The Master’s Seminary recently published an excellent article examining the connection between Jesus’ victory as described in Daniel 7, and the Great Commission that He gave to His followers upon His ascension into Heaven. Despite its brevity, the article included several brilliant parallels that I had never previously seen, so I appreciate and highly recommend the read.
At the end however, the author presented several areas of application, the last of which emphasized guarding against a focus on social justice. As an evangelical Christian who regularly emphasizes issues of social justice, I naturally took note of the objection. The article reads,
One of the dangers that the “social justice gospel” poses to the Great Commission is that it assumes the church is responsible to change the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. The church is responsible to bear witness to the One who will change the world, not change it itself. Granted, through our witness, some people will change, and we praise God for it. But that is never the goal stated in Scripture; that is merely a byproduct. When the church switches its primary role as a witness to an activist, it robs Jesus of the glory He deserves when He finally returns to take back the world. If the church makes it its mission to change the world, it will always fail. What’s more, it will fail to be the church. When Matthew 28 and Acts 1 anchor the Great Commission in Daniel 7, it reminds us that Christ is the hero, not the church. Jesus will save the day, not us. We are just God’s ambassadors asking the world to join us in celebrating the future victory of His beloved Son.
I would like to respond to a few statements made in this concluding point, as it features several recurring themes that I commonly hear from evangelical leaders who engage with the social justice agendas of our age.
To be clear up front, despite being a social justice activist and political candidate, I too share many of the same concerns expressed by evangelical leaders in documents such as The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel, etc. There is a great departure from the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ being perpetrated through promises of social justice, and that needs to be addressed without compromise or equivocation.
In my understanding of the issue however, “social justice” as a description of human endeavors is neither christian or non-christian. It’s like science — people can do work in scientific fields, and do so from a biblical or secular worldview. The person’s worldview will shape the work that’s done, and ultimately all true knowledge comes from the God who reveals Himself in scripture, so all true science will ultimately rest on biblical principles. However that doesn’t stop secularists from describing their own work with the same label.
Similarly, there is no true justice or human rights apart from the God of the Bible, but secularists will nevertheless attempt to do work in the area of human rights and social justice, despite cutting out the foundation. In my view therefore, the true conflict isn’t between the gospel and social justice as a whole, but rather between biblical and unbiblical endeavors in the field of social justice. Because so many people in the younger generations are sensitive to the injustices of our world, I believe the evangelical church will miss an opportunity to reach many of them for Christ if we do not engage them on that battle ground, by producing and defending a robust theology and practice in the domain of social justice.
Toward that end, I’ll engage with the article’s author on his final points, but with tremendous respect for the biblical quality of his article, and with an eye for mutual edification and building of Christ’s church. As Tom Ascol wrote in the above Statement,
For this reason, We have spoken on these issues with no disrespect or loss of love for our brothers and sisters who disagree with what we have written. Rather, our hope is that this statement might actually provoke the kind of brotherly dialogue that can promote unity in the gospel of our Lord Jesus whom we all love and trust.
My Platform: REPENT
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. (Jhn 3:16-19)
Futurism & Social Justice
The term “futurism” in eschatology (the study of end times) tends to refer to those who view a significant amount of biblical prophecy as being fulfilled in future times, rather than past ages of redemptive history. Many Christians in the debate over social justice will agree that scripture speaks of a future time of increased (or total) justice upon the earth (citing e.g. Isa 42:1-2). The question is how much justice should be expected before the return of Christ, and what role Christians should play in bringing about that justice.
The Master’s Seminary article seems to be written from a strongly futurist perspective regarding the establishment of social justice. It reads,
The church is responsible to bear witness to the One who will change the world, not change it itself… We are just God’s ambassadors asking the world to join us in celebrating the future victory of His beloved Son.
This seems to reflect a view that places all intentional efforts toward social justice in the domain of Jesus’ future work through His second coming, while placing none of it in the hands of Jesus’ current work through His church. The author acknowledges that some increase of justice will come as a byproduct of our christian witness, but it should not be an intentional goal of the church.
