If the Gospel expands to include every Social Justice issue a person desires, then we lose focus of what the Gospel really is—God’s glorious message of salvation to all people.
Too many elite evangelical thinkers make the Gospel into a means of social justice and transformation. That isn’t the Gospel. The Gospel is about salvation—getting man right with God. It isn’t about works of righteousness, virtue signaling or setting the right tax policy. It is a point I’ve repeatedly made in my series on Evangelical Political Theology. Unfortunately, political theology is a tool of division where elites attack others.
Hateful rhetoric is the mark of today’s evangelical elites. Disagree with their political view and get steamrolled on Twitter. The snobbery coming out of Christianity Today or Evangelical Twitterati showcases the modern elite view of Christianity as a system that requires social justice. Disagree with them and feel their wrath. Like a hateful tweet from James K.A. Smith directed at Falwell (See image).
Jerry Falwell Jr. attacked for his view of the Gospel & Politics
Jerry Falwell Jr. has fallen afoul of progressive evangelicals. Falwell provoked a backlash from evangelical and non-evangelical conservative elites with one tweet: “Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome-he never said Roman soldiers should turn the other cheek in battle or that Caesar should allow all the barbarians to be Roman citizens or that Caesar should tax the rich to help poor. That’s our job.”
According to CT, “Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig rejected the dichotomy in her response: ‘Both matter. Both matter. Both matter. There is no easy out. You must be just in all your dealings, individual and political. ‘The separation of the ‘spheres’ of life into ‘personal’ and ‘political’, ‘public’ and ‘private’, is a modern invention. The reason Jesus doesn’t cite specific political ethics is because there aren’t separate ethics for politics. Because it’s not a separate domain.’”
Two problems emerge in this critique. First, there is a clear dividing line recognized in the Bible between personal ethics and political power. Otherwise, why is Caesar given some things and God reserved some things? Second, to claim the state has one purpose—order and security—and the individual Christian another set of duties—mercy, charity, love—is not to claim a Christian rejects viewing his political responsibilities through the lens of the Bible. To assert there are different jobs for the Christian and government is not to assert a bifurcation of Christian ethics. In fact, furthering God’s created order and purpose for a thing is intimately tied into the proper Christian worldview. Keeping the state in its proper, limited role is following a Christian ethical approach to politics.
A significant problem in this dispute is how Christian’s approach ethics. Christians generally affirm a deontological moral system. God’s commands are binding morally. However, what so many Christians fail to distinguish is what happens when there are seeming conflicts in God’s commands? For this, there are many attempts to answer the question, but the best answer arises from Graded Absolutism as explained by Dr. Norman Geisler. (Editor’s note: In a future post, I’m going to attempt to utilize Graded Absolutism as a guide for Christian voting behavior.) The point here is that certain of God’s commands are more important than others at certain times and within certain contexts. For the Christian, loving God and loving neighbor are important commands. For the state, justice is a greater command than mercy. In fact, since the state predated the Bible (both the Gospel and Mosaic Law) then it would seem better to apply principles of general revelation to the state rather than God’s special revelation. One prominent example would be God’s highest command—honoring Him is the Greatest Commandment.
In this example, let’s consider Christians voting for Mitt Romney. Romney is a good man who held to many political policy views in line with evangelical Christians. Yet, evangelicals would say Romney had a defective view of Christ. For Christians, a defective view of our Lord and Savior puts one in violation of the Greatest Commandment. Yet, when one considers the purpose of government, Romney was the far superior candidate within the specific context of a secular American political election. We are not voting to establish God’s kingdom; rather, we want the best possible magistrate to have Caesar’s sword.
Jonah Goldberg opined, “But here’s Falwell with his gelding knife slashing away. Caesar can do whatever he wants!”
That’s not what Falwell is saying. Falwell is pointing out the Gospel is for persons and not for the state. The Gospel transforms individuals. We must remember this important truth. (See this earlier post about God’s role for the state.)
Social programs, no matter how well-intentioned, soup kitchens, no matter how helpful, and tax policy, no matter how just, will accomplish nothing to save souls. Only Jesus and a personal relationship with Him through God’s glorious Gospel will matter in any eschatological sense.
What is the Gospel?
Let’s examine the biblical data on the Gospel:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. 17 For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”
The Gospel is something of which elites are ashamed. These elites don’t like how those folks sitting in the pew think about religion or politics. This isn’t shocking. A focus on Jesus is an offense. One commentator noted this isn’t something new, “Reflecting Paul’s sober recognition of the fact that the gospel is something of which, by the very nature of the case, Christians will in this world constantly be tempted to be ashamed.”
