Aside from that already mentioned (with help from M. L. Jones)—in sum, that Christ’s kingdom ‘is not of this world’—another trouble with social justice in the pulpit or as a mission of the organized church is that it appeals to the sinner’s pride, to that resilient lust for self-righteousness. Social justice is something we do; it is our own righteousness, so it is unlike the gospel in that most important way—and therefore when voiced from the pulpit a clear violation of the 4th commandment, so by implication also the 3rd and the 2nd, and so at least in practice the 1st commandment as well. In whatever way that social justice appears as an interest of the organized church, in the pulpit in particular, it detracts from and dilutes the gospel in a way most palatable to the sinner and inoffensive to a world at enmity with God.
Examples of social justice include:
- alleviation of poverty and opposition to all the social ills that accompany disadvantage;
- disrupting the secrecy of the sex trade and human trafficking, freeing the enslaved, and re-incorporating them into a legal economy and social order;
- fighting racism or another dehumanizing ‘ism’.
And these restorative efforts are usually matched with their retributive complements:
- at least rhetorical disdain for corruption or advantage, sometimes activism;
- magnifying the moral depravity of sexual slavery, exposing or humiliating those responsible or complicit, plus attention to relevant legal structures and enforcement;
- industrious terminological creativity deployed to encourage public, corporate repentance, and sometimes the public humiliation of folks judged culpable, complicit, or uninterested—often the white, western, middle class male, or men in general.
Who could object to these concerns?
One theologian wrote:
If man was created perfect and placed in a perfect universe so that sin is an insult on the part of man against the living God, with the result that all evil, natural as well as moral, violates the holiness of God, it must be a part of the task of man, once he has been redeemed, to seek to destroy that evil in all its forms, and wherever found.
His point is that to be a Christian means to hate and actively oppose evil of all kinds—truly, tirelessly, and profoundly to long for relief, restoration, release, and so on. There can be no question, in other words, that Christians should exercise razor-sharp discernment in detecting evil; wisdom in understanding its ways; and fear of God—and of no man—in opposing evil where ever it is found.
The believer will seek to eradicate the root of evil first of all in the heart of man.
And he continues:
And even so he will not fight indiscriminately. It is his task first of all to overcome evil in himself.
Here Cornelius Van Til brings us to an important point: opposition to evil is only Christian if it is opposition to sin, and only where sin is understood as “want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God” (WSC 14). That is, sin is understood in reference to God—it is sin because it is against the will of God and it should be opposed for the sake of His Glory because it is against His will.
This is important because we are not to “fear him who can kill the body but not the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28).
Jesus announces that he has been anointed to “proclaim good news to the poor,” “liberty to the captives,” and “liberty to those who are oppressed,” even “sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18-19, citing Isaiah 61).
It is a peculiar fact, therefore, that Jesus has a pretty poor record on these counts. We know he healed a blind man, but he left many in their blindness—and He says plainly that he healed this one for the glory of God, not to end blindness or re-incorporate this marginalized fellow into full social participation. When Jesus healed the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, He even threatened the man with more—greater, in fact—misfortune if he did not walk blamelessly before the Lord henceforth (John 5:14). Peter says that in these healings what is really going on is this: God is attesting to Christ as His Son and Messiah (Acts 2:22; cf John 20:30-31).
So, as a warrior for the cause of social justice, Jesus was shamefully unsuccessful. Later he says rather coldly: “the poor you will always have with you” (Matt 26:11). Had he given up hope?
On that Sabbath that day in the synagogue (Luke 4), Jesus was recalling the words of Isaiah. Isaiah had preached these things—release of captives and so on—as benefits of the covenant with God, which Moses worded this way:
See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God1 that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it (Deut 30:15-16).
Life and goodness are the benefits of covenant righteousness—they are the benefits of holiness before God, the natural effects of drawing nigh unto God (James 4:8), the one who alone is good (Luke 18:19) and to his Word, the life and the light of men (John 1:4, John 14:6).
Jesus had interest in healing, restoration, and justice only as the effects of reconciliation to God. And so the church in His name is the bulwark, the fortress, the storehouse—the last stand before even the gates of hell (Matt 16:18)—of the gospel of the imperishable peace of re-creation. That peace is achieved by Christ and offered by grace through faith; the law has shown that there is no righteousness in the earth, but Christ has become our righteousness from God. The church Christ himself preserves against the gates of a hell from which no social justice initiative can deliver—because it is a hell of perfect justice.
I heard a sermon not too long ago in which a young man got into the pulpit, read from Isaiah 61, and then talked about himself and his own ministry for some 30 or 40 minutes. Please note: only Jesus is allowed to do that. Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah 61; Jesus is the sum and substance of that text—of the words when Isaiah preached them, of the ancient Hebrew Scripture, of the same text still today. It is not about Christians but about Christ, apart from whom we are and hope in nothing. No one but Christ is anointed to proclaim liberty to captives; that anointing is not ours. That text is not us; it is for us only because it is about Him.
But the gospel of Jesus Christ was not the point of that sermon; Jesus was not the point of that sermon. And if Christ was even mentioned—I left, so I do not know—such mentioned would have served only to reflect the moral strength of the speaker’s own deeds.
So what sort of righteousness belongs in the pulpit? Only these:
- The perfect holiness of God
- Our unrighteousness and inability to match the holiness of God
- Christ’s righteousness in his coming down from heaven, obedience unto death, and return to the Father’s right hand
- Christ’s righteousness reckoned ours
- The imperative of obedience to Christ—that is, the required exercise of imputed righteousness against residual sin
The church is the house of grace—reconciliation to God in Christ, while we were still sinners an incapable of any good before God. When heaven and earth are shaken, on the gospel, and the kingdom built with the righteousness of Christ, will remain. Christians, reconciled and sanctified, are sent out to bear the fruit of their re-alignment by doing good works in the world, bearing with other’s burdens, and loving their enemies—as witness to the goodness and mercy of God. Even these fruit are fruit of the Spirit, the effects of the spring of living water planted in us by the Spirit of Christ. So, the church is the house of the gospel and re-birth by the Spirit. From that house, Christians go out and bear fruit.
The salient difference between the gospel and social justice is that social justice is something we do. When we turn prayers or sermons or ministries against social evils, we render those prayers, sermons, and ministries inoffensive to ourselves and we set our eyes on a law of goodness which vindicates us, exonerates us, even exalts us as blameless, and which we may have the pleasure of enforcing, making us the heroes of restoration, moral integrity, and hope. Our own effort and conviction are the foundation of this hope; we accomplish it, and we preach the zeal of our own convictions.
This winsome self-portrait is in grotesque contrast to the biblical picture of humans before God. The shame—the wickedness—of self-promotion in the house of grace hardly needs emphasis from me. Respect for Christ—no, obedience to Him—requires that we ban social agendas from the pulpit first of all. Nothing is wrong with social justice; but it is wrong in the pulpit, and wrong when presented as the mission of the visible church. The pulpit of the church belongs to Christ, who founded it by His obedience unto death, and who claims it as His own in perpetuity for His own ministry (building His own church) until He returns. And from where, if the pulpit is compromised, will people be able to hear the gospel? It needs to be recognized that ‘social justice’ never troubles us about our own sins, and never turns our attention toward the cross of Christ—the terrible justice, the grace, and the sovereignty of God all displayed in that simple gospel of the one mediator between God and man. Pursue social justice, mourn with those who mourn, face the extent of depravity and dismay in God’s once good world—of course. Against that dismal background, however, I hope we can protect the purity of that gospel upon which and for which the church of Christ stands.