[Editorial Note: This is the eighth post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]
Article 8: The Church
WE AFFIRM that the primary role of the church is to worship God through the preaching of his word, teaching sound doctrine, observing baptism and the Lord's Supper, refuting those who contradict, equipping the saints, and evangelizing the lost. We affirm that when the primacy of the gospel is maintained that this often has a positive effect on the culture in which various societal ills are mollified. We affirm that, under the lordship of Christ, we are to obey the governing authorities established by God and pray for civil leaders.
WE DENY that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church. Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of a society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church's mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head. We deny that laws or regulations possess any inherent power to change sinful hearts.
The church (ἐκκλησία) is the assembly of God's people who are saved by faith alone in Christ alone and gather together in local assemblies for both service and worship. In a literal rendering of the Greek - the term means a called out assembly. Christ founded his Church and made a definitive statement - "The gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). It has been God's plan from the beginning for his people to associate together, help one another, and assemble for worship and service in a community of a local church. In short, the church is God's will for your life. The high mark of the believer's life should be centered in and through the local church rather than politics or any other humanitarian outlet or organization.
In recent days, Russell Moore has suggested that the goal of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" was primarily about race. In fact, Russell Moore talked to Laruen Green of Fox News and in that interview he stated the following about the Statement:
What we're really talking about is race. And so, I think we have a long lasting issue within evangelicalism of people saying 'Let's not talk about issues of racial reconciliation, unity, and justice--that would be a distraction from the gospel. That's exactly what was happening in the 19th century as it related to human slavery. That's exactly what was happening in the 1920s and 1950s as it related to Jim Crow and it persists among us.
The main focus of the Statement is not centered on race. Out of the fourteen articles, the Statement contains two that focus on race and twelve others that focus on other matters including biblical manhood and womanhood and the mission of the Church which is Christocentric with the gospel at the center.
In fact, the main reason for the need for the Statement in the beginning was based upon three really important issues that need to be addressed--and it's not all about race. While race and the idea of systemic racism and systemic oppression is certainly one issue we want to address in the Statement--there are other issues such as the rise of egalitarian methods within evangelicalism and the category of LGBT Christianity. In may ways, biblical manhood and womanhood are the focus of the Statement.
Each of these subjects, within evangelicalism, are impacted by our culture with a shallow and often skewed understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ. For that reason we included an article in the Statement that helps unpack the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ.
The Mission of the Church
As "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" articulates, "the primary role of the church is to worship God through the preaching of his word, teaching sound doctrine, observing baptism and the Lord's Supper, refuting those who contradict, equipping the saints, and evangelizing the lost." This is a good summary of the work and mission of the local church.
As Ephesians 4:12 makes clear, the work of the pastor is centered on equipping the saints for the work of ministry. When the primacy of the gospel is maintained, this equipping ministry of the local church will impact the culture which is filled with the brokenness of sin. Charles Hodge writes:
The works of God manifest His glory by being what they are. It is because the universe is so vast, the heavens so glorious, the earth so beautiful and teeming, that they reveal the boundless affluence of their Maker. If then, it is through the church that God designs specially to manifest to the highest order of intelligence, His infinite power, grace and wisdom, the church in her consummation must be the most glorious of His works.1
As the Scriptures are expounded in the context of the local church, the followers of Jesus submit to his authority and desire to walk in obedience to his commands. Jesus said, "If you love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). One of the clear teachings of Jesus is found in his response to the scribe who sought to trap him just two days before his brutal crucifixion (Mark 12:28-34). Jesus responded to the scribe's question by saying:
The most important is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:29-31).
To love God supremely results in loving neighbor sacrificially. This is not something that flows out of a secular social justice movement, it's right out of the mouth of Jesus himself. When a culture is filled with strong churches, the mission of Christ will be alive and well throughout the society. When a culture is lacking the presence of God's people or filled with shallow churches, the mission of Christ will lacking in the society as a whole.
The Mission Drift of the Modern Church
The local church in many contexts has been swept away in the tsunami of politics and social justice interaction. In other cases, the local church has been turned into a humanitarian aid station for the poor in the community or the poor in other nations (digging wells and supplying clothes for impoverished tribes in South America). While getting involved in such efforts to care for the needy is a fine ministry, but it's not the overall mission of God's Church.
