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.
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