After asking for some suggestions for blog post topics, I was asked if I would respond to the question, “Is social justice a gospel issue?” I pray the following simple thoughts will contribute to a biblical answer to that question and will serve you well.
I want to begin by defining the gospel. Paul, in a letter to the church in Corinth, wrote,
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
1 Corinthians 15:1-5
This is the gospel: the message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the salvation of sinners, verified by witnesses and passed down to us. The four books called the Gospels in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) each tell this story and point to this truth, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Therefore, when we attach the word “gospel” to something, in some sense, the gospel message should be present. A gospel conversation, for example, would be a conversation wherein the message of the gospel is shared. If two Christians discuss interpretations of the first two chapters of Genesis, however, we probably wouldn’t call that conversation a gospel conversation, for the gospel itself isn’t actually present in the discussion.
Based on this understanding, I’m not sure social justice necessarily qualifies as a gospel issue. In this sense, neither do many of the works we do for the Lord. Those who sing or write or teach or encourage or equip or build or raise or exhort (in fact, you may insert almost any gift of God into this list) may each do their work for the glory of God without that work necessarily including an articulation of the gospel. An action or a cause, in this case, does not become a gospel action or a gospel cause simply because Christians engage in it or advance it.
But does this mean that the gospel is unrelated to these things? Or, if we say that social justice isn’t necessarily a gospel issue, are we minimizing its importance? By no means. There is a another way we may understand the description “gospel issue.”
Taking part in social justice work by caring for the widow and the orphan, by standing up for the oppressed and the downtrodden, or by speaking out for the silenced may not always entail a sharing of the gospel message (I’ve no doubt that many lost men and women do great things for the cause of social justice in the world yet remain themselves apart from Christ). To make social justice (or any action or cause engaged in by believers) equivalent to the gospel message is to misunderstand the distinction between the effects and the cause. But to dismiss social justice or to minimize its importance is to miss the necessary relation between faith and works (see James 2). The gospel root will, by God’s grace, produce the fruit of good works in the lives of Christians, including those focused on social justice in our fallen world. In this sense, while an action may not contain the message of the gospel, it may nonetheless flow from a heart transformed by the gospel. In this sense, the gospel affects everything we do. In this sense, every issue can be viewed as a gospel issue insofar as we view it through eyes transformed by the gospel.
The church beautifully illustrates this. By God’s grace, the church exists as a multi-cultural family of believers drawn from all peoples, each member possessing unique and necessary gifts that work together for the health of the whole body (see 1 Corinthians 12:4-26 and Revelation 7:9-10). The distinguishing characteristic of the people of God is their love for each other (John 13:35). We strive to embody in this time the reality of our identity, serving as salt and as light to the world around us (Matthew 5:13-16). We are ambassadors for Christ, loving as Jesus loved and inviting all people, through Jesus, to “be reconciled to God”(2 Corinthians 5:20). We exist as the church because of the gospel and for the advance of the gospel in this world. The gospel of Jesus Christ is central to who we are and to what we do.
Injustice is evident in the world around us. As we hear stories of bigotry, of hatred, and of murder on the earth, we who know Christ recognize such stories as signs of humanity’s failure to reflect the image of her Maker. We see the extent of our brokenness, our sinfulness, when we consider how we treat our fellow men and women, and we are grieved by the sight. And so we act. We seek justice for the oppressed, freedom for the captives, healing for the broken; but we seek more than a mere fixing of temporary ills. We march into the madness of this world, into the death and the dark, with the life and the light of Christ, bringing not only momentary respite but an invitation to eternal rest. We work for peace on earth and goodwill among men because God has granted us peace with himself and goodwill to men through Christ. May we be faithful to live and work in light of the truth of the gospel, and may we be faithful to share the gospel message with the world that so desperately needs it. And may God be glorified through it all.
Thanks to Sara Wilson for suggesting the topic of today’s post.
Thanks to John Massey for helping me edit this post and for talking through ideas with me in the writing process.