Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
— Galatians 2:10
One of the strangest developments of late in the ongoing scrums over the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of “social justice” is the shifts in understanding by various evangelical tribes and movements of the distinctions and connections between law and gospel. “Just preach the gospel” has become a frequent rebuke heard from camps who are concerned about the muddling of gospel and works.
To be clear and fair, not everyone concerned about emphases on social justice agrees with the alleged antidote of “just preaching the gospel,” but this imperative has been leveled enough — and from some places of influence — that it has gained a fair amount of traction. Also to be fair, the muddling of gospel and works is always a threat to real Christianity, and nobody is immune. We must take care not to confuse any works, be they works we call “social justice” or simply “love of neighbor,” with the finished work of Jesus Christ, lest we inadvertently come to “preach ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:5). (This is the most glaring problem with the recent social justice statement originating from Union Seminary. Among its numerous problems — like its denials of biblical inerrancy and Christian exclusivity — it affirms a false gospel.)
I believe that the frequent charge against many advocating “social justice” that they are advocating for a/the social gospel is overstated, and yet the social gospel is not a figment of a fundamentalist’s imagination. It is a real message and was — and, especially among progressive types and mainliners, still is — a real danger.
At this point I put my gospel-centered bona fides on the table. I would hope that my writing both online and in print, and my pulpit and public ministries over the last fifteen years would demonstrate I am opposed to the conflation of our work with Christ’s. The gospel is not its implications. And yet — and yet! — to preach an implications-free gospel is in essence to strip Christ’s Lordship from his salvation. “Just preach the gospel” is not the full counsel of God’s word.
So below I offer 5 reasons why clear application of the gospel is important and why in fact declaring an implications-free gospel is spiritually perilous. I know this does not answer each and every critic of the social justice movement, and nor does it represent every advocate — because both critics and advocates represent much diversity in perspectives — but I hope it will serve to give many of us pause before we confuse both the gospel with its entailments (on the one hand) or confuse gospel-centeredness with gospel-only-ness (on the other).
1. The gospel does not exist in a theological vacuum.
The ministry of Jesus Christ which saves us had a cultural and missiological context. The Scriptures that for thousands of years testified to him are a substantive foundation for understanding all of his works, both teaching and doing, in the four Gospels. And the extrapolation of his atoning work by the apostles in the rest of the New Testament represent an important “and then what?” — both for our thinking and our doing — that the Holy Spirit determined we should feed on as God’s very words.
We need only look at the substantive testimony of the prophets to Israel and to the kings/nations in the Old Testament to see how much time is spent specifically rebuking and calling to repentance the powers that be in order to see the precedent is biblical.
Jesus’ longest sermon (Matthew 5-7) and one of his longest parables (Luke 10:25-37) are almost entirely about love of neighbor in the face of cultural-religious opposition and systemic injustice/corruption.
All of that is to say, Jesus did not come simply preaching the gospel as idea but the gospel as kingdom. One need only consider Paul’s words in Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15 to see how expansive the finished work of Christ really is, just how much it is supposed to impact. For several years now, we’ve had certain corners of the church warning us about neglect of holiness and the law, scolding what they see as “cheap grace” and bloodless belief. Now many in these same corners are insisting that just the gospel message will do the trick against ethnic divisions or other sins. You rarely hear this imperative in response to the challenges of illegal immigration or the systemic injustice of abortion. Perhaps it’s because those issues do not effect us — or indict us — as directly. Nevertheless, it is interesting how “just preach the gospel” is said to be sufficient for the problems associated with social injustice but apparently isn’t sufficient to solve the problem of “social justice warrioring.” But that’s an irony to explore another time.
2. The Bible commands works.
This is the most facile point to make and the one that should be the most unnecessary. Does the Bible actually outline implications of the gospel? Are the moral imperatives of Scripture binding on Christians? Is the whole of Scripture sufficient for reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16)? Is faith proved by its works (James 2:17-18)?
If the answer to all of those questions is yes, then even as we hold the central message distinct from its entailments, we nevertheless have no right to disconnect them.
This does not mean the imperatives can do what the indicatives can do. It doesn’t mean that the law has any power to give us on its behalf. That power can only come from the gospel. And yet the one true gospel empowers its implications. We are created for good works. It is good and right and biblical to teach that.
