The Jesus Gospel

Oct 10, 2018

Part 1 of a 3-Article Series by George Robertson

A high-ranking political friend of mine is fond of saying, “All politics is local.” He meant he was committed to his local constituency first. He tried not to make his political decisions based on his party or a broader national agenda; he tried to do what was best for the people who elected him.

I believe pastoring is first local as well, so my posts are primarily intended for my congregation. If someone outside our church overhears something helpful, praise the Lord, but my first obligation is to teach my flock. Therefore, I am responding to John MacArthur and company’s recent comments on social justice because many of the people I pastor have asked me about them. MacArthur’s remarks have been made through recent sermons, blog posts and “The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel,” signed by some 7,000.

At the outset, I want to express my deep gratitude for Dr. MacArthur’s ministry through the decades. His faithful exposition of God’s Word, especially in the form of commentaries, have helped me unspeakably in my preaching ministry. While I have never had the honor of meeting him, Dr. MacArthur and I share many good friends, not the least of them being Mike Stokke! Therefore, I pray whatever I say will fulfill Paul’s admonition never to rebuke an older man but rather appeal to him as a father (I Tim. 5:1).

Several writers have already offered their point-by-point affirmations and denials relative to “Social Justice and the Gospel.” I do not intend to add to their thorough commentaries. According to Mike Gerson’s opinion piece in the Washington Times, MacArthur’s efforts are an “outraged response to another group of evangelical Christians — The Gospel Coalition — that held a conference on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination." MacArthur clearly wants to paint the participants — including prominent pastors Tim Keller, Russell Moore, Thabiti Anyabwile, and John Piper — as liberals at risk of heresy.”[1]I must comment on three topics whereby MacArthur and his signatories cast aspersion on my ministry as well as many other gospel-centered leaders.


1. Justice

I actually agree with MacArthur there is no need to add an adjective to “justice” when describing the biblical concept. However, I would not condemn those who do so in order to specify to which kind of justice they are referring to give the Bible’s broad universe of application of that concept in both the Old and New Testament.

Biblical justice entails treating all people equitably. However, the fuller picture of what God means when he calls for justice in our relationships with one another is so uncommon to our world it requires more extensive explanation and sometimes the addition of adjectives. The primary Hebrew word translated “justice” is mishpat, which occurs in various forms over 200 times in the Bible. This word often refers to what some call “rectifying justice,” that is, an action that rectifies or punishes a wrong. True rectifying justice then is punishing or acquitting a crime according to the merits of the case regardless of the social status or resources of the person in question. Our justice is to reflect God’s justice, which is tempered by mercy.

However, there is a nuance to the biblical concept of justice distinguishing it as good news. Often mishpat occurs alongside another key Hebrew word, tsadeqah. Tsadeqah is sometimes translated “justice” as well, as in “justification.” Whereas mishpat primarily describes punishing wrongdoing, tsadeqah describes right relationships in daily living, especially a right relationship with God. This kind of righteousness is referred to by some as “primary justice.” So if everyone were living according to primary justice (tsadeqah), rectifying justice (mishpat) would not be necessary.

Amos uses the two words interchangeably when he summons for “justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” not only among God’s covenant people, but also on the surrounding nations (5:24). He called out “transgressions” like the unjust total-war practices of Damascus, Edom and Ammon (1:3-5, 11-15), the practice of slavery in Gaza (1:6-10), and cruelty to corpses by the Moabites (2:1-3). Micah decried injustice in the political, religious, and educational realms of Israel (3:11).

The Lord frequently warns his people that rejecting his “teaching” (torah) will manifest itself not only through religion but also through perpetrating social inequities, the kinds committed by foreign nations (cf. Is. 5:7, 18–24; Ho. 4:1–13; Ez. 5:6). If this is the case, it stands to reason that the opposite of social inequity resulting from biblical unfaithfulness is social justicearising from biblical fidelity. In both the Old and New Testaments God especially expresses his anger with those who manifest their infidelity to his instruction by mistreating the economically poor. The biblical concept of righteousness includes generosity to the poor. When Job described his “righteousness” he was not merely referring to a state he was in by God’s grace, but acts he performed. There is no evidence of being in a righteous state if one is not performing acts of righteousness. And Job said that if he withheld gifts from the poor he would have sinned against God and thus been unrighteous (31:23-28).

