Thoughts from Quarantine: The Gospel and Social Justice—Friends or Foes?

No, I’m not really quarantined. But my mind has shifted into quarantine mode. Now that regular life has been somewhat cancelled, I feel free to return to the things that have been on my brain.

I don’t usually wade into heated debates (especially if it is a Christian one) unless I’ve had time to think about it. Well, I’ve been thinking about the gospel and social justice for a few years, and now I think I’ve put enough puzzle pieces together to write my thoughts.

If you had no idea that this was a debate at all, let me fill you in. There are two extremes among (and people will disagree with me saying this) conservative, bible-believing Christians. On one side, you have people who believe that social justice is THE fruit of the gospel. If you believe in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, then you must be radically and actively opposed to racism, poverty, oppression, etc. It should mark your life.

Then you have another camp that says it’s not THE fruit, it’s A fruit. If you focus all your energy on social justice, then you will lose the gospel and end up as a liberal Christian who believes preaching the gospel and converting the sinner is secondary to justice issues (e.g. it’s more important to clothe the naked with a garment than with the blood of Christ). If you want to bring justice, have church and preach the gospel.

What I’m about to say will probably frustrate both sides. I’m kind of known for being annoyingly in the middle. Anyhow, I want to share something that I noticed after I started reading Isaiah last night. Study these texts closely:

Isaiah 5:1–7

1 Let me sing now for my well-beloved A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard. My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill. 2 He dug it all around, removed its stones, And planted it with the choicest vine. And He built a tower in the middle of it And also hewed out a wine vat in it; Then He expected it to produce good grapes, But it produced only worthless ones. 3 “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, Judge between Me and My vineyard. 4 “What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it? Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones? 5 “So now let Me tell you what I am going to do to My vineyard: I will remove its hedge and it will be consumed; I will break down its wall and it will become trampled ground. 6 “I will lay it waste; It will not be pruned or hoed, But briars and thorns will come up. I will also charge the clouds to rain no rain on it.” 7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel And the men of Judah His delightful plant. Thus He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; For righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress (NASB).

Matthew 21:33–41, 43

33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and put a wall around it and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce. 35 The vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them. 37 But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ 39 They took him, and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” 41 They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.” . . . 43 Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it (NASB).

In Isaiah, God is saying that he chose the hill where Jerusalem lies, and he placed the people of Judah there. Jerusalem is the vineyard, the people are the plant. But the fruit that he expected to grow was justice and righteousness; instead, he found the opposite.

In Matthew, Jesus tells a similar parable. The people that God sent to the vineyard to collect the fruit of the vine (the prophets/his own Son) found that the fruit was bad — Isaiah being on of those prophets. But what does Jesus say then? Those who were tending the vineyard (the leaders of the people) will be thrown out and replaced by those who could bear good fruit. So, what is the fruit that God’s people should produce? According to Isaiah, it’s justice (cf. Matthew 23:23).

Now, I want to be very careful here. First of all, the gospel.

Jesus stated in Luke 4:18–21

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are oppressed, 19 To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” 20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

Jesus is the true Israelite who produces the fruit of justice. He is the Just One. He is the one who pleases the Lord in the vineyard by delivering the oppressed. Yet, on behalf of all those who believe in him who did not produce the fruit of justice, he was thrown into the winepress of God’s wrath on the cross, and his death paid for the sin of our bad fruit. Now, if we belong to him, our lives of injustice are hidden in the Just One (Colossians 3:3) through faith.

So, I’d say those who want to cast guilt and shame on their brothers and sisters in Christ who have failed in justice in the past have forgotten something of the gospel.

But there is another side. The Just One is now our king, and his people produce the fruit of justice. So, while we would need more evidence to say justice is THE fruit of the gospel, we can say that it is something that Christians should be very passionate about. So, those who want to distance themselves from justice efforts have also forgotten something of the gospel.

One of the critiques that people who worry about justice overtaking the gospel are going to offer is that no one knows how to define justice. Well, Isaiah lists things that can be considered just: freeing the oppressed (1:17) and caring for the orphan and widow (the most vulnerable in society) (1:17). He also describes things we could list as injustice: judges and rulers taking bribes (and therefore ruling in favor of the rich) (1:23), the young attacking the old (3:5), the one of no reputation dishonoring the honorable (3:5), getting rich off the poor (3:14), and murder that is not punished (1:21). While this list is not exhaustive, it gives a good picture of what justice looks like in God’s eyes: the case of the poor and oppressed being brought before judges who hate bribes and will weigh all cases fairly and convict those who are truly guilty. (No. Judges are not supposed to rule in the poor’s favor just because they’re poor. Leviticus 19:15!)

The immediate application for the church, though, is not to take to the streets and become political activists. The global church’s primary directive in justice matters (since God’s people no longer make up a nation-state but are spread all over world, Jews and Gentiles) is to take care of those in their local churches—it’s to fight against all forms of partiality and to love everyone equally regardless of race, gender, socio-economic status, etc. It’s to meet the needs of the poor among the church so they have the necessities they need to live life. And it’s to hear the cries of the brothers and sisters who, at any moment (consider the bloodied, half-dead Jew who was helped by the Samaritan but ignored by the priest and Levite), feel they are oppressed and to make sure that their case is heard by the people who can do something about it (and this type of compassionate care may take a political shape).

Secondly, Christians have the hope of an eternally just kingdom that is being brought by their just King Jesus at some point in the future. Jesus’ earthly ministry among the poor and oppressed around him was a living parable that showed he had come to save the poor in Spirit and the oppressed by Sin and Death. What he did physically on earth by walking with the poor, showing compassion on them and healing them, all pointed to what he was bringing to the world spirituality (and will later bring the world physically forever). The church, as the body of Christ, is called to live a similar life in a manner worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27), meaning that what we do on earth physically ought to point back to what Jesus has done for us spiritually. As we go about sharing the gospel, telling what Christ has done for us, our radical lives of being advocates and servants of the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed ought to reflect what we believe.

In that sense, justice is A CENTRAL fruit of the gospel

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Alex Nolette

Staff at Mercy Hill Church in Greensboro, NC. I do sermon research and write theological things—which is kinda what I do even when it’s not my job.