Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in ths series: February 1, 2006, p. 208.



Walter Rauschenbusch is usually considered the father of the modern social gospel. Born in Germany into a Lutheran family with strong pietistic Lutheran influences, he became a Baptist when his family immigrated to America and joined the Baptist Church.

Early in his college career, influenced especially by the liberal Horace Bushnell, he was moved to ever greater distances from his relatively orthodox roots in the direction of a newer and more modern doctrine that equated orthodoxy and piety with solving social problems.

It was a time of great change in America. Immigrants were crowding America’s shores and filling the city with poor families looking for means of living. The Civil War had proved that northern industrial might was superior to southern tra- ditions, even though the South clung to them with almost fanatical tenacity. There were no government welfare programs, no free handouts, no wars against poverty led by congress, no governmental support of lazy people and crooks. America was full of social problems.

When Rauschenbusch was ordained into the ministry in a Baptist Church, he began his ministerial career in New York City in a congregation that lived adjacent to “Hell’s Kitchen,” a New York slum of tenement buildings that teemed with poor people and was a microcosm of the worst “in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

It was here that Rauschenbusch developed his social gospel philosophy. 

Rauschenbusch’s Ideas 

Early in his college studies, Rauschenbusch came to question the substitutionary atonement of Christ. In an essay that he was required to write, he had the opportunity “to question ‘ransom’ or ‘substitutionary’ theologies of the atonement, that is, the deep-seated tradition that Christ’s death occurred as a ‘payment’ for the sins of humanity” (Christopher H. Evans, The Kingdom Is Always But Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch, Eerdmans, 2004, p. 39). In the same essay he wrote, “What was Christ’s theology of salvation? He preached that men are sinful; that an entire change must take place in them by entering into a new and spiritual life; that God is very sorrowful over their absence from him and will be delighted to welcome them back to his love; … and if they do not come they will have to bear the terrible consequences of their refusal” (quoted in The Kingdom…).

Such a view of the atoning sacrifice of the Savior is dreadful and a trampling underfoot of the blood of the covenant. It is, for all its dreadful denial of the miracle of the cross of Christ, an inevitable consequence of distorting the gospel by changing it from a gospel of salvation from sin to a gospel of salvation from material poverty. No atoning sacrifice of Christ who pays for sin is necessary to make a poor man rich.

During the time of his work in New York City, he and other likeminded ministers formed “The Fellowship of the Kingdom,” an informal group whose aim was to promote social consciousness to alleviate social wrongs. This group remained active and influential for many years, and proved a forum to develop the implications of the social gospel.

The social gospel, clearly, is not the proclamation of the cross of Jesus Christ as God’s work of redemption and salvation through faith in Christ. The gospel is one of doing good to the outcast and downtrodden. The only obligation it laid upon men was to love their neighbor, not now in the sense of seeking his salvation, but by putting bread on his table, cleaning the filth from his home, finding a job for him, and enabling him to secure medical help when needed.

Conversion was abandoned, and taking a bath was substituted for it. The battle against sin became a battle against cruel industrialists and entrepreneurs. The banners under which the church marched had emblazoned on them: “Down With Unemployment.”

As a matter of fact, the church as an institution was considered almost an irrelevance. It was of no practical use, except to inspire the well-off to get out of the safety of the sanctuary into the teeming streets and slums where all the action was. “The institutional church,” said Rauschenbusch, “is a necessary evil” (quoted inThe Kingdom…, p. 123). Organizations, neighborhood meetings, spirited group discussions could accomplish the same purpose that the church strives to accomplish, and perhaps more effectively.

In 1907 Rauschenbusch published his bookChristianity and the Social Crisis. This book was to be his definitive work. It pushed him into the limelight and on up to the peaks of fame. From this book it became clear that Rauschenbusch had become a social reformer rather than a preacher. He insisted that he was only following in the footsteps of his Lord and Master Jesus Christ; for Christ Himself was nothing more than a social reformer, although surely He was an outstanding example to us all when He was willing to suffer and die at the hands of callous church members who refused to fulfill the one precept of the law: “Love they neighbor.”

Rauschenbusch had no use for the Reformation, and, more particularly, for Calvinism. He considered the churches faithful to the Reformation to be guilty of distorting grossly their gospel message. He scorned the great confessional heritage of the church and found the doctrines that the whole church had confessed an albatross around the neck of those committed to these doctrines. He literally started the church in a new direction, which was at right angles to the direction that the church, under the leadership of the Spirit, had walked for 1,800 years.

Rauschenbusch’s View of the Kingdom 

The keystone of a social gospel is the notion that Christ’s kingdom must be understood in purely human terms. A succinct way of putting it was: “The leaven is the Kingdom. It is not in Heaven but it is here…. The best way to get the self ready for Heaven … is to get this world ready for God” (quoted in The Kingdom…, p. 90). Rauschenbusch put the matter more dogmatically in a speech to a graduating class in Oberlin College:

Every department of human life,—the families, the schools, amusements, art, business, politics, industry; national policies, international relations,—will be governed by the Christian law and controlled by Christian influences. When we are bidden to seek first the kingdom of God, we are bidden to set our hearts on this great consummation; to keep this always before us as the object of our endeavors; to be satisfied with nothing less than this. The complete Christianization of all life is what we pray for and work for, when we work and pray for the coming of the kingdom of heaven (quoted in The Kingdom…, p. 106).

Rauschenbusch was confident that the day would come when the whole world would be Christianized, at which time the kingdom of Christ would be established and all the promises of God would be fulfilled. He was the great optimist and he held every hope for ultimate victory here in this sad world of sin.

