Social Justice Is Central to the Gospel
EDITOR’S NOTE: The background research for this article is from John D. Barry’s new book, Jesus’ Economy: A Biblical View of Poverty, the Currency of Love, and a Pattern for Lasting Change.

A core part of the gospel is, and always has been, justice. To claim anything otherwise is to misrepresent Jesus. Jesus says he came to proclaim “the gospel to the poor,” which includes liberty for captives and healing for the hurting (Luke 4:16–21).

Right now, there is a lot of debate about the terms “social justice” and “social gospel.” This whole argument is akin to debating the color of the wallpaper while the building is burning down. I don’t care what you call the fire; it is here. There are people of color who live in a world full of racism. There are people who are impoverished who feel that they can never rise up. There are still people being sex trafficked and enslaved around the globe. There is corruption on local and societal levels at work in our world. The gospel should speak to all these things.

There are real people dying because of the issues of poverty, racism, and corruption in our world — and those are injustices. The Bible speaks against such injustices and makes them central to God’s message. The prophet Micah defines what God really wants of people by saying, “do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:7–8). Likewise, early church leader James says that “true religion” is to “visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27). I just checked this morning, and this is the Christian religion according to the Bible.

Furthermore, Jesus said that when he returns, he will be able to tell who his followers are by their love for the impoverished, hurting, marginalized, and oppressed (Matthew 25:31–46). I’m not saying here that we aren’t saved by grace alone — Jesus’ sacrificial death — for we are. The problem is when “doctrine” is divorced from “action”; the two are not in opposition to one another, but one in the same. Right thinking isn’t enough without right action; likewise, right action without right thinking is problematic.

READ: Battle Lines Form over Social Justice: Is It Gospel or Heresy?

When Jesus was asked about the “greatest commandment,” he replied that it is to love God with your whole being; and, without prompting, he said that the second greatest commandment is like it, “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:28–34). At one point, Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He replied with the well-known story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). To first-century Jewish ears, the Samaritan wasn’t good, but bad: The Samaritan had the wrong religion, culture, and ethnicity. Jesus says the person closest to loving his or her neighbor is the one who crosses racial, cultural, and ethnic lines to self-sacrificially help the oppressed. The gospel also addresses racism, and Jesus makes the anti-racist message front and center.

Jesus repeatedly defined “eternal life” as involving believing in him (John 3:16), but he also made clear that only those who embrace acts of justice understand that “eternal life.” A rich man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” After some discussion about keeping God’s commands, Jesus tells the man to sell all of his stuff, give it to the poor, and follow him. (The man goes home sad.) A person with the eternal life of Jesus acts justly and self-sacrificially — that is central to the gospel (Luke 18:18–30). Even the story of the Good Samaritan starts with that same question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Clearly, Jesus has a different economy in mind, a different way of living. Jesus wants Christians to create an economy where equality is in place, where the impoverished and marginalized are empowered. The gospel according to Jesus is not just about what a person believes, but also how he or she lives. Jesus prioritizes justice for the impoverished and marginalized.

I don’t know about you, but I cannot stand for any version of Christianity that fails to prioritize Jesus’ gospel. While the rest of the world is hurting, apparently many want to argue about how to use the term “gospel,” without acknowledging the real point of the gospel. It is salvation and transformation. Label justice how you want, I plan to take action.

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