Social Justice and Biblical Justice Are Actually One and the Same.
Pitting justice against the gospel is giving the church a false choice
When you hear the sentence “justice is only part of the gospel declaration”, what comes to mind? Do you applaud the idea that justice is being put in perspective? Do you bristle that it’s put in the periphery?
In recent years, “justice” and “gospel” have somehow been pitted against each other within the white Evangelical church—and regardless of which camp you find yourself in, it’s likely that while one concept is painstakingly defended, the other is passionately attacked.
On one side, the concept of justice is viewed, at best, as a distraction from the work of proclaiming the gospel to the world. There is a fear that people are losing sight of the truth of Jesus while focusing too much on addressing social ills. Too much justice, not enough gospel proclamation.
On the other side, justice is viewed as the driving force behind any sort of real change taking place. It is a concern that people have focused too much on telling others about Jesus without working to make the world a better place. Too much gospel proclamation, not enough justice.
As followers of Jesus, the question remains: why are we pitting the ideas of pursuing justice and declaring the gospel against each other as if they were opposing forces? Why are they viewed as competition?
Pursuing justice and declaring the gospel are one in the same. You cannot have one without the other.
Instead of viewing the concepts as opposing forces, they should be celebrated as two sides of the same coin. Both focus on addressing human sin and brokenness - while justice emphasizes addressing the external systems that contribute to sin and brokenness, evangelism emphasizes addressing the internal state that contributes to sin and brokenness.
Micah 6:8 asks us, “And what does the Lord require of you?” The answer? “To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Micah 6:8 reminds us that Jesus does not require us to simply pursue justice in the world. Jesus also does not require us to simply walk with him, and tell others they should, too. We lose the richness and the depth of the whole picture when we start to ask which is more important instead of asking how we can leverage both together.
When we position pursuing justice and proclaiming the gospel as if they fight against each other, or imply that one is simply an add-on to the other, we limit ourselves and others in the ways that Jesus’ presence and hope can be known throughout the world. Justice and evangelism are powerful forces, and we waste too much time defending one and opposing the other instead of using them both to defend the marginalized and oppose the lies of the enemy.
When we come alongside someone experiencing homelessness, pursuing justice means helping them find opportunities to gain employment and housing, and advocating for policies that address the larger systemic issues which have contributed to their situation.
At the same time, we declare the gospel by sharing about the internal hope to be found in difficult situations through a relationship with Jesus, treating them with dignity, and reminding them (and ourselves!) that they are made in the image of a God who loves them.
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When we come alongside victims of abuse, we declare the gospel by emphasizing that Jesus is near to the hurting and marginalized, reminding them they are loved and cherished by God, and praying with and for them in their situation. At the same time, we pursue justice by providing external systems of support such as therapy and a safe place to recover, and seeking accountability and discipline for their abuser.
When we come alongside refugees and immigrants, we pursue justice by helping them gain documentation where they do not have it, advocating for more refugees and immigrants to be welcomed into our neighborhoods, connecting them with systems of support, and becoming systems of support that help them navigate an unfamiliar culture, language, and country. We declare the gospel by extending hospitality, offering encouragement we have found in our own faith, and sharing stories from Scripture of the faith of others who were viewed as sojourners and strangers in a foreign land.
Our witness can only be strengthened when we proclaim the gospel and pursue justice together. Justice is not simply part of the gospel proclamation - justice is central to the gospel proclamation. And in the same way, sharing the gospel is central to pursuing real, meaningful justice.
It’s time to stop making “justice” and “gospel” rivals - and to instead welcome them both as nonnegotiable ways to make Jesus’ presence known throughout the world.
Rebekah Thompson is a student in the Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership M.A. at Wheaton College. She currently works with One Collective, a global Jesus-centered nonprofit, coaching individuals interested in pursuing cross-cultural ministry. She is passionate about the intersection of faith, culture, and social issues.