Just Preach The Gospel?
With some of the biggest names in evangelical Christianity weighing in on the debate, gospel faithfulness in regards to social justice has probably become the biggest debate around. And unfortunately the worst question which many of us are concerned with at the moment is in which camp we belong. That is, instead of asking ourselves ‘how do we become more faithful?’ When asked a question, regardless of the context, a friend of mine makes the joke of always answering ‘Jesus’. We often laugh about it, but isn’t it true? Christ and His gospel is always the answer to life’s questions. But the question we often don’t ask and wrestle with long enough is ‘how exactly Christ is the answer?’ In response to this question I heard someone say ‘just preach the gospel; the rest will sort itself out’. But I beg to differ.
If the current socio-political climate of our country is anything to go by, our Christian answers to these issues might prove to be a little bit more complex. Not to mention our colonial and Apartheid past which has proven that unless our preaching is more intentional, following the example set by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, preaching ‘the gospel’ is simply not enough.
The New Testament Writings:
Our preaching should not only focus on Matthew 5 which largely deals with our inability and Christ’s fulfillment of the law on our behalf for salvation. But we must also focus on Matthew 6 – 7 which speaks of our “acts of righteousness” and dependence on God for both salvation and “our daily bread”. In other words we ought to keep central the preaching of salvation by faith, but also flesh out, draw from and uphold the Ten Commandments with their implications for our lives. How else would we explain or begin to answer the myriad of complex questions concerning the land issue, inequality, and what is ultimately at the heart of Adam Catzavelos’ racist remarks?
As a matter of fact the New Testament writers spoke into the socio-political complexities of their time applying the gospel as well as God’s law to help the church to ethically navigate itself through those times. I am particularly thinking of the epistles of Peter, James and John the writer of Revelation. The shape which most of the New Testament epistles take includes a clear explanation of the gospel and its practical implications for our lives based on God’s commandments. Therefore as the Lord Jesus admonishes us; we ought to concern ourselves with the spiritual, but not neglect “the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.” He said, “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matt.23:23).
Considering Those Who Were Faithful:
I have found the Prophets particularly helpful in showing us just how faithful preaching ought to look in finding a balance between preaching for salvation and matters related to justice. We should not forget that the church is after all “built on the foundation of the Apostles and the Prophets…” (Ephesians 2:19-20). The Prophet Hosea for example made the observation that when “there is no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land… cursing, lying, murder, stealing, adultery, lawlessness and bloodshed” follows (4:1-2). He goes on to say that “because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away, [including the animals]” (4:3).
The prophet is essentially saying that the fundamental problem of our natural world is spiritual separation from God. But he also affirms that this has bearing on our lived experience on earth.
By implication, his answer to the problem is that we be spiritually restored to God as well as that we live for God by obeying His law. This will ensure that the land and all who live in it will prosper.
The Prophet Zechariah makes a similar judgment. He affirms that without an acknowledgment of God (7:13) and His law (7:11-12), we and the land will suffer (7:14). He explains that our acknowledgment of God is not merely an appearance of outward religiosity or simply recognizing God’s existence (7:4-6). No, it’s the result of an inward transformation of the heart and a renewed sense of awareness and desire to want to live a holy life for God (7:8-10). Such a life ought to “administer true justice; [and] show mercy and compassion to others…” (7:9). Zechariah attributes this work of transformation solely to God (8:1-11), who in response requires us to live just and God fearing lives (8:14-17). And again, he reminds us of the blessings that will follow when we are spiritually restored to God through preaching that speaks holistically.
He promises a restored relationship with God (8:1-3); and that “the city streets will be [safe again]” (8:4-5); that our “law courts” where justice ought to be most visibly seen will structurally function better (8:16); human life will flourish as most people will do their bit because they will “love truth and peace” (8:19); “the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops” (8:12); and the whole world would be affected as this will have a knock-on effect on others (8:20-23). We can draw many more examples from Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and all the rest.
But in effect, what the prophets are saying is that when we faithfully preach the whole counsel of God, with much prayer, we can look forward to seeing our churches, homes, neighborhoods, and cities transformed by the gospel.
We can almost expect Jonah chapter 3 to happen in our own cities. And even if that doesn’t happen, we can confidently look forward to heaven’s glory where these things will be possible. 1 Peter 1:10-11 after all reminds us that the Prophets never lost sight of looking forward to Christ’s coming and the future glories.
Finding a Balance:
Faithful preaching which is proclaiming both salvation and justice consistently is in fact gospel preaching. Concerning ourselves with social justice is not a call to be political, but a call to love our neighbour. The Prophets were concerned with their hearer’s love for God and for their neighbour (Matthew 7:12; 22:40). Romans 3:21 beautifully captures our relationship to the Law in regards to salvation, “to which the Law and the Prophets testify”. It argues that the Prophets preached salvation by faith alone and not by works of the law. But they never dismissed the Law either. The Apostle Paul said he and the other Apostles sought not only to evangelize the nations, but “continued to remember the poor” (Gal.2:10). That is, “the more important matters of the Law – justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).
Guarding The Gospel and Our Hearts:
I fear that unless we meaningful reflect on these matters that we may have a generation of younger ‘woke’ Christians who have no clear or even biblical foundation of what the Churches mission is. Also, I found that too many ‘woke’ Christians are not exegetically strong in their position. As a result too many ‘woke’ believers sound too much like the world when talking about justice. But I also fear that we may have a generation of older Christians who are disillusioned with social justice for fear of ‘losing the gospel’. Not realizing that they might not be “acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (Gal.2:14). Biblical justice is after all a reminder to love as Christ loved. James’ primary concern wasn’t with doctrine but a skewed theology which did not concern itself with justice (see James 2:5-9; 2:14-17; 5:1-6).
Such Christians were among those who had “wander[ed] from the truth” (Jam.5:19). Friends, we’ve witnessed slavery, colonialism, Apartheid and Jim Crow Laws advocated for and approved by many churches and theologians because the Church kept silent as a consequence of a skewed theology of justice and our mission in the world. We’ve also seen a departure from the gospel with the emergence of the social gospel because ‘Christians’ were not immersed in the foundational doctrines of the gospel and the Churches mission. We need to guard both ourselves and the gospel from these two extremes. But praise God that we’ve seen and in fact have Scriptural evidence of faithful preachers who consistently and faithfully proclaimed both justice and justification by faith. May we follow their example.
This post was originally published by Living Legacy Movement and used with permission