The Gospel of Jesus IS a Social Justice Gospel

A religious leader came to Jesus and said, “What must I do to enter God’s Kingdom?” Jesus replied, “What’s written in the Law and how do you understand it?” The man said “Love God and Love your neighbor.” Jesus said to Him, “Go and do this and you will have life in God’s Kingdom”. But the man asked, “Jesus, who is my neighbor?” Jesus said, “There was this guy going on a trip and he was beaten up, robbed, and left for dead. A Bishop walked by and ignored him. A Professor of New Testament Theology walked by and ignored him as well. A homosexual pastor walked by, saw the man, and had mercy on him. She bandaged his wounds and got him a hotel, food, and money. Which of these was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?” The religious leader replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus answered, “Go and do likewise…”

This modern retelling of Luke 10:25-28. A few questions. Why is it that every time Jesus is asked, “How can I go to heaven?” He ALWAYS replies, without fail, “Love God and Love People.” He never says, “Pray a prayer.”, “Repent of your sin.”, or even “Get your life straight”. His answer is always “Love God and love people…” And why is it always the most unlikely, unholy, and unrighteous person that Jesus has mercy on? Favor on? It’s because our God’s heart beats for the weak and helpless. Our God is passionately about His creation, His people.  God extends His grace to those in the darkest and damnable places and opposes those who are high and lofty. One cannot read through the Bible and not understand that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not a God who is for the wealthy and self-sufficient. He is for the broken, the marginalized, and the desperate. This is our God.

Most evangelicals are terribly afraid of the words “Social Justice.” Those words carry imprints of the famous Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy of the early 20th Century. We fear becoming like “them”, which means Christ-denying liberals who see Jesus as a mere moral teacher and his death as a mere example of love, which is an undermining of the Biblical gospel. And I agree. But we cannot throw out whole concepts- especially one so near to the heart of God- just because “the liberals” do it too. One of the biggest changes that are coming in Evangelical Christianity is the death of labels. This began during the “non-denominational” movement of the early 21st century, and many have predicted that this movement would end. However, as a young Evangelical, I look around and see the people of my generations growing increasingly weary of these labels. We don’t even want to be called Evangelical, let alone liberal or conservative.  But that’s just a side note. More and more Christians are seeing the great value of social justice and how living these commands to love the unlovable, feed the poor, and heal the sick are actually clearer and better proclamations of the Gospel of Jesus than preaching or witnessing could ever be.

Matt Chandler, the president of the infamous Acts29 reformed and Missional Church planting network, released a book a year ago called “The Explicit Gospel”. In the book, Chandler makes the distinction between two parts of the Gospel message, the “Ground Gospel” and the “Air Gospel”. He makes the case that those who focus on a “Ground Gospel” focus on the individual salvation found through faith in Jesus death on the cross, and if one devotes themselves solely to this message, they will become self-centered and only focused on “preaching” the story of Jesus instead of living the Jesus life. The “Air Gospel”, he states, focuses solely on the call to bring God’s Kingdom to the earth through social justice initiatives to the sacrifice of the proclamation of the story of Jesus. His point is simple: Gospel proclamation is both doing and saying. It is both building and proclaiming. After his book released, I was on the phone with Chandler and I asked him how to balance these two parts of the Gospel, and his response was surprising. He said, “I’ve found that the Christian life is never about balance but obedience.” What he was saying is that the fleshing out of the Gospel for the Christ follower is about following the leading of God’s Spirit. Sometimes, God will call you to give to the homeless. Other times, God may call you to have a “God-conversation.” At all times, however, God calls us to love. I think Chandler has hit it on the head. This isn’t anything profound, nor did it take rocket-science to figure it out. In Revangelical Christianity, it’s all about the middle ground. That is where God dwells. But more on that later.