Aside from theological/biblical issues that I have with this perspective, it becomes difficult for me to embrace a completely futurist view of social justice when I look at what the church has already accomplished through intentional efforts to alleviate various injustices in society. Thomas Clarkson, the renowned British abolitionist of slavery, wrote the following in his History:
There has been always, in all times and countries, a counteracting energy, which has opposed itself, more or less, to the crimes and miseries of mankind. But it seems to have been reserved for Christianity to increase this energy, and to give it the widest possible domain. It was reserved for her, under the same divine influence, to give the best views of the nature and of the present and future condition of man; to afford the best moral precepts, to communicate the most benign stimulus to the heart, to produce the most blameless conduct, and thus to cut off many of the causes of wretchedness, and to heal it wherever it was found. At her command, wherever she has been duly acknowledged, many of the evils of life have already fled. The prisoner of war is no longer led into the amphitheatre to become a gladiator, and to imbrue his hands in the blood of his fellow-captive for the sport of a thoughtless multitude. The stern priest, cruel through fanaticism and custom, no longer leads his fellow-creature to the altar to sacrifice him to fictitious gods. The venerable martyr, courageous through faith and the sanctity of his life, is no longer hurried to the flames. The haggard witch, poring over her incantations by moon-light, no longer scatters her superstitious poison among her miserable neighbours, nor suffers for her crime.
But in whatever way Christianity may have operated towards the increase of this energy, or towards a diminution of human misery, it has operated in none more powerfully than by the new views and consequent duties, which it introduced on the subject of charity, or practical benevolence and love… [Jesus] was the first who broke down the boundary between Jew and Gentile, and, therefore, the first who pointed out to men the inhabitants of other countries, for the exercise of their philanthropy and love… To Christianity alone we are indebted for the new and sublime spectacle, of seeing men going beyond the bounds of individual usefulness to each other; of seeing them associate for the extirpation of private and public misery; and of seeing them carry their charity, as a united brotherhood, into distant lands.
Thomas Clarkson describes several examples of grievous injustices being abolished by the work of the church. Whatever may be argued about the intentionality of early Christians in ending abortion, infanticide, gladiatorial games etc., the abolitionists of slavery were provably intentional in their work to end slavery, and they did so under the banner of the gospel, and practical christian charity.
So for me, as I try to understand what happened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I have to either conclude that God abolished great evil through a false gospel and/or churches with a misguided mission, or I have to conclude that a focus on social injustice is at the very least compatible with (not at odds with) the gospel and mission of the church. In either case, unless we want to start calling good evil, and evil good, it seems irrefutable that an increase of true, biblical justice in the world is possible before the return of Christ, and a strict futurist interpretation is therefore ill advised when we look at the evidence of history.
Strict futurism would also seem unlikely when we look at how God deals with sin in an individual believer’s life. We know that a believer will be freed from all influence of the sin nature when he is resurrected with Christ in glory. Prior to that point however, while the believer is still on the earth, should we expect to find sin progressively abolished from his life and character?
If the author applied the same reasoning to personal sin that he does to public sin, then the answer would be “no, that would rob Jesus of the glory He deserves. Christ is the hero, not the believer. Jesus will save the day, not us.” In other words, we shouldn’t wrestle against the flesh because any victory we have would steal glory from Jesus, and give it to us. Rather, we should just keep on sinning until we are glorified. Paul of course countered this line of reasoning,
But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come? — as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just. (Rom 3:7-8)
Such a viewpoint of course fails to recognize that the struggle between the Spirit and the flesh within an individual life intrinsically gives glory to Jesus, who gave us the Spirit of regeneration. Without Christ, we would have no victory over sin; therefore all glory goes to Him, whether a particular sin is abolished in this life or the next.
So in the question of public, national sin, do we have biblical reason to expect that the Lord treats it differently than He does personal sin — specifically in the timing of its abolition? Is it reasonable to think that unlike personal sin, the Lord will only abolish national sins at His second coming, or as an unintentional byproduct of His people’s proclamatory work in the world? Or should we expect to see Him abolish some injustices in this age, over the course of church history, as temples of His Holy Spirit “wrestle against…the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places?”
