The gospel and the social

I recently spent a couple of hours watching the Al Mohler/Jim Wallis debate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s Henry Center for Theological Understanding. The resolved was that social justice is integral to the gospel. Wallis took the affirmative, while Mohler, reluctantly in his own admission, took the “no” position.

Mohler rightly stated that the term social justice is not mentioned in the Bible. Neither, I might add, is economic justice, civic justice, or the Justice League of America. However, the word that these phrases share–justice–is mentioned. In fact the mentioned phrases are all more than implied in scripture, they are clearly addressed numerous times (well, not the last one). The Bible does address how God’s people are to relate to the poor, it does address how we are address the orphans and widows, it does address systems of economy that are unjust. About this most people do not argue. As a group the minor prophets rail against the disobedience to God that was so often demonstrated by injustice. Numerous of them specify mistreatment of the poor, the needy and the widows and children. Whenever a form of injustice is mentioned as happening “at the gate” or “in the gate” it refers to embedded, systemic abuse or oppression by those in power; i.e., legalized injustice.

social justiceNearing the time of His betrayal Jesus disciples expressed their desire to help the poor. When Jesus told them to stay near Him he reminded them, “The poor you have with you always, but me you do not have with you always.” In this Jesus isn’t saying it isn’t important to help the poor, but that once He was not longer with them they would have plenty of opportunity to fulfill those ministry opportunities. (Perhaps Jesus is referencing Deuteronomy 15:11, which states, “There will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, ‘You must willingly open your hand to your afflicted and poor brother in your land'” HCSB.)

The question, and an implication from it that I will further address in my next post, is “Does it matter whether these things are integral with the good news of Jesus Christ, and what is a practical effect of separating the two?” When Jesus came proclaiming the “good news of the Kingdom,” was seeking to right injustice part and parcel to His message, or were (and are) these things merely expectations of behaviors that would spring from that message? If it is the “good news” (gospel) of the Kingdom then does speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves, standing against admittedly fallen economic systems that oppress the poor, and working against tyrannical leaders who brutalize their own people for their own wicked, self-aggrandizement or monetary benefit constitute “good news”? If it is good news of “the Kingdom” what does the King Himself expect as the ethic of His reign? Can we hold to the King while disparaging or ignoring the realities of His kingdom? Put another way, “Can we parse the ‘good news’ into integral and additional?”

If justice is part of righteousness, how can it not be integral to the gospel? Does the righteousness of God include His justice? If it does, why does our imputed righteousness not include a call to seek justice as well? If justice is not a part of our righteousness in Christ, what is the point of “judging with righteous judgment” as Jesus instructed, or how can we even do that? It seems to me that justice is the activity of God’s being just. If so, then how can we be clothed in the righteousness of Christ and it not include the characteristic of being just like He is just with the integrated activity of seeking to overturn injustice in all its forms?

I’m not sure I know the answers to all those questions or any of them for that matter. While Wallis argued that social justice is integral to the gospel and Mohler said it wasn’t, Mohler was quick to note that even though it wasn’t it was certainly the responsibility to every believer. In my paraphrase, “It isn’t integral with the gospel, but it is so much a fruit of righteousness it might as well be.” His humorously expressed displeasure with taking the “no” position was because no Christian wants to be viewed as against injustice!

The question is not whether issues of social justice should be addressed by Christians; only from where that impulse should come?

Thoughts? Are justice issues–abortion, the sex trade, socio-economic oppression–part of the gospel itself?

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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  • Scotty

    If they are not required to accept, believe and trust in how can they be a part of the gospel? I understand, I think, your thinking, but good works which come from the gospel are not ipso facto part of the gospel. The imputed righteousness of Christ does not, in my opinion, include a call to anything. It is a gift of standing with God. That does not minimize works of righteousness which absolutely includes a call to pursue justice, mercy, etc. as particularly illustrated in the OT prophets. I do think it is wrong to confuse them.

    • Marty Duren

      Does the imputed righteousness of Christ include the imputation of His character and everything that entails?

      • Scotty

        Marty I think it does as long as “what it entails” is not pushed to include all of my own works. Is there a demand to follow Christ in those things you mention? Yes, just as there are many other demands placed upon us including to be perfect. But do you have to understand and believe in the imputed righteousness of Christ to believe the gospel? Perhaps how I am understanding “gospel” is different than you, but I can’t see how other things can be added to it without corrupting it – i.e. the Galatians.