The New Testament reinforces this theme (Lk. 10:33; 1 Jn. 3:17). Jesus did not qualify any of his words when he announced he had come to preach “good news” (the “gospel”) to the “poor.” Doing good to the poor is to declare tangibly the goodness of the news of the Kingdom. Jesus called this an “act of righteousness” (Mt. 6:1-2). And he said those who minister to the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and prisoner are “righteous” (25:46).

In his blog “The Injustice of Social Justice,” Sept. 7, 2018, MacArthur says this about those of us imitating the biblical pattern of justice:

Today, critical race theory, feminism, intersectional theory, LGBT advocacy, progressive immigration policies, animal rights, and other left-wing political causes are all actively vying for evangelical acceptance under the rubric of “social justice.”

Countless critics have pointed out that the rhetoric of “social justice” is deeply rooted in Gramscian Marxism. For many decades, “social justice” has been employed as political shorthand by radical leftists as a way of calling for equal distribution of wealth, advantages, privileges, and benefits—up to and including pure Marxist socialism.

Marxists, socialists, anarchists, and other radicals purposely use such arguments to foment resentment, class warfare, ethnic strife, tension between the genders, and other conflicts between various people groups, because in order to restructure society to fit their ideologies, they must first break down existing societal norms.[2]

From evangelical history Gerson names a couple of examples of those who saw the necessary connection between social action and personal faith in Jesus Christ:

Evangelist Charles Finney insisted that “the loss of interest in benevolent enterprises” was usually evidence of a “backslidden heart.” Among these enterprises, Finney listed good government, temperance reform, the abolition of slavery and relief for the poor. “The Gospel,” preached abolitionist Gilbert Haven in 1863, “is not confined to a repentance and faith that have no connection with social or civil duties. The Evangel of Christ is an all-embracing theme.”[3]

Many more examples could also be summoned: Calvin’s advocacy for bannister rails, Luther’s development of hospitals, William Carey’s establishment of aviaries, Wilberforce’s abolition of slavery, Sojourner Truth’s stand against slavery and for women’s rights, Amy Carmichael’s rescuing children from temple prostitution, Abraham Kuyper’s founding of a newspaper, and Chuck Colson’s prison reforms. The commitment of each of these to the gospel of justification by faith alone cannot be denied. In fact, James would say it is proven by their works. And Jesus would say men and women have glorified God because of works even they as unbelievers recognized as “good.”

This gospel and all its concern for both spiritual justification and public justice is actually the same gospel that Jesus preached and exemplified in his own earthly ministry.

 

The gospel about Jesus

The news we preach and practice is good because it is first and foremost about Jesus. Jesus announced in his sermon that he was the “fulfillment” of the words he read from Isaiah 58 and 61. It was a very effective sermon introduction! To announce to a people who have been longing for the Messiah for hundreds of years that he had finally arrived and was preaching the morning sermon was arresting and was initially met with great admiration. The confirmation of his announcement was divine. The Spirit had descended on him in the form of a dove to anoint him as the Prophet and the Father had pronounced his benediction to denote him as his beloved Son (3:22; cf. 1:35; 2:25; Acts 1:8; Acts 4:27; 10:38; Heb. 1:9; cf. 2 Cor. 1:21).[4]It is even more clear to us he is the one and only Savior because we now read of his substitutionary work on the cross for us. The blood of martyrs confirms his resurrection.

It is this message concerning Jesus Christ which Paul says is of “first importance”:

That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve (1 Co. 15:3).

 

The gospel of Jesus

This news we preach and practice is also good because it is the gospel of Jesus. This is not the social gospel, spiritual gospel, or even truegospel. This is Jesus’gospel. No one less than the anointed Son of God announces he has been sent to “preach the gospel . . .” We know the content of what he is going to preach and practice—that he has come to die, descend to the grave and rise according to the Scriptures. So he will bring justification for sins. He also says in our text he is announcing “the year of the Lord’s favor.” That is, he will explain that he is fulfilling all that was foreshadowed in the year of Jubilee (Lv. 25). Jubilee occurred every fifty years. During Jubilee, the fields lay fallow, persons returned to their own homes, debts were relinquished, and slaves set free. The Bible calls those things justice. This is what Jesus meant when he spoke often of the Kingdom. His ministry and miracles signified the inauguration of his reign on earth and it will not quit until he has brought all enemies under his feet.