I think the latter expectation would better explain what we see the church do throughout history. The abolition of slavery, of infanticide, of all kinds of gross evil gave tremendous glory to Jesus Christ, because it was His work, done through His people, wrestling against the powers of darkness through His Spirit.
Justice, Mercy, and the Kingdom of Heaven
Justice, Mercy, and the Kingdom of Heaven is an abolitionist commentary on the gospel of Matthew which is being developed as an ongoing project. It reflects many of the ideas undergirding the abolitionist movement today, developing how they interleave with a verse-by-verse study of the Bible.
A common theme in today’s movies and television shows involves asking and answering the question of how to establish justice in the private and public realms. Often a plotline will involve solving a purported injustice done to the protagonist. Even more compelling, some heroes will work to establish justice for others, namely the downtrodden and the oppressed.
An example of this is the popular Star Wars franchise which has featured this theme prominently for decades, especially in recent years. Despite their Eastern blurring of the moral line between the dark and light sides of “the Force,” each episode nevertheless contains a conflict between those who are fighting for good things — freedom from tyranny, peace, the right to survive etc. — and those who oppose such goals in pursuit of selfish gain.
In nearly every cinematic production of this theme, a moralistic philosophy undergirds the method by which justice is established for the victim. There are good people (typically without power), and there are bad people (typically with power). If the good people remain committed to the cause, then against all odds they can outwit and overcome the bad people through their own wisdom, strength and endurance… (read more)
Mission of the Church
When a social justice advocate brings forward the historic examples of christian justice, or various biblical commands toward justice and mercy, an objector will typically then make a distinction between the work of individual Christians, and that of a local fellowship of believers. Often the reply will go something like this, “Yes Christians may engage in works of social justice, but churches are to remain focused on preaching the gospel and teaching disciples.” This seems to be the view of the article’s author, who uses Daniel 7 and the Great Commission to argue that the primary role of the church is that of a “witness.”
The church is responsible to bear witness to the One who will change the world, not change it itself… When the church switches its primary role as a witness to an activist, it robs Jesus of the glory He deserves… [and] it will fail to be the church… We are just God’s ambassadors asking the world to join us in celebrating the future victory of His beloved Son.
I’m not sure that I fully understand what difference the author sees between being a witness and being an activist. In my political and cultural activism, I am constantly warning my hearers about the wrath of God that is mounting against our nation, and urging them to repent and obey the gospel in all areas of life, including their public policy.
Regardless, it is certainly interesting to consider the line between individual christian work, and that of the local church, so we will examine the argument in detail. However I’m not sure that it ultimately undermines what the social justice advocate is trying to say. An abolitionist for example will often cite the large number of Bible-believing Christians in our communities, then contrast it with the tiny number of people who actually do anything meaningful to help the needy and the oppressed. Seeing a great disparity, we then examine the teaching of the church and say, “There’s something wrong with what’s being taught; Christians are not being instructed to sacrificially love our neighbors, as Jesus commanded us.”
Our primary critique of modern Christianity is of its teaching, not its practice. Therefore even if the mission of a local church fellowship is reduced exclusively to the Great Commission — preaching the gospel, baptizing new believers, and then teaching them the commands of Christ — we would still argue that the American church needs to repent, having become imbalanced and selective in her teaching. Abolitionists don’t primarily want church fellowships to organize their people in works of justice and mercy, although I do believe that they should. We are overjoyed any time we encounter pastors who simply teach the whole counsel of God’s word, and apply it to the evils of our own age. The result of the teaching, if the Spirit softens the hearts of the people, is that Christians naturally begin to love their neighbors, and act sacrificially in their defense.
With that said, viewing the Great Commission as a command that describes everything a local church is supposed to do is simple eisegesis — you won’t find anything to that effect in the Great Commission itself, or the text of scripture at large. To the contrary, it is one of many commands that Jesus gave to His followers, united under the greater commandment to love God and our fellow man (Luk 10:25-37). The commission is certainly special, in that it commands disciples to pass the things they’ve learned onto others. However it isn’t described anywhere as the exclusive mission of the church.
