JESUS, JUSTICE AND THE GOSPEL - Jim Healton

Our meeting for worship on Sunday, September 23rd, was devoted especially to highlighting the plight of tens of millions of people around the world who are currently living in a state of slavery.  One of the organizations combatting modern slavery that we featured that Sunday was International Justice Mission, founded and directed by Evangelical Christians.  Their goal is the worldwide eradication of slavery and the rescue of those who are its victims.  They investigate and engage the local law enforcement officials to crack down on human trafficking and exploitation.  Where people are rescued, they direct them into the social services and spiritual support that will make them less vulnerable to abuse in the future.

Our church has, over the years and to the present, participated in a number of activities that fall into the category of “social concerns”.  It is one of three ministries our “Wider Ministries Committee” has under its care, along with supporting World Evangelization (Missions) and administering our Benevolence Fund for those in need.  That is why I was very interested to read a document recently published by a group of leading Evangelicals called “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” (hereafter, the SSJG).  The pastor and prominent radio Bible teacher, John MacArthur, is one of its leading authors and proponents.  So far, over nine thousand Evangelicals, including many pastors, Bible teachers and theologians, have signed its online version.

I read the statement and find many things in it with which I agree but there are a few places where I think its authors have strayed from a fully Biblical understanding.  One of these goes to the heart of their perspective on what the gospel of Jesus is and what the Church is about.  Here is a section (under “VIII - The Church”) that is a bit wobbly, Biblically:  “We Deny that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church. Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of a society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head. We deny that laws or regulations possess any inherent power to change sinful hearts.”

Is the gospel of Jesus Christ only about personal salvation in the life to come?  It certainly is that but to separate it from personal or social change is not at all according to the teaching of the Bible.  If the gospel has no reference to how we treat others or efforts to bring justice to the nations, then a good part of our Bibles and its teaching on salvation must be eliminated – including much of what Jesus taught!  First, let’s look at what the Bible considers part of the gospel or “good news”. In Luke 3:1-17, we find John the Baptist, Jesus’ forerunner and herald, calling on his fellow Jews to repent of their sins and to reform their ways of living.  He tells those who have two tunics to give one to him who has none, tax collectors to “collect no more than what you are ordered” and soldiers not to extort money or accuse anyone falsely (these soldiers were essentially policemen).  He warned of dire consequences if a thorough transformation does not take place.  Then, in verse 18, Luke summarizes what John was doing:  “So with many other exhortations he preached to the gospel to the people.”  While John was not trying to change laws he did call upon people to obey God’s law, whether or not it was consonant with man’s laws or customs.  And what is most important to notice is that this was considered preaching the gospel.  In the end, preaching this gospel landed him in prison and led to his execution by King Herod.

What did Jesus’ preaching of the gospel include?  Was it only about forgiveness of sins and eternal life in heaven?  No, Jesus taught how we should live here on earth and this too was a part of His gospel.  His “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7) and His “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6:20-50) are full of statements that have social as well as personal implications.  When He preached in His home synagogue of Nazareth, He said He came to announce, “the favorable year of Lord” according to Isaiah 61:2. (Luke 4:14-21) This was a call to fulfill the year of Jubilee and Jesus’ teaching about lending freely should be understood in the light of this Old Testament law that periodically released people from debts and slavery and returned land to its original families. This was social justice as required by God and was part of Jesus’ gospel. (See Leviticus 25.)

The framers of SSJG deny that participation in efforts to change society is an “evidence of saving faith”. If faith in Jesus does not sensitize you to injustice and the sufferings of those who are being exploited, then you have a false Jesus!  Jesus said “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)  He also told a parable about someone who obtained mercy but who withheld it from his neighbor.  Such, He said, would suffer God’s judgment. (Matthew 18:21-35)  Thus, the gospel to those who oppress their neighbor, whether through unjust treatment or laws that lead inevitably to such treatment, is “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus frequently addressed such warnings to the rich and powerful while he comforted the poor and oppressed.  Not that being poor or oppressed means you are saved but that the salvation you are offered by Jesus includes “good news to the poor” as Jesus’ teachings leaven society and His Church serves as a “light to the world.

If you read Isaiah 42:1-4 and compare it with Matthew 12:9-21, you will see that Jesus’ mission was to “establish justice in the earth” (Is. 42:4), to “proclaim justice” and lead “justice to victory.” (Mt. 12:18, 20)His “Great Commission” to His Church (Matthew 28:18-20) was to “disciple all the nations”, not just a few individuals out of every nation but whole nations.This was to fulfill what the prophets foretold that, “all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him.” (Daniel 7:13-14; see also Psalm 22:27-30)The preaching of the gospel in its original meaning and power has, in fact, led to great movements of social change, such as the abolition of legal slavery and the establishment of civil rights in our nation and others.Thus personal salvation can never be separated from social change and its social implications are an integral part of the blessed gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.