Scripture says earthly governments are ordained by God to administer justice, and believers are to be subject to their authority. The civil magistrate is “a minister of God to you for good . . . an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Romans 13:1–4). But it is also true that no government in the history of the world has managed to be consistently just. In fact, when Paul wrote that command, the Roman Emperor was Nero, one of the most grossly unjust, unprincipled, cruel-hearted men ever to wield power on the world stage.
As believers, “we know . . . that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), so worldly power structures are—and always have been—systemically unjust to one degree or another.
Even the United States, though founded on the precept that all members of the human race “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” incongruously maintained a system of forced slavery that withheld the full benefits of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” from multitudes. Many generations of people of African descent were thus legally (but immorally) relegated to subhuman status. According to the 1860 census, there were about four million slaves when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Civil War and the abolition of slavery did not automatically end that injustice. A hundred years passed before the federal government banned segregation in public places and began in earnest to pass legislation safeguarding the civil rights of all people. Until then, freed slaves and their descendants were literally relegated by law to the back of the bus in Southern states and were frequently treated with scorn or incivility because of the color of their skin.
I got a small taste of how it felt to be bullied and discriminated against in the American South in the 1960s. I spent a lot of time traveling through rural Mississippi with my good friend John Perkins, a well-known black evangelical leader, preaching the gospel in segregated black high schools. During one of those trips, as we drove down a dirt road, a local sheriff—an openly bigoted character straight out of In the Heat of the Night—took me into custody, held me in his jail, and accused me of disturbing the peace. He also confiscated (and kept) all my money. He ultimately released me without filing charges. I suppose he considered the money he took from me an adequate fine for doing something he disapproved of. In those days any appeal to higher authorities would have been fruitless and possibly counterproductive. All I could do was try not to antagonize him further.
I was again ministering in Mississippi with John Perkins and a group of black church leaders in April 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. One of the men leading our group was Charles Evers, head of the Mississippi NAACP. (His brother Medgar had been killed in 1963 by the KKK.) When news of Dr. King’s murder broke, we drove to Memphis—and literally within hours after Dr. King was assassinated, we were at the Lorraine Motel, standing on the balcony where he was shot. We were also shown the place where James Earl Ray stood on a toilet to fire the fatal shot.
I deplore racism and all the cruelty and strife it breeds. I am convinced the only long-term solution to every brand of ethnic animus is the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Christ alone are the barriers and dividing walls between people groups broken down, the enmity abolished, and differing cultures and ethnicities bound together in one new people (Ephesians 2:14–15). The black leaders I ministered with during the civil rights movement shared that conviction.
The evangelicals who are saying the most and talking the loudest these days about what’s referred to as “social justice” seem to have a very different perspective. Their rhetoric certainly points a different direction, demanding repentance and reparations from one ethnic group for the sins of its ancestors against another. It’s the language of law, not gospel—and worse, it mirrors the jargon of worldly politics, not the message of Christ. It is a startling irony that believers from different ethnic groups, now one in Christ, have chosen to divide over ethnicity. They have a true spiritual unity in Christ, which they disdain in favor of fleshly factions.
Evangelicalism’s newfound obsession with the notion of “social justice” is a significant shift—one that I’m convinced is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before, always with spiritually disastrous results.
Over the years, I’ve fought a number of polemical battles against ideas that threaten the gospel. This recent (and sudden) detour in quest of “social justice” is, I believe, the most subtle and dangerous threat so far. In the pages that follow, I want to explain why. I’ll review some of the battles we have fought to keep the gospel clear, precise, and at the center of our focus. We’ll see why biblical justice has little in common with the secular, liberal idea of “social justice.” And we’ll analyze why the current campaign to move social issues like ethnic conflicts and economic inequality to the top of the evangelical agenda poses such a significant threat to the real message of gospel reconciliation.
I hope you’ll see that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25)—and that’s never truer than when we are talking about the strategy God has chosen for spreading the gospel and growing Christ’s kingdom.
The Long Struggle to Preserve the Gospel
When I was studying doctrine and apologetics in seminary, I thought I was equipping myself to defend biblical truth against an onslaught of attacks from the world. I envisioned answering atheism and confronting threats to the gospel that would arise from secular culture, the entertainment industry, the academic world, and other places outside the church.