    • Scotty –

      Reading the sermons in Acts indicate the action in response to Gospel preaching was repent and believe. We have overlaid a particular way of interpreting those actions – accept, believe, and trust. Where is repent? There is a work that goes on in the nous wherein the way I once understood the world to work – generally circumscribed around me – to have changed. In light of King Jesus Sunday in the Christian Calendar we witness that repentance entails a submission to the world circumscribed around Jesus.

      The change that is portrayed in community and not apart from it as I stand in any place in the righteousness of Jesus is in response to the “call” to deny self, take up cross, and follow. That was Jesus’ gospel message. Or, put another way, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven/God is at hand.”

      The outflow of my repentance requires something. It is a call to Jesus. The Apostle Paul describes our lives as now in Christ. As such he charges we put on something new and put off what is old. That is an action that generates from a repentant heart. How can we bifurcate those actions based on some sense of a need for a proper ordo saludis?

      What seems confusing to me is the need to somehow separate the life of Jesus from the death and resurrection of Jesus. Doing so minimizes the way in which the Gospel showed up in all the right places where the injustices of the world captive to sin displayed its presence. The Apostle Paul seems to indicate in experience and in word that the Gospel directly confronts the matters we want to make a subset of the Gospel. I am thinking of the economic disruptions in Ephesus.

      Being swept into the Kingdom and putting on Christ makes living in the righteousness of Christ part and parcel not some negligible after thought that we somehow find a way to make commendable and un-commendable at the same time.

      Those are my thoughts. I do not intend them snarky so am hopeful the medium does not somehow obscure the message so that what I given is a sincere response. I am hopeful we prod one another to love and good deeds as we think through these important issues.


  • Scotty

    Okay. Fine lesson on repentance. What is your point? Where is repentance when Paul answers “What must I do to be saved?” with “believe…” Just because everything is not included does not mean it is not understood. And your comment seems to suggest that I have somehow challenged the necessity of good works. Did I say that? Did I imply that? Did I not simply say that I thought the gospel itself as the message of God’s promise of salvation in Christ to all who believe (note Biblical language without mentioning repentance again) does not, in my opinion, include those things Marty questioned as part of the gospel? In that I agree with Al Mohler.

    Peace & Love,

    • Scotty,
      I repent of my reply. I should never have questioned Al Mohler.

      And, I should never have believed an engaging conversation is possible on the matter despite my hope it would be so.

      You noted the imputation of Christ’s righteousness does not call us to anything. I believe it is an ongoing call to repent and express the sort of changes that come with submitting to King Jesus and practicing Gospeling in the same way we witness from him along he way.

      My intent was not a lesson on repentance as much as repentance illustrates the heart of Marty’s question.

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  • Philip Miller

    A simple question: what is the difference between “imputed righteousness” vs “infused” or “imparted” righteousness. And maybe a followup: does the distinction matter in the subject of whether or not social justice is inherent in the gospel?

    • Marty Duren

      Thanks for your comment.

      I don’t parse words enough to make the distinction about which you inquire. Others may, but I do not. The righteousness of Christ is counted to us when we are justified.

      As to your second question, the distinction matters as it regards the nature of the gospel itself. In a post I never wrote I intended to argue that the way the gospel is being presented in the current social justice debate is smaller than the gospel that is presented in the New Testament. I think that, in many instances, “the gospel” presented is more or less confined to conversion whereas the New Testament presents the gospel much more broadly.

      In times past I have referred to the core and extent of the gospel. The core is the message of the death burial and resurrection of Christ. The extent is all that the reception of that message entails. The core of the gospel includes nothing other than repentance and faith, IMO. The extent of the gospel, however, includes everything that Jesus died and rose, as N.T. Wright might phrase it, “to set to rights.”

      So the question, “Is social justice a part of the gospel?” is best answered with, “Is the righteousness of God a part of the gospel?” and “Is justice part of the righteous of God?” I think the first is utterly clear in 2 Cor. 5, and the second is just as clear in Ps. 89:14. If justice is a part of the righteousness of God and His righteousness is part of the gospel, then justice is part of the gospel. And, justice, applied to the fractured, sin twisted economic and political systems of this world, is social by definition.

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