Social Justice: The Tension—Darrin Patrick #T4ACon

Darrin Patrick is the founding pastor of The Journey in St. Louis.  His first book, Church Planter, was released in August 2010, and his second, For the City, written with Matt Carter, was released in April, 2011. Patrick is also on the board of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network.


There are cultural leaders in your community who have a heart with social justice—many are not believers, but I believe that the future of moving the needle on this issue of social justice is by partnering with them to get a vision for our cities.

“I don’t want to build a great church, but to build a great city—and that’s why I’m here speaking to you on this issue of social justice.”

1 John 3:16-19

This isn’t really a sermon, it’s more of a lecture [based on the ideas written in Patrick’s chapter in Don’t Call it a Comeback], so I’m not going to go through the entire passage. But this passage is packed—it’s about who we are, who we are becoming and who we will be and what we’re to do until he comes, which is Word and Deed ministry.

First John is a book of tension—we are to love God and to love people; and if you’re not finding it to be a tension, you’re not doing either. When you’re really trying to love God and you’re really trying to pour yourself out for the hurting and needy, it’s going to create some difficulty.

When I parachuted into the city of St Louis to plant The Journey church I had tension on two fronts.  First, I did not know anyone who was interested in our new church, though I had talked to strangers about how our new church could make a difference in our broken city.  But thankfully, you can fool some of the people some of the time, which is apparently good enough to get you a core group.

Now what? Preach the gospel, right?

Hold services, open the Bible, open my mouth and build the church. That’s it, right?

Not so fast.

I realized that we’d have to address the consequences of sin in our great city. Our city was broken. The stain of sin in all these states Should not our gospel address these implications? This tension is one of gospel proclamation and gospel demonstration. Word and Deed.

What’s interesting is that Jesus had this same tension.

He declared that his main ministry was to preach, yet many times he entered a town, wandered over to a place where a group of sick people are gathered, healed one or two of them, and continued on his way. On a couple of occasions he fed the hungry crowds so that they could hear his teaching about the kingdom of God and experience a miracle that authenticated his message.

He physically healed every one who came to him. He constantly surrounded himself with social rejects and sinful outcasts. Yet, he never was so focused on the needs of people, that he was distracted from teaching the people about their greatest need.

If we’re going to do justice, we first need to have a functional, working definition of the gospel. Here’s mine—I’m not saying it’s the best, but it works:

The gospel is the good news that the Eternal God entered our sinful world as the Eternal Son of God, Jesus, and lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father.

(Jesus) died as a sacrifice in the place of sinners, rose triumphantly from death as a sign of sin’s defeat and the Father’s acceptance of his Son’s atoning sacrifice, establishing righteousness for those who had no righteousness of their own.

As a result of this work, there is “now no condemnation” (Romans 8:1) for those who believe their justification was achieved solely by Jesus.

Another implication of this gospel:

Jesus’ death and resurrection are the permanent place-holders for sinners’ right-standing before the Holy God.  Jesus’ perfect life and atoning death perpetually substitutes for forgiven sinners’ imperfect life and judgment that deserves death.

Now that’s a mouthful, but let me submit to you that you’d better have a working definition of the gospel that is nuanced and takes into account what God has done—and what we’ve seen historically is that if you don’t have a working definition of the gospel, you’ll find yourself distracted from the gospel by social justice. It happens every time. So we train people to do justice not to gain God’s acceptance, but because they have God’s acceptance.

Now historically, Evangelicals have done okay on defining the gospel—it focuses well on the what happens if you die tomorrow—but we need to answer the question, “What happens if I’m alive tomorrow?”

Social justice is not a part of your definition of the gospel, but it has to be part of the implications o the gospel. You have to be clear, you have to be nuanced, you have to be thoughtful. The default mode of the human heart is works-righteousness. And people get jazzed about helping the poor. And if you don’t define the gospel, you’re people will default and think that because they tutored a kid, they must be right with God.

Social Justice

Dr. Tim Keller has been helpful in a number of ways, and in his book on justice offers some really helpful categories of social justice:

Service. Christians are to humbly serve those who don’t have basic needs being met.  Food, Shelter, Clothing, Education.

Mercy. Mercy means moving toward the poor with a priestly, Christ-like compassion and concern.

Neighbors. If you’re not doing “justice” in your neighborhood, don’t try to do it in your city. If you don’t know your neighbors, don’t try to change the world.

Justice. Some people hate the term, because it implies some kind of entitlement for all people:  that all deserve some kind of social standing.  I can see the argument, but I still think the term is helpful.  Sometimes you best understand a word when you define its opposite.

Social injustice is taking advantage of those who have little or no economic or social power (physically disabled, widows, orphans, the poor).

Biblical social justice, then, includes meeting the basic, tangible physical needs of those who do not have them, as well as fighting systemic oppression that keeps physical needs from being met.

What do we do?

The church is called, first and foremost, to proclaim the gospel. The most loving thing the church can do is to proclaim the gospel of eternal salvation to every economic and social strata. Timmis and Chester say it well, “If we do not keep people’s eternal plight in mind, then immediate needs will force their way to the top of our agenda, and we will betray the gospel and the people we profess to love.  The most loving thing we can do for the poor is to proclaim the good news of eternal salvation through Christ.”

You must not use social justice to avoid the offense of the cross. No matter how well Christians articulate the gospel, no matter how effectively and compassionately we serve, the gospel will always be offensive to those whose hearts are opposed to God.

I love the way The Gospel Coalition states in its ministry vision statement:

We are neither overly optimistic nor pessimistic about our cultural influence, for we know that, as we walk in the steps of the One who laid down his life for his opponents, we will receive persecution even while having social impact (1 Peter 2:12).

It will be a problem that you follow Jesus. Your definition of the gospel will be a problem . . . no matter how much you are doing deeds in the name of Jesus. Suffering is promised for those who follow Jesus. No amount of gospel demonstration will ever change that.

Churches should plant other churches. The best thing you can do is plant churches in under resourced areas.

The “institutional” church must equip individuals who will become the “organic” church. This language is from Abraham Kuyper. He drew a distinction between institutional and organic—but what he said was that the job of the institutional church was to focus on Word ministry and to equip the organic church for deed ministry. One of the ways I think it’s best to do this is to start separate non-profits that are given oversight by the church, but are separate, allowing the institutional church to stay focused on equipping the organic church.

As we think about these things, about social justice, I want you to think about how to keep people from confusing grace and works. From confusing the gospel and implications. You can’t just focus on Word ministry; you’ve got to do both. This whole conference is going to be pushing you to do this… I don’t know why you’re here, but this conference is going help water the seeds that God may be placing in your heart.

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