The movement reached its apex just before World War I. That war was a major blow to his beliefs and his optimism, especially because he was confident that German culture would lead the way in the establishment of the kingdom, and German culture produced nothing but the chaos of a great and terrible war.

The Truth of the Matter 

One need not have a profound understanding of today’s ecclesiastical scene to know that, though Rauschenbusch’s dreams ended in the nightmare of World War I, his ideas live on.

His ideas live on in all liberal theology that repudiates the atoning sacrifice of the cross and defines religion in terms of the do-goodism of a social gospel. But his ideas, though now from the viewpoint of a more conservative theological position, also live on in postmillennial thinking, which promises us a better day when the Reformed faith will be held worldwide, when Reformed principles will determine the character of all societies’ institutions, and when the knowledge of God will cover the whole present earth from sea to sea. His ideas live on in the common grace tradition of Abraham Kuyper and the Law Philosophy of Amsterdam, made popular by the Institute of Christian Studies in Canada, and taught in some major conservative colleges. His ideas live on in all teaching that defines a significant part of the Christian’s life and calling as “making this world a better place in which to live.” The shadow that Rauschenbusch cast over today’s church is long and dark.

I cannot set down in detail the biblical and confessional position over against all this corruption of the gospel. A brief outline of the main points will have to do.

The church of Christ is not an irrelevancy, but the only important institution in the whole world. I speak now of the church that bears the marks of the true church of Christ: the faithful preaching of the gospel, the proper administration of the sacraments, the exercise of Christian discipline. It is the most important institution because it is the one institution that God has established to accomplish His own eternal purpose. All the rest of history has no meaning or importance except insofar as it serves the church.

The church has only one purpose in this world: the preaching of the gospel. Every effort to involve the church in any other work but the preaching of the gospel is an attempt to distract the church from its only calling. If ever the church abandons that calling, or no longer faithfully limits itself to that calling, then the church has become an irrelevancy. What a wide gap between Scripture and a social gospel. Rauschenbusch claimed that when the church preached the gospel it was an irrelevancy; Scripture says that when the church fails in her calling to preach the gospel, Christ spews it out of His mouth in disgust.

The preaching of the gospel is the church’s only task because the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe. It is the one means that God uses to save a church that He has chosen from all eternity, that Christ purchased with His blood in a sacrifice that He made on the cross, that paid the penalty for sin and satisfied God’s justice, and that is destined to live with Him in covenant fellowship in heaven.

The gospel proclaims that the human race is depraved, guilt-ridden, corrupt in all it does, unable to rescue itself, unwilling to go any way but towards hell. The gospel proclaims that faith in Jesus Christ is the way, the only way, of escape from this dreadfully dangerous and hopeless world in which we live. The gospel puts a blanket curse on all man’s endeavors as capable only of contributing to greater evil, greater trouble, greater condemnation. The gospel assures men that an infinitely bright and glorious future awaits those who believe in Christ Jesus.

The gospel causes a bright light to shine in this world in its present state and shows those who have received the gift of faith that to want a world here on earth is to be a fool of the worst sort, for here is only sin, and where sin is, there is suffering and trouble, violence and death. The bright hope of the future for the redeemed is in a great work of God when the wicked will be punished, the curse on this creation removed, the earthly made heavenly, and former things are no more.

The siren call of the social gospel is the call to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The Reformed Christian would joyfully agree with those who strive to make the world a better place in which to live, if only men would understand what love is. Is it love to put a drunk “on the wagon” when the wagon is on a steep hill that drops into hell? Is it love to feed an empty belly in which is found the bitter gall of the cancer of God’s curse? Is it love to clean up the slums and make them glittering cities in which men carve out with their riches an inheritance in the gloomy and fiery abode of eternal destruction? What good is a social gospel in a world of sin?

The Reformed believer must “love his neighbor as himself.” Of course. Our Lord told us that. But our neighbor is our wife or husband with whom we are called to live in our home in harmony and peace, and not our wife or husband that we drag into a divorce court. Why is it that those who shout the loudest about loving our neighbors cannot love the one neighbor who lives next to them? How can we love the poor man in the ghetto if we cannot love our spouse?

The towering command to love is a noble calling. It is not a mere do-goodism. It is not a clean-up-the-neighborhood campaign. It is not the formation of a Christian political party. It is to seek the eternal salvation of our neighbor. We may and must seek his salvation with a bag of groceries when he is hungry, with a thousand dollars when he cannot afford surgery for his child; but all that material help is important only when we bring to the needy the gospel, with and through the bag of groceries, and call that neighbor to repentance and faith in Christ. We love that neighbor when we do what we can to point him to the only hope there is in this world of sin.

The believer knows with absolute certainty that this world will never be a better place. It will only become worse as sin develops and wickedness grows. Nothing can improve it, for the world’s problems are the result of sin, and the solution does not lie in building affordable housing for the downtrodden, but in the cross of Christ. And while the base of the cross of Christ sinks down into hell where our Savior suffered hell’s torments, it also reaches up to heaven to carry us out of hell’s fiery abode into the splendor and sinlessness of the abode of the angels.

To keep one’s eyes fastened on this world is to fail to see the flames of hell licking around every human endeavor in this world. It is also a failure to see that there is no hope here in this creation. Just as Rauschenbusch’s dream for the future was shattered by the smoke and flame of World War I, so shall all hope of all those who dream of a kingdom of Christ here in the world go up in smoke when Christ comes again to judge man and deliver His beloved church.