Justice-ified by Faith
Preventing social justice from becoming just another program in the church.

Recently we discussed Scot McKnight's belief that the gospel typically preached by evangelicals is too individualistic, and how it actually makes the church an unnecessary part of following Christ. David Fitch, pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community in Long Grove, Illinois and a professor at Northern Seminary, shares McKnight's perspective, and in this post he reflects on how an individualistic gospel makes our attempts at social justice a peripheral program of the church rather than an integrated part of our faith.

When we pastors think about leading God's justice in the church, our first inclination is to organize a ministry. It could be a soup kitchen or an outreach event to the poor "down in the city". Sometimes we will find ways to become active in policy making on the local or national governmental level. We are tempted to make justice into another program of the church.

If we are to avoid turning justice into merely a church program we must first resist the urge to make salvation "about me." Evangelicals (of which I am one) often describe salvation as a personal relationship with God. It is intensely individual. In Christ I am justified before God as an individual. And then, after being justified through faith in Christ, I pursue a personal daily relationship with God as well as personal holiness and then of course (if we get to it) social justice. It is an add-on. In this way we split personal salvation and social justice.

It is this split which allows us to essentially turn social justice into a program. Yet imagine what it would be like in our churches if there were no such division. If we were not invited to go forward as individuals to receive a packaged salvation from God that gets us out of hell, but instead came forward to become part of what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ - the reconciliation of all men and women with Himself, each other and all of creation (2 Cor 5:19), which BTW inextricably must still include my own personal reconciliation/relationship with God.

There are two theological culprits that make possible this separation of personal from social salvation. The first is a narrow "penal" view of the atonement. The forensic penal view of the atonement defines the work of the cross in terms of Christ paying a penalty for my sin whereby I no longer am held liable for the just penalty of death for my sin. I have no desire to get rid of the substitutionary view of the atonement but there are many rich understandings of how Christ's sacrifice satisfied God's wrath within the ancient history of the church that avoid the potential to commodify (make available as a transaction) what Christ did on the cross. I think we should mine these resources.

June 26, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 15 comments


July 08, 2007  3:53pm

Stating "justification by Faith" formulated by the Apostle Paul , it is read from a Bible-translation by all Evangelicals as if the Apostle is stupid.Based on Romans 3.22...justified through Faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe...( in Jesus Christ)...a tautologie or circular reasoning without any value.The Gr. Text has an subjective genitive for the first statement instead the translated accusative objective, and a present tense participle active voice for the second statement , to give us a meaningful statement about justification.

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bob smietana

July 05, 2007  10:33am

Geoff, Fitch, I think, is talking about discipleship and obedience, not salvation. When Jesus becomes Lord of our lives, he's Lord of it all, including our social interactions. This is an overused example, but lots of Southern Christians who'd be justified by faith didn't think that Jesus's Lordship extended to their relationships with African Americans. The emphasis on social justice comes from the Bible. So we're saved by faith, and we read the World and we read Isaiah 58: Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD ? "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him,and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn,and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness [a] will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard." Now all of a sudden this Jesus who is Lord of my life has given me a boatload of work to do, because he wants to be Lord of the whole world and I've just volunteered to be part of his agenda. That's, I think, the essence to what Fitch is driving at.

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Chad Miller

June 29, 2007  8:15am

This discussion illustrates clearly the need for a renewed understanding of the Kingdom. Jesus came to show us how to be the people of God on earth, He taught us to pray - Your Kingdom Come on Earth... So when we serve the poor and those on the margins it is NOT just so we can preach to them the "gospel", That is the gospel. Living in the Kingdom is living our lives as Jesus would live them... making all things right. This inlcudes inviting people into a new "kind of" life in Christ but jus getting people "in" and on their way to heaven is selling short the good news of the Kingdom that Jesus preached.

