Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
One of the strangest developments of late in the ongoing scrums over the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of “social justice” is the shifts in understanding by various evangelical tribes and movements of the distinctions and connections between law and gospel. “Just preach the gospel” has become a frequent rebuke heard from camps who are concerned about the muddling of gospel and works.
To be clear and fair, not everyone concerned about emphases on social justice agrees with the alleged antidote of “just preaching the gospel,” but this imperative has been leveled enough—and from some places of influence—that it has gained a fair amount of traction. Also to be fair, the muddling of gospel and works is always a threat to real Christianity, and nobody is immune. We must take care not to confuse any works, be they works we call “social justice” or simply “love of neighbor,” with the finished work of Jesus Christ, lest we inadvertently come to “preach ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:5). (This is the most glaring problem with the recent social justice statement originating from Union Seminary. Among its numerous problems—like its denials of biblical inerrancy and Christian exclusivity—it affirms a false gospel.)
I believe that the frequent charge against many advocating “social justice” that they are advocating for a/the social gospel is overstated, and yet the social gospel is not a figment of a fundamentalist’s imagination. It is a real message and was—and, especially among progressive types and mainliners, still is—a real danger.
At this point I put my gospel-centered bona fides on the table. I would hope that my writing both online and in print, and my pulpit and public ministries over the last 15 years, would demonstrate I am opposed to the conflation of our work with Christ’s. The gospel is not its implications. And yet—and yet!—to preach an implications-free gospel is in essence to strip Christ’s Lordship from his salvation. “Just preach the gospel” is not the full counsel of God’s word.
So below I offer five reasons why clear application of the gospel is important and why in fact declaring an implications-free gospel is spiritually perilous. I know this does not answer each and every critic of the social justice movement, and nor does it represent every advocate—because both critics and advocates represent much diversity in perspectives—but I hope it will serve to give many of us pause before we confuse both the gospel with its entailments (on the one hand) or confuse gospel-centeredness with gospel-only-ness (on the other).
1. The gospel does not exist in a theological vacuum.
The ministry of Jesus Christ which saves us had a cultural and missiological context. The Scriptures that for thousands of years testified to him are a substantive foundation for understanding all of his works, both teaching and doing, in the four Gospels. And the extrapolation of his atoning work by the apostles in the rest of the New Testament represent an important “and then what?”—both for our thinking and our doing—that the Holy Spirit determined we should feed on as God’s very words.
We need only look at the substantive testimony of the prophets to Israel and to the kings/nations in the Old Testament to see how much time is spent specifically rebuking and calling to repentance the powers that be in order to see the precedent is biblical.
Jesus’ longest sermon (Matthew 5-7) and one of his longest parables (Luke 10:25-37) are almost entirely about love of neighbor in the face of cultural-religious opposition and systemic injustice/corruption.
All of that is to say, Jesus did not come simply preaching the gospel as idea but the gospel as kingdom. One need only consider Paul’s words in Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15 to see how expansive the finished work of Christ really is, just how much it is supposed to impact. For several years now, we’ve had certain corners of the church warning us about neglect of holiness and the law, scolding what they see as “cheap grace” and bloodless belief. Now many in these same corners are insisting that just the gospel message will do the trick against ethnic divisions or other sins. You rarely hear this imperative in response to the challenges of illegal immigration or the systemic injustice of abortion. Perhaps it’s because those issues do not effect us—or indict us—as directly. Nevertheless, it is interesting how “just preach the gospel” is said to be sufficient for the problems associated with social injustice but apparently isn’t sufficient to solve the problem of “social justice warrioring.” But that’s an irony to explore another time.
2. The Bible commands works.
This is the most facile point to make and the one that should be the most unnecessary. Does the Bible actually outline implications of the gospel? Are the moral imperatives of Scripture binding on Christians? Is the whole of Scripture sufficient for reproof, correction and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16)? Is faith proved by its works (James 2:17-18)?
If the answer to all of those questions is yes, then even as we hold the central message distinct from its entailments, we nevertheless have no right to disconnect them.
This does not mean the imperatives can do what the indicatives can do. It doesn’t mean that the law has any power to give us on its behalf. That power can only come from the gospel. And yet the one true gospel empowers its implications. We are created for good works. It is good and right and biblical to teach that.
3. The gospel is adorned and amplified by its implications.
If the Lord wanted us to have an unadorned gospel, we would not need Romans 12-16, 1 Corinthians 3-16, 2 Corinthians 5-13, the second halves of Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and so on. What I mean is, if the gospel is not simply central but isolatable, we can lop off huge portions of the New Testament, not to mention gigantic swaths of the Old. Do you want to go back to the “ask Jesus into your heart” gospel? Because that’s where the implications-free teaching goes. To fail to urge “obedience to the gospel” (1 Peter 4:17) is to rob Scripture of riches, the gospel of raiment and God of glory. In Galatians 2, as Paul is recounting the “getting on the same page” with the apostles before him, he mentions that a prevailing concern of theirs on his mission is that he remembered the poor. Why? Because while the imperatives aren’t the message that saves, they are nevertheless imperative to the mission to save!
I know within the larger conversation there are hundreds of smaller, more specific subjects to address. Many critics of social justice advocacy do not say we should avoid teaching imperatives. (They either simply don’t think that the problems of social justice are real or that the particular imperatives proposed are the right ones.) But many folks do appear to be saying we ought to avoid imperatives. I see it from influential teachers and Jane and Joe Pew-sitters alike. Some do say or suggest we ought to “just preach the gospel.” And while it seems sound and even sounds “gospel-centered,” it forgets that the gospel, if it’s real, has a multitude of implications that follow in the wake of our belief.