Matthew Lee Anderson on Social Justice and the Mohler/Wallis Debate

Last week Al Mohler (Southern Seminary) and Jim Wallis (Sojourners) debated whether social justice is an essential part of the church’s mission. This of course is relevant to the discussion DeYoung and Gilbert’s book. Matthew Lee Anderson was present and wrote a review of the debate on the Gospel Coalition blog. In this excerpt, at the conclusion of the review, Anderson critically reflects on the terms “integral” and “implication”. Is social justice integral to the gospel or is it an implication? He’s uncomfortable with both frameworks. I think there might be something in Anderson’s proposal worthy of consideration. But I am uncomfortable defining the gospel purely as  substitutionary atonement for sinners. It is certainly essential to the gospel, but not coterminous with the gospel.

Despite the clarity of the concerns (and the accuracy of each side’s worries), I left wondering whether the language of “integral” or “implications” for the relationship of social justice and the gospel is ultimately insufficient to capture the nuanced relationship between social justice and the unique, unrepeatable sacrifice that Christ made on our behalf.

While (with Mohler) the gospel is clearly paramount within the New Testament, it is only intelligible when set against the failure of individuals and societies to act justly toward each other and God as described in the Old Testament. The sacrifice of Jesus solves the problem of our relationship with God and, consequently, the brokenness of our relationship with each other. In the way the Law was given before the gospel, the call to social justice precedes the gospel, but only made possible and intelligible by the gospel.

In other words, the demands of social justice are something more than merely implications of the gospel. They are also conditions that help us see the gospel’s uniqueness, for we bear witness to that shalom inaugurated at the cross. Framing the gospel/justice relationship this way potentially reveals their inter-relationship more accurately than describing justice as a one-directional “implication” of the gospel. It opens the possibility that the church has unique insight into the nature of social justice (Christian ethics) that is not itself the same as the gospel. And this framing avoids making social justice something that is brought into the atonement in ways that potentially undermine its distinctiveness.

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