Cautioning the Evangelical Justice Movement: Justice and Gospel (Part 1)

My Purpose in Writing

Due Compliments First

First things first: justice is extremely important to Christianity. The Gospel is fundamentally a declaration of God’s saving justice revealed in Jesus Christ. This justice will also involve Christ’s visible rule over the nations. He will bring them to reflect heaven as increasingly just and Christian societies. So the work of justice is tied to the Great Commission. We must disciple all nations, which includes teaching them to observe everything Christ has commanded. And Christ has commanded justice.

With this in mind, the current evangelical justice movement is a welcome corrective to a certain handicapped understanding of the Gospel and the Bible more generally. This misunderstanding has infected large swathes of conservative American Christianity over much of the last couple centuries. We could summarize its error as “Only heaven matters.” This is terribly unbiblical. It’s not true that all that matters is getting people to heaven. The Gospel is not about flying from earth, leaving everything behind. And we have to admit that the Gospel has stuff to say about social justice. That’s not the same as a heretical, humanistic “social gospel” which considers niceness and fixing society our whole religion. But a true Gospel must have social implications because it is about God’s gracious work for humans. (In case you’ve never noticed, humans are social all the way down.) The Gospel speaks about justice because a world without justice is a world without good news.

The Catch

All that said, the current evangelical justice movement, which I’ll abbreviate EJM for now, is far from perfect. It actually seems very confused. Out of the four cardinal virtues—justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude—it seems to have only the first (it’s much too soon to know about the last). And it only has some of the first, because no virtue is complete without the others. I think EJM lacks temperance and prudence, or, more plainly, self-discipline and wisdom. And the most important problem is certainly the latter. Justice is never fully just without wisdom. Justice involves setting right whatever is wrong. But without wisdom, we are likely to confuse both where things are wrong and what it will take to make them right.

This kind of confusion is a huge problem when people are ready to take action, when passions fly and people are rallied to move. This is where EJM veers into danger. And if that were not enough, there is a lot of theological confusion on both sides of the issue, things like Law and Gospel, or justice and natural law, or eschatology. This keeps EJM and its critics from having productive conversations. Like Paul and his unconverted Jewish brothers, “I can testify about them that they have zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.”

My Intentions

Of course, it’s a bit bold for someone as young and inexperienced as myself to charge that EJM lacks wisdom and understanding. This is especially true when so many faithful Christians of every age champion its cause. But I don’t make my objections with a smile. I have no desire to condemn others or exalt myself. I simply wish to provide some caution. Perhaps I may convince a few people here and there to take a deep breath and think carefully about the controversies currently raging. To put it biblically, I want everyone to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, lest the Church hurt herself more than her enemies are able to do. Please, then, consider what I am saying now.

For the most part, EJM does not have a single defining issue, except “justice” considered broadly. But there are three major areas of interest with lots of heat and little light. These are the whole-life movement, immigration, and sexism. This trio seems to be the practical core of EJM at present. They cause the most argument and confusion, and they seem to involve the least careful thought. My intent for this post series, then, is straightforward. I will highlight exactly how I believe the EJM approach to each of these issues reflects a lack of wisdom, sketch some ideas for moving each discussion in a more constructive direction, and conclude with some general warnings and suggestions about EJM and its future. Before any of that, though, I need to start with some clarification on the general relationship between justice and the Gospel.

Is Justice a “Gospel Issue?”

Worship and Real Sin

Injustice in the world is a result of sin. It even is a sin. But injustice is not the first sin or the root of sin. The alpha and omega of sin is refusing to worship God. Since God is our Creator and made us primarily to know Him, we owe Him true faith and love. When we refuse to give Him this, it is the ultimate sin. This is very different from how most people think. In modern liberal society, we think of religion like an add-on to life. We have real life, where people can do things that are really bad, and then we have religious beliefs, which aren’t really good or bad, or at least aren’t as important as the good and bad things that make up real life. Everybody has a different religion, but not everyone is a bad person, so who you worship isn’t a big deal.