Sometime after I entered full-time ministry, it dawned on me (to my profound shock) that the greatest threats to biblical truth typically arise from within the fellowship of professing believers—and it is an unrelenting parade of attacks. Looking back through church history, I realized that’s how it has always been. There has never been a time when false doctrines, harmful methodologies, unwholesome practices, bizarre beliefs, poisonous ideologies, and false teachers weren’t troubling the church of God—often with seriously divisive and otherwise spiritually destructive results.
In retrospect, it should not have been a surprise to me that the worst troubles come from within. I was born into a pastor’s home. My father was the son of a pastor. Both were part of the historic denominational landscape, members of the American Baptist Church (ABC) denomination.
By the time I was a teenager, my grandfather was in heaven, having served as a pastor until the day he saw the face of Christ. My dad left the faltering, compromising ABC to plant an independent church in a building sold by a failing Lutheran congregation.
My father took his stand in the liberal-fundamentalist conflict. The issue then was the inspiration and authority of Scripture. My dad was bold and relentless, always with grace, to defend the Bible as inspired by God in total. He was cut off from lifelong friends who stayed in the ABC, but he was never divided in his loyalty to the true doctrine of Scripture. He encouraged me as a teenager, as a college student, and as a seminary student to learn and acquire all the doctrinal and evidentiary proofs necessary to defend the Word of God against modernist and liberal attacks.
By the time I finished seminary, I had my own settled convictions about the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. My beliefs were shaped by and solidly anchored in the testimony of Scripture itself—affirmed by the Bible’s life-changing power, its accuracy in all details that are subject to examination, the precise fulfillment of so many of its prophesies, and the sheer glory of God’s self-revelation. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.X), what I hear when I read my Bible is “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”
While in seminary I wrote papers defending the Bible’s authority, and I even debated at Fuller Seminary against the corrupted view of inerrancy put forth by two of its faculty members, Jack Rogers and Donald McKim. Theirs was a defective view of the Bible’s truthfulness, claiming the general thrust of Scripture is inspired but not the very words (ipsissima verba). They argued that there may be “technical errors” in the Bible, but it nevertheless is a “living witness” to what God has revealed. Together with some other evangelical leaders, I was invited to speak (when David Allen Hubbard was president) to Fuller’s administration, faculty, and board on the issues of biblical inspiration and inerrancy. This was requested by concerned Fuller board members who had been told by faculty leaders that the views being taught there were perfectly orthodox—but when they spoke to students and other members of the faculty, those board members had learned that unorthodox ideas were indeed being aggressively promoted in classrooms at Fuller.
I had always assumed that the defense of Scripture would be a lifelong battle—and it has been. What I did not anticipate, or even notice at first, was that the most damaging attacks on gospel principles tend to come in relentless waves—and not mainly from secular skeptics and contentious unbelievers, but almost routinely from within the church, and from all sides.
I hadn’t been serving as a pastor very long when I was attacked by legalistic fundamentalists and thrust into a conflict between works-based self-righteous religion and liberty in Christ. After that, an attack came from the opposite direction, by folks who claimed that gospel preaching that calls unbelievers to repentance and submission to Christ’s lordship is itself a form of legalism. I wrote The Gospel According to Jesus in response, and when the controversy intensified, I replied with The Gospel According to the Apostles.
There was also the campaign to gain conservative evangelicals’ acceptance for Pentecostal views on the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, and continuing revelation. The church I pastor is a short distance from the Episcopalian church in Van Nuys, California, where the Charismatic movement had its inception. I wrote Charismatic Chaos in part to chronicle how that movement brought an influx of unorthodox ideas and false teachers to the evangelical mainstream.
We fought for the sufficiency of Scripture against the intrusion of psychotherapy into the church (the attempt to integrate Christian doctrine with a horde of ideas based on godless presuppositions about the reasons for the human struggle). For a time, the evangelical movement was beset with, and almost overrun by, self-styled experts who belittled biblical truth as unsophisticated and inadequate for helping people with their “deep” psychological problems. They were convinced that sanctification couldn’t even start until a person went through the foyer of psychology. Our Sufficiency in Christ was my written response to that trend.
