Is social justice an essential part of the gospel? The question has been raging for decades, and in some circles the matter was settled long ago. But a new generation of evangelicals with a strong inclination toward social engagement is reviving the debate. But I'm increasingly convinced that we are framing the debate incorrectly, and missing the point as a result.
The latest example came last week when Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (my alma mater) hosted Jim Wallis and Al Mohler to debate the role of justice in the mission of the gospel. Wallis, the president and CEO of Sojourners, affirmed the centrality of social justice in the gospel, while Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said it was an implication of the gospel but not part of it.
Disagreeing with Mohler's point of view, Wallis said, "If justice is only an implication, it can easily become optional and, especially in privileged churches, non-existent." He cited the examples of "atonement-only" churches in America that were on the wrong side of the Civil Rights movement, and churches in South Africa that defended the apartheid regime.
In a post-debate blog post, Wallis wrote, "Conversely, churches that have been on the side of justice, such as black churches both in the United States and South Africa, were always the ones to say that justice was integral to the meaning of the gospel and not just an implication of it. That should tell us something,"
Mohler opposed Wallis by noting that we must be careful how we define terms in the debate. Equating social justice with the gospel is a road that follows 20th century liberal Protestantism into a watered down message of salvation. Still, Mohler did affirm the goodness of social action on the part of Christians:
"The larger theological frame is that God is glorified when His fallen creation is to any degree rectified … that is drawn into a closer alignment with His own justice, His own righteousness, His own attributes. We should celebrate every good thing that is done in Christ's name. Christ's people must be agents of human flourishing precisely because flourishing was God's intention for His human creatures in Creation."
The Mohler-Wallis debate caught my attention in part because I hosted a very similar conversation between Jim Wallis and Mark Dever two years ago for Leadership Journal. You can watch the conversation here:
Dever took the same position as Mohler–justice is a good implication of the gospel, but not essential to it. The concern again is that the message of the gospel remain uncluttered; a clarion call to faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
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