If you spend any amount of time online these days, you know that simply uttering the words “social justice” is asking for a firestorm. A statement in favor invites charges of Marxism and abandoning the gospel. A statement in opposition invites charges of failing to heed Jesus’ commands to love our neighbor.
For us ordinary Christians who want to be faithful to Jesus, we scroll social media and see arguments (and eruptions) from both sides. We might not have a biblical framework to make sense of either side. So we feel conflicted. We respect people in both camps, but we don’t know who is right.
Is it possible to find a better way? I believe so. In this article I hope to answer a few questions about social justice for someone who is looking to come to a balanced view.
What is social justice?
Like so many other polarizing topics, social justice is hard to define. Different camps tend to use different definitions. But for our purposes, I am going to define it as giving people the help, care, and dignity they deserve as image bearers of God.
The fundamental basis for social justice is that God created people in His image (Genesis 1:26–28). We care for the poor because they reflect the image of God. We care for the unborn because they reflect the image of God. We care for the immigrant because they reflect the image of God. We care for people of all ethnicities because every single person reflects the image of God. So, we honor the inherent value of every single person because every single person—whether redeemed or not—bears the image of God. People have incredible worth and value before God. We should want to see them live dignified lives. We should care about their flourishing.
Even more, when God created humanity in his image, he gave them the task to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28). He gave them not only a garden to cultivate, but also an entire world to subdue. The task, if properly completed, would have brought about a completely just society in every way. The image of God stamped on every human being is our basis for caring about a just society. We know that sin marred creation, but the image of God and the command to go about our labors in the world in that light is still there (Genesis 9:1–7). So we do things that alleviate the effects of sin on people. We provide opportunities for flourishing and for common grace relationships and institutions to be a blessing to all people. We tell fellow image bearers that God cares about them. We get to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
What does the Bible say about justice?
But we want to be biblical, right? Whenever someone says that social justice is a worldly concept, I bring up the many references to justice in the Old Testament. While this is God speaking to a nation as his representatives on earth, and can’t be applied universally to America being God’s nation, the principles remain. Israel was God’s chosen people. The Church is God’s chosen people. Because God still cares about a just society, so should we.
He demonstrates concern for the marginalized, the poor, the destitute, and the despised. While we can disagree on how we go about meeting those needs, we can’t ignore the heart of God behind these commands.
Just consider the Old Testament law for a moment. In Exodus 22:21, Moses told the Israelites not to oppress resident aliens because they were once aliens themselves. In Leviticus 19:9–10, they were told not to glean their fields all the way up to the edge of it. Essentially, they weren’t supposed to be greedy, but instead they were to leave some for the poor and foreigner among them. In Deuteronomy 10:17–19, Moses said that God loves the foreigner and executes justice for him. When God gave the law to Israel, he set them apart from every other nation around them, including the one they just left. These kinds of laws were part of what it meant for God to build a distinct people for himself. But God wanted Israel to demonstrate to the world what he was like. And his heart was for all to know his care for them.
Then the prophets who came later were particularly concerned with how God’s people behaved towards those who were outsiders. Israel’s rejection of God and his rule over them spilled over into their failure to be his representatives in the world. Micah 6:8 is one of the most well-known passages on justice, “[W]hat does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (NASB). For a lot of us, we have the “walking with God” part down. We are involved in Bible studies. We go to church. We read theologically rich books. We serve in the nursery. But this verse, along with countless others like it, show us that knowledge of God leads to love for others—and particularly love for those who can’t help themselves. God’s heart is a heart of mercy. God’s heart is a heart of justice for those who are oppressed. Why? Because he made them. And he made us to be his examples in this world of his very heart. Our love for knowledge should spill over into love for the ones God made.
But this is not just an Old Testament concept. It is carried over both into the life of Jesus and the life of the early church. Jesus came both preaching repentance and alleviating needs. He came with a ministry of the word and a ministry of deed. The New Testament church continued in this care by remembering the poor (Galatians 2:10) and meeting the needs of others. Why? Because they loved God and loved people. They wanted the world to know God, so they served out of an overflow of their love for him.
When does justice go wrong?
Some advocates of social justice do get into trouble when the gospel is equated with social justice. The gospel is the good news of what Jesus Christ accomplished for sinners. He came to deal with our greatest need—our sin and subsequent alienation from God. Without his life, death, and resurrection, we are dead in our sins. We are separated from God. By faith in his finished work, we are cleansed from the inside out and given eternal life in his name. This is the gospel. God created us. We sinned against God. Christ came to redeem us from our sin. We respond to his work in faith. The gospel is a message about what God has done for us in Christ. While faith in Christ often does make our lives better here and now, that’s not a promise you can take to the bank. The hope of the gospel sets our expectations on the new creation where we will dwell with God. But for a lot of Christians, injustice remains in this life, sometimes for their entire lives. For a lot of Christians, poverty lingers. For a lot of Christians, they are not taken from the life of brokenness to a life of prosperity. This doesn’t mean we don’t hope and pray and work towards that end. But it does mean that the gospel is something different than social justice. For all Christians, we have the ultimate promise of “an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for [us]” (1 Peter 1:4 NASB).
This is where the lines begin to be drawn between the two camps. One side says, “Preach the gospel of spiritual salvation only,” while the other says, “Preaching the gospel means fixing real-world problems.” I think a better way is to say, “In preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, Christians begin to be transformed. And in transformation, obedience to God’s commands grows—even his commands to administer social justice.” To say it more simply: social justice is simply bearing fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8).
In some ways, talking about social justice feels like a futile effort these days. But to retreat is also to give the conversation over to these two camps alone. We can’t do that. We shouldn’t do that. We need nuanced and balanced conversations about justice in order to present a more beautiful vision to the watching world.
What better picture to our lost neighbors than to say, “You care about justice? I do too. Here’s why. Let me tell you about the most just man who ever lived.”
Originally Published: September 8, 202
- Pray for a soft heart to the Bible’s teachings on justice. Pray that God would open your eyes to your own biases towards justice.
- Pray that God would give you a firm grasp of Scripture so you’re able to discern truth from error in the conversation about justice.
- Pray that God would intervene in our world and execute justice on behalf of those who are marginalized and mistreated.
- Pray that God’s people would reflect his heart to a watching world through compassionate care of others.