Throughout all those years, another subtle but very appealing—and very dangerous—trend was steadily gaining influence among evangelicals. It was the rank pragmatism of the so-called seeker-sensitive philosophy of church growth. Churches that followed this pattern moved away from biblical preaching and doctrinal instruction and generally used entertainment laced with spiritual-sounding themes as a means of drawing crowds. The stress was on reaching the “unchurched” rather than training believers for ministry. The result was that people remained untaught and did not grow spiritually. A handful of seeker-sensitive megachurches stood out as models that smaller churches everywhere attempted to imitate. Although countless small churches failed and even died when they adopted the model, a few glib, young leaders became very skilled at the pragmatic approach and saw their congregations grow to unprecedented sizes. Some of them numbered literally in the tens of thousands, giving observers the impression that this novel approach to ministry was reaching people on a huge scale. My book Ashamed of the Gospel analyzed and confronted that issue.
I have referred to those books not for the sake of self-promotion but to show that my best-known polemical works all have one basic aim: They were written to respond to subtle, in-house attacks on core gospel convictions. The fact that they span my whole ministry illustrates what I mean when I say, the battle for biblical authority rages constantly and on many fronts. I’ve never sought to be a controversialist, but my conscience and my commitment to Scripture compel me to contend earnestly for the bedrock principles of the gospel delivered once for all to the saints.
The current evangelical obsession with “social justice” falls right in line with those other assaults on the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. In fact, my conviction is that much of the rhetoric about this latest issue poses a more imminent and dangerous threat to the clarity and centrality of the gospel than any other recent controversy evangelicals have engaged in.
The Evangelical Appetite for Compromise
Tragically, the assaults on the Word of God mentioned above do not constitute an exhaustive list—that would be tedious, I suspect. Evangelicals as a group have shown an unsettling willingness to compromise on biblical truth and obfuscate issues that Scripture has spoken clearly about.
For example, despite the clarity of 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man”), leading evangelicals have been debating for several years whether women qualify to be elders or pastors in the church. Many capitulate to cultural preference rather than submitting to biblical authority on this and other issues. Some have tried to redefine the role and proper functioning of the family. Others seem to want to deconstruct—or simply ignore—what the Bible says about divorce and remarriage.
More disturbing yet, over the past few years some evangelicals have begun to borrow moral rationalizations from secular culture in the wake of America’s sexual revolution. For years there has been a slow but steady softening of evangelicalism’s stance against sex outside of marriage. More recently, and more ominously, several vocal evangelicals (including some in positions of leadership or influence) have been tinkering with novel ideas regarding gender fluidity, sexual orientation, transgenderism, and homosexual marriage. Those are issues that generations of believers would never have dreamed of putting on the table for debate or redefinition in the church. But at this very moment there is a burgeoning campaign to reconsider and abandon the church’s historic stance on LGBT issues under the banner of “social justice.”
Why have so many evangelicals openly embraced such compromises? The answer is very simple. It’s the next logical step for a church that is completely ensnared in efforts to please the culture. For decades the popular notion has been that if the church was going to reach the culture, it first needed to connect with the style and methods of secular pop culture or academic fads. To that end, the church surrendered its historic forms of worship. In many cases, everything that once constituted a traditional worship service disappeared altogether, giving way to rock-concert formats and everything else the church could borrow from the entertainment industry. Craving acceptance in the broader culture, the church carelessly copied the world’s style preferences and fleeting fads.
In my book Ashamed of the Gospel, I warned that this was a slippery slope, because the world would not be content for the church merely to reflect its style—it would demand to dictate the substance as well. The seemingly endless parade of evangelical compromises bears that out. Many believers have long been convinced that they must first give the world what it wants in order to gain any opening for the gospel. Evangelical style coaches have heedlessly followed wherever the world leads. Having thoroughly absorbed the world’s methods, the church is now being forced to adopt the world’s message.
