In the last few weeks, the war over ‘social justice’ among conservative evangelicals has become more acrimonious than ever. On the one hand, critics of ‘social justice’ see it as a nebulous term that often masks progressive politics and secular ideologies. On the other hand, advocates of ‘social justice’ see it as a non-negotiable biblical commitment entailed by God’s commands to seek justice and love mercy. The debate has been made even more complicated by imprecise language and lack of clarity (and sometimes charity) onVisit Site both sides. So to move the discussion forward, I’d like to suggest one question that may help make everyone’s theological commitments as clear as possible:
Is the gospel a purely indicative statement about what God has done in Christ? Or does it also include an imperative component, a duty or set of duties that we are obligated to fulfill?
This question needs to be asked and answered by absolutely everyone involved in this discussion.
Law versus Gospel
The Reformed/evangelical tradition of which I am a part draws a very clear line between Law and Gospel. The Law is a collection of imperatives: good, perfect, holy, and righteous imperatives, but imperatives nonetheless. The Law reveals our need for a savior, displays God’s holiness, and instructs us in righteous living as Christians. But it cannot save us; it can only condemn us.
In contrast, the Gospel is joyous announcement of God’s salvation in Christ. It is an indicative statement, a declaration of who Jesus is and what he has accomplished on our behalf. Where the Law brings death and condemnation, the Gospel brings life, forgiveness, and restoration.
Note that I’m not suggesting here that the Law is unimportant. All Christians are obligated to obey not only God’s commands to walk in personal holiness, but also his commands to love our neighbor and to seek justice, showing evidence of their saving faith by their actions.
Nor am I restricting the Gospel to the bare announcement that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. While this component of the Gospel is essential and non-negotiable, the Gospel also includes the announcement of Jesus’ Kingship (Acts 2:36), his Lordship (Rom. 10:9), his fulfillment of God’s promises (Gal. 3:14), and his restoration of all creation (Col. 1:20).
With these caveats, the question remains: is the Gospel a purely indicative statement or not?
Social Justice as Imperative
Advocates of ‘social justice’ insist that it is a Christian imperative, something that Christians are absolutely commanded to pursue in obedience to Christ. But that’s precisely the problem. ‘Social justice’ is not something that Christ has done. It is something that we ought to do. It is an imperative. But if the gospel is purely an indicative, then ‘social justice’ (whatever it is) cannot be part of the gospel.
Of course, I hope that all evangelicals will emphatically deny the claim that “social justice is part of the gospel”; to make such a statement risks mingling Law with Gospel, and grace with works, a crucial distinction over which the Reformation was fought. However, there are other statements which are less clear and could potentially lead to the same error. I list several below. I am not suggesting that everyone who uses such language is conflating Law and Gospel; I am merely calling attention to potential ambiguity and commending precision in our language.
Social Justice and Gospel Language
1.“Social justice is a gospel issue”
What do we mean when we say that ‘social justice’ is a ‘gospel issue’? The term ‘gospel issue’ is imprecise (see D.A. Carson’s excellent article at Themelios). If we say that X is a ‘gospel issue,’ do we mean that X is an implication of the gospel? That the denial of X threatens our understanding of the gospel? That X is foundational to Christian ethics?
2.“Some evangelicals preach a truncated gospel”
What do we mean when we say that some evangelicals preach a ‘truncated gospel’? Is a truncated gospel a true gospel or a false gospel? For example, a gospel which omits the Resurrection or the atonement is not a ‘truncated gospel’; it is not a gospel at all. So exactly which parts of the gospel can be truncated without heresy? If there is some essential core of the gospel, what is it?
3.“A gospel of individual salvation alone is not the biblical gospel”
When we contrast the ‘gospel of individual salvation’ to the ‘biblical gospel’, what precisely are we critiquing? Which biblical passages or doctrines in particular are being denied by those who preach the ‘gospel of individual salvation alone’? Furthermore, which historical theologians preached the ‘biblical gospel’ and which denied it? Did Augustine preach the biblical gospel? Did Luther? Did Calvin? Did Spurgeon? Did Lloyd-Jones? Did Sproul?
4.“Social justice is a gospel commitment”
When we say that ‘social justice’ is a ‘gospel commitment’ what do we mean? Are all of God’s commands ‘gospel commitments’? If not, which of God’s commands are not ‘gospel commitments’? For example, God commands us to be good stewards of our finances and of our environment. Are financial stewardship and environmentalism ‘gospel commitments’? If not, why not? Where do we draw the line?
5. “The gospel is incomplete without a message of cosmic redemption”
While I agree that the gospel includes cosmic redemption (see Col. 1:20 or 1 Cor. 15:25-28), in what sense is the gospel ‘incomplete’ without this message? How many passages in the New Testament refer to the gospel in terms of ‘cosmic redemption’ and how many omit it? Are the apostolic summaries of the gospel in 1 Cor. 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43 incomplete?
Once again, I am not arguing that everyone who uses these phrases has compromised or distorted the gospel. I am only trying to show that these statements can be vague or confusing. Whenever possible, we should elaborate or give concrete examples – even if it takes an extra Tweet or two.
In thinking through these questions, my hope is that Christians on both sides of the ‘social justice’ issue will take a very strong, clear stand on the difference between Law and Gospel. If you think that the gospel is a purely indicative statement about what God has done for us (with manifold implications for how we ought to live), you should say so clearly and unhesitatingly. If you take a different view, you should likewise say so clearly and unhesitatingly. But we should avoid any ambiguity on such an important issue, whether intentional or unintentional.
Before we even discuss the question of ‘social justice,’ let’s begin with a clear definition of the gospel. I sincerely hope that’s something we can all agree on. But if we can’t, it’s better for us to know at the outset.