Results tagged “social justice” from Reformation21 Blog

Reformation 500, Social Justice and the Gospel

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This year has been a veritable Reformation-fest-- a marvelous celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (1517-2017). Protestants from all over the world have been recounting the amazing events, courageous figures, and key doctrines of the sixteenth- century movement that changed the course of history.

How can anyone tire of hearing stories about the intrepid Augustinian monk from Wittenberg, the one who bravely stood up to the formidable powers of the Roman Empire for the sake of the Gospel? Who wearies learning of John Calvin's compassionate ministry to suffering missionary- pastors in France or John Knox's courageous gospel preaching in Scotland? What about Reformation doctrine? Do the five solas ever grow dull? No way! They point us to the covenant faithfulness of God and the unsearchable riches of our Savior. Reformation 500 has been an encouragement and inspiration.

Like many, I've attended several Reformation 500 events over the last twelve months. The preaching at most of these gatherings has been soul-stirring. Again and again I've been moved by the captivating stories of magisterial Reformers risking everything for the sake of the gospel. I've been reminded of the daring recovery of essential Christian doctrine. I've also been encouraged to hold fast to the ordinary means of grace-- the divinely ordained means of Word, sacraments, and prayer. These unadorned and seemingly foolish means direct us away from a trust in our own person and work to a trust in the all-sufficient person and work of Christ.

There was one Reformation 500 message that I heard, however, that was different from the others. It was troubling both as to its content and tone; and, it did not--in any way whatsoever--communicate the good news of the Gospel. The sermon clearly demonstrated the need for further reflection upon the history and doctrine of the Reformation in our churches.

The following is a tale of two sermons-- a straightforward account of two very different Reformation 500 messages that I heard in the month of October. The sermons were preached by two different preachers with two very different emphases. By comparing the two sermons, I hope to demonstrate that the best way forward for Reformed denominations in general, and the Presbyterian Church in America in particular, is for ministers to commit to the bold and unmistakable preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ from the whole counsel of God.

The first Reformation 500 sermon that I heard was an exegetically sound and deeply compelling exposition of Scripture. The sermon was on the theme: Solus Christus [Christ Alone]. As the preacher skillfully explained the glory and majesty of Christ, I found myself captivated by the eminence and loveliness of the Savior.

The preacher masterfully set forth the supremacy of Christ. He then wondered aloud how we could ever have a relationship with such an exalted and glorious King. After all, Jesus is so magnificent, so powerful, and so holy; and we are so lowly, so weak, and so sinful. Before answering, the preacher described how the medieval Roman Catholic Church set up buffers between sinners and Christ (e.g. Mary, saints, priests) to relieve the fear of approaching Christ on our own. It was (and is) an erroneous system of co-mediators attempting to shield sinners from a transcendent, unapproachable, and wrathful Christ.

After reflecting upon this pertinent Reformation history, the preacher led us to the mountain peaks of grace as he expounded upon the High Priestly office of Christ. He explained how Christ is the one who offered himself as an atoning sacrifice for our sins on Calvary, the one who possesses bottomless wells of grace for rebel sinners, and the one who invites us by grace through faith into a saving relationship with God. Jesus Christ is the only mediator we need, and he is full of love and compassion for sinners.

Towards the end of the sermon--as the grace, truth, and beauty of Christ were on full display--it felt as though time had stopped. I was meeting Christ in his preached word. He had laid hold of me. I found myself ashamed of my sin and profoundly grateful for my Savior. It's what happens when Christ is faithfully preached.

Getting a view of Christ in the preaching that day motivated me to be a more faithful disciple as it relates to my marriage, family, calling, and outreach to the lost. Encountering Jesus in the sermon confronted my selfishness, pride, and worldly patterns of thinking. I was powerfully reminded that my true identify is in Jesus, and not in my worldly accomplishments, moral strivings, or in the way others perceive me. The sermon was a clarion call to faith in Christ.

The second Reformation sermon that I heard was very different from the first one. Regrettably, neither the gospel nor those who risked their lives to recover it were given attention. No, rather than proclaim the riches of Christ, the preacher delivered a impassioned address on racial injustice in Southern history and modern culture. Instead of focusing on the doctrines, events, and courageous men and woman of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, he presented a discourse on the evils of gentrification, income and wealth disparity, and the systemic injustice of white majority cultures. This individual explained and applied the text he was supposed to be preaching through the lenses of a form of critical race theory. It was an exercise in cultural and sociological analysis, and entirely missed the point of the passage from which he was supposed to be preaching. Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the sermon was that in lieu of the gospel, a new law was placed upon the backs of the hearers-- a new and convoluted law requiring social justice and cultural change.

Now, by no means do I want to dismiss the significant problems and serious pain caused by wicked injustices that exist in our (and every) nation's history and culture. Social injustice is as real as it is complex. We should expose and condemn it when we can, in whatever form it might take (e.g. abortion, sex trade, racism, slavery, sexual harassment, etc). Nor do I think it inappropriate for ministers to preach against the sins of our culture, and to bring biblical application on these matters--especially when a text plainly speaks to them. 