So to whom did Jesus say he was anointed to preach justification and justice? To the poor, the prisoners, and the blind. The first question the typical Cartesian Christian asks is, “Is he referring to physical conditions or spiritual?” The answer of Jesus’ life was “yes!” The word translated “poor” (οἱπτωχοί) refers to ‘one who is so poor as to have to beg’, that is, one who is completely destitute.[5]Of course in Psalms and in the beatitudes “poor” can refer to spiritual humility too. There can be spiritual as well as literally blind and captive people too, but why would we conclude he only meant the spiritually poor, blind, and captive when much of his ministry was occupied with doing good to the literally poor, blind and captive (Mt. 11:5)?

Jesus brought the good news of dignifying compassion toward the “poor widow” (Lk. 21:3); he brought the good news of literal sight to the man born blind (Jn. 9:6, 7); and he brought the good news of literal release from captivity to the Gadarene demoniac (Lk. 8:26-37). It is not as though, as Christians, we must choose between preaching the gospel and meeting one’s practical needs. In fact, it is often the case that we do not have the opportunity to share the gospel until we have proved by tangible works of love and service that we can be trusted, and we can always explain to those we serve that we do so in the name of Jesus.  

 

The gospel with Jesus

Furthermore, if Jesus intended only the spiritually poor, blind, and captive, many if not most Christians throughout history have misunderstood. They have recognized that to be united to Jesus spiritually is not only to benefit from his justification but to participate with him in bringing justice to the earth.

As I’ve already mentioned, Jesus is reading from Isaiah 58 as well as 61. In Isaiah 58, the prophet is confronting Judah’s “rebellion” and “sin” (1). They were acting “spiritual” by going to worship, offering sacrifices, and even fasting. But God said real fasting, real spiritual service, is to “set the oppressed free, share your food with the hungry, provide the poor wanderer with shelter, and clothe the naked (6, 7).

Fourth century Roman Christians frustrated the efforts of Julian the Apostate (332-63) trying to restore the Empire to its pagan past. The Emperor complained that

through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.

Today, Franklin Graham delivers services to the poor in the neediest parts of the globe and calls unbelievers to personal faith in Jesus. My friend Dr. Nathan Henson, through his innovative cataract procedure, restores sight to hundreds of blind Peruvians and leads almost as many to personal faith in Christ. Charles Colson advocated for prison reform and programs for reentry while strenuously pleading for people to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. In proclaiming justification andjustice, Christians throughout the ages have imitated the ministry of Jesus by declaring a whole gospel to whole lives. 

The opposition now mounted against this understanding of true gospel ministry is not a threat; it is actually proof that we are following Jesus. Jesus’ message was actually popular at first. What made it unpopular was his offer of the same to Gentiles (Lk. 4:18-30). His neighbors were fine with good news for the poor, blind, and captive because they could think of their own in each of those categories. What nearly got him killed prior to his crucifixion was offering it to the Gentiles. And this persecution, remember, came from his fellow church members. To be one with Jesus is to preach and practice his gospel which is good news for the poor, blind, captive, and racially outcast, both when it is accepted and when it is not. Sometimes we will be allowed into the homes of the influential as he was and sometimes we will be crucified outside the gate. Sometimes our own will receive us and sometimes our own will demonize us. Regardless, we aim to please only one—the Christ who became poor that we might become rich.

 


 

[1]Michael Gerson, “Christians are suffering from complete spiritual blindness,” The Washington Post, September 10, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/its-impossible-to-separate-social-justice-from-the-christian-gospel/2018/09/10/26764628-b528-11e8-94eb-3bd52dfe917b_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.35286e3dc9dc

[2]John MacArthur, “The Injustice of Social Justice,” Grace to You, September 7, 2018, https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B180907/the-injustice-of-social-justice.

[3]Michael Gerson, “Christians are suffering from complete spiritual blindness,” The Washington Post, September 10, 2018.

[4]I.H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text(Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1978), 183.

[5]F. Hauck and E. Bammel, TDNTVI, 885–915