I do not pretend to be either a theologian or a scholar, so readers who are one or both are asked to be gentle in their assessment of what follows. It comes more from the heart than the head. It is only a snapshot of what I am thinking today. Consider it a starting point for discussion, with a goal of better understanding.
With the renewed interest in “social justice,” more people have been asking what the relationship is between the Gospel and justice. One common formulation of the question — “Is social justice an essential part of the Gospel?” — formed the basis for an interesting point-counterpoint discussion in October 2011 between Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary. You can read about that dialogue here and here.
I find it easier to understand the issue by starting at a different point: It’s not a question of whether the Gospel includes justice, but that the Gospel is about God’s justice.
The term ‘social justice’ is used by all sorts of folks, from Mennonite seminary professors to Occupy Wall Street anarchists. From a biblical perspective, justice is about the restoration of God’s original intention for his creation, the realization of his “already but not yet” kingdom as fully as possible in this broken world, pending the complete restoration of God’s kingdom when Jesus returns to bring in the new age.
Justice is God’s shalom (peace, well-being) restored to his creation. Social justice is the specific aspect of justice focused on shalom relationships in community.
God created the world in shalom; humanity’s sin broke the shalom and brought all creation under a curse of slavery and brokenness. To this day, every aspect of our lives, all God’s creation, is characterized by brokenness and enslavement to principalities and powers that steal and destroy.
God’s determination from the beginning has been to restore his shalom to all his creation. The Bible is the story of what God has done and continues to do to complete that mission.
Jesus — Israel’s Messiah and God’s Son — announced the time had come to fulfill God’s plan for re-establishing his Kingdom of Peace. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection made it possible for broken, sinful, enslaved humans to enter the Kingdom and taste life the way God originally intended.
Jesus’ good news is that “the Kingdom is at hand.” Paul’s Gospel explains how God, through Jesus, made a way for us to be set free from slavery, healed from brokenness, restored to shalom wholeness, and that God offers freely what none of us can accomplish for ourselves. It is the same message from two perspectives.
Justice is the result of salvation. Through Christ, an individual experiences regeneration and sanctification. The new creature experiences justice in restored relationship with God and renewed relationships with others. New creatures multiply justice, through their relationships, into communities.
Justice cannot be fully realized apart from new birth. While society can be reformed to be more just, only so much progress can be made when individuals remain enslaved by the principalities and powers, under the domination of our lower nature and its self-indulgent passions. Only transformed hearts and minds can create a truly just society.
When we accept the gift of new life God offers us, we begin to experience freedom, healing, and restoration in ever-greater degrees as we grow in God’s grace. When we accept the gift of new life, we embark on a journey of becoming more like Jesus — in our being, behavior, and circumstances.
Those of us who are being set free, who are experiencing healing and restoration, are called to spread Jesus’ good news; we have called that evangelism. We are called by God and commissioned by Jesus to help others experience freedom, healing, and restoration in ever-greater degrees and join us on the journey of becoming more like Jesus; we have called that “making disciples.”
One of the great hindrances in moving toward greater justice is evangelical Christianity’s teaching about “repentance.” I am no scholar, but even I can see the disconnect between our preaching about repentance and what the New Testament says about transformation.
The English word ‘repent’ has roots in French and Latin words that speak of regret and punishment. On the other hand, the Greek word translated “repent” is metanoia, which speaks of a dramatic change of mind and heart. Metanoia is as dramatic a change of mind and heart as metamorphosis is a change in form. In fact, Romans 12:1 uses the Greek word for metamorphosis when it urges us to be renewed in our minds.
I do not understand why Bible translators use the word ‘repent’ to translate metanoia. Repentance is not the same thing as a radical change of mind and heart. Calling on people to regret their sin and “turn around” falls short of metanoia. People who have merely repented, without experiencing metanoia, cannot demonstrate the shalom community of God’s kingdom. They are not the “new creatures” of 2 Corinthians 5:17. For them, old things have not passed away. They do not want to — indeed cannot — lead their neighbors to experience metanoia and push toward social justice.
That we even ask whether justice is part of the Gospel reflects how far our understanding of the Gospel and God’s kingdom have drifted from scriptural moorings.
Over the course of the 20th century, evangelical Christianity was forced to respond to several aberrant teachings, beginning with what became known as the Social Gospel. One stream of American Christianity began to lose the message of salvation in its increasing emphasis on serving the poor and oppressed. Unfortunately, much of evangelical Christianity over-reacted to that emphasis and in the process reduced the Gospel to a message of salvation limited to the “spiritual” dimension of life, a decision to make today for a reward to be received in eternity.
Neither of those is the good news of Jesus and the Gospel of Paul. (Although the message of “spiritual” salvation at least proclaims the need for transformation and opens people up to the scriptural truth and the possibility they will read the Bible for themselves and discover the truth about God’s kingdom.)
The Gospel is not a message of salvation limited to the “spiritual” dimension of life. People are not a spirit inside a body; we are living souls. Our being is integrated, not partitioned. Because our being is integrated, brokenness and slavery permeate every aspect of our being, behavior, and circumstances. Because our being is integrated, our freedom, healing, and restoration permeates every aspect of our lives.
“Evangelism” and “disciple-making” that speak only to a “spiritual” dimension of life fail to bring people the freedom, healing, and restoration God intends for them to experience in the entirety of their lives. When our “Gospel” speaks only to a “spiritual” dimension of life, we have a hard time explaining why Jesus connected salvation and discipleship to loving our neighbor and helping the poor. When our “good news” speaks only to a “spiritual” dimension of life, we have a hard time explaining the intimate relationship between faith and works, to the extent that the Scripture says “man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24) We find it hard to comprehend that biblical faith is active, as much verb as noun. One cannot separate works from faith without committing the same kind of violence to the Gospel and salvation that would be required to separate the “spirit” from the “body.” (James 2:26)
The outworking of salvation in an individual — justice — necessarily affects every aspect of that person’s life.
The consistent witness of the entirety of Scripture is that God redeems and transforms whole individuals and requires his people to demonstrate his love for others in every aspect of their being, behavior, and circumstances. God places special emphasis on demonstrating that love for those who are weak and vulnerable to oppression. The consistent witness of the entirety of Scripture is that God judges his people when they fail to demonstrate his love to others, especially those who are most vulnerable and at-risk in society.
While James went so far as to say that “faith” not expressed in behavior is not saving faith, Jesus went so far as to say that those who do not demonstrate his love to the most vulnerable and at-risk in society will not inherit the kingdom.
If individual believers and churches are to be authentically Christian, they must proclaim a Gospel of salvation that affects every aspect of life. Just as salvation is short-circuited in the life of a person who stubbornly clings to his pet sin, a person will not inherit the Kingdom who refuses to love his neighbor and help “the least of these.” Jesus commands his followers to help others experience freedom, healing, and restoration in ever-greater dimensions in their lives, both as individuals and in community.
When we live out a holistic Gospel, we are “doing justice” and God works through us to bring his shalom to individual lives, communities, and all his creation. In doing that, we are advancing God’s kingdom until the day Jesus Christ returns to complete its restoration with the new heaven and earth. When he returns, Jesus will welcome into his kingdom disciples who have been busy with his mission of setting free the captives, bringing healing to the broken, and restoring the oppressed.
Is social justice an essential part of the Gospel? I think we are asking the wrong question. My reading of the Scripture is that the Gospel is about justice — restoring God’s original intention for his creation as fully as possible in this broken world, pending the complete restoration of God’s kingdom in the age to come.