The Christian life, according to Jesus, is clearly marked by social justice. If one is not engaging in building God’s Kingdom on the earth as it is in heaven, that person is simply not living the Jesus way. Love is the chief mark of a child of God and love is always an action. Love is about sacrifice. Yes, it is important to tell people we love them and that God loves them. But even better and more powerful than that is to show them God’s love for them. To be the hands and feet of Jesus to the lonely stranger on the street. If there is one area of the evangelical reformation that has already taken off, it is in this area. Churches and Pastors have been rediscovering the value of social justice in the Christian experience and have been taking great strides forward in educating and influencing people to get involved. And this reform is happening in all theological camps. One simply has to walk in to any bookstore and browse the Christianity section. You will find hundreds of books about God in the Ghettos and Jesus in the Junkyard. Whether it’s the bestselling “Radical” series of books by David Platt, a conservative evangelical Pastor, or “Love Wins by Rob Bell, an emerging progressive Christian, the hottest books in Christianity are nearly all about social justice. This is not a coincidence. One of my professors recently preached a sermon where they said, “If churches don’t refocus their mission and values around social justice, they are going to lose the next generation.” They hit the nail right on the head. Revangelicals are focused on Jesus and what he said to do. This marks a shift from “Pauline Christianity” to “Christ-Centered Christianity”.

Now, what I don’t mean is that those in the Evangelical and reformed camps who rely heavily on Paul to define the Gospel for them are believing a false or “Christ-less Gospel.” Far from it! However, I do believe one of the major errors of the modern Evangelical movement stemming out of the Modernist/Fundamentalist Controversy in the 1920’s was a shift to a Pauline interpretation of the Bible instead of Christ Centered hermenutic. I believe that all of the scriptures should be seen through the lens of the person and teachings of Jesus-the four Gospels. We should let Jesus’ words be the primary interpretive lens that we view the rest of the Bible, especially Paul’s epistles.  In the 1920’s,  Fundamentalist Christians, in order to guard themselves against the slippery slope of liberalism, virtually threw out the red letters of the Bible and clinged to Paul, simply because the Modernists and Liberals were clining to the words of Christ in regards to social justice and the path to eternal salvation. Instead of finding balance, the fundamentalists jumped to a strictly Pauline lens of Christianity, which led to a Pauline interpretation of the Gospel. The Gospel message became primarily about individual salvation from sin and hell and became about leaving this planet to “go to heaven”. Jesus words were simply twisted to fit with Paul’s definitions of the Gospel in places like 1 Corinthians 15:1-4:

“Brothers and sisters, I want to call your attention to the good news that I preached to you, which you also received and in which you stand. You are being saved through it if you hold on to the message I preached to you, unless somehow you believed it for nothing. I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures.

(CEB, emphasis added)

The Gospel simply became that “Jesus died for our individual sins.” The problem with this is that when one favors the personal Gospel over the “cosmic Gospel”: the idea that Jesus lived, died, and rose to redeem the whole of creation and to bring God’s Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven, or in other words, to reverse the curse of evil. The personal Gospel misses a large portion of the historic Gospel of Jesus and minimizes the effectiveness of Christ’s mission and sacrifice on the cross. However, when one views the Gospel in the way Jesus viewed the Gospel, as cosmic redemption, they will become passionate about joining with Jesus in the recreation of all things to reflect the image of their perfect creator and building God’s Kingdom, which includes primarily acts of social justice, and secondarily, acts of “evangelism and discipleship.” As I said earlier, both are vital. But one is clearly more important to Jesus. When we live the Gospel out in tangible ways, we will life Christ up in a very real and physical way which will draw people to us, giving us to opportunity to point them to Jesus. Evangelism is much more powerful, biblical, and effective when we practice before we preach.

I know the common objections to this claim. Matt Chandler says in his book, The Explicit Gospel, “To fill empty bellies, to build shelters for the homeless, and to put silver and gold in the cups of beggars without any concern for the eternal nature of their souls is an exercise of futility. Our hope should always be the Gospel.” (Page 198) I understand Matt’s concern. Please hear me, I don’t desire to fall into the same rut that many mainline Protestant denominations have. Social-Justice oriented millennials aren’t abandoning the “personal Gospel” of justification by faith in Jesus. Not in the least. But it seems to me that the example of Jesus, our Lord, was to feed the poor and heal the sick not before, but as the proclamation of the Gospel. When the poor feel love, the oppressed experience liberation, and the broken are healed, they are drawn to their knees in thanksgiving to the one who has done the miracle of restoration- Jesus. The difference is the emphasis. The “personal Gospel” emphasizes the individual’s sins. The “cosmic Gospel” focuses on the state of slavery that all of creation is subjected to and calls all humanity to submit to the loving Lordship of Jesus the liberating King for new life and personal forgiveness, yes, but even more the act of joining with God in our original purpose, to reign and create a Kingdom free from the darkness that enslaved us. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that work?

 “Is not this the [worship] that I choose: to lose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”

Isaiah 58:6-10

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  • Joel

    to a hungry person, a piece of bread IS Good News

    • Frank2918

      Anybody can give a piece of bread to someone hungry. The bread of life is what’s important.

