It seems like everywhere you turn, people are asking the same question:
How do you work for justice without undermining evangelism?
Typically there are a couple of ways to answer the question. One camp suggests that we don’t need to evangelize until after the need has been met, if at all; that our focus should be eliminating extreme poverty or ending human trafficking. A cause is at the center instead of Christ.
The other tends to run to the opposite extreme, seeing any sort of social action as anathema to the Christian life.
Both extremes, obviously, are wrong. How, then, do you find a healthy, biblical middle-ground?
I’ve written about this a few times (here and here for example), but over at the Gospel Coalition last week, they examined the issue by posing the question to a number of wise pastors and theologians. Here’s a look at their insights:
1. By doing evangelism. I know numerous groups that claim to be engaging in “holistic” ministry because they are helping the poor in Chicago or because they are digging wells in the Sahel, even though few if any of the workers have taken the time to explain to anyone who Jesus is and what he has done to reconcile us to God. Their ministry isn’t holistic; it’s halfistic, or quarteristic.
2. By being careful not to malign believers of an earlier generation. The popular buzz is that evangelicals before this generation focused all their energies on proclamation and little or nothing on deeds of mercy. Doubtless one can find sad examples of such reductionism, but the sweeping condescension toward our evangelical forbears is neither true nor kind…
3. By learning, with careful study of Scripture, just what the gospel is, becoming passionately excited about this gospel, and then distinguishing between the gospel and its entailments. The gospel is the good news of what God has done, especially in Christ Jesus, especially in his cross and resurrection; it is not what we do. Because it is news, it is to be proclaimed. But because it is powerful, it not only reconciles us to God, but transforms us, and that necessarily shapes our behavior, priorities, values, relationships with people, and much more. These are not optional extras for the extremely sanctified, but entailments of the gospel. To preach moral duty without the underlying power of the gospel is moralism that is both pathetic and powerless; to preach a watered-down gospel as that which tips us into the kingdom, to be followed by discipleship and deeds of mercy, is an anemic shadow of the robust gospel of the Bible; to preach the gospel and social justice as equivalent demands is to misunderstand how the Bible hangs together.
4. By truly loving people in Jesus’ name—our neighbors as ourselves, doing good to all people, especially those of the household of faith. That necessarily includes the alleviation of suffering, both temporal and eternal. Christians interested in alleviating only eternal suffering implicitly deny the place of love here and now; Christians who [fail] to proclaim the Christ of the gospel of the kingdom while they treat . . . suffering here and now show themselves not really to believe all that the Bible says about fleeing the wrath to come. In the end, it is a practical atheism and a failure in love.
It’s a good question. But I would also ask, “How can Christians neglect the work of justice in the world without undermining evangelism?” And I am not thinking only of our credibility in human eyes. I am thinking of God. He said to us in Isaiah 58:9-10:
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
Jonathan Edwards, in his “Thoughts on the Revival“, when discussing how to promote the awakening, quoted Isaiah 58. Then he wrote this about serving the poor and defending the oppressed:
Nothing would have a greater tendency to bring the God of love down from heaven to earth. So amiable would be the sight in the eyes of our loving and exalted Redeemer that it would soon, as it were, fetch him down from his throne in heaven, to set up his tabernacle with men on the earth and dwell with them.
Social justice and spiritual power are bound together by Christ himself.
…the mission of the church is the mission of Jesus. . . . The content of this mission is not just personal regeneration but disciple-making (Matt. 28:19). It is not just teaching, but teaching “them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20)…
This mission is summed up in the gospel as a message of reconciliation that is both vertical and horizontal, establishing peace with both God and neighbor. The Scripture tells us to love neighbor “as yourself” (Lk. 10:27-28).
This is not simply a “spiritual” ministry, as the example Jesus gives us is of a holistic caring for physical and economic needs of a wounded person, not to mention the transcending of steep ethnic hostilities. As theologian Carl F.H. Henry reminded evangelicals a generation ago, one does not love oneself simply in “spiritual ways” but holistically…
We . . . do not react to the persistent “social gospels” (of both Left and Right) by pretending that Jesus does not call his churches to act on behalf of the poor, the sojourner, the fatherless, the vulnerable, the hungry, the sex-trafficked, the unborn. We act in the framework of the gospel, never apart from it, either in verbal proclamation or in active demonstration.
The short answer to how churches should “balance” such things is simple: follow Jesus. We are Christians. This means that as we grown in Christlikeness, we are concerned about the things that concern him. Jesus is the king of his kingdom, and he loves whole persons, bodies as well as souls.
Christ Jesus never sends away the hungry with, “Be warmed and filled” (Jas. 2:16). What he says, instead, as he points to the love of both God and neighbor, to the care of both body and soul, is: “You go, and do likewise” (Lk. 10:37).
…the best—and only Christian—answer is that we seek justice not only to pay back the perpetrators and to rescue the oppressed but because we love Jesus Christ. No one weeps over injustice like Jesus (nor has anyone been treated so unjustly), and he has been taking names for a very long time. Unlike Chuck Norris, who returned each week to battle new bad guys, Jesus will return to settle things once and for all. He will “set the world to rights” (see N.T. Wright), for his words will become swords that “strike down” evildoers and he “will wipe every tear” from the eyes of his suffering children (Rev. 19:15; 21:4).
We are committed to justice because it matters to Jesus. But if we fight for justice for Jesus’ sake, we will never be satisfied with justice alone. We will not rest until every perpetrator and victim bows before his name, the returning King who gave his life so every unjust person who repents and believes in him may live forever.
This requires evangelism, and it flows naturally from the Christian passion for justice. If justice is primarily about Jesus, we will eagerly tell others about their need for him. If we forget Jesus, it won’t be long until we also lose our passion for justice. For without the promise of his glorious return, really, what’s the point?
There is much wisdom here—and it should be heeded. We need to care for the practical needs of others. We need to do all we can to seek justice for the poor and oppressed.
But if we fail to give them the opportunity to be released from true poverty, from true bondage, by not openly and boldly proclaiming the gospel, we, as Dr. Carson astutely observes, reveal in ourselves a failure to truly love.