WRITTEN BY Luke Suciu with Headwaters staff and elders
Our staff and elders have fielded many discussions over the past few years revolving around the topic of justice, or, perhaps more specifically, “What is the nature of our church’s engagement with social issues?”
Those questions have only been amplified . . . sorry, it had to be done . . . by our move to Wells St. and the possible perception that our move is motivated by social reasons apart from gospel reasons. As we have regularly fielded those questions and felt that misunderstanding was abounding we thought that it was a good idea to move towards precision on the biblical mandates for a believer on social issues. What follows isn’t a position paper on justice issues but rather, just as the title suggests, an attempt to take steps towards clarity on the relationship between the gospel, the Bible, and justice.
To keep from getting lost in the weeds—if you’re not careful this topic can start to look like the yard of a house that gets mowed every other month—we will begin with the conclusion: the gospel of Christ, that every individual who is redeemed is saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, changes who you are, and those changes include expectations of living a just life in your own personal morality and in the social arena.
From a biblical perspective, there are two untenable options when approaching the topic of justice.
First, the too rigid approach that holds firmly to the gospel message but uses concerns about justice language (more explanation later) as a shield to keep from ever being asked to let faith extend to include loving a neighbor.
Second, the too fluid approach that is obsessed with caring for people and doing good but has left the foundation of Christ behind in favor of self-satisfying empty morality.
Neither approach holds water when put to the test of biblical legitimacy. A life of the gospel without living justly is a dishonest high-minded intellectual experiment and a life of living justly without the truth of the gospel has both feet firmly planted in mid-air. It is the frozen chosen vs. the wokescolds and the largest casualty is the message of Christ.
What we find when we faithfully understand and apply the Bible is not a mutually exclusive relationship between living justly in the social arena and being saved by the blood of Christ; instead, there is a causal relationship between the two. When you are saved by the blood of Christ from your sin and your life becomes a steady march towards holiness, you are compelled by the indwelling Spirit to live justly.
As an added bonus, one of the tangible byproducts of living justly is an increased opportunity for gospel proclamation. As you become the hands and feet of Christ and start loving your neighbor well, the door continually widens for the story of redemption to enter through.
We are left with a justice sandwich with gospel bread. We are compelled by the truth of the gospel to live justly in our imitation of Christ, and as a result of living out justice we create new opportunities to proclaim the good news of Christ.
This, in a simplified way, is our church’s approach to justice. Motivated by the gospel and for the gospel we live just lives, privately and socially, to God’s glory.
So where is the confusion?
Most of the difficulty in this conversation revolves around loaded terminology. Trying to navigate the linguistic challenges can feel like trying to walk a tightrope made of fishing line—a list of a few examples are listed at the bottom if you want to follow the rabbit trail.[i] It is not the conceptual idea of justice in and of itself that is problematic, but all of the peripheral justice language that has become particularly contentious.
With all of the contentiousness recognized the fact is not changed that the Bible has a lot to say about justice.
As we continue to flesh this out we need to keep returning to the truth that we are a church that is committed to the gospel. The grand narrative of Scripture revolves around redemption of the lost through the work of Christ and that is the message on which we are grounded. Everything we do as a church is downstream from the proclamation of that gospel and the truth of God’s redeeming love.
That being said, there are things worth considering that are down that stream. There are many gospel implications for the life of a Christian. This causal relationship has been illustrated many times through the exegetical preaching in our church; Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians stand out.
The book of Ephesians begins by describing the glories of being seated in Christ (chapters one through three) and then moves to the mandates that flow from that relationship:
I therefore, a prisoner of the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called. Eph. 4:1
The call to live a certain kind of life is not the gospel in and of itself. Instead is an expectation of a life that has been saved by grace and brought into relationship with Christ.
The same rhetorical move happens in a smaller space in Colossians 3. Paul begins the chapter by reminding his readers that their “life is hidden with Christ in God” and then goes on to urge them to put to death certain behaviors (3:5) and put on other behaviors (3:12). This all may seem unnecessary or simply understood if you have been around church for a long time, but it is relevant to the discussion at hand. There is clearly a biblical response to faith that affects behavior, or in other words, if you are saved by grace and united to Christ your behavior will continually grow in reflecting that truth. As we have been learning in I John, you cannot make a practice of sinning and abide in Christ.
How does this relate to social issues?
The mandates of righteous living that are given to a Christian cannot rightly be expected to stop the moment we move across the threshold of our homes out into the public. In fact, the New Testament is explicit in its commands to live out your faith in the public square.
Whether it is I Peter 2:13-17 encouraging Christians to live in their freedom around emperors and governors, to be servants of God and through their good “put to silence the ignorance of foolish people”, or in James 1:27 where James combines personal holiness (“keep oneself unstained from the world”) and just living (“visit orphans and widows in their affliction”), or the many New Testament variations of “love your neighbor,” we must conclude that the implications of the gospel on our lives include living justly in the public square.
