[Editorial Note: This is the sixth 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 6: Gospel
WE AFFIRM that the gospel is the divinely-revealed message concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ--especially his virgin birth, righteous life, substitutionary sacrifice, atoning death, and bodily resurrection--revealing who he is and what he has done with the promise that he will save anyone and everyone who turns from sin by trusting him as Lord.
WE DENY that anything else, whether works to be performed or opinions to be held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel. This also means that implications and applications of the gospel, such as the obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel.
Within the evangelical culture today marketing tactics often employ keywords as a means of increasing sales. There is no greater marketing term in our day than the word gospel. Many people believe that if they can somehow attach the word gospel to their product as a descriptor it will bring instant success. It's not uncommon to see people talking about gospel books, gospel marketing, gospel people, gospel diet, gospel music, and gospel issues. In the controversy on social justice, people are insisting that it's a gospel issue. In the same way that everything we disagree with isn't heresy, everything that we do agree with isn't a gospel issue.
The New Testament Greek word for gospel (εὐαγγέλιον) literally means "good news." While many have objected to "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" as being unaware of cultural evils and misinformed of how to approach the depravity of our culture, it really becomes a heated discussion when we insert the gospel. Some consider social justice a gospel issue while others would say that it's something that is acutely affected and influenced by the gospel. This is why implications, applications, and illustrations must be handled with precision and care. In most cases, both groups (woke and non-woke) evangelicals would agree on the gospel, but the real controversy comes in how the gospel is applied to a culture. In this case, the controversy is centered primarily in the denial of Article VI.
Defining our Terms
Paul made a definitive statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 as he penned his letter to the church in the city of Corinth. He provides a summary statement of the gospel by writing, "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." In Romans 1:16, Paul stated that he was not ashamed of the gospel. Robert Haldane comments on Romans 1:16 by stating:
This Gospel, then, which Paul was ready to preach, and of which he was not ashamed, was the Gospel of God concerning His Son. The term Gospel, which signifies glad tidings, is taken from Isaiah 52:7, and 61:1, where the Messiah is introduced as saying, "The Lord hath anointed Me to preach good tidings."1
The glad tidings of God (gospel) involve the glorious mystery of God's mercy and saving grace that is granted to fallen sinners through the blood sacrifice of Jesus. What better message could we be identified by and what better message could stand at the heart of our ministry? God the Son took upon himself human flesh, lived a sinless life which the first Adam failed to do, and then was crushed by the Father on the cross in the place of ruined sinners. The message of the gospel points to the fact that Jesus proved his sovereign power by the resurrection and we cling to his work alone by faith for the remission of sin. His unconditional grace is granted to all who believe--regardless of the color of skin, economic status, sex, or intellectual capabilities of the repentant sinner.
Affirming our Denial
Any statement containing affirmations and denials will bring heat in the area of what the document is intended to oppose. In the case of the gospel, while social justice is not a "gospel issue" in the sense that it's not a definitional component of the gospel--it's quite possible to insert social justice into the gospel and thereby create a specific brand of heresy (Gal. 1:6-9). In the denial, the Statement reads:
We deny that anything else, whether works to be performed or opinions to be held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel.
Within this debate on social justice, some people are suggesting that if you're not performing works of social justice (admitting systemic racism, oppression, and other injustices while working toward a solution) that you are not a true follower of Jesus.
Thabiti Anyabwile, in his sermon, "Preach Justice as True Worship" made the following statement:
"We preach and we do justice because we wish to be like our Lord and we wish to see his righteousness fill the earth. The pursuit of justice and equity does not take us from the heart of our Savior. The pursuit of justice and equity takes us deeper into the heart of our Savior. If we know God in Jesus Christ whom he has sent, then we have been instructed by wisdom. And indeed if Christ has been made to be wisdom for us, then as the proverbs say we ought to understand justice completely. We ought to understand that doing justice is essential to that worship that pleases God our father."
When I hear a statement such as this, I find so much with which I can agree completely. In fact, if you look at the whole article which comes from his sermon that's linked on the same page, you see a reference to Romans 12:1-2 and the call to becoming a "living sacrifice." If by "doing justice" Thabiti Anyabwile means that we should stand in opposition to sinful behavior, live righteously, and love our neighbor--I can agree with such a statement. If, by chance, Thabiti Anyabwile intends that we become socially and politically engaged while embracing the ideologies of white privilege, systemic racism, and the systemic oppression of women within our culture and specifically evangelicalism--I would reject his understating of worship. We can't teach Christians to assume the gospel and to emphasize justice and expect a good outcome.
Bishop Rudolph McKissick, Jr. recently posted a clip of a sermon where the following statement was made:
"Social justice is a biblical issue...it's not a black issue, it's a humanity issue. It's not a hood issue, it's a global issue. And until we understand that Jesus himself said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach liberty to the captive, to set free those who are oppressed." If that ain't social justice, I don't know what is."
Not only is that a misguided approach to biblical hermeneutics--it misses the point of Luke 4:16-30. A clear contextual reading of that account of Jesus in Nazareth will demonstrate that God often does the unexpected. Furthermore, the emphasis is placed upon the spiritual poverty and slavery to sin and how Christ delivers people from spiritual poverty rather than the social needs of individuals.