When we examine the number of organizations that a person can join in a specific city, it can be a bit overwhelming. There are numerous groups that a person can identify with such as:
Add to this list a quickly growing number of parachurch ministries designed to engage in the work of ministry. However, the mission of the church is far different than any of these popular organizations and clubs and far more essential than any parachurch ministry. Even those organizations that focus on humanitarian care and social involvement, the local church has a far higher mission that centers upon glorifying God and exalting Christ throughout the world.
The church was once focused on the worship of God through the Scriptures, but today many pulpits have been replaced by political stumps and the gospel has likewise been replaced by political talks filled with social justice jargon. The very moment that a church trades the mission of Christ for the mission of political social justice--that group ceases to be a true church. Furthermore, their message cannot lead people to freedom and true liberation. Instead, they lead people into the darkness of oppression and injustice. Only through the gospel can a person's heart be changed resulting in true submission to God.
Furthermore, as the local church is driven by the spirit of the age rather than the Spirit of God through holy Scripture--the more likely the local church will trade in their prayer for civil leaders for the slander of partisan politics. The church has been called to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2) rather than slandering them under the banner of the gospel. Far too many "Social Justice Warriors" find it cool to slander leaders rather than lead their congregations to pray for them.
We must reject the idea that political involvement and social justice engagement is the mission of the church of Jesus Christ. While we can work through proper channels and use voting privileges lawfully, the mission of Christ has never changed or shifted from the day Christ founded it. Alistair Begg has stated the following in a sermon:
We are not in the world today to reform the world. Our mandate in the world is not political, it's not social, and it's not economic. The fact that many of us have lived through a period of time in the United States where by the social, political, and economic concerns have increasingly encroached upon the minds of those who should know better and have begun to take on virtually a life of their own whereby we have begun to be seduced by the idea that these really are the issues. That if we could fix this, and fix this, and fix this--then we would be fine. But we were never invited to fix this and this and this. The calling of the church is to proclaim the gospel. And whenever that which is central, namely the gospel, becomes peripheral--then that which is peripheral inevitably becomes central.
However, that is precisely the opposite of the social justice agenda of our present culture. Eric Mason, in his book, Woke Church, makes the following bold assertion:
To apply this we must be awakened to the reality of implicit and explicit racism and injustice in our society. Until then, our prophetic voice on these matters will be anemic and silent. Being woke is to be aware. Being woke is to acknowledge the truth. Being woke is to be accountable. Being woke is to be active. This is the call of God on the church and on every believer.2
To make the claim that the mission of the church is to be "woke" is to be guilty of false advertising at best and egregious mission drift at worst. Furthermore, Jesus doesn't need to ride the wave of pragmatic cultural trends in order to complete his mission through the Church. I would further argue that Jesus was not "woke" in his earthly ministry and doesn't need that label for his Church today.
The term "woke" has been defined by Eric Mason in a sermon at Dallas Theological Seminary as an "urban colloquialism used by black nationalists and those who are in the black consciousness movement." The term did not emerge from gospel of Jesus Christ and the Scriptures. It's safe to say that it doesn't have the best past. Therefore, it's unwise to hitch the Church of Jesus to such a culturally perverse term. Such a move on the part of Mason leads to confusion rather than clarity. It may lead to book sales, but it doesn't help in clarifying the mission of the local church.
To make the bold assertion that it's the mission of the church is to lead the people of God off track. Any step toward the "woke" movement is to follow the footsteps of culture rather than Christ. This is true not only in terms of the witch hunt for systemic racism, but it's likewise true regarding any movement that distracts God's people from their mission which will always be centered on the good news of salvation through Christ Jesus our Lord.
The real question that needs to be answered is--how does the "woke" church movement and the hyper emphasis upon social justice differ from cultural Marxism? I've yet to hear a good clear differentiation between the two.
What you believe about the church matters. How the local church engages in the mission of Christ matters. When we follow the plan of Jesus - it will lead to more just and equitable societies throughout the world. Only the gospel can cause people to bow in submission to King Jesus and as a result, those same people will submit to the laws of society. Those same people will labor in the gospel ministry in a local community through their local church resulting in lasting change that brings glory to God.
1. Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians (Accordance electronic ed. New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1856), 174.
2. Eric Mason, Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice, (Chicago: Moody, 2018), 32.
[Editorial Note: This is the fifth post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]
Article 5: Sin
WE AFFIRM that all people are connected to Adam both naturally and federally. Therefore, because of original sin everyone is born under the curse of God's law and all break his commandments through sin. There is no difference in the condition of sinners due to age, ethnicity, or sex. All are depraved in all their faculties and all stand condemned before God's law. All human relationships, systems, and institutions have been affected by sin.
