In recent years, evangelical Christians have increasingly taken steps to address issues of social justice. For example, we seek remedies for poverty, fight human trafficking and seek the end of abortion. As the church, we increasingly desire to walk in justice.
This trend towards justice makes some of our brothers and sisters antsy. And for good reason. In the past, prioritizing justice issues led to dangerous imbalance — the social gospel. How, then, can we walk in justice without losing the gospel?
A History of Imbalances
The social gospel movement was led by North American protestants in the early 20th century. The movement sought to apply Christian ethics to social problems in an attempt to fulfill the section of the Lord’s prayer which reads, “on earth as it is in heaven.” Many of the evils social gospel workers fought against could be classified as social justice issues: inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial reconciliation, underprivileged schools, child labor, trafficking, hunger, homelessness and environmental health.
The ideals of the social gospel movement suffered massive decline after World War I, when its advocates’ good deeds could not make a dent on the war’s destruction. Predominantly propagated by theological liberals, the social gospel often offended conservative Protestants by seemingly ignoring spiritual matters and only focusing people in this life. Social gospel advocates focused on the physical world at the expense of the spiritual world.
In response to the imbalances of the social gospel movement, conservative evangelicals reacted by swinging the pendulum to the opposite extreme. They shifted the focus from the physical (neighborly love) to the spiritual (saving people’s souls). Instead of focusing on eliminating evil, they focused exclusively on getting as many souls into heaven as possible. These reactionaries focused on the spiritual world at the expense of the physical world.
The problem is, both extremes miss the mark. In contrast to social gospel advocates, Jesus tells us that we will always have the poor in this world (Matthew 26:11) and we will always face evil (John 16:33). Therefore, believers cannot fulfill the Great Commandments by band-aiding social issues. In contrast to the evangelical extreme, Jesus also makes it very clear that Jesus does not just value our souls, but that he regards our physical bodies with high esteem and demonstrates this through his teaching and healings (Mark 1:4-45, Matthew 9:20-22, Matthew 14:13-21, John 4, Matthew 25:34-46, James 2:14-17).
We’ve seen the dangers of both extremes. With Jesus’ teaching in mind, knowing that neither the social gospel nor the exclusive concern of saving souls represents God’s heart, how can we re-emphasize the importance of earthly justice without losing the importance of eternal salvation?
How can the church walk in justice without losing the gospel?
Justice does the work of making things right—and we see this all the time in our daily lives. Whether it be in righting the wrong of breaking civil laws by giving someone a speeding ticket, or teaching your child to apologize and amend the situation when they have hurt a friend, we experience and practice making things right every day. Justice makes things right when they are not as they should be: When laws are broken, order is disrupted and peace is compromised. Justice protects the righteous design of how things are made to work together. In short, justice restores shalom.
Here’s the thing: True justice can never be divorced from the gospel because the gospel is the supreme act of justice.
The tension between the good news of the gospel and call to seek justice is really no tension at all—the connection between the gospel and justice are inextricably tied together, and in fact, cannot be separated without compromising the truth. The gospel is the greatest act of justice for all time because it is in the gospel we find Jesus making all things right. Jesus lived justly, obedient to the Father to the point of death on a cross so that the sins of the world would be made right. Jesus bore the weight and judgment of sin in his body on the cross, so that believers may be justified —
set back to the way things were meant to be,
restored to shalom with the Father.
This is the gospel, and this is ultimate justice. We cannot share the gospel without speaking of justice, and we cannot truly walk in justice without connecting our actions back to the gospel as our motivation.
Our desire to do justice must come from our love for Jesus and the justice that he showed on the cross. The gospel drives our desire for justice because we have been justified. And since we have been justified we desire to see all things made right by the power of Christ. It is by this same power that we are enabled by the Spirit to walk in justice and to share the shalom-restoring hope of the gospel.
True justice can never be divorced from the gospel because the gospel is the supreme act of justice.
Remembering Our Story
Walking in justice cannot be divorced from the gospel because the gospel is God’s justice at work. As the church, in our efforts to walk in justice without losing the gospel we must do the work of remembering.
All throughout scripture the Lord calls his people to remember: Remember who He is (Exodus 20:2), remember where they came from (Dueteronomy 9:7), remember who they are (Isaiah 44:21), remember what the Lord has done (Deuteronomy 8). By giving the command to remember, the Lord himself is remembering that we are but dust (Psalm 103:14), and we so easily forget. In our efforts to walk in justice, we are called to remember who we were, who we are, who the Lord is and what he has done.
Remember, without the gospel, we are all enslaved to something (Romans 6:6, Galatians 4:3).
Remember, without the gospel, we are the orphan (John 14:18, Lamentations 5:3).
Remember, without the gospel, we are the stranger and alien (Ephesians 2:12, Philippians 3:20).
Remember, without the gospel, we are the homeless (1 Corinthians 4:11, Hebrews 11:14).
Remember, without the gospel, we are the hungry and thirsty (Psalm 107:9, John 4:13).
The Lord has made right these injustices in our lives through the gospel by becoming our Freedom, our Father, our Home, and our Living Bread and Water. By remembering that we were at one time destitute and in need of justice in every way, we gain deep compassion for those who are currently suffering injustice. Because of the justice the Lord has extended to us in Christ, we can walk in true justice: justice that brings the hope and healing of the gospel to the soul and the body. This is the kind of justice that Jesus walked in. This is the kind of justice that Jesus calls us to.
The church has the ability and the responsibility to walk in obedience to Jesus by walking in justice as scripture has laid out for us. This justice cares for the physical body, and this justice offers the gospel as the ultimate justice for all that needs to be made right. Every act of injustice comes from a heart of idolatry. When we are living in obedience to the Great Commandments of Christ—loving God and loving neighbor—we will walk in justice, restoring shalom through our everyday choices. Every act of injustice needs the gospel of justice to makes things right.
When seeking justice, the church must remember our part in the story of God making all things right. We will balance the tension between the social gospel and evangelical spirituality when we remember that Jesus values both the body and the soul, and the gospel offers the most beautiful justice to everything that needs restoring shalom.