The Gospel and Justice

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The gospel without justice is hollow. But justice without the gospel is deficient.

In my previous editorial, I suggested that biblical justice combines both the concepts of retributive justice and social justice. Its aim is always toward restoring God’s shalom, to foster life and restore relationships.

But how does justice relate to gospel proclamation? This question seems to imply that doing justice and proclaiming the gospel are two different things that need to somehow work together. Previously I suggested that from a biblical viewpoint, justice, righteousness, and love are interconnected. I believe that justice and the gospel are also deeply related.

What is the gospel? The apostle Paul described the gospel as reconciling “all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” to God through Christ Jesus (Col. 1:20). The gospel is comprehensive. It is not only good news for human souls but for all creation.

From Abraham Kuyper’s famous mantra of every square inch under the Lordship of Christ to more recent articulations, our Reformed Christian tradition has long emphasized this comprehensive scope of the gospel. To cite just one contemporary example: “Since the kingly authority of our risen Lord extends to the whole world, the mission of his people is equally comprehensive: to embody the rule of Christ over marriage and family, business and politics, art and athletics, leisure and scholarship (Matt. 28:18-30; Rom. 12)” (The Cross and our Calling, Redeemer University College, p. 9).

This also means that we do not reduce gospel witness to only verbal proclamation, even though that is essential. God’s reconciling of all things to himself includes reconciling humans to one another (Eph. 2:14-16). Such reconciliation among estranged groups must inevitably involve justice work. 

Furthermore, as one reader emailed me, in a world where “actions speak louder than words” and where “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” our gospel witness must include both word and deed. And our loving acts cannot stop at only charity and benevolence. If we love people consistently, we need to move beyond charity into justice. As theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” Loving our neighbors who live in poverty includes trying to fix any systemic injustices that keep them poor.

The newest generation of young adults is highly sensitive to justice issues. Any movement that ignores the injustices of the world will probably be ignored as irrelevant at best or unethical at worst. Our gospel proclamation cannot gloss over injustice. Instead, it has to show that God’s good news in Christ brings about true justice, a true righting of all wrongs. 

Our seeking after justice as Christ-followers cannot simply mimic the ways of the secular world. We can use the usual channels available to us—advocacy, the state, policies—in redemptive ways to further God’s reconciling mission. But we do not solely rely on these human avenues for justice. As Christians, our ultimate hope for justice is not in the government or in human solidarity but in the Lord Jesus. We need to rely on God’s ways of love, truth, prayer, forgiveness, repentance, and justice.

The gospel without justice is hollow. But justice without the gospel is deficient.

In the November editorial, I will explore a third question: Is justice the work of the institutional church or the organic church, that is, Christians working individually or together in organizations apart from the church?

About the Author

Shiao Chong is editor-in-chief of The Banner. He attends Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont.

Shiao Chong es el redactor jefe de The Banner. El asiste a Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana Reformada en Toronto, Ont. 

시아오 총은 더 배너 (The Banner)의 편집장이다. 온타리오 주 토론토의 펠로우쉽 CRC에 출석한다.

You can follow him @shiaochong (Twitter) and @3dchristianity (Facebook).  

See comments (6)


As a respectful suggestion for the anticipated November editorial, I would recommend some clear definition of words and terms.  "Justice" is something that touches people in many (all?) relationships, both political and non-political.  The issue that is creating tension in the CRCNA today is the CRCNA's institutional foray into political lobbying, which is a more narrowly defined activity than "doing justice."

To illustrate, I object to the denomination's use of ministry shares to lobby for or against specific federal legislation.  Besides being unwise, I think the CRCNA doing so is unjust because its doing so violates its own rules, which rules are a covenant among members as to what the CRCNA will and will not do with its resources (financial and otherwise).

This is a "justice issue" that the CRCNA not only should but must deal with.  But having the right and even obligation to deal with this "justice issue" doesn't mean the CRCNA has the obligation, or even "right" (again, defined by its own rules) to be the purported political lobbyist (some would say "justice representative") for all CRC members.  That is a different question entirely, even if both "involve justice."