WE DENY that, other than the previously stated connection to Adam, any person is morally culpable for another person's sin. Although families, groups, and nations can sin collectively, and cultures can be predisposed to particular sins, subsequent generations share the collective guilt of their ancestors only if they approve and embrace (or attempt to justify) those sins. Before God each person must repent and confess his or her own sins in order to receive forgiveness. We further deny that one's ethnicity establishes any necessary connection to any particular sin.
Recognition and repentance of sin are both central to the proclamation of the gospel. When Peter preached to the Jews at Pentecost, he confronted their sin by declaring, "this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:23).
When the crowd recognized their guilt, their hearts were pierced, and they cried out to ask what they must do. Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). If they were to be saved, the message was clear: they must recognize and repent of their sins and identify with Christ. The ones who received and acted on Peter's words were saved that day (Acts 2:41).
Recognition and repentance of sin are both central to the practice of the gospel, It is the pattern of the Christian life as we continue to walk in the light. Consider the familiar words of the Apostle John that were written to believers: "If we say we have not sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 Jn 1:8-9).
These words are both sobering and encouraging. If we ignore or deny our sin, we demonstrate that the truth of God does not indwell us. In other words, failing to recognize our sin is serious business; it evidences we are not saved. However, the wonderful news is when we confess our sins, God forgives us and cleanses us. He is faithful and just to do so because he is keeping his promise that our sins have been punished through the cross on the basis of Christ's blood.
The Bible is replete with warnings about the danger of concealing our sins as well as the blessings of confessing them. Therefore, it is critical that we are able to know the sins for which we truly bear guilt so that we may confess them. Our salvation and blessed life as a Christian depend upon this. Simply put, if we have sinned, we must recognize our guilt and confess that before God in order to receive forgiveness.
This truth becomes crucial in the ongoing debate about social justice among evangelicals. Some argue that people today not only bear the guilt for their own sins, but also for the sins of past generations - particularly those of racism. For example, even though none of us were alive during the practice of American slavery, and many were not yet born at the time of Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder, some argue that whites should both confess and repent of the sins of their ancestors in these matters.
Article 6 of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel addresses this critical error. Scripture is clear that although we are all sinners, by nature and practice, no one is morally culpable and called to repent for someone else's sin (Rom 5:12).
Nevertheless, some reference Exodus 20:5 where God says he will "visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation." Therefore, it is argued, future generations can be complicit in the sins of their ancestors.
However, the text actually assigns this guilt to "those who hate me." The warning places guilt upon those who continue to walk in the wicked ways of their ancestors. The children share in their father's guilt because they share in their father's sins. This is further clarified by the prophet Ezekiel's words:, "The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father for the iniquity of the son" (Ezk 18:20).
This continues to be the case in the New Testament. Nowhere do we find guilt assigned to individuals for the sins of others. Each person is called upon to confess their personal sins in order to receive forgiveness. Hence, John declares, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins..." (1 Jn 1:9).
But what about Peter's sermon at Pentecost as was referenced earlier? Is that not an example of guilt being assigned to a group of people for the sins of others? Peter said to the entire crowd, "you crucified and killed Jesus." Everyone knows that it was the Jewish leadership who handed Jesus over, Pilate who sent him to the cross, and Roman soldiers who nailed him to that tree. Yet, Peter declares to every person within the sound of his voice that it was they who are guilty of this vile sin.
We must remember Peter is preaching this sermon in the heart of Jerusalem - the very place where Jesus had been unjustly tried and crucified mere weeks prior. It was the Jewish leaders who handed Jesus over to the Roman government and called for his execution (Jn 18:28-31). When Pilate gave the Jewish crowds the opportunity to set Jesus free, they demanded that he be crucified, and they vowed, "His blood be on us and on our children" (Mt 27:15-26).
Furthermore, this was no sin of ignorance. Peter declared that Jesus was "a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know" (Acts 2:22). There was ample evidence that Jesus was the promised Messiah, but essentially the entire nation had rejected him and insisted he be crucified. Virtually everyone in the nation of Israel was active in the crucifixion and murder of the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, Peter's pronouncement of guilt upon this Jewish crowd in the heart of Jerusalem was certainly justified.