By contrasting these two sermons, I am not downplaying the wickedness of social injustice or the need to speak against it. Rather, I'm simply pleading with pastors and churches in the PCA and elsewhere to follow the lead of Christ, the Apostles, and the Reformers to make it a blood-earnest priority to keep the gospel central in our preaching and discipleship. We must not exchange the proclamation of the gospel for moralistic speeches on social justice or any other issue. The church's mission is to make disciples through the faithful proclamation of Christ from the whole counsel of God. Those disciples, actively abiding in Christ, are called to love their neighbors and bear the fruit of the gospel. The gospel is our only real hope for change. Therefore, Christ's saving action, not our social action, must be at the core of the mission and message of the church.

The gospel must never be assumed in our churches. We must boldly and clearly proclaim the gospel from our pulpits, fonts, and tables on the Lord's Day. It must be central in our discipleship ministries. Preaching and teaching the gospel is what the church is called to do. If we do not preach Christ, who will? If we lose sight of the gospel, we will walk down the same road as many mainline denominations who at one point started believing the lie that social activism outweighs the preaching of Christ in both relevance and importance. Vague affirmations of the gospel sprinkled into a spirited message on social justice will not only obscure the person and work of Christ, it will inevitably confuse the mission of the church.

Public and ecclesiastical dialogue on social justice and race have grown tremendously over the past year. It has rapidly increased in my own denomination, the PCA. Some of the discussion has been helpful. But much of it tends to exude more heat than light, and more sociology than sound theology. The purpose of this article, then, is not to expound upon the best way to preach against cultural sins or to explain how the church should be involved in social justice causes. It's to make one simple point: If our churches and denominations are to remain healthy, we cannot marginalize, negotiate, or redefine the gospel.

This year's Reformation 500-fest has served the church well. It has forced Reformed Christians everywhere to remember our rich Protestant and Reformed heritage, and to reflect upon the nature and centrality of the gospel-- the true gospel announcing redemption for wretched sinners through the penal substitutionary death and hell-conquering resurrection of the Son of God. It is that magnificent gospel which must remain paramount in our preaching, worship, discipleship, and mission.

The future health of the church depends on it.

Rev. Dr. Jon D. Payne is senior minister of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, South Carolina.

A Social Savior

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As I continue to scan the landscape of Christian social justice activism, that is, social justice-labeled activities that are said to be carried out "in the name of" Christ, I've noticed many Christian activists have a tendency to proffer to the world an image of Jesus that is tantamount to that of a sanctified social worker, a holy humanitarian, an exalted egalitarian.

This visage of Jesus as a "Social Savior" is borne of a proclivity many Christian social justice activists have to leverage the works of Christ as the primary impetus not only for individuals who profess to follow Him to do likewise, but also institutions, such as governments and corporations, so that an equitable, just, and impartial society and world, which they believe Christ envisioned for mankind, ultimately becomes reality.

It is through this paradigm that such works of Christ as healing the centurion's servant (Matt. 8:13), and the blind man (Jn. 9:6-7), and feeding more than 5,000 people on one occasion (Matt. 14:13-21) and 4,000 on another (Mk. 8:1-8), as well as His love for the poor (Luke 6:20) and the oppressed (Luke 4:18), are viewed as evidences that mandate Christians to take upon themselves, in accordance with Christ's words in Jn. 9:4, to "...work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no man can work."

This kind of sanguine worldview may seem admirable, perhaps even virtuous, to some, especially given the current milieu in which Christianity - and white evangelical Christians in particular - are being called to account for the deliberate and systematic misappropriation, to put it mildly, by their ancestors of various biblical precepts for the express purpose and intent of enslaving and otherwise oppressing black people in America.

That Christianity was practiced in such a deliberately iniquitous manner is both a sad and unarguable fact.

As author and researcher Richard Reddie notes in a 2007 BBC article on the Atlantic slave trade and abolition:

"Religion was...a driving force during slavery in the Americas. Once they arrived at their new locales the enslaved Africans were subjected to various processes to make them more compliant, and Christianity formed part of this. Ironically, although the assertion of evangelization was one of the justifications for enslaving Africans, very little missionary work actually took place during the early years. In short, religion got in the way of a moneymaking venture by taking Africans away from their work. It also taught them potentially subversive ideas and made it hard to justify the cruel mistreatment of fellow Christians."