      • EndOfTheWorld

        It’s “I was hungry, and you fed me.” not “I was hungry, and you hectored me about going to Church on Sundays.”

        • Frank2918

          Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. – John 6:35

          Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” -John 4:13-14

  • What you have written here is way off Brandan. You are leading people astray.

    • Brandan Robertson

      Would you like to explain, brother Julian?

  • Thomas Dixon

    Thanks for the follow on Twitter! I found it exciting to read this- I come from a “liberal” church background and have always had a strong emphasis on social justice but have struggled with evangelism. However, over the last year or so I have developed what I hope is a more rounded view, thanks to the work of N T Wright, Walter Wink and Brian McLaren among others. I am convinced that, as you say, the Gospel is a social justice gospel. I am convinced that, on the cross, Jesus exhausted the strength of the principalities and powers, and that on Easter Day, the new way inaugurated by Jesus (which of course included a strong element of social justice!) was vindicated when he was bodily raised. (As you can see, my “liberal” background is really a liberal/orthodox one as I am convinced of the bodily resurrection and the “Christus victor” view of the atonement sits comfortably with me.)
    I’m also convinced after reflection that evangelism is indeed vital- but primarily as a way of encouraging people to see that God’s kingdom-building project (on earth, in the here and now!) has begun- and that Jesus’s life, death and resurrection were primarily about this, rather than guaranteeing individual souls a place in a disembodied heaven. And I’m convinced that the role of evangelism is to ensure that individuals are transformed in order that they can take their place in this project- in order to bring about the transformation of this world in the here and now (the social justice gospel to which you refer!) – looking excitedly towards the day when Earth and Heaven are joined for ever and the project vindicated on Easter Day reaches its fulfilment.
    So it was great to read your blog and to discover that, having started from some very different positions, we seem to have met on some exciting common ground (I’m also excited that this common ground seems to be growing thanks to some really reflective and profound work from people from both evangelical and liberal “camps”!)

  • Elizabeth Jones

    Yes–thank you SO much, Brandan! I have been a supporter/pray-er/committee member of mission committees for over twenty years. And I have been drawn closer and closer to ministries that have a definite helping component to them. What does Jesus say in the Olivet Discourse? (rhetorical question . . . ) YES! I want to give a “cup of cold water” in Jesus’ name!

    I’ve been concentrating–personally–on being of service to others, “being kind,” is what I say. As a related response to God and God’s call, I have tried to blog each day about “being kind.” (365 Days of Service) Each Friday, I feature some ministry that has come to my attention. I am amazed how yesterday’s Feature Friday fits in SO well to what you’re talking about. God be praised! @chaplaineliza

  • BT

    Very true:

    “Evangelism is much more powerful, biblical, and effective when we practice before we preach.”

  • SonjaFaithLund

    It’s blown my mind how I see some people dismiss a Christ-centered hermeneutic, or the suggestion that Christians should pay the most attention to what Jesus said and did. I mean, for goodness’ sake, we believe Jesus was God. This is literally the God of the universe telling us how best to live our lives and people are saying “But Paul said something different so we should listen to him over Jesus!”

    • raylampert

      One thing that contributed to me leaving Christianity was the contradictory notions of salvation. If Jesus came to die for our sins to appease God’s wrath, and believing that is all you need to do in order to be saved, then Jesus’s life and teachings are irrelevant or redundant. Jesus could have been killed as a 2-year-old and it wouldn’t have made any difference. If on the other hand it was Jesus’s life and example that are important, then you’re claiming salvation by works which, according to the doctrine I was raised in, are never sufficient.
      Eventually of course I came to realize that it’s a bunch of fairy tales, and the best reason to do good to others is because you actually care about other people and want to do good, regardless of what some old book says.

      • Justas399 .

        Christ did not just come to die for sin but also show Christians how to live for Him. His teachings are essential.

        • raylampert

          For what purpose? Isn’t the core doctrine of Christianity that God had to take an innocent life in order to satisfy his bloodlust towards humanity? Isn’t Christianity all about the idea that nothing we can do can appease God’s wrath?

  • Rob Brown

    This is an amazing post. I also believe that the Gospel is a Gospel of works. Not salvation by works, but a Gospel of works. It seems that Jesus spent a lot of time talking about and showing what the faithful should do, not just believe.