However, before we rush to embrace the idea of corporate guilt, we must consider some vital facts.
First, neither Peter nor any of the other apostles include themselves in the guilt of killing Jesus. They also were Jews, in Jerusalem when he was crucified, and most of them abandoned him in that very hour. Yet, they seem to bear no guilt.
Second, no Jews are told throughout the rest of the New Testament that they are guilty for the crucifixion of Jesus. When Paul preached to the Jews in Antioch, he declared, "those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers" condemned Jesus (Acts 13:27). This continues to be the pattern throughout the rest of Acts.
Surely the crucifixion of Jesus was the greatest act of injustice in the history of the world, yet his death was not laid at the feet of future Jewish generations. There could be no greater evidence that one's ethnicity does not establish any necessary connection to any particular sin. Clearly, we are called upon to confess our own sins, not the sins of others.
The Scripture must be our only guide in matters of guilt and repentance. We do not have the right to burden people with guilt that God's Law does not clearly lay upon them, and we certainly should not call upon people to repent for sins in which they bear no legitimate guilt. To do such a thing is to go beyond the line of Scripture and is nothing less than "teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Mk 7:7).
The truth is there is real hatred towards others that dwells in our own hearts that calls for confession and repentance. The gospel demands that we do the harder task of confronting the real guilt of sin that we indeed bear, and the humble repentance God requires. This is the task to which we must be fully committed. As important as brotherly reconciliation is, there is more at stake when we assign guilt for sin and call for repentance. What is at risk is our personal standing before God (1 Jn 1:8-9).
C.S. Lewis addressed this issue in his time. At the beginning of WWII, young Christians were calling upon England to repent of her past sins they believed contributed to the evils of the war. They claimed England was reaping what it had sown from the nation's prior actions.
Lewis wrote an article entitled "Dangers of National Repentance," where he declared, "Young Christians are turning to it in large numbers." But what harm is there, Lewis reasoned, in having a heart that is willing to repent of any sin - even if it is not directly your own? He saw it as a grave danger with no sign of spiritual health at all. Scripture calls us to is the harder work of repenting of our own sin.
Therefore, I believe C. S. Lewis' warning then is as relevant to the discussion among evangelicals now: "The first and fatal charm of national repentance is the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting of our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing the conduct of others."
Tom Buck serves as the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Lindale, TX.
[Editorial Note: This is the third post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]
Article 3: Justice
WE AFFIRM that since he is holy, righteous, and just, God requires those who bear his image to live justly in the world. This includes showing appropriate respect to every person and giving to each one what he or she is due. We affirm that societies must establish laws to correct injustices that have been imposed through cultural prejudice.
WE DENY that true justice can be culturally defined or that standards of justice that are merely socially constructed can be imposed with the same authority as those that are derived from Scripture. We further deny that Christians can live justly in the world under any principles other than the biblical standard of righteousness. Relativism, socially-constructed standards of truth or morality, and notions of virtue and vice that are constantly in flux cannot result in authentic justice.
Justice is, of course, a major theme in Scripture. In fact, it's a much larger concept--and more central to the Gospel--than most people realize. In both Hebrew and Greek, the words translated "justice" and "just" are the same words normally translated "righteousness" and "righteous." No distinction is made in the original text of Scripture. The biblical idea of justice encompasses everything the Bible says about righteousness.
In English, when we use the word justice, we normally have in mind evenhanded impartiality (especially in the realm of law and civic affairs). The dictionary defines justice as "maintenance of legal, social, or moral principles by the exercise of authority or power--including the assignment of deserved reward or punishment."
Righteousness denotes virtue, uprightness, moral rectitude--godly character.
Because we differentiate between the words and use them differently, we tend to think of justice predominantly as a legal standard or civic paradigm, and righteousness as something more personal. Again, Scripture makes no such distinction. In the Bible, justice and righteousness are the same thing, encompassing all the legitimate connotations of both words.
How comprehensive is this idea? God Himself is the embodiment and the touchstone of true righteousness. The moral principles spelled out in His law describe what human righteousness looks like. In fact, when Moses delivered the tablets of stone from Sinai to the people, he said, "It will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us" (Deut. 6:25). Jesus exposed the rigors of this standard even more clearly when He said, "You ...must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48).
