Reformation 500, Social Justice and the Gospel
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.