With a little biblical theology, the roots of this imperative run even deeper. Christians are frequently commanded to be like Christ (Romans 8:29, I Cor. 11:1, II Cor. 3:18, I Peter 2:19-21, I John 2:6, etc.). With similar frequency, the Bible describes God as a God of justice (Deut. 32:4, Job 34:12, Psalm 9:7-8, Isaiah 30:18, Isaiah 61:8, Romans 3:26, etc.). Combing these two realities shows that the call to imitate Christ is a call to live justly and when we live justly we are emulating the very character of God.
We cannot avoid these mandates, nor should we want to even if they have become loaded cultural terms . . . more on that in a moment.
I would guess that most people in our church would be boldly and vocally anti-abortion. We, as image bearers of God, look at the travesty of infanticide and say, “The act of abortion clearly flies in the face of the value of each human life.” That is the proper biblical response. Abortion is unjust and it is not simply an issue of personal holiness, it is an issue that is in the public arena that our faith calls us to engage. Abortion is a justice issue that lies downstream from the truth of the gospel.
As we pursue Christ, trying to live out the gospel that has saved us from sin, we are compelled to live justly in all circumstances and are brought into the public arena. There is probably similar wide agreement among evangelicals on justice issues of helping orphans and widows like James’ command, or fighting against human trafficking as propped up by the pornography industry, or combatting religious or ethnic genocide. However, even with that probable agreement confusion is still a strong possibility.
Justice language has taken on a whole new cultural meaning. When American Evangelicals start using justice terms it throws up red flags for many people with many legitimate historical and current concerns in mind. Most mainline denominations in our country have abandoned any pretense of the need for God’s grace in favor of some wishy-washy message about being nice and doing good. This has been the increasing message of mainline Protestantism since the 1920s and justice language is prominent within that message.
On top of Christian denominational concerns, there are several gigantic world-view and political fights right now that can, depending on how one defines their terms, view the society through an anti-biblical lens. These various worldviews generally come from the social sciences and one prominent version is found in intersectional theory that, in an admittedly over-simplified way, views the world through the lens of victims and oppressors.
The traditional intersectionalist perspective suggests that what is important is not a move from being a sinner to being redeemed but a move from being oppressed to being powerful.
Both of these realities, mainline denominations and current worldviews, make this conversation particularly difficult and leave open the door to the perception, or reality, of addressing the surface application of justice issues and missing the underlying concerns around those topics.
We are left with a biblical call to live justly and a cultural haze that makes living out that call fraught with potential land mines. However, as tricky as the language has become, the mandate still holds. We cannot sit idly by and reject notions of justice. At the same time, we cannot embrace justice while shoving the message of redemption further and further down on our priorities.
We stand in the gap; saved by grace and loving our neighbors.
We are not going to sit on the sideline of a social issue out of fear of being misunderstood. There is too clear of a mandate and too great of an opportunity for the Kingdom of God. We have the chance to show our neighbors and our city what it means to be in Christ, to mirror the very character of God in the way we live.
Headwaters Church, the gospel of Jesus Christ has saved you and that salvation comes with imperatives on your lives to live as just people. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be leading protest marches; what you need to do is be a person who exemplifies justice through whatever God has given you. Live justly in your home with your children, in your business practices, in your classroom, with your hurting neighbors, in your city, and around the world. And as you live justly be attentive to every opportunity to bring the good news of Jesus with you.
As a church, we are not moving towards a social gospel; we are trying to live out the implications of the gospel of Christ for the advancement of the gospel of Christ. God has saved us by his grace and we will live justly in this world until He returns.
[i] That can be illustrated clearly by the public rift primarily between Al Mohler and John MacArthur—there are others involved but these two are the seminal heads of the tiff. Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and MacArthur is a well-known pastor in California. The two consider each other good friends and are in lockstep on the vast majority of theological positions . . . yet on the question of social justice Mohler publically wouldn’t sign a statement that MacArthur helped author.
You can watch the very awkward public confrontation of their disagreement (the interesting social justice part begins around 19 minutes in), as well as Mohler’s more detailed explanation for not signing, and Mohler trying to lay out the issue at a broader level. If you want a slightly different approach Thabiti Anyabwile gives a generous and clear explanation of his disagreements with MacArthur which mostly revolve around misusing or misunderstanding terms .
If there is a nit it has been picked on this issue. People have taken sides, epithets have been hurled , and confusion abounds.
3 thoughts on “Towards Clarity on Biblical Justice”
You hit the ‘nail’ squarely on the ‘head’. Well balanced comments that are accurate in light of God’s word.
Further illustrates why knowing the word and living in the Spirit avoids errors and equips us properly fir service!
Thank you Tom. Its a tricky topic but one worth considering and trying to live out well.
Thanks for writing this. It’s so sad and frustrating that a biblical justice has to be defended and clarified as much as it does. And also that some white Christians have a knee jerk reaction against any issue that those who lean left theologically and politically support. We need to be above the culture wars here. We are held to a higher standard.