But now you are talking about the law, you might protest. How can you say it's central to the gospel? Aren't you the guy who scolded preachers of social justice for mingling or confusing law and gospel?" Excellent question, and it requires a two-part answer.
First, justice is a vital gospel issue because the atoning work of Christ turned divine justice in favor of sinners who trust Him as Savior. "For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Having fulfilled the whole law to absolute perfection, Jesus (who "knew no sin" by experience) bore the sins of others (by imputation). Those sins were accounted as if they were His, and He fully paid the due penalty, so that His own perfect righteousness could be imputed to His people. The law has thus been perfectly fulfilled and sin fully punished in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. So God can "be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26). "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins . . . We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 Jn. 1:9--2:1).
Second, "social justice" is entirely different from biblical justice. It is a severely abridged and often badly twisted notion of legal equity--dealing mainly with matters like economics, social privilege, and civil rights. In recent years, a plethora of politically correct causes have been added to the menu, including global warming, animal rights, abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, gender fluidity, war, immigration, socialism, and a cornucopia of similar issues borrowed from the political left.
Historically, social justice advocates have not concerned themselves much if at all with other vital aspects of biblical justice, including the moral content of the law (particularly biblical standards of sexual purity); condign punishment for evildoers (Gen. 9:6; Rom. 13:4; Matt. 26:52); and the duty and privilege of work (2 Thess. 3:10).
To be clear, there is no single authoritative definition of "social justice." Definitions abound from those who are promoting the terminology. But there are common themes that run through virtually all of them. Here are a couple of typical samples: "Social justice is a political and philosophical concept which holds that all people should have equal access to wealth, health, well-being, justice and opportunity." And "Social justice is the equal access to wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society."
Those familiar with neo-Marxist rhetoric will recognize the themes. Indeed, the derivation and connotations of the expression "social justice" are rooted in secular political and academic dialogues rather than in biblical ideas about divine justice. The rhetoric of social justice has gradually migrated from the radical far left by a dialectical process. Early in that process, the language was baptized and the worldview was given a religious veneer replete with a name: Liberation Theology. The same language and rhetoric were brought into evangelical circles through groups like Sojourners and the Emerging Church movement. Then it was disbursed through student groups like InterVarsity. And most recently it has found its way into more conservative organizations like The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel, and it seems to have been accepted by large numbers of evangelicals with great enthusiasm.
Despite the claims of its proponents, however, the popular notion of "social justice" was not derived from Scripture. It actually began among people well known for their hostility to biblical authority--and the pedigree is not at all difficult to trace.
The dangers of this world-view's influence are not really hard to see, either. Read the chatter in social media and you'll regularly encounter young fair-weather evangelicals who say they have abandoned (or are in the process of abandoning) their evangelical convictions now that they are "woke." Even some of the respected evangelical leaders who have lately become enthralled with "social justice" seem to have fallen silent on the issue of abortion--an easily quantifiable injustice that is responsible for the deaths of more disadvantaged and defenseless children each day than all the unjust police shootings of the past fifty years combined.
When the Statement on Social Justice denies "that true justice can be culturally defined or that standards of justice that are merely socially constructed can be imposed with the same authority as those that are derived from Scripture," it is referring to this fact: "Social justice" is not biblical justice.
[Editorial Note: This is the second post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]
Article 2: The Imago Dei
WE AFFIRM that God created every person equally in his own image. As divine image-bearers, all people have inestimable value and dignity before God and deserve honor, respect and protection. Everyone has been created by God and for God.
WE DENY that God-given roles, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, sex or physical condition or any other property of a person either negates or contributes to that individual's worth as an image-bearer of God.
The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, after proclaiming the highest view of Scripture, affirms, briefly but forcefully, the reality of the creation of mankind, all ethnicities, all tribes, all peoples, in the imago Dei, the image of God. While this affirmation would have been supercilious only a few centuries ago, today, especially in Western culture, it is not only necessary, it is almost startling.
Christianity's doctrine of man has always been grounded in the reality of God as Creator. The entirety of the narrative of salvation in the Christian Scriptures, the Bible, is based upon God's power and might seen most importantly in His being called "Creator." Since God is the origin and source of all things, He defines them, gives them meaning, and this is the ground we have of confidence in being able to obtain true knowledge of the universe around us and even of our own selves. Without a Creator, we are left awash in a vast expanse that is random and chaotic.
