This article is adapted from an essay in The Church’s Social Responsibility: Reflections on Evangelicalism and Social Justice, a new collection of writings from Christian’s Library Press.
God has given humanity two great tasks. First, “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28)—a call to societal life; to create art, participate in politics and social action, engage in economics, and in all sorts of facets of our society; and to take the world that has been given to us and create something with it. Second, “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19)—an evangelistic call to preach the gospel, a precious task for the people of God to tell others of the saving work of Christ.
What, then, is the relationship between these two tasks? While a cursory look at how Christians engage these two tasks may suggest that we must choose one to the detriment of the other, the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) points us to an understanding of the complementarity of God’s twofold call to engage in societal life and make disciples.
When we survey Christians’ posture toward the world, it can seem as though there is an either-or decision to be made: either choose to be a part of the world or separate yourself from it for the sake of the gospel. But these tasks ought to be seen as necessary counterparts to each other.
Rather than an either-or, the call to make disciples and engage in societal life is a both-and. These two tasks are complementary.
Both Pearl and Leaven
The complementarity of these two tasks is wonderfully illustrated by Herman Bavinck, who understands the gospel to be both a pearl and a leaven. These two metaphors, mixed as they may seem, are Bavinck’s way of understanding the dual tasks given to humanity: to preserve and preach the good news of Christ and to take the world that has been given to us and make something of it. Rather than understanding these two tasks as distinct and perhaps even antithetical, his joining of the metaphors of pearl and leaven helps us to understand how these two tasks function together.
Bavinck’s metaphors come from two of the shortest parables in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as a pearl of great value and as a leaven. First, Jesus teaches, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Matt. 13:33). Jesus later says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matt. 13:45–46). Bavinck uses these images to describe what the gospel proclaims and how that proclamation is manifested in society. In his discussions of the gospel as pearl and the gospel as leaven, he points to the reality that the gospel must be seen as both a pearl and a leaven.
To understand Bavinck, we must note the priority that he places on the gospel as a pearl, that is, the heavenly, spiritual reality of the kingdom of God and the righteousness of Christ. He writes:
Even if Christianity had resulted in nothing more than this spiritual and holy community, even if it had not brought about any modification in earthly relationships … it would still be and remain something of everlasting worth. The significance of the gospel does not depend on its influence on culture, its usefulness for life today; it is a treasure in itself, a pearl of great value, even if it might not be a leaven.
The spiritual reality of the kingdom of God and the truth of the gospel is of infinite value to us. It is a pearl, something worth seeking after at any cost. The value of this spiritual reality should not be downplayed in the slightest, regardless of whether it has any tangible benefit to our world today. What Christ inaugurated on earth, the kingdom of heaven, must be understood asa heavenly treasure; God’s gift of righteousness, salvation, and eternal life, obtained by faith, has unspeakable value. It is the pearl of great price.
If that were all Bavinck had to say, though, he may be at fault for creating an either-or situation between either the treasure found within the church or the church going out into the world. Though Bavinck places priority on the gospel understood as a pearl, that is not the end of the matter. Instead, in another work, he considers the reforming power of the gospel:
The truth and value of Christianity certainly does not depend on the fruits which it has borne for civilization and culture: it has its own independent value; it is the realization of the kingdom of God on earth; and it does not make its truth depend, after a utilitarian or pragmatical fashion, on what men here have accomplished with the talents entrusted to them.… But, nevertheless, the kingdom of heaven, while a pearl of great price, is also a leaven which permeates the whole of the meal; godliness is profitable unto all things having the promise of the life which now is, and that which is to come.
The Leavening Power of the Gospel
The people of God are given a promise of eternal life in the future, but are also given promises for life in our world today. Godliness, that is, keeping the commandments of God, does not only have eternal rewards. It bears fruit in society, exerting the influence of the gospel as a leavening agent throughout the world. The gospel has a tangible and important impact in our world today, bearing great fruit in society. The gospel, as a leaven, has culture-making, culture-swaying, and culture-transforming power.
This leavening, the influencing power of the gospel throughout the world, does not operate on its own. It comes from the core of the gospel, the pearl of great price. As Bavinck notes, “so from this center it influences all earthly relationships in a reforming and renewing way.” The leavening power of the gospel does not exist without the regeneration, faith, and conversion of humanity, the heavenly treasure, or pearl, gifted to humanity in Christ. But, in the restoring of one’s relationship with God through the work of Christ, the gospel can go on to have a leavening effect in the world. The pearl has priority over the leaven, but this does not lead Bavinck away from stressing the importance of the gospel as both pearl and leaven. The gospel both creates a new community, restoring the relationship between God and his people, and has a robust influence on the present society.
The gospel is a transcendent pearl of great price and a transforming leavening agent in the world. Indeed, according to Bavinck, the gospel can only transform what it first has transcended. First, people come to know the spiritual matters of the kingdom of God. On its own, without any influence on society, this is a pearl of the greatest value. However, once discovered, the gospel is also a leaven, providing the impetus for the Christian’s involvement in society. The gospel does not just remain set apart, kept as a precious treasure apart from the world and transcending the world. It is also acts in the world as a leaven that permeates the whole, transforming the world.
The artificial separation between making disciples and engagement in the world, or between the pure preaching of the gospel and social action, must be dispelled. Both are important and ought to be seen as complementary and reciprocal. The gospel is both a pearl and a leaven!