Conversely, theologian and author Timothy Keller, in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, extols:

"Violence done in the name of Christianity is a terrible reality and must be both addressed and redressed. There is no excusing it. The typical criticisms...about the oppressiveness and injustices of the Christian church actually come from Christianity's own resources for critique of itself. The shortcomings of the church can be understood historically as the imperfect adoption and practice of the principles of the Christian gospel. Historian C. John Sommerville claims that when Anglo-Saxons first heard the Christian gospel message they were incredulous. They couldn't see how any society could survive that did not fear and respect strength. When they did convert, they were far from consistent. They tended to merge the Christian other-regarding ethic with their older ways. They supported the Crusades as a way of protecting God's honor and theirs. They let monks, women, and serfs cultivate charitable virtues, but these virtues weren't considered appropriate for men of honor and action. No wonder there is so much to condemn in church history. But to give up Christian standards would be to leave us with no basis for the criticism."

So, admittedly, there were those, including many Christians, who, while professing to be followers of the God of the Bible, appropriated the teachings of the Bible in such ungodly ways as to devalue, disparage, and destroy those who were equally the bearers of God's image (Gen. 1:27; Acts 17:26) as those who, "in the name of" God, volitionally chose to oppress, maltreat, and, on many occasions, murder them.

Be that as it may, to whatever extent the gospel was leveraged in such base and sinful ways is not the fault of Christianity. Quite the contrary. It is the fault of that which Christianity unambiguously and forthrightly addresses. Namely, the innate depravity of the human soul (Gen. 4:7, 8:21b; Eccl. 7:20; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3:23; Gal. 5:17.)

To view Jesus preeminently as a "Social Savior" is a misguided, short-sighted, and dangerous proposition, as it fails to take into account the fundamental root cause of many of the historical and contemporary socio-ethno inequities which many Christian social justice activists, particularly blacks, are seeking to redress through such propitiatory gestures as the removal of Confederate statues and monuments and the paying of reparations for slavery.

Notwithstanding the innumerable and tangible good works performed by Jesus for the practical benefit of those to whom they were graciously and mercifully imparted, those works were subsidiary to the primary reason Christ came into the world which, contrary to what many Christian social justice activists - and others - believe, was not to remedy socio-political or socio-economic inequities by improving the material, financial, or social station of those with whom He interacted, but to point people to Himself as the long-awaited Messiah.

This reality is underscored in , in which the apostle John declares:

"Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name."

A problem many Christian activists have in their pursuit of social justice is that they confuse Christians with Christ.

That is something that should never happen.

As theologian and historian Thomas J. Kidd cautions in his 2012 article titled Slavery, Historical Heroes, and "Precious Puritans":

"The Christian faith has only one perfect hero. He is our proper object, not just of emulation, but of worship. We all fall far, far short of his example."

In other words, only Jesus is Jesus. We are not.

Even in our most well-founded expectations that those who profess to believe in Jesus display a certain level of consistency in living out that belief (Eph. 5:1-2), we must never lose sight of the fact that when an individual professes faith in Christ (Rom. 10:9), it is their salvation that is instantaneous not their sanctification (1 Jn. 1:8, 10).

It is with this thought in mind that we would do well to consider the words of theologian John R.W. Stott who, in his classic work The Cross of Christ, reminds us of this spiritual reality:

"For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; whereas God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be."

Stott's words highlight the futility of espousing a Jesus who is a "Social Savior"--whose coming to earth is viewed strictly in terms of how works-righteousness (e.g. removing statues, paying slavery reparations, etc.) can be a means toward the kind of society in which justice, equity, and righteousness are normative (2 Pet. 3:13).

At the risk of disappointing many of my social justice warrior (SJW) brothers and sisters, Jesus is not a Social Savior. Christ came into the world save sinners not society (1 Tim. 1:15; Matt. 10:34-36). If the works of Christ themselves were sufficient as the model for how the kind of egalitarian social structure so zealously desired by many Christian SJWs is to be realized in today's society, the question still remains: why, then, was it necessary for Him to die?

 

Darrell Harrison is a member of Rockdale Community Church, a Reformed Baptist congregation located in the Atlanta suburb of Conyers, Georgia. Darrell is a 2013 Fellow of the Black Theology and Leadership Institute (BTLI) of Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a 2015 graduate of the Theology and Ministry program at Princeton Theological Seminary. Darrell was the first African-American to be ordained as a Deacon in the 200-year history of First Baptist Church of Covington (Georgia) where he attended from 2009 to 2015. Darrell blogs at "Just Thinking...For Myself"

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Just Thinking...

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As more and more is being written about ethnicity, I thought that I'd point our readers to the B.A.R. Podcast (Biblical And Reformed), hosted by my friend, Dawain Atkinson. Dawain has had some the most noted pastors and theologians on the show (e.g. Derek ThomasMark Dever and H.B. Charles, Jr.). Additionally, he regularly interviews Christian hip hop artists and various local pastors. Recently, he interviewed Darrel B. Harrison, a fellow of the Black Theology and Leadership Institute (BTLI) of the Princeton Theological Seminary. The biblical and theological emphasis in this particular episode brings much to the table for your consideration, in light of current discussions about race and social justice. So, do yourself the favor and go listen to the episode titled, "Just Thinking...For Myself!"