As the West has worked very hard to distance its thought from the idea of a Creator (most often so as to allow for sexual license and expression) the concurrent result has been a diminishment in its view of man. Man is now barely distinguishable from the animals, a cosmic accident without transcendent value or worth. Once this view of man becomes entrenched, the entire basis of law must shift away from that provided by the Christian faith in the past.
Once the basis of law moves away from its historic roots, of necessity all definitions and concepts of "justice" must be altered as well. So much of the current controversy is due to just this: what is just and right in a world created by God indwelt by His creatures who are endued with His image will differ greatly from what is just and right in a random, purposeless, accidental world filled with random animals fighting for survival and dominance. The Christian worldview with its wise and powerful Creator has grounds for asserting man's transcendent worth as man bears God's image. As this conviction becomes more remote in the consciousness of Western societies, grave changes will result.
The Christian conviction that all men and women together share the imago Dei is central to the gospel message preached by Jesus and the Apostles. The means by which God brings His people to redemption is found in the cross of Jesus Christ. There the elect of God, joined to Christ by the Father's divine sovereignty (John 6:37-35), are joined to His death in their place. There is not one death for men, another for women, one for one ethnicity and another for others. The fact that there is but one sacrifice for "men from every tribe, tongue, people and nation" (Revelation 5:9-10) is strong evidence of the universal reality of the equality of men and women before God: both in their sinfulness, and in their redemption. Therefore, in those times past when Christians allowed themselves to be influenced more by their cultural concepts than by Scriptural categories, and the gospel was in any way altered by ethnic concepts, hindered by racial prejudices, or watered down in its application, God was not glorified and the church was substantially damaged. This was, and remains, sin. The gospel of Jesus Christ affirms by its very nature, provision, and demands, the imago Dei's universal character across all ethnic and cultural lines. The same Son of God had to give Himself completely for each and every one of His elect people. Few things could confirm the true equality of the peoples like the gospel!
Just as the positive affirmation enshrined in the Statement reflects these theological realities, the negative statement is concerned to protect these truths from redefinition or distortion. The imago Dei is neither negated by, nor added to, by one's external circumstances. The powerful are not more like God because of their power, the poor not less (or more!) like Him in their poverty. No nation bestows upon its citizens a closer resemblance to the Creator, a greater level of image-bearing, and surely no ethnicity can, or should, make such a claim. Every attempt by such groups in the past to lay claim to this divine truth with that kind of very human deviation deserves prompt and thorough repudiation.
While the Christian does not bear more of the image of God than the non-Christian, in and through Christ that image is restored and made right with God. But that does not make the Christian more human, but instead makes him or her a redeemed human with the promise that, eventually, all that detracts from the fulness of the display of that image will be removed and we will be changed to be like Christ in His fulness. But this is always a work of grace and comes to us from outside, not on the basis of merit, but solely upon that of mercy, grace, and love.
While this portion of the Statement is indeed brief, it is foundational to all that comes thereafter in its affirmation of the only ground of true equality that mankind could ever need: the fact that each man, woman and child is made in the image of God and is therefore worthy of respect and honor. The farther societies move away from this divine and biblical truth the greater will be the probability, even the necessity, of degradation, the loss of liberty, and the rise of concepts of ethnic or national superiority.
James White is the director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, a Christian apologetics organization based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of more than twenty books, a professor, an accomplished debater, and an elder of the Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church.
Pope Francis' recent and much-publicized change of the Catholic church's position on the death penalty presents a challenge in the realm of theological and ethical reasoning. His rationale for denouncing the death penalty, according to the Vatican statement, is that "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person."1 On the contrary, we should maintain that God's truth in inviolable, and let it form our understanding of justice. Pope Francis' argument is problematic because it runs contrary to the Scripture's witness on the connection of justice and anthropology.
With regard to justice, there is a whole conceptual change indicated in Pope Francis' position. A traditional conception of justice regarding murder or similarly heinous crimes is that death is a just penalty, and to give a lesser penalty is mercy. This is no slight to mercy, for God is both just and merciful, and mercy is to be commended. But mercy and justice must not be confused.
The conceptual change necessarily implied by Francis' stance is that capital punishment is unjust; justice must then be found at some lesser punishment, and mercy (presumably) at a punishment less severe than that. For it is assuredly unjust to "attack...the inviolability and dignity of the person." If that is, indeed, the nature of the death penalty, then it is a sin to execute a criminal for any crime, an act of profound injustice. However--as I have already noted--this understanding runs into insurmountable problems in light of the biblical witness.
