Gospel faithfulness as it relates to social justice has increasingly become a polarising discussion within many churches in South Africa. People feel compelled to take a side or make a stand for what they believe to be a proper expression of following Jesus. Unfortunately the question many are asking is, ‘Which camp do you belong to?’ Perhaps though, we are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking where we fit on the spectrum of the relationship of Gospel Preaching and Social Justice we should rather be asking ‘How do we become more faithful to the call of the Gospel?’
Should We Be Suspicious of Social Justice?
Jesus spoke the words of the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20 ‘Go into all the world to make disciples of all nations’ and he told the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46 ‘truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Rather than asking what it might look like for Christians to be more engaged in the pursuit of justice and righteousness, many have grown suspicious towards even the mere mention of social justice. Thus the question stands: should Christians be involved in anything even resembling social justice?
A common answer to this question is, ‘Just preach the gospel. The rest will sort itself out’
The old joke from Sunday school is that the safe answer to every question is: Jesus. We laugh about that, but isn’t it true? Christ and his gospel is the answer to life’s questions. But the question we often don’t wrestle with long enough is, ‘How exactly is Christ the answer?’ A common response to this question is, ‘Just preach the gospel. The rest will sort itself out’. I beg to differ. If the current socio-political climate in South Africa is anything to go by, our Christian answers to these issues demand more robustness.
We Must Dig into Jesus’s Teaching
Consider Jesus’ sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7). We cannot only focus on Matthew 5, which largely deals with our inability and Christ’s fulfilment of the law. We must also unpack Matthew 6-7, where Jesus speaks of giving to the needy (Matthew 6:1-4). Here we also find the golden rule (Matthew 7:12). In other words, we ought to keep central the preaching of salvation by faith while fleshing out obedience to God in all of life.
We ought to keep central the preaching of salvation by faith while fleshing out obedience to God in all of life.
The New Testament writers addressed the socio-political complexities of their time. They applied the gospel, as well as God’s law, to help the church navigate those challenges. I am particularly thinking of the epistles of Peter, James and John.
However, most New Testament epistles include both a clear explanation of the gospel and its practical implications for our lives. Therefore as the Lord Jesus admonishes us, we must concern ourselves with the spiritual and not neglect “the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.” Jesus said, “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matthew 23:23).
Considering Old Testament Witnesses
I have found the Old Testament prophets particularly helpful in showing us just how faithful preaching demonstrates a balance between offering salvation and ordering justice. We should not forget that the church is after all “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” (Ephesians 2:19-20). Hosea observed that when there is no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land… cursing, lying, murder, stealing, adultery, lawlessness and bloodshed follows (Hosea 4:1-2). He goes on to say that “because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away” (Hosea 4:3).
faithful preaching demonstrates a balance between offering salvation and ordering justice.
The prophet is essentially saying that the fundamental problem of our natural world is spiritual separation from God. But this impacts our lived experiences. By implication, his answer to the problem is that we be spiritually restored to God as well as that we live for God by obeying his law. This will ensure that the land and all who live in it will prosper.
God’s Salvation Does Transform Society
Zechariah makes a similar point. He affirms that without an acknowledgment of God, and his law, the land and its inhabitants will suffer (Zechariah 7:11-14). He explains that our acknowledgment of God is not merely superficial religiosity or vague recognition of God’s existence (Zechariah 7:4-6). No, it’s the result of an inward transformation of the heart and a renewed desire for holiness (Zechariah 7:8-10). Such a life ought to “administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to others” (Zechariah 7:9). Zechariah attributes this work of transformation solely to God (Zechariah 8:1-11). His grace requires us to live just and God fearing lives (Zechariah 8:14-17). And again, he reminds us of the blessings that will follow when we are spiritually restored to God through preaching that speaks holistically.
His grace requires us to live just and God fearing lives
The prophet promises a restored relationship with God (Zechariah 8:1-3); and that “the city streets will be [safe again]” (Zechariah 8:4-5); that our “law courts” where justice ought to be most visibly seen will function better (Zechariah 8:16); human life will flourish as most people do their part because they will “love truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:19); “the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops” (Zechariah 8:12); and the whole world would be affected as this will have a knock-on effect on others (Zechariah 8:20-23). We can draw many more examples from Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and all the rest of the prophets.
Striking the Right Balance
In effect, what the prophets are saying is that when we faithfully preach the whole counsel of God, with much prayer, we can look forward to seeing our churches, homes, neighbourhoods, and cities transformed by the gospel. We can almost expect Jonah 3 to happen in our own cities!
And even if that doesn’t happen, we can confidently look forward to heaven’s glory where these things will be possible. 1 Peter 1:10-11, after all, reminds us that the prophets never lost sight of looking forward to Christ’s coming and the future glories.
The Call to Love Your Neighbour
Faithful preaching, proclaiming both salvation and justice is, in fact, gospel preaching. Concerning ourselves with social justice is not a call to be political, but a call to love our neighbour. It is a call to gospel obedience.
Concerning ourselves with social justice is not a call to be political, but a call to love our neighbour
The prophets were concerned with their hearers’ love for God and for their neighbour. Romans 3:21 beautifully captures our relationship to God’s law in regards to salvation, “to which the Law and the Prophets testify”. It argues that the prophets preached salvation by faith alone and not by works of the law. But they never dismissed the law either. Similarly, Paul said he and the other apostles sought not only to evangelise the nations, but “continued to remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). That is, “the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). While salvation is through faith alone, obedience and law are not abandoned.
Practicing Love Practically
The gospel centres on Christ’s death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Salvation is the gracious and loving work of God on our behalf. Faith receives this, empty handed. But this does not mean that faith going forward remains empty handed (see Galatians 5:6; James 2:14-26; 2 Peter 1:5).
Christ’s lordship makes demands on our lives; he expects obedience and exhorts us to practice love.
Those who receive Christ as Saviour must submit to him as Lord. His lordship makes demands on our lives; he expects obedience and exhorts us to practice love. 1 John repeatedly warns Christians against claiming to love God while failing to show practical love towards their neighbours. This love will take various shapes. Therefore we must be far slower to dismiss social justice. Especially when it is motivated by God’s love and aims to love others.
Guarding the Gospel
I fear that unless we deeply reflect on these matters we will end up a generation of younger ‘woke’ Christians who have no clear biblical foundations regarding the church’s mission. Already, many ‘woke’ believers sound far too much like the world when talking about justice. But I also fear that we may have a generation of older Christians who dismiss social justice for fear of ‘losing the gospel’, not realising that they might not be “acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14).
Biblical justice is, after all, a reminder to love as Christ loved. James’ primary concern wasn’t with doctrine but a skewed theology which did not concern itself with justice (James 2:5-9; 2:14-17; 5:1-6). Such Christians were among those who had “wander[ed] from the truth” (James 5:19).
Guarding our Hearts
Friends, across Africa we’ve witnessed slavery, colonialism and Apartheid. These were advocated for and approved by many Christians because the church kept silent, because of their skewed theology of justice and our mission in the world. We’ve also seen a departure from the gospel with the emergence of the social gospel because other Christians were not immersed and rooted in the foundational doctrines of the gospel.
We need to guard ourselves and the church from these two extremes. But praise God that we’ve seen, and in fact have biblical evidence of, faithful preachers who consistently and faithfully proclaimed both justice and justification by faith. May we follow their example.