This view is exactly backwards. Human life begins and ends with worship. It is the end-all, be-all. Everything else flows out of worship. People can be genuinely good and do genuinely right things on a certain level regardless of what or who they worship, of course. But even the best we have to offer is horribly tainted if we do it with a heart of wrong worship. We do everything out of worship for something, and the worship of the true God is necessary to fill everything we do with true goodness. Without this worship of God, even acts which are by themselves good become corrupted.

Even Real Justice Can Be Tainted

The above point is important. It is possible for acts and structures to exist which would be just in and of themselves but are only corrupted by the failure of worship. This means that from an earthly, human perspective, we can count such acts and structures as true justice. This is still true despite their sinfulness to God.

Imagine a teacher who praises and rewards her most diligent and well-behaved student. It’s perfectly right to do this even if it turns out that he only behaves at school because he is trying to earn something from his parents. Maybe mixed motives taint his good behavior, but as far as it counts in the classroom to teachers or students, it is still good behavior worthy of praise and imitation. Likewise, it is possible even for non-Christians to do truly just things. These won’t qualify for heaven due to their worship corruption, but they’re perfectly well suited for all earthly purposes. So real justice can exist in all societies with or without right worship.

Unbelievers can do what counts on earth for genuine justice and virtue because they have natural law. There is a moral order built-in to creation every bit as real as the sun and the grass. Anyone with a working mind can see that some things are right and others wrong. They can tell differences between justice and injustice. In a fallen world, unbelievers (and believers, for that matter) don’t do this perfectly by any means, but they can do an impressive enough job. This has important implications.

Justice: A Law Issue

All of this is to say that justice itself is primarily a matter of adhering to the natural law, something possible to all kinds of people and societies. In one important sense, we don’t need the Gospel for justice. The great “Gospel issue” is worship and relationship to God. The Gospel is intended to reconcile people to God through His Son. Many of these people might already live very just and virtuous lives in relation to human society. Jesus died so that they inherit the eternal life of knowing God. No works of justice they do can give them a leg up before God, so they need the Gospel. But these works of justice count for something on earth. They are real, anyone can get to them by natural law, and people naturally are inclined to do so.

So, in this sense, justice isn’t a Gospel issue. It’s a natural human issue. Indeed, it is a natural law issue. Like all kinds of law, it is not actually the same as the Gospel. Justice is a law, so it can’t by itself bring any good news. It shows how we should live, it keeps things from getting out of control, and it exposes our sinfulness. We have to be very careful about calling justice, or any other moral obligation, a Gospel issue. When we do this, we run the risk of legalism and setting up people to think, “If I don’t have the right views on justice issues, or if I’m not active enough in social causes, I’m not saved.” Perhaps worse, we ~~might set people up~~ are setting people up to judge others in that way.

Conclusion

The Gospel is a promise of good news. God rules the world through His Son, Jesus the Messiah, who has freed us from sin and idolatry and reconciled us to God by removing His wrath due for our ingratitude and unbelief. He is God’s justice on display, and one day He will subject all nations to this justice. This is good news, a declaration we can receive by faith. None of our efforts at making justice happen have any part to play in this.

On the other hand, we have God’s law, which demands justice from human societies. The demands of justice are largely known through natural law, which can be understood with the Gospel. Justice is then a human responsibility which can be, up to a point, humanly attained.

This has a few important implications for EJM:

  1. We must avoid constructing a legalism which encourages people to distinguish between true and false Christians based on their handling of justice issues.
  2. Do not compromise sola fide and the evangelical reality that worship is at the heart of the Gospel by beating people up about justice issues. There is a place for conviction and rebuke, but we must administer those carefully and precisely, like brain surgery.
  3. Since justice is part of natural law, reason can investigate it. This means we must even examine Jesus’ teachings on justice with rational precision, not just point at them at say, “God has spoken!” with the assumption that the impression one person gets is the same as everyone else.
  4. Christians should not expect a large amount of difference between biblical teaching on justice and those of clear-headed, rational unbelievers. Since natural law is evident, plenty of rational unbelievers can do a good job understanding justice. Sometimes they are even able to correct Christians who get justice issues wrong by misintepreting Scripture.

Next in this series, I will examine the big issues of EJM. First will be the whole-life movement, on which I have much to say. In the meantime, keep the peace and unity in Christ. Farewell and go in peace.

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So what do you think?