Against this idea, we have the example of the apostles who, in their organization of local churches, did far more than what’s described in the Great Commission.
- When a complaint of racial discrimination arose within the church, the apostles created a new office to ensure that the needy were cared for in a just and impartial way. This office does not fit under the banner of preaching, baptizing or teaching, yet it was appropriate for the church to invest significant time, talent and resources into this endeavor. Notably, in addition to their internal church ministry, these deacons also became some of the first political activists in christian history, with Stephen speaking against Israel’s guilt regarding child exposure, child sacrifice, and the murder of the promised seed (Act 6:8-7:60).
- In 1 Corinthians 16 and elsewhere, Paul organized a collection of alms for the poor saints in Jerusalem. Representatives from various Gentile churches escorted the money to Jerusalem. This constituted a significant investment of time, money, risk and effort on the part of many churches and church leaders, yet Paul is never chastised for distracting these churches from the Great Commission.
- Christians would sing together (Eph 5:19), eat together (Act 2:36), care for one another, and care for those who were far from Christ (Gal 6:10).
There are many things that churches do as a unified body of believers, including activities which do not fall neatly under the banner of the Great Commission. Proclamation-only advocates will, however, ignore, allow, or even help engage in these breaches of their ecclesiology, complaining only when they see Christians invest time into establishing justice in society. This is special pleading. If the Great Commission is intended to be a straitjacket defining every possible activity of local churches, then these other activities of singing and caring for the poor should also be viewed as a distraction from the mission of the church.
Singing and alms are of course entirely acceptable, because the proclamation-only gospel is wrong to rest the entire mission of the church on Jesus’ final command to make disciples. While it is true that we are witnesses of Jesus Christ in a dark and dying world, we do not exclusively spend our time speaking true things to the world concerning what Jesus will do in the future. Our witness includes that, but it also shows the world what Jesus is doing right now, as we demonstrate sacrificial love to our fellow Christians and unbelieving neighbors. Whatever danger the writer sees in the so-called “social justice gospel” of our day, I see an equal or worse danger in the “proclamation-only gospel,” which loves people in word only, and not in deed or in truth (1Jo 3:18).
There is a reason that over 60,000,000 children have been killed through abortion in a nation that is littered with evangelical, Bible-believing churches. We have not rightly understood, systematized, taught, or practiced the biblical principles that establish justice in society, having left that domain of human endeavor to the secularists. We need to repent of embracing many false ideas related to social justice, not the least of which is an imbalanced, unbiblical focus on the Great Commission to the exclusion of other biblical commands (Isa 1:10-20, Lev 20:2-5, Luk 10:25-37, 4:18-21, Mic 6:6-8).
Repentance of course does not mean that we should shift the church’s focus from the Great Commission to acts of social justice, as the article’s author seems to fear. That would be as much of a mistake as ignoring the biblical cry for justice. Neither the Great Commission nor acts of justice should be the ultimate focus of the church. Rather, Jesus places both of those commands under the greater commandment of love.
A lawyer asked him a question to test [Jesus]. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Mat 22:35-40)
Keeping love as the central focus of the church will guard us against the corruption that invariably comes from focusing too much attention on eternal salvation, or too much attention on temporal needs. Love is the highest command and deepest foundation — not only for individual believers, but also for the institutions of the church (Eph 4:11-16). Without genuine, biblical love, all ministry of the church becomes worthless and inept (1Co 13:1-3); it is the very mark of the disciples of Christ (Jhn 13:35).
However well-intentioned it may be, the proclamation-only gospel fails to adequately teach and exemplify love toward the needy and the oppressed of society, because it situates Jesus’ relationship with social justice too exclusively in His future return. Jesus cares for the widow and the fatherless, the needy and the oppressed, and He expects His church to love them right now, with the blood, sweat and tears of self-sacrifice. We have loved them in word only, speaking about their eternal salvation without caring for the entire person (Jas 2:15-17, Gal 6:10). Jesus is wiser than we are; we need to trust His decision to place love as a higher commandment than evangelism and discipleship, or justice and mercy.
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