3. The gospel is adorned and amplified by its implications.
If the Lord wanted us to have an unadorned gospel, we would not need Romans 12-16, 1 Corinthians 3-16, 2 Corinthians 5-13, the second halves of Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and so on. What I mean is, if the gospel is not simply central but isolatable, we can lop off huge portions of the New Testament, not to mention gigantic swaths of the Old. Do you want to go back to the “ask Jesus into your heart” gospel? Because that’s where the implications-free teaching goes. To fail to urge “obedience to the gospel” (1 Peter 4:17) is to rob Scripture of riches, the gospel of raiment, and God of glory. In Galatians 2, as Paul is recounting the “getting on the same page” with the apostles before him, he mentions that a prevailing concern of theirs on his mission is that he remembered the poor. Why? Because while the imperatives aren’t the message that saves, they are nevertheless imperative to the mission to save!
I know within the larger conversation there are hundreds of smaller, more specific subjects to address. Many critics of social justice advocacy do not say we should avoid teaching imperatives. (They either simply don’t think that the problems of social justice are real or that the particular imperatives proposed are the right ones.) But many folks do appear to be saying we ought to avoid imperatives. I see it from influential teachers and Jane and Joe Pew-sitters alike. Some do say or suggest we ought to “just preach the gospel.” And while it seems sound and even sounds “gospel-centered,” it forgets that the gospel, if it’s real, has a multitude of implications that follow in the wake of our belief.
4. If we do not apply it biblically, we leave it to others to do so heretically.
Perhaps you’ve seen the provocative and tragic photo from history of the KKK members standing beneath a banner that declares “Jesus Saves.” The sobering truth is that many of our religious forefathers and theological heroes had tremendous blind spots — and even some willfull unrepentant positions in the face of correction — as a result of poor application or no application of the gospel to cultural ills and systemic injustices. “Just preaching the gospel” did not appear to cure many of the racism enmeshed within a very Protestant white culture in the historic American South. (The photo in question actually comes from Portland, Oregon, interestingly enough.) Why do we suspect we are any more spiritually evolved than they? We look up to them so much, and yet we suspect we need less exhortation than they.
I do not believe the vast majority of those criticize the so-called social justice movement do so out of racial animus. And yet the reality is that if we do not teach the full counsel of God’s word, and hold people specifically accountable to it, we give false assurances and enable all manner of hard-heartedness. Many of these critics lead or covenant in churches that practice biblical church discipline of unrepentant members. In such cases, they realize “just preach the gospel” is not sufficient; the gospel must be applied biblically, or it can be taken for granted by some that it does not speak to specific areas of their life.
I know the objection will be that nobody really believes we shouldn’t help people apply the gospel to the obedience that proves they believe it. But the way so many only do this for selective areas of concern leads me to think we are more okay with some sins than others. Typically we are less okay with the sins of others and more lenient with any exhortation to repentance that indicts ourselves. Which leads to the final point:
5. “Just preach the gospel” becomes selectively applied and leads to hypocrisy.
As I said previously, it is interesting to note how the gospel alone is said to be sufficient for sins like racism and perceived social injustice, but not for the “sin” of being concerned about those sins. Indeed, I have been flummoxed by the number of people who spend lots of time rebuking liberal figures like Rachel Held Evans and Rob Bell or political opponents like Democrats or Republican “NeverTrumpers” and then turn around to say “only the gospel” will cure sins that land closer to home.
For instance, last week on Facebook I read curiously as a friend of a friend posted a lengthy and detailed “take down” of ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the foolishness of his protests, the disrespectfulness of it all, and so on and so forth. Within this diatribe he acknowledged that racism still persists in some places and people, but that protests are pointless, because “only the gospel works.” It occurred to me that it did not occur to him that he apparently didn’t think “only the gospel” would work against misguided protests. No, disrespectful protests apparently require long Facebook rants that call people spoiled, immature, and rude. That’s how you solve that problem. The implications-free gospel isn’t the solution to that.
This kind of hypocrisy is rampant on social media. We assume “just the gospel” is enough for us, while long and prolonged deconstructions, critiques, “take-downs,” and refutations are exactly needed for them. This, friends, is pride. It is arrogance. It is textbook plank-speck type stuff.
What’s the solution? Well, it’s the gospel! The gospel is the cure for sin. The gospel alone is power to justify, heal, and reconcile us. But the gospel that alone saves does not come alone. And indeed, if we cannot help each other see where we are “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14), we deny that very power, and in effect deny that very gospel.
The gospel is indeed the antidote to every sin and suffering. But “just preach the gospel” misses the mark as the solution to all manner of ills, because the good news has necessary implications that adorn and amplify it.