Justice and the Christian: Justice and the Gospel

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Smith Hopkins | March 7, 2018

This is part in an ongoing series on Wednesday nights at Oliver Creek. Join us! You can access the previous posts here. In the last post we looked at the nature of poverty; in this post we will look into how Jesus and the gospel heal those areas of brokenness. 

Evangelism or Justice?

Which is more important, evangelism or justice? What’s the relationship between sharing the word of Christ or sharing the deeds of Christ?

There are some who believe that evangelism is the primary mission of the church (“making disciples”, “sharing the gospel”, “winning souls”, etc.). Do justice if it can be helpful to doing evangelism. On the other hand, there are some who believe that justice is the primary mission of the church (“righteousness”, “social justice”, “helping the poor”, etc.). Most Christians and churches fall in between these two extremes (see the chart below).

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Most who prioritize evangelism still see a call and a value to doing justice (Position 2). If the goal is to plant the seed of the gospel, doing justice may be like preparing the soil. It is true that justice and mercy are of great benefit to evangelism, but it is also true that they are more than means to an end.

Position 4 is captured well by the often quoted line, “Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words.” The line is (mis)attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but there is no record of him saying any such thing. Francis did insist that your deeds should match your words, but his life of preaching and writing are a testament to the importance of using words. 

The biblical reality, it seems to me, is that followers of Jesus are called and commanded to do justice and evangelism (Position 3). We cannot choose between. We do not use one for the other. Christians are called to both say and to show the gospel. It is necessary to use both words and actions to announce and demonstrate the kingdom of God. Both are necessary and essential to following the King.

The Genesis of Poverty

This reality is rooted in what we looked at in the last post on the nature of poverty. Poverty stems from a brokenness inside us (personal), in the systems around us (social), and in the world itself (natural). Ultimately, however, I think this overview of poverty is missing a critical element. To discover this missing piece, let’s consider the genesis of poverty.

Consider the effects of sin in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3. What happened as a consequence of sin? What we see is that the personal, social, and natural brokenness we experience in our world was all an outworking of sin. Sin introduces natural brokenness like death, pain, and a cursed ground with its frustrating fruitlessness. Sin introduces social brokenness like shame, blame, and relational conflict. Sin introduces personal brokenness such as fear, insecurity and hiding, guilt, and shame. But we must not fail to see where every level of brokenness we experience originates. In the Garden as now, these problems grow out of sin. They are the results of a deeper problem.

Underneath all our brokenness is a theological poverty.

The plight of poverty is worse than we ever imagined. It is not simply a matter of having a sustainable income and enough to eat for the day. No, our poverty is not just in our world, or our relationships, or in our bodies and brains. We are broken in our souls. Impoverished. It is this fractured relationship with God which spawns these consequences we see and feel so tangibly.

The Gospel of the Kingdom

What’s the solution? The politics of our day, left to themselves, cannot solve the problems of poverty because they do not reach the source. What we need are the politics of the kingdom of God. As it turns out, this is exactly the gospel that Jesus announced and demonstrated.

When we look at the Gospels we find a very common phrase which has become uncommon in many churches today—the gospel of the kingdom of God. The gospel (Gk. euangelion) in the Gospels is the arrival of the kingdom of God. It is both words and deeds. It is an announcement and a demonstration of God’s restorative reign.

Consider these summary statements of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

  • Matthew 4:23 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
  • Mark 1:14-15 14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"
  • Luke 4:43 43 But he said, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent."

The Gospel of Luke presents clearly this word and deed nature of Christ’s ministry. Consider Luke 4:16-30 where Jesus claims to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the Messiah. His purpose, he said, was to “proclaim good news to the poor,” “proclaim liberty to the captives,” “recovering of sight to the blind,” “set at liberty those who are oppressed,” and “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Jubilee). Jesus, in other words, is going to restore the natural, social, and personal consequences of sin with his words and deeds.

Consider also Luke 8:1, “Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.” But what does this phrase mean? Open your Bible and read the sections before and after and look for what Jesus is doing and how he is doing it. I think it will reveal this packed phrase, “the good news of the kingdom of God.” Here are the headings from my ESV Bible.

  • Jesus Heals a Centurion’s Servant
  • Jesus Raises a Widow’s Son
  • Messengers from John the Baptist ("Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor,” Luke 7:22)
  • A Sinful Woman Forgiven
  • The Parable of the Sower
  • The Purpose of Parables
  • A Lamp Under a Jar
  • Jesus’ Mother and Brothers
  • Jesus Calms a Storm
  • Jesus Heals a Man with a Demon
  • Jesus Heals a Woman and Jairus’s Daughter
  • Jesus Sends Out the Twelve Apostles (“he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal”)

What we see in the ministry of Jesus is that it’s impossible to parse between and to separate what is called evangelism (from euangelion, “good news”) and what is called justice. They are both necessary. And they work together toward the same end—the restoration of God’s creation. The gospel of the kingdom of God is the restoration from poverty. It is justice in action and in word. It’s the intersection of the consequences of sin with the cure to sin. And it’s all happening in Jesus.

Gospel Words and Kingdom Deeds

Biblical justice is the announcement of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the demonstration of the kingdom of God. Timothy Keller captures the interdependent nature of evangelism and justice well in Ministries of Mercy, “The proper model is not (1) to see mercy as the means to evangelism, or (2) to see mercy and evangelism as independent ends, but (3) to see both word and deed, evangelism and mercy, as means to the single end of the spread of the kingdom of God.”

Does that mean that we never place an emphasis on one or the other? Not exactly.

Picture our poverty like spheres of brokenness (see image below). On the outer ring furthest from the core problem is the natural, then comes the social, the personal, and finally at the heart of it all is the theological. Here are two principles to keep in mind.

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First, the closer to the root of the problem, the greater the need for gospel words. Imagine a team of Christians doing disaster relief. Without a word spoken, they provide medicine, food, and water. But if they want to want to begin helping a problem on a more intimate level, it will likely require more words. For instance, part of their work may be to offer counseling to navigate the challenges of trauma. This kind of work is very near to the center and so will require a ministry filled with words. But at the heart of it all is the theological problem of sin and our separation from God. The only way to help alleviate this disease is by sharing the word of God. “Faith,” Paul says, “comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). The source of poverty on a foundational level can only be dealt with through sharing the word of Christ with another. It is necessary to use words to share the gospel.

Keller writes in Generous Justice, “Evangelism is the most basic and radical ministry possible to a human being. This is true not because the spiritual is more important than the physical, but because the eternal is more important than the temporal. … If there is a God, and if life with him for eternity is based on having a saving relationship with him, then the most loving thing anyone can do for one’s neighbor is help him or her to a saving faith in that God.”

Second, it follows then that the closer to the root of the problem, the greater the need for relationship. It is true that gospel words are essential in addressing the heart of the matter. But how are we to get to someone’s heart? This is where the two are most interdependent. It’s often through service, mercy, and doing justice, not by preaching and teaching. The challenge of addressing the intimate issues is that relationships require so much more than money. Relationships require our proximity. Our time, energy, and focus.

In the next several posts, we will look into what all this means for doing justice personally, publicly, and congregationally. Already, though, we have a clear picture developing. Biblical justice is about seeking the restoration of the vulnerable. In the Christian sense it is about proclaiming and demonstrating the good news of the kingdom of God to those in poverty of all kinds. At the heart of it all, it looks like both evangelism and justice working together in a loving relationship.

Smith Hopkins