The Gospel and Social Justice

Scott J. Kaczorowski | April 22, 2022

There is an ongoing discussion on the relationship social justice plays to the gospel. In order to arrive at a biblical perspective on this important question, we must first understand the meaning of the term “gospel” and we must also come to a basic understanding of the term “the kingdom of God.” When we look at the meanings of these terms and understand the relationship between them a biblical answer to the question of social justice and the gospel emerges.

 

The idea of the gospel or “good news” (in the developed theological sense in which the New Testament uses that term) was first popularized by the prophet Isaiah[1]Psalm 40:10 and Psalm 96:2 represent precursors to this. But neither Psalm (nor the Book of Psalms) develops this concept to the extent that Isaiah does. For additional examples in the Greek Old … Continue reading. For example, in Isaiah 52:7 we read, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”[2]Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. When, several hundred years later, Isaiah was translated into Greek, the Greek translators rendered the phrase “brings good news” in both parts of the verse with a participle from the verb euangelizō [3]The term also appears in various forms in LXX Isaiah 40:9; 60:6; 61:1.. If that term sounds familiar that’s because it is the Greek word from which we get our English verb “to evangelize.” [4]John MacArthur, Ephesians, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1986), 79 (similar). Isaiah develops this theme of the announcement of good news in a distinctly theological way that is then picked up by Jesus and the rest of the New Testament for the announcement of good news about the reign of God.

 

Luke 8:1 says, “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.” This brings us to our second key term: “the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is about the reign or the rule of God[5]I expressed this very similarly in a Thistlebend Ministries Quiet eMoment on Luke 4:42-44 entitled “The Kingdom”: “The kingdom of God, therefore, is the rule and reign of God exercised by the … Continue reading. So Jesus is proclaiming the gospel (i.e. the good news) of the kingdom (i.e. the reign) of God. His message is the good news that God reigns. That’s exactly the same thing that Isaiah said! At the end of Isaiah 52:7 we saw the content of the good news Isaiah envisioned in the final words of the verse, “Your God reigns.” [6]I owe this observation to Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 26; Piper in turn owes the observation to the puritan writer Cotton Mather, Student … Continue reading When Jesus comes we find him preaching the exact same thing.

 

So the broadest definition of the gospel that we can give according to Scripture is that God reigns[7]Cf. Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, 26.. It’s not hard to see why that is good news! When God reigns, sins are forgiven. When God reigns, people are healed. When God reigns, the devil is cast out. When God reigns, captives are delivered. These are exactly the things we see Jesus doing as he proclaims the imminent presence of God’s kingdom, God’s reign. He tells people, “I have good news for you. The reign of God is here!” And then he shows them that indeed it is[8]Cf. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012), 34-35, 40-41.. The things that he is doing are in fact the reign of God coming. This is why he can preach that the kingdom is “at hand” (Matt 4:17).

 

Now none of this is intended to downplay the death and resurrection of Jesus. Far from it. It is his death and resurrection that makes all of this possible in the first place[9]Cf. Matera, New Testament Theology, 15.. The kingdom of God centers on the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is, after all, the King! But what it should do is broaden our conception of the gospel to a certain degree. There are all kinds of good things that are part of the good news that mainstream evangelicals[10]There’s the influence of the Greek translation of Isaiah again, this time in our very label of self-identification! tend to miss because we focus so narrowly on the “spiritual” aspects of it.

 

Here’s a great example—justice (social and otherwise). Perfect justice is part of the reign of God. And remember the good news is that God reigns. In fact, perfect justice is one of the very reasons the reign of God is good news in the first place. The reign of a monarch who does not bring justice for the oppressed would not be good news at all. But that’s not what the reign of this King is like. This King’s reign is perfect. Therefore he will bring justice for the oppressed (Psalm 72:4). When we really understand what the Bible means when it talks about the gospel, the good news of the perfect reign of a perfect King that is being brought about through the person and work of Jesus, especially and particularly his death and resurrection[11]Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 55 (similar), 56 (similar), 57-59, 64-68, 70 (quoting George Eldon Ladd; similar), 79; Matera, New Testament Theology, 12-13, 15., we would be hard-pressed to exclude some kind of social justice from this equation.

 

The problem came when the liberalism of the early 20th century began to reduce the entire message of the gospel to some form of social justice by itself. Social justice simply considered in and of itself is certainly not the gospel. The rulers of this world can achieve a measure of social justice. But their reign is not the good news the Bible speaks of. So evangelicals responded to early liberalism by going to the opposite extreme and ignoring social justice altogether as an aspect of the gospel[12]Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 36-37, 43-46; cf. Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 68..

 

It would seem the biblical approach lies somewhere between these two extremes. It recognizes that we can’t reduce the gospel to some man-centered program of social justice. This is what evangelicals have been (rightly) on about for roughly a hundred years now. But it also recognizes that we can’t exclude justice for the oppressed as one of the things that makes the good news good if, in fact, the good news is about the perfect reign of a God who will one day give justice to the oppressed[13]Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 31-33, 36-46..

 

No doubt many evangelicals will be uncomfortable with this. But if that is the case, we need to be brought back to the proclamation of that great evangelist, the prophet Isaiah, who declared to us the content of the gospel with the hope-filled words, “Your God reigns.”

 

References

References
1 Psalm 40:10 and Psalm 96:2 represent precursors to this. But neither Psalm (nor the Book of Psalms) develops this concept to the extent that Isaiah does. For additional examples in the Greek Old Testament, cf. independently Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, trans. John Bowden (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), 270 n.403.
2 Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3 The term also appears in various forms in LXX Isaiah 40:9; 60:6; 61:1.
4 John MacArthur, Ephesians, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1986), 79 (similar).
5 I expressed this very similarly in a Thistlebend Ministries Quiet eMoment on Luke 4:42-44 entitled “The Kingdom”: “The kingdom of God, therefore, is the rule and reign of God exercised by the Lord Jesus Christ.” On this statement cf. Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 41, 45, 47-48, 53-54, 68; Frank J. Matera, New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity (Louisville, KY: Westmister John Knox Press, 2007), 12-14; cf. independently R. T. France The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 102-103, 151. France argues that this phrase should be translated something more like “the kingship of God” to better bring out this idea of reign in English (102).
6 I owe this observation to Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 26; Piper in turn owes the observation to the puritan writer Cotton Mather, Student and Preacher, or Directions for a Candidate of the Ministry (London: Hindmarsh, 1726), v.
7 Cf. Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, 26.
8 Cf. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012), 34-35, 40-41.
9 Cf. Matera, New Testament Theology, 15.
10 There’s the influence of the Greek translation of Isaiah again, this time in our very label of self-identification!
11 Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 55 (similar), 56 (similar), 57-59, 64-68, 70 (quoting George Eldon Ladd; similar), 79; Matera, New Testament Theology, 12-13, 15.
12 Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 36-37, 43-46; cf. Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 68.
13 Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 31-33, 36-46.

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