On the correlation between justice and the gospel

I was once asked if a concern for social justice is a distraction from the Gospel.  Far from being a distraction, justice, both in my personal interactions, and in the community (i.e. social justice) is a part of the good news or gospel of the coming reign of Christ.  And like the Kingdom of God, justice is for both the now and the future.

The gospel or good news of Christ is that the Kingdom of God has come.  We are each individually and collectively invited to participate in and submit to the reign of Christ.  We do this by confessing our sins, both those of an individual nature, and those that we participate in collectively.  We must also invite Christ to have the preeminence in our lives.  We ask him to enable us to live according to his values. In turn Christ's values demand that we order our lives and our communities in ways that are just.

(For more on the definition of justice see Tim Keller's article What is Biblical Justice, or this good conversation starter on justice from a friend working to stop sex trafficking.)

While my own identity is a moving target, I grew up as an evangelical, and continue to own many aspects of that identity in the broad sense of the word as defined here.  For evangelicals, there are three key principles that help support the connections between justice, the Kingdom of God, and the Gospel.

1) The Bible is the infallible word of God, and authoritative for life.
2) If I love Christ I must do what he says.
3) If Christ is not Lord of all of my life, he is Lord of none of my life.

In other words, if I don't think critically about Christ's calling to pursue justice, and how his Lordship in my life demands that I act justly and generously with my neighbors, then it might be an open question whether he is Lord of my life at all.
  (I actually find this line of thinking somewhat dubious because I see the brokenness we all live with.  But this is the thought process that is routinely preached in evangelical churches, so i will play it out here.)  To be sure, we all fall short, but that does not lesson the calling.

So exactly how closely do the scriptures link justice with the gospel?

1. The Bible explicitly links justice with the gospel.
In Matthew 23:23 Jesus points out that the pharisees worry about small things, like tithing, but fail to pay attention to "the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness."  You should have paid attention to both, says Jesus.

Paul also notes the connection between the gospel and the ability to do justice.  "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation [and] produces a... readiness to see justice done."
2 Corinthians 7:10-11

The prophet Micah states it explicitly, "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."

God requires justice.  The law illustrates our failure to act justly, and thereby illustrates our need for a Savior.  (See Romans 7:7-8) What we fail to do in our own strength, the Gospel enables.

From the very beginning, the need for Christ and sins of injustice have been present. Adam and Eve's original sin was rooted in pride. But it was also an an act of injustice. They took what was not there's to take. That was unjust. Lucifer too sought a position that was not his. That was unjust. And Cain engaged in the supreme act of injustice, by taking his brother's life.  While only a perfect sin-free world can be completely just. The Scriptures clearly and unequivocally require us to seek justice. 
Tim Keller models the tie between social justice and the gospel well in his preaching. He often challenges both the first time hearer of the Gospel, and long time club members to consider how their conduct impacts others--something similar to what Jesus did for his Jewish audiences in the form of parables. By tying a broad, deep gospel to the world as it really is, Keller simultaneously address social concerns and the heart condition that leads to them. James said it succinctly. "Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." (James 2:17)

So clearly we as individuals Christians are called to act justly.  But what of the communities we are a part of? Is social justice a demand of the gospel, or a distraction from the gospel?

2 The Bible explicitly requires Christians to be engaged with their communities.
The exiled Jews thought they would be returning to the promised land sooner rather than later. They were understandably not concerned about the place they had been exiled. The good of the nation who had sacked, raped and pillaged their communities, and then dragged them across the desert was not one of their priorities.  In addition, the people believed their displacement was temporary.  They might as well have been singing the words to the popular tune, "This world is not my home, I'm just passing through."  But the prophet Jeremiah sought to dispel the myth that they would be returning to Jerusalem anytime soon.  "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters... Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Jeremiah 29:5-7  

Today, we also have a calling to seek the peace and prosperity of the place we have been exiled.  (Prosperity in the holistic sense of the word "Shalom" not a self-centered wealth and prosperity version of the Gospel.)  In turn, one can't have peace and prosperity without justice.  This world is not our home, but we our far from just passing through.  Christians are called to participate in building stronger communities by reflecting the reign of Christ in their communities, and that requires just living.  This is a part of proclaiming the good news of the reign of Christ. While vocation and calling are a separate topic, Christians are called to reflect justice and the Kingdom of God in the market place, regardless of one's role or level of influence.  Some can focus on justice explicitly, lawyers and advocates for example, but all are called to act justly, generously, and graciously.

3. Addressing issues of justice creates moral authority, while not addressing justice undermines moral authority.
Finally, making explicit the connection between social justice and the gospel creates moral clarity and gives the speaker moral authority. Doing so helps Christians earn the right or ability to be heard, while not doing so has the opposite effect.

If a community of Christians tithes, worships, and gives to those in need, while at the same time participating in systems that undermined their well-intentioned actions, the messages is compromised.  "You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former" says Jesus.

For example, if I knowingly work for a business that engages in unjust business practices, or should have known that I was benefiting from unjust business practices--or if I work for a business that exists only to increase shareholder value, and cares not for the community and its employees.  And if at the same time I also donate to those who are in need or an organization that helps people in need.  And if they are in need in part because of the actions of the business I work for, or the types of businesses I work for--while the later action is good, my ability to proclaim the gospel is compromised.  With the left hand I raised up, but with the right I impoverish my neighbor.

If the price of my fruits and vegetables, or the cost of the shirt on my back is exceptionally low because of the low wages and poor working conditions of those who helped meet my material needs, and I also donate clothing to a second hand store, to benefit those same people who are impoverished because of the low wages and unsafe working conditions that I benefit from, the gospel is compromised.  

If I consume more raw material than the planet can possibly sustain, should all humans consume as much as I do, the gospel is compromised.  

Stated simply, a community that behaves unjustly while in part proclaiming the gospel is at best compromised and at worst, anti-Christ.

One might then ask, who does not in some sense participate in unjust systems?  To be American is to some degree to be a person of wealth, and it is to us that Jesus says:  "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 

"Who then can be saved?" asked the disciples.

Jesus' response,
“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

And that is the gospel.  I can't.  God can.

I am unjust.  I participate in unjust systems.  And I benefit from unjust systems. 

"Woe is me!...  For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

We are wicked.  But one has come who's sandals we are not worthy to untie, and he is making all things new!


For more of the scriptures teachings on justice, see the selection below, or go to biblegateway.com and search: justice.

Scripture on Justice
Exodus 23:2 “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd,

Deuteronomy 24:17 Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.

Job 8:3 Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right?

Psalm 11:7 For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice; the upright will see his face.

Psalm 103:6 The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.

Psalm 112:5 Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice.

Psalm 140:12 I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.

Proverbs 29:7 The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.

Isaiah 1:17 Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

Isaiah 9:7 Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

Jeremiah 21:12 This is what the Lord says to you, house of David:“‘Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done— burn with no one to quench it.

Amos 5:15 Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.

Amos 5:24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Malachi 3:5 “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.

Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

2 Corinthians 7:10-11 "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done."

James 2:5-7 "Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?"

James 5:1-6 "Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you."

Revelation 19:11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war.

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