and “I order” or “I command you” becomes “I pray.” This is the way the Lord deals with His people. He deals with us after the tenor of His covenant. As someone once said speaking of Christ:

“He too does not merely impose commands, but stoops to entreat, where He indeed might command. “Henceforth I call you not servants, but friends;” and though He does go on to say, “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you,” yet His commandment is so padded with love that His yoke is easy. His burden is light, because it is laid on His servants’ shoulders by a loving hand; and so, as St. Bernard says, it is a burden which carries him who carries it.” 

Thus Paul entreats Philemon to receive Onesimus—not merely because this is right but because in so doing, he reveals his love for Christ. 

Society knows nothing of this. That is, the “social principles” of the society of the world are nothing but cold, moralistic abstractions of duty. There is nothing of that “in Christ” of which we read in Scripture. In substance, Paul tells Philemon that he now has this Onesimus, the slave, for his brother, in the Lord

Outwardly, the relation of Philemon and Onesimus was not altered. But inwardly, it was transformed by the fact that both were “in the Lord.” Apparently, the Scriptures do not condemn the institution of slavery. Perhaps this accounts, in part, for the apostle refraining from criticizing this institution. Nevertheless, he doesn’t seem to hesitate to remind Onesimus of that principle that he should not “abandon the calling in which he had received the call of Christ.” What he does in reminding him of it, of course, is apply that principle to him. (I Cor. 7:21, 22). Then, too, embodied in his letter to Philemon, is the reminder that in Christ Jesus, there is neither bond nor free—“For by one Spirit are we baptized into one body; whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” (I Cor. 12:13) And thus, Paul writes—not only to Philemon but “to the Church in thy house” (v. 2) for love is “toward all saints.” Therefore Onesimus is commended to the confidence and to the love of them all. 

The key note is love. It makes no difference what the “social principles” may be and who it is that is involved. As far as the child of God is concerned, his attitude, approach and resultant conduct is to be determined by the love of God in Christ, to His people; that same love which has drawn him to His Savior, and of which the Spirit bears witness with his spirit, and tells him that he is a child of God. If “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us,” then whatever “social principles” are implied in our gospel will resolve themselves in theone fundamental question: What does the love of God require of thee? For, as Luther reminds us in his Preface to this epistle, we are all the Onesimi of Christ.

E. Emanuel