It is something that we are tempted to expand to make more palatable to the coastal elites. Suddenly, every political policy preference can become a “Gospel issue.” Immigration? Gospel Issue. Racial Reconciliation? Gospel Issue. Preferred Tax Policy? Gospel Issue. While all of these things are good, it can distract a Christian from the purpose of the Gospel—God’s attempt to reconcile man to Himself through the work of our Lord Jesus Christ.
What then is the Gospel? Paul’s answer is that it is the saving power of God that reveals God to us. Cranfield pointed out this is in fact the theme of Romans, and through Paul’s word choice says a good deal about Christianity—it is a religion about salvation in a final sense. Cranfield wrote, “What Paul is saying here, then, is that the gospel is God’s effective power active in the world of men to bring about deliverance from His wrath in the final judgment and reinstatement in that glory of God which was lost through sin—that is, an eschatological salvation which reflects its splendour back into the present of those who are to share it. (The significance of εἰς σωτηρίαν will be further clarified by consideration of Paul’s understanding of ζήσεται in v. 17.) The gospel is this by virtue of its content, its subject, Jesus Christ. It is He Himself who is its effectiveness. His work was God’s decisive act for men’s salvation, and in the gospel, in the message of which He is the content, He presents Himself to men as it were clothed in the efficacy of His saving work.”
1 Corinthians 15:1-8
“Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel I preached to you, which you received, on which you have taken your stand 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold to the message I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. 6 Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he also appeared to me.”
Chrysostom in his Homilies on Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians declared this simple Gospel message when thinking about this verse, “After all, what is the gospel but the message that God became man, was crucified and rose again? This is what the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary, what the prophets preached to the world and what all the apostles truthfully proclaimed.”
Commentators focus on the confessional nature of verses 3-6 as an early, oral tradition of the church dating to the earliest of times. According to William Lane Craig, “In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Paul is not writing freely in his own hand. He is quoting an old tradition that scholars date to within the first five years after Jesus’ crucifixion.”
What is critically important is the way Paul writes about Jesus—without a proper understanding of the work and person of Christ then nothing else in the Bible really makes sense: “The rhetoric of Paul and other nt authors concerning the scriptural bases of comprehending Christ, his death and resurrection, is often sufficiently general to support the suggestion of some commentators that Paul and other early Christians thought of Christ as the fulfillment or key to understanding all of the ot in and for the life of the church.”
We must remember through all of this that Jesus and His work in life, death and resurrection did not to institute the kingdom now. Rather, the works of Christ were to save men and gave all of creation the promise of a future eschatological status where believers are reconciled with God. According to the Yale Anchor Bible Dictionary, “In Jesus, God’s eschatological act of salvation has begun. The teaching of Jesus was not preserved as an ethical or legal system. It served as an indication of what is required of those who would be Jesus’ disciples, persons who acknowledge the risen Jesus as Lord and anticipate their own participation in that exaltation at the judgment (Matt 19:28–30; Phil 3:20–21; Rev 3:21–22).”
It seems important to focus on that observation: Jesus did not set his teachings as a legal system. Instead, His teachings serve as an indication of how short our own righteousness is from God’s standard. It is only through the Holy Spirit that we can grow to become more like our Savior. While here on this fallen earth, it is best to work as Christians to preserve God’s created order and not overthrow it with naïve hopes.
We have the Holy Spirit to guide us in theological matters, but not on specific policy issues. As Luther pointed out, “And there is need in this office of abler people than are needed in the office of preaching, so that it is necessary to keep the best boy for this work; for in the preaching office Christ does the whole thing, by His Spirit, but in worldly government one must use reason, — from which the laws have come, — for God has subjected temporal rule and bodily things to reason ( Genesis 2:19), and has not sent the Holy Spirit from heaven for this purpose. Therefore governing is harder, because it cannot be ruling over things that are certain, and must act, so to speak, in the dark.”
Because we are doing things “in the dark,” far better to approach political issues with humility. There are very few areas where we might have the right to declare, “Thus saith the Lord.” Areas such as abortion and religious liberty for Christians would be issues of clarity. How many B2 bombers to procure, or the appropriate number of immigrants would be far from certain based on divine revelation. As John Warwick Montgomery wisely counseled, “Christians can fight for nonrevelational viewpoints, but they must make plain these are their own personal opinions, not necessarily God’s opinions.”
 C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 86.
 C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 89.
 Martin Luther, A Sermon on Keeping Children in School.
 John Warwick Montgomery, Christians in the Public Square: Law, Gospel & Public Policy, (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy, 1996).