A few weeks ago, a group of evangelical pastors led by the faithful Bible teacher, John MacArthur, produced the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. Pastors around the world were then invited to sign on in support of the statement.
While there was much in the statement that I agree with, there were some fundamental places that lacked clarity. Without going into an annotated line-by-line critique of the statement (we can have coffee if you want to talk more about that), I wanted you to know why I didn’t sign it.
I believe that the statement intended to keep the Church from the slippery slope of jettisoning the core message of Jesus in the name of social advocacy. The writers have good reason to be concerned as this is what so many churches/denominations in effect did in the post-Depression era. The rise of the social gospel saw a jettisoning of the core tenets of the Gospel in the name of helping people. After all, what good was it talking about sin and salvation when people were starving? It’s an all-too-easy path to walk.
As I heed its warning, I wonder if in the end the statement did more harm than good. Not only was the timing of such a statement ill-advised, several of the affirmations and denials seem to make light of the real struggle that Gospel-centered, Christ-followers are engaged in. While trying to guard the doctrinal purity of the Church’s message, the statement seemed to minimize the hurt and seriousness of the real-world struggle.
That’s why I couldn’t sign it. I’ve summarized my reasoning in three statements (ha! How about that for irony).
I don’t agree with the limitations on the extent of the gospel as defined in the statement.
I believe with all my heart that the message of forgiveness and life through faith in the Crucified and Risen Jesus is at the core of who we are as a church. If we depart from that message as our motivation for ministry and mission, we’ve lost everything. But just because something is at the core, does not make it the only thing you need to pay attention to.
When I was in grad school, I took a class on NT theology that really challenged my understanding of the Gospel. I believed (and still do) that the message of the Gospel was about forensic justification through substitutionary atonement. That’s a mouthful. It means that when Jesus died on the cross, he died in our place for the just penalty of our sins. It means that when we put our faith in Jesus, we receive his imputed righteousness and we are declared in a forensic (legal) sense, “not guilty”.
The complexity of this is that it’s a doctrinal formulation primarily found in the epistles. As I studied the theology of the Gospels, there’s very little in there that speaks of forensic justification. This is not to deny the centrality of Jesus in salvation and God’s redemptive plan, but rather, I make the observation that the Gospel writers seem to have in view the advent of the kingdom of God through His promised Messiah. Forgiveness of sin is definitely in view, but there seems to be more about how it actually comes about. I am not pitting Paul against Jesus. The whole of Scripture is God-breathed and gives a robust picture of what God is doing.
In the Gospels, Jesus is healing, preaching, upsetting the establishment, casting out demons, and the like. He calls for faith, and he predicts that he will be handed over, crucified, and raised to life. We know what this ultimately means, but as I came to understand the gospel according to the Gospels, I was challenged with other implications to the gospel than just the righteous declaration of “not guilty”. There’s healing, bringing the marginalized in, a restoration of shalom, and the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God.
The Statement’s explanation of the gospel message just isn’t robust enough. The gospel according to the NT starts from “the cross” and extends through “the kingdom” and not even that sequentially.
I don’t agree with the extent of the church’s mission as implied in the statement.
It should be no surprise that if we see differently on the extent of the gospel implications, we’ll disagree on the extent of the church’s mission. It seems that to the writers of the statement, the mission of the church should be primarily concerned with saving souls. And in keeping with that purpose, the church must primarily engage in activities that lead to that: ie: preaching and evangelism.
Again, I don’t disagree, but it doesn’t go far enough. As I see my brothers and sisters laboring for justice and peace, I don’t see any hesitancy to preach about God’s heart for justice and what Christ has done to bring that about. I hear the constant refrain of the gospel message underlying and motivating calls for reconciliation and confession.
If I’m understanding the Statement correctly, it seems that the mission of the church is only concerned with the spiritual and ethereal. “If the whole world is going to burn up anyway, why bother with anything of this earth?”
This perspective misses two fundamental points. First, if we are to focus only on “spiritual” matters, what’s the point of any of our work? This misses the reality of the kingdom come and the eschatological promise of a new heavens and new earth. Second, we then have to restrict much of the church’s ministries to only what will improve a person’s soul. This seems to contradict the arguments of James’ epistle especially as it relates to religion that is pure and undefiled (James 1:27) and faith and works (James 2:14-17). In both of these passages at least, James calls the church to merciful action. We could also mention Acts 6 towards the care of Gentile widows.
The church’s mission must be about the kingdom come, as proclaimed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. “The time is come,” Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the Gospel.” It’s a robust gospel in which the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord has anointed Jesus to do justice-oriented, as well as soul-saving, work. Should his church be about anything different?
In the end, the statement is just not useful pastorally.
It’s not going to help us care for one another or love others better. It reminds us of our core message, but it doesn’t encourage us to engage in ministry that flows from that core. That’s not saying it’s not useful to someone, but just not to us. I’ve learned to recognize that when it comes to these kinds of statements, I have to first ask, “Is this statement addressing me?” I’m sure that there is some congregation out there that is concerned about slipping into a social gospel, and this statement could recalibrate them.
For us, by God’s grace and with the help of his Spirit, we’ll continue to faithfully carry out good works of mercy and justice as an overflow of the new creational, redemptive work Jesus did on the cross. We’ll be motivated to care about justice and righteousness. The fruit of the gospel as evidenced in reconciliation, justice on behalf of the marginalized, caring for the poor, defending the victimized will be a part of our mission because we believe that all of it are the effects of what Jesus accomplished.
Because the gospel compels us to do so, we’ll continue to walk alongside the suffering brother/sister, speak up against unjust systems, and work towards seeing God’s coming shalom evidenced on the earth in our day. We won’t do it perfectly, but we’ll give it our best…with or without a statement.