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Geoff Baggett

June 28, 2007  2:25pm

Trevor nailed it ... "theogibberish." I need to remember that one. I do not believe we need a "new (and improved?) perspective on Paul" I think the historical, straightforward reading of Paul works just fine. I also think we need to shy away from calling the doctrine of justification by faith a "culprit" that keeps us from taking part in "social justice." This is just new code-speak, anyway. It's been my experience in eighteen years of pastoral ministry that people who have been truly, biblically justified by faith have no trouble ministering to their fellow-man. Our primary responsibility is serving as Christ's ambassadors to assist the lost in being reconciled to God. Social action and ministry a"re the means toward that goal, not the actual "end that this writer has portrayed them to be. Any Gospel absent "justification by faith," not the new and improved version, is no gospel at all. http://geoffbaggett.wordpress.com

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June 28, 2007  7:33am

For those saying this is theological gibberish (I would disagree with that contention), I would offer this as possibly a simpler explanation. Christianity is not primarily about us (Christians). It is not just about being sure about our eternal destination. Christ saves us so we can be a blessing to others. I find it interesting in Ephesians 4:12-13, when Paul is describing different ministry gifts he says the reason they are given is "prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ." He didn't say to prepare God's people to go win souls or evangelize. It seems to me that "works of service" would include more than just sharing the "Four Spiritual Laws" with someone.

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Bob Robinson

June 27, 2007  2:56pm

David, I anticipate that this will continue to be a huge battle - much of evangelicalism is not thrilled with the "New Perspective" and they are even less thrilled with moving away from Penal Substitution toward a Christus Victor view of Atonement.

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Ryan DV

June 26, 2007  5:55pm

Oh I like what Tim is saying... but that is another topic... or is it? The "personal savior" person only needs to refresh on sunday mornings the rest of his life is his. While the "you are invited to enter a relationship with God through Christ that changes everything" person sees Sunday morning as a pep rally, part of whole, the rest of the week has game time, practice, workout time etc...

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June 26, 2007  1:48pm

I agree with Trevor. I read several articles in this series, and it seems to me that they present desired effects with no plan of action. You may be implementing these principles in experimental congregations and even giving guidelines for pastors to do so, but 1) I don't live near any of those congregations and 2) I'm not a pastor. I want to know how the rubber (me, an individual, and all others) should meet the road. Or should I unsubscribe from this RSS feed because I'm not in the intended audience?

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Progression of Faith

June 26, 2007  11:14am

I think that the answers become more clear if you can deconstruct just a little be further and go beyond these surface level issues of how atonement "works". Instead, think about letting go of the whole idea of atonement as a salvation from a personal penalty that must be either "paid by Jesus death" or "earned by correct beliefs". In other words, I think we should throw out the whole idea of any sort of personal salvation from a bad status in afterlife. The idea of life after death may be the worst thing that ever happened to religion. I suggest that salvation should be viewed as a correction of whatever problem a particular person or group of people are facing in THIS life. For a starving person, salvation will be a new situation where they have enough food to live. For an addict, salvation would be to stop that addiction. For a person deep in debt from a lifestyle of materialism, salvation may be selling all he has and giving it to the poor or changing his priorities. For a community, salvation may be repenting of its exclusive mentality. For a nation, it may be changing its ideas about war and peace or opening its borders. Jesus seemed to tailor the message of salvation to each individual AND to each community (system) he addressed.

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Truth Seeker

June 26, 2007  10:07am

I agree with many of the commentators here about this article and echo the concern that it is theogibberish. What I am currious about is how does Mr. Fitch align his views with the last 200+ years of evangelical missions work? What I mean is that evangelicals have always taught "personal justification through faith" and yet all throughout the history of evangelical missions we see countless examples of people who, upon realizing what that justification and faith meant, started ministry among the poor, downtrodden, street-kids, prostitutes, etc. This whole obsession with 'justice' now adays has been going on for centuries. The Emergent church is getting in the game late! Evangelicals have been doing it for decades in Africa, Asia, South America. Did some botch it up? Sure, but how many ministries have each of us been in that went 100% by the plan? Scott McKnight and all the "progressives" nowadays are trying to make 'justice' a big thing, to make it chic, when it has been going on for a while. The only difference I see between Evangelicals of the last 200 years and the Emergent Church and post-modern Progressives, is that the Evangelicals didn't stand around and talk about justice and make T-shirts out of it and sell books about it, they went and did it! Scott McKnight and others! I challenge you and the Emergent Church to stop the gibberesh and actually go and do! All you will be doing is joining hundreds of thousands of Evangelicals who have been out there waiting for you to get in the game! Blessings,

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