It is critical that we are crystal clear about what we believe the gospel to be, the basis of biblical worship, and the mission of the Church. If a person is not careful, mission drift can lead the local church and the local pastor off into the world of cultural Marxism and fairly soon the pulpit which was once the focal point of Christian worship is transformed into a political stump where humanitarian "do-gooder" talks are delivered to socially motivated people in the name of Jesus.
We are slaves of righteousness as children of God and we must live justly in a fallen world. However, how we live (for good or evil) has nothing to do with the definition of the gospel. How we live will be shaped by the gospel as James rightly articulated the point that "faith apart from works is dead" (James 2:26). We must not celebrate sin nor tolerate injustice--especially within the ranks of evangelicalism. Such an acceptance of evil would be the height of hypocrisy.
Tim Keller has recently spoken out against "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel," stating the following:
"It's not so much what [the statement] says, but what it does. It's trying to marginalize people talking about race and justice, it's trying to say, 'You're really not biblical' and it's not fair in that sense...If somebody tried to go down [the statement] with me, 'Will you agree with this, will you agree with this,' I would say, 'You're looking at the level of what it says and not the level of what it's doing. I do think what it's trying to do is it's trying to say, 'Don't make this emphasis, don't worry about the poor, don't worry about the injustice, that's really what it's saying.' Even if I could agree with most of it...it's what it's doing that I don't like."
What exactly is the Statement seeking to do with its words? Is the document really seeking to marginalize people who genuinely care for the poor and mobilize relief efforts to care for such individuals in the name of Christ? Is it really true that the Statement is seeking to marginalize people who oppose racism?
The Statement does have several goals and one is to separate the gospel from social justice. In fact, it would be really helpful to drop "social" as a descriptor of biblical justice altogether. It's the gospel that changes the heart of fallen depraved sinners (2 Cor. 5:17). Only through the power of the gospel can a dead sinner be given life. This is a work of God's saving grace and we must remember that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17).
How Does the Gospel Produce the Fruit of Righteousness and Justice?
The mission of the gospel is to bring depraved sinners into reconciliation with God (2 Cor. 5:17-6:2). Reconciliation only happens through the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16). Preaching justice will lead people to fear the sword in the hand of the government (Rom. 13:1-7). Preaching the gospel will lead people to fear God who is bigger than the government (Rom. 3:18; 2 Cor. 5:11).
When Amy Carmichael went to serve in India, she was no jewelry-laden prosperity preacher nor was she a low-beam humanitarian aid servant. She was a high-beam bright light in India who served children and broken women with the gospel of Jesus. Yet, as she witnessed the Hindu suttee and heard the cries of women being burned alive (Hindu people believed that women should want to die when their husbands died, so as they burned the body of the widow's husband, they would place her on the funeral pyre of her dead husband) she engaged in the pursuit of justice for these women and labored to stop this practice. Her engagement was motivated by her gospel mission in India.
John Paton was convinced that the gospel had the power to change the heart of even the hardest sinner. As he penned his autobiography, he wanted to prove his point to the sophisticated Europeans who had a low view of the power of the gospel. As he recounted what he had witnessed in his ministry, he penned the following account of the conversion of Kowia, a chief on Tanna. When he was dying he came to say farewell to Paton.
"Farewell, Missi, I am very near death now; we will meet again in Jesus and with Jesus!"...Abraham sustained him, tottering to the place of graves; there he lay down...and slept in Jesus; and there the faithful Abraham buried him beside his wife and children. Thus died a man who had been a cannibal chief, but by the grace of God and the love of Jesus changed, transfigured into a character of light and beauty. What think ye of this, ye skeptics as to the reality of conversion?...I knew that day, and I know now, that there is one soul at least from Tanna to sing the glories of Jesus in Heaven--and, oh, the rapture when I meet him there!2
When Jim Elliot and his missionary partners never called out on their radio after their encounter with the savage Auca Indians in the jungle of Ecuador, the wives of these men feared the worst. After a search team was sent into the jungle to locate the men, they found their bodies. They had been attacked and killed by the Indians as they sought to reach them with the gospel. Less than two years later Elisabeth Elliot (the wife of Jim Elliot) and her daughter Valerie along with Rachel Saint (Nate's sister) moved to the Auca village. The once savage people were transformed by the gospel and today they are a friendly tribe. It was a commitment to the gospel that radically changed the Auca tribe even resulting in the change of their name to the Huaorani tribe.
As the local church is committed to the gospel (from preaching to discipleship)--hearts are changed and it results in a more just and equitable society. The Church of Jesus is committed to doing justice, but justice can't change a person's heart and biblical justice cannot be disconnected from the gospel. While justice is not the gospel, true biblical justice is connected to our God and you can't have the gospel without God. Social justice leads people toward humanitarian work and social engagement while the gospel leads the Church to put their faith into action. When the gospel changes a person's heart it will lead them to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly for the glory of God (Micah 6:8; 1 Cor. 10:31).
1. Robert Haldane, An Exposition of Romans, electronic ed. (Simpsonville, SC: Christian Classics Foundation, 1996), 55.
2. John Paton, The Autobiography of the Pioneer Missionary to the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2013), 160.
Dr. Josh Buice serves as the pastor of Pray's Mill Baptist Church in Douglasville, Georgia -- just west of Atlanta. He is the founding director of the G3 Conference, the author of the theology blog DeliveredByGrace.com. Dr. Buice studied at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned his M.Div. and D.Min. in expository preaching.