Skye Jethani: Love Justifies Itself (Part 1)
The wisdom of John Stott can help us reframe the entrenched debate around social justice & the gospel.

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.

October 31, 2011

Displaying 1–3 of 3 comments


October 31, 2011  8:53pm

I share Stott's uneasiness and look forward to the next installment.

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October 31, 2011  1:25pm

I'm going to admit that I'm purposely straddling the fence here, though I'm listening to both sides...I'm...yeah, Mr. Wallis's theology makes him suspect in my thinking, which in turn makes his message suspect. A shaman who says, "We must be good to one another or else by ignoring them, we isolate ourselves, and no one cares if we live or die." speaks truth, but his theology, if he has any, color's his thinking and it takes me time to sift through his words to see if they're biblically compatible (i.e. G-d expressing his truth through a non-Christian entity), or dismissable (i.e. using biblical language to further the non-Christians agenda)...which, admittedly, is often easier to dismiss than to actually think about due to the burrito example (a lie wrapped in truth makes the whole a lie). So with that, so do I suspect Mr. Wallis. I will give this some thought, but as of right now, perhaps if Mr. Wallis's name wasn't associated with this discussion I would be more inclined to agree with the impact and purpose of social justice.

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Adam Shields

October 31, 2011  11:01am

I agree, social justice is an implication of the gospel, but then so is evangelism.

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