Regarding theological anthropology, we need to first recognize that the pope's opposition to the death penalty is grounded in a concept of human dignity built on a premise of inviolability--meaning that the human life must not be taken as penalty for a crime. The human person is the central concern, and justice is determined based on anthropology. But is this the correct approach, and is the implicit anthropology sound?
Certainly, human dignity is a factor of tremendous significance in ethics. Humans are made in the imago Dei and have a blessed standing at the height of God's creation. The Fall had a cataclysmic effect on human life, but did not obliterate the dignity with which we were invested by God's creative work. So the problem is not with applying human dignity to the question of criminal justice, but with how that application is made. In the case of Francis' ethics, we see a secularization of the imago Dei, where theological anthropology becomes anthropocentric instead of theocentric.
In Scripture--indeed, the same book in Scripture--God first reveals to us that He made mankind in His own image (Genesis 1:27) and that He decreed the death penalty in the case of murder (9:6). This observation puts advocates of the pope's stance in the perilous position of maintaining that God, having established the basis of human dignity (which they regard as inviolable) proceeded to legislate what in their view can only be regarded as gross injustice.
We also find that the Mosaic law, given by God to the people of Israel, legislates the death penalty for numerous crimes. It is important to note that the first statement of a death penalty, in Genesis, is in agreement with the legal code laid out further in the Pentateuch.
It is not irrelevant to point out that this is precisely where Pope Francis has displayed careless exegesis in the past. In another statement that garnered considerable media attention, in 2016, he declared that "The commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' has absolute value and applies both to the innocent and to the guilty."2 But even a cursory examination of the context of the sixth commandment shows that it refers not to all killing but to murder, and that it stands in a legislative code that prescribes the death penalty for numerous crimes.
My point is not that the presence of the death penalty in the Mosaic legislation automatically requires the death penalty in modern American legislation. We are not ancient Israel, we are not governed by the Mosaic law, and a variety of hermeneutical issues need to be considered when applying the Mosaic legislation to contemporary situations. My point, however, is that one certainly cannot make the sixth commandment an argument against the death penalty. It is exegetically indefensible for one to attempt to do so. Instead, we must acknowledge the place of the death penalty in a law code established by God.
The Scriptures must be heard both contextually and in their whole witness; only then will they properly form our theological ethics. What we must observe from the Scriptures is that human dignity is not given as an argument against the death penalty--it is given as the basis for the death penalty (Gen. 9:6; Lev. 17:21). Because humans have been made in the image of God, the heinous crime of murder deserves the severest of penalties--namely, the death of the murderer.
Human dignity, in other words, is connected with justice. God, who created us in His image, established the implication of the imago Dei--that murder should not be treated lightly, but regarded as an offense deserving death. Human life is not, then, inviolable where justice is concerned. A properly theocentric theological anthropology must take this into account.
By contrast, the pope's stance strikes one as a secularized, anthropocentric theological anthropology. Human dignity has become an end in itself, and stands in an ethical position not obviously different from the prevailing secular conception of justice. Western culture has taken a turn to where we are more and more seeing a confusion of concepts: that mercy is justice, and justice is injustice. Pope Francis, with his anthropocentric anthropology, is playing into this mischaracterization of justice.
The point of this essay is not to argue for the death penalty. A Christian may reasonably argue that the death penalty should be opposed because of the New Covenant priority of mercy, or because our justice system is too corrupt and biased to be trusted with such a severe responsibility. Whether either of those lines arguments would prove ultimately reliable remains to be shown, but they are both plausible theological rationales.
What is not theologically reasonable is arguing against the death penalty on the basis of inviolable human dignity. It is unfortunate that arguments against the death penalty are so often not focused on prioritizing mercy but on a shifting understanding of justice. When inviolable human dignity is the driving factor, the death penalty is regarded not as a true and severe justice (which we should perhaps not enforce), but as a barbaric and unjust measure. Theologically, such a position, while not explicitly Marcionite, has definite Pseudo-Marcionite implications.
We must keep our theological anthropology, and its implications for ethics, centered on God. When God is not in the center, humanity becomes all-encompassing. But our dignity is theologically grounded, and our telos is theocentric. Creature-centered ethics do not give adequate attention to the identity and purposes of the Creator. That is where Pope Francis' theological anthropology shows its glaring weakness.
