Let’s face it: Evangelicals of a conservative nature sometimes feel uncomfortable with issues of “social justice.” I remember once, upon suggesting that white Christians could be helped by reading the works of African American Christians, a local pastor told me, “Well, screw that! Just preach the gospel!” While his might have been an extreme reaction, I don’t think his sentiment is uncommon, especially among non-denominational evangelicals. If we simply preach the gospel, those injustices will work themselves out as hearts are transformed. At least, so the reasoning goes.
Aside from the fear of misplaced energies and distraction, there’s also the association of “social gospel” with those faithless liberals and mainliners. Doesn’t care for the poor and the oppressed a confusion of the fruit for the root? Isn’t that what derailed American evangelicalism after the 2nd Great Awakening? If we would be faithful, surely, we must simply focus on doctrine and let the implications of the gospel providentially have their affect.
It’s on questions like this that I am thankful to be a Reformed Protestant. Herman Bavinck, the great Dutch theologian and father of Reformed theology, delivered an address in 1891 to the Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam pithily titled General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Moasaic Law for the Social Question Today Drawing on the third use of the Law (moral use), Bavinck demonstrates that God’s people are called to ministries of mercy.
Loans to the poor were freely and willingly given in ways that wouldn’t crush them (Dt.15:7; 24:6; Ex.22:26). Wages were paid on time (Dt.24:15). The vulnerable (widows, orphans, the poor, the stranger) were treated justly in court (Dt.14:7; Ex.22:21-22). They have rights to glean after the harvest (Lev.19:9; Dt.24:19) and to entire harvests during the Sabbath year (Lev.25:5). The disabled were not mocked (Lev.19:14; Dt.27:18) and the elderly were honored (Lev.19:32). Conscious of the New Covenant, Bavinck reminds us that God’s law has now been written on our hearts, not only on tablets of stone.
Lest we yoke him under an anachronism and suspect him of being a social justice warrior, Bavinck rightly states at the outset that “the first order of the day is restoring our proper relationship with God. The cross of Christ, therefore, is the heart and mid-point of the Christian religion. Jesus did not come, first of all, to renew families and reform society but to save sinners and to redeem the world from the coming wrath of God.” Yes, and amen. He understands the gospel. But now that that’s made explicit, what else needs to be said?
“Redemption does not set aside the differences that exist thanks to God’s will but renews all relationships to their original form by bringing all of them into a reconciled relationship with God.” The poor, Christ said, we will always have with us. The gospel doesn’t flatten society into an egalitarian utopia. And that’s where justice is called for. Bavinck observes that while relationships are renewed, disparities are not eliminated. Therefore, there will always remain a large place for mercy ministry and for social justice.
He ends his address with this beautiful summary:
“In the same way that Jesus the compassionate High Priest is always deeply moved by those in need, so, too, directs his follows especially to clothe themselves with the Christlike virtue of compassion ([Mt.5:43-47]; Lk.6:36). Having received mercy from Christ, his followers are expected in turn to show mercy to others (1 Pet.2:10; Mt.18:33). It is for this reason that the church has a distinct office for the ministry of mercy.”
The wonderful thing about unlocking the resources of the Christian tradition (and the Reformed stream is not necessarily unique in this) is that I don’t have to fret about whether the gospel and justice are mutually exclusive. I don’t have too poo-poo mercy because it is merely or only an effect of the gospel. It is not merely an effect. It is a command and an expectation and a mode of being for the Church. Which wing of the airplane is more important, the right or the left? We need not be forced to choose the gospel over against the social obligations of God’s people. They go together hand in glove.