In other words, I would suggest that if an opinion piece does not provide definitional nuance when contemplating "justice," it could just as well use the word "smurf" in place of "justice" because the clarity of discussion will be about the same.

appreciate you addressing these concepts... i think of them as retributive and restorative justice...  and I believe the restorative concept is at the heart of the atonement based on 2 Cor 5:14-21... that we can be in right relationship with Him again!  and with ourselves! and with each other! and with creation and the God ordained systems!

along with Doug, I too look forward with some anticipation on your take on the and the  I have been contemplating this distinction for a while due to a very specific negative comment made to me prompted by my not being silent about abuse of power in the leadership of the Church, and therefore have thoughts on this and will try to be patient and wait for yours...  

I have been processing Isaiah 58:6 a bit over the last 3 weeks, regarding issues of injustice,... and so far to me, it looks like a progression of dealing with injustice...  level 1: loose the chains/bonds of injustice/wickedness, level 2: untie/undo the cords of the yoke, level 3: set the oppressed free, and level 4: break every yoke...   i believe the yoke is indicative of systemic oppression... and it needs to be broken at a systemic level (4th level) as well as an individual level (1) and a local level (2)and a group level (3)... I haven't found anything on this, but I'm sure someone has written something about this verse somewhere, i just am not aware of it... yet...

I share Doug's reservations. Maybe I have missed thigns in previous editorials in the Banner, but rarely do I see justice portrayed like it is in this article:

Also, Tim Keller in his book Generous Justice gives a much better vision for biblical justice than what I have seen our denomination do. Keller seems to suggest that justice is done by individual christians and not the church at large i.e. denominations. It makes me wonder why we spend so many resources as a denomination on this stuff when the local church should be doing justice in its own context. If we took this approach there would be less politicization in our denomination and less division. 

Thanks, Shiao Chong, for sharing your thoughts on the subject of justice.  It seems as though you have given much thought to the topic of justice in its reach beyond what we (CRC’ers) have thought of justice in the past.  We have historically thought of justice more in terms of God’s satisfaction for the payment for sin, either in Christ or in eternal damnation. 

What you are opening up to us is what we have seen in the past as the liberalization of the Christian church. In the recent past it was the liberal mainline denominations that were concerned with social justice, sometimes called the social gospel.  But now you are clearly showing us that they were on to something.  Wikipedia in its article on “Social Gospel” says this about this liberal movement, “The movement applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war. Theologically, the Social Gospellers sought to operationalize the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:10): "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". 

Most recently these same churches are opening their doors and membership to the LGBT community and to same sex marriages.  For those in our denomination who see the issue of homosexuality as a social justice concern, perhaps this movement toward social justice in general is a good move.

You might think getting on the “social justice” bandwagon could be good for our denomination, and it could be.  But if we think it will contribute to the growth of our churches or denomination, we would be sadly mistaken.  The mainline denominations that have gone before us in this direction have only lost much of their membership over the years.  But who thinks about numbers when doing good.

I would disagree, Roger, that CRCers have in the past thought of justice only, or even more, as relates to God's satisfaction for sin.  Certainly, CRCers think of that but Reformed people have historically also been quite "real world," and an important, even critical, part of the real world is justice.

But it is the case, I think, that Reformed folk have refused to give up on their theological foundations in exchange for so called "social justice" (which is what tended to happen in both liberation theology and social justice movements: giving a cold cup in the name Christ morphed into giving a cold cup).

In addition, the social justice movement tends to be different, as a political theory, than that which CRCers and others of the Reformed perspective historically held to.

If you will notice, Doug, I said (in my response), “We have historically thought of justic more in terms of God’s satisfaction.”  I didn’t say “only” as you insinuate.  Our historic confessions bear that out.  We are merely moving more toward a sense of social justice or gospel than our past confessional sense of God’s satisfaction for sin.  That’s precisely what ,many of the mainline denominations have done (such as the Presbyterians), without leaving behind their theological moorings altogether.  They have contemporary testimonies that bear out their historical theological heritage.  But it is obvious we are on a similar tract as many of these other denominations, as we increasingly leave behind catechism preaching or second weekly worship services.  Our strong theological moorings get lip service while social justice issues increasingly get more attention.  I’m not saying this is bad.  It’s just a very noticeable trend that is making its way into our denomination.  And it seems as though this article by Chong is confirming this.  As we increasingly blend in with other evangelical and mainline denominations, losing some of our distinctions, we may better be able feel a greater sense of unity with other Christians.  What we lose from the left we may gain from the right.