When the morning worship service ended last Sunday, a woman whom I had never met before made a beeline for me and stood between me and the aisle. I was trapped in a row of seats. She said she was a guest from out of town, but she seemed to recognize me, and she said she wanted to help me understand the “social justice” issue.
“Despite what you think,” she said, “it is a gospel issue.” “Injustice is everywhere in the world. I am fighting it full time. Right now I have several lawsuits pending against injustice in the health-care industry. Don’t tell me that’s not gospel work. You’re not being a faithful witness unless you’re fighting for social justice. It’s built right into the gospel message: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
I tried to sound as agreeable as possible under the circumstances: “That’s surely one of the most important tenets of God’s moral law, and it does distill the idea of human justice into a single commandment,” I said. “But be careful how you state it. That’s not the gospel. That’s the Second Great Commandment.”
“Oh, right,” she said. “I meant to say the gospel is ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’”
“Well, that’s the First Great Commandment,” I said. “That’s still law, not gospel.”
“What do you mean?” she said. “I can show you those verses in the Bible.”
“Yes, ma’am, I know,” I said. “It’s Matthew 22:37-40. But that’s a summary of the law. It’s not the gospel.”
“But it’s in the Bible,” she repeated. “So it’s a gospel issue.”
I tried to explain: “Gospel and law aren’t the same thing. The law is a prelude to the gospel, not really part of the gospel. The law tells us what God requires of us. But then it condemns us, because it requires perfect obedience and curses anyone who doesn’t obey its every jot and tittle. But none of us obeys so thoroughly. And ‘whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.’ That’s James 2:10. Jesus said in Matthew 5:48 that the standard the law sets for us is God’s own absolute perfection. We can’t live up to that. The law therefore brings wrath (Romans 4:15), not salvation. The law can only condemn us, because we are guilty. All of us.
“Furthermore, suffering oppression doesn’t absolve anyone of wrongdoing. And being privileged doesn’t make a person any more sinful. We all deserve the wages of sin: death. That’s what the law says. Once we understand that, the last thing we need is more law. What we need is salvation from the penalty and power of the law. That’s where the gospel comes in.
“The gospel is the good news about Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Its themes are atonement for sin, forgiveness, reconciliation, and the justification of sinners. It’s the answer to the dilemma of the law.”
She interrupted at that point. “But you can’t preach forgiveness to people who treat other people unjustly,” she said. “That would just compound the injustice.”
“Scripture says the opposite,” I told her. “Christ died for the ungodly. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. Christ, who never committed a single act of injustice, gave his life as a ransom for other people’s sin—the just for the unjust. He paid sin’s price and thus satisfied both the wrath and the justice of God on behalf of sinners, so God can be just and still justify sinners who turn to Christ in faith.
“That’s the gospel. And God’s Word emphatically condemns anyone who proclaims the law instead of the gospel, or mingles the law with the gospel.
“Yes, the law condemns oppression, and it puts evildoers under a curse. But it cannot change hearts, and therefore it can neither free oppressed people from the bondage of their own sin nor transform their oppressors into good Samaritans.”
She cut me short again. “You can say that all you want, but I’m telling you that if you’re not fighting against injustice, you’re not doing gospel work,” she repeated. “Trust me; I know. I deal with corporate injustice all the time. I’ve even got these lawsuits pending . . .”
And we were right back where we started.
I didn’t make up that story. That was the real response of a self-styled full-time evangelical social justice advocate who is incorrigibly convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ alone doesn’t sufficiently address the problem of injustice. That brief conversation perfectly illustrates why alarms go off in my head whenever I hear some progressive evangelical insist that social justice is “a gospel issue.” It is worse yet when that claim is confidently made by bloggers and other representatives from various organizations whose raison d’être is supposed to be the defense and proclamation of the gospel.
Blending the gospel with social activism has been tried many times. (Google “Walter Rauschenbusch” or “social gospel.”) It has always turned out to be a shortcut to Socinianism, carnal humanism, or some more sinister form of spiritual barrenness. The social message inevitably overwhelms and replaces the gospel message, no matter how well-intentioned proponents of the method may have been at the start.
No wonder. “Social justice” (as that expression is used in the secular world or defined by practically any honest dictionary) isn’t really even a biblical theme. Nothing borrowed from worldly discourse should ever become a major theme in the message we proclaim to the world—not philosophy, politics, pop culture, or anything similar. Make any such topic a major theme alongside the simple gospel message and you are going against the strategy of the apostle Paul, who wrote, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
Preaching on “social justice” in the manner now being modeled by certain leading evangelicals subverts the duty set forth in Colossians 3:2: “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.” It encourages people to see themselves as victims, not sinners. It fosters resentment rather than repentance. It is a man-centered, not Christ-centered, message. It begets blame rather than forgiveness. And it points people to the law, not the gospel.
To insist that social justice activism is an essential tenet of gospel truth is a form of theological legalism not fundamentally different from the teaching of those in the early church who insisted circumcision was a gospel issue.
Evangelicals who are being inveigled into making social justice a central theme in their preaching need to consider these things very carefully, ponder the crucial distinction between law and gospel, and recover our confidence in the simple truths about Christ’s death and resurrection. Scripture says those are matters “of first importance.” These truths constitute the heart and the very essence of all true gospel issues: “That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
After all, that simple message is what turned the world upside down in the first century.
If the contemporary evangelical movement would get serious about God’s Word; abandon all the silly efforts to exegete popular culture; stop chasing “relevance” in all the wrong ways; eschew the wisdom of this world; and rise up and proclaim the gospel in earnest, with deep conviction, and with confident clarity, that simple message still has the power to conquer the world, vanquish ethnic strife, and heal all the other ills of our culture, even in these postmodern times.