1. "Pope declares death penalty inadmissible, changing Church's stance," CNN, 08/02/18.
2. "There's no excuse for it: Pope Francis on the death penalty," Catholic News Agency, 06/22/16.
Josh Steely is the pastor of Pontoon Baptist Church in Pontoon Beach, IL. Josh received his BA from Wheaton College and his MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
In addition to the many rich theological insights one will glean from working through Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics, there are equally profound sociological observations from which we could benefit today. When he came to tackle the question of crime and punishment in a society that has cast off biblical definitions of God and sin, Bavinck made the following profound observation about the inevitable consequences and implications regarding criminals in such a society. He wrote:
"The decline of the ancient Christian worldview has also resulted in the modification, indeed the abolition and banishment of the concepts of good and evil, responsibility and accountability, guilt and punishment. Along with belief in the justice of God, belief in justice on earth disappeared as well. Atheism proved to be the annihilation of all justice and morality: no God, no master. The modern, positivist, evolutionistic worldview, after all, though it cannot deny the fact that there is something like good and evil, sin and virtue, guilt and punishment, looks at and attempts to explain these things very differently. Sin and crime are not traceable to the evil will of individual persons, are not their responsibility nor imputable to them personally, but are, generally speaking, remnants or aftereffects of the animal ancestry of humans and to be explained in terms of their nature or of their environment.
...Others regarded every criminal case separately and individually and viewed criminals as victims of heredity, people who stayed behind in the evolutionary process...[and] crime as a symptom of social disease, a necessary product of circumstances, a consequence of ignorance, poverty, poor upbringing, and heredity...From this position, naturally, it becomes impossible to maintain the justice and essential character of punishment. For if crime can, in fact, be totally traced to the innate animal nature of humans or to the environment in which they grew up, and their own evil nature need not or may not be taken into account, criminals are completely free of blame, and society loses all right to punish them. Rightly considered, the roles are even totally reversed. Criminals have nothing on their conscience vis-à-vis society, but society bears an enormous burden of guilt toward them...Society has failed to nurture and educate them into civilized moral beings. Just as nowadays many educationists tell us that the parents are to blame for the badness of their children, so also many criminologists have adopted the opinion that society is to blame for its criminals.
It is difficult, however, to be consistent in this connection. For then we would have to pity criminals and imprison society as the really guilty party. But since this is impracticable, people commit two inconsistencies. The first is that they accuse society of every possible injustice; the criminal is excused, defended, sometimes even praised and glorified, but to modern criminologists, educationists, and sociologists, society is proportionately all the worse. No words are sharp enough to condemn it, no columns of print long or wide enough to properly castigate it. But if in the case of crime the evil will, personal responsibility, accountability, and culpability may not at all be considered, where do people then derive the right to bring all these ethical factors to bear in the case of society? Criminals can only be the persons they are, but can society be other than it is? Does society not have a past to which it is bound, from which it came into being? Does society have a free will, the very thing that is denied to all its members personally? Clearly, those who throw away ethical standards in the case of the crime of the individual cannot again pick them up when it concerns that of society."
1. Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2006). Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Vol. 3, pp. 163-165). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Our East Lansing community is grieving, hurting, and reeling in light of the revelations that emerged these past weeks regarding heinous atrocities committed in our community over the past twenty years. That this would happen anywhere is painful; that is happened in our community feels devastating. To say that we are distraught would be an understatement of epic proportions. As a university church, we especially feel intertwined with these events. Yesterday, during our worship service, we called on the Lord in light of recent events. Please join us in prayer.
"Should any one be disposed to ask, Where then is that spirit of meekness and gentleness with which the Scripture elsewhere informs us he shall be endued? Is. 42:2-3; 61:1-2; I answer, that, as a shepherd is gentle towards his flock, but fierce and formidable towards wolves and thieves; in like manner, Christ is kind and gentle towards those who commit themselves to his care, while they who wilfully and obstinately reject his yoke, shall feel with what awful and terrible power he is armed. In Ps 2:9, we saw that he had in his hand an iron scepter, by which he will beat down all the obduracy of his enemies; and, accordingly, he is here said to assume the aspect of cruelty, with the view of taking vengeance upon them. Wherefore it becomes us carefully to refrain from provoking his wrath against us by a stiff-necked and rebellious spirit, when he is tenderly and sweetly inviting us to come to him."