The common link in those continual compromises is pragmatism,  Pragmatism, quite simply, is the notion that the truthfulness or value of any strategy, idea, or truth claim is determined by its practical results. If a tactic produces a desired effect, it is deemed good. In the realm of church growth and gospel ministry, pragmatism as a guiding philosophy is severely flawed—even dangerously detrimental—for a couple of reasons that should be fairly obvious.
First, pragmatism alone cannot define what “the desired result” ought to be. If the goal is bad and the strategy works, it’s a bad strategy. In fact, if the desired end is evil, the strategy used to achieve it is by definition evil. Second, and more to the point, raw pragmatism is unbiblical. God’s Word itself is the only reliable definer of good and bad. driven by a desire to reach the world and win its support and admiration by utilitarian means. Evangelicals of our generation seem pathologically addicted to the sin of desiring the praise of men. Indeed, that is precisely the brand of pragmatism that I fear points people down nearly all the paths of departure from the gospel mentioned above. Today it has penetrated deep into the culture of the church, and the effect has been disastrous.
Every one of those deviations from sound gospel doctrine has been driven and advanced by evangelicals seeking acceptance in the broader culture. Some of the errors I have singled out (seeker sensitivity and the explosive growth of the Charismatic movement) have been promoted by evangelicals who think that whatever attracts the world must be the right doctrine or strategy. Other errors (the embrace of psychotherapy, the ecumenical drift away from Protestant principles, and—yes—the recent rhetoric about “social justice”) reflect a fear of being thought unsophisticated or out of step with contemporary “wisdom.”
“Social justice,” as the world uses the term, entails political ideas that are deemed sophisticated—namely, identity politics, critical race theory, the redistribution of wealth, and other radical policies. Those ideas were first popularized and propagated in the secular academy, where they are now regarded as received wisdom and have become a dominating part of popular culture. Evangelicals who chase the culture are latecomers to the party of those who advocate “social justice.”
And I’m convinced their dominant motives are pragmatic.
In ministry, success cannot be measured numerically or by popular opinion. “It is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2, ESV, emphasis added)—not “famous,” “fashionable,” “filthy rich,” or whatever. If a person gauges a church’s or a ministry’s effectiveness by attendance figures, there’s literally no end to the crazy schemes he will try to legitimize—as long as the schemes are successful in drawing appreciative crowds. That idea has been injecting poison directly into the evangelical mainstream for decades.
Consider this: The maestros of missionary- and church-growth strategies have been telling church leaders that they need to survey the unchurched people in their communities, find out what it would take to get them interested in church, and then give the people what they’ve asked for. Let opinion polls tell the church how to preach, what to teach, and what not to say or do.
Is it any wonder that the world now expects to tell the church precisely what it should believe and how it should function and teach?
And is it any wonder that people who grew up through several decades of evangelical pragmatism and have now come into church leadership are convinced it is essential for Christians to both heed and parrot the world’s wishes?
Is the Controversy over “Social Justice” Really Necessary?
I do not relish controversy, and I particularly dislike engaging in polemical battles with other evangelical Christians. But when the gospel is under attack from within the visible church, taking a stand—even if controversial—is necessary. And if it seems that fierce disagreements within the church have been the rule rather than the exception, that’s because relentless attacks on the gospel from people professing fidelity to Christ have come in an unending parade since the very beginning of the church age. There has never been an extended period in church history when it has not been necessary for faithful voices to mount a vigorous defense of one or more cardinal biblical principles.
None of the controversies I’ve described sprang up suddenly. The lordship controversy, for example, was a conflict many of us saw coming more than a decade before I wrote The Gospel According to Jesus. The twisted gospel of the prosperity preachers is rooted in the Pentecostal movement going back to the early twentieth century. Normally we can see storm clouds brewing and anticipate where the next major assault is coming from.
But occasionally a new threat to the simplicity or clarity of the gospel seems to erupt with stunning and sudden force. The current controversy over “social justice” and racism is such an example. A few years ago, I would not have thought it possible for Bible-believing evangelicals to be divided over the issue of racism. As Christians we stand together in affirmation of the second great commandment (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” Leviticus 19:18). We therefore stand together against every hint of racial animus.
Racism is a stain on American history that has left shame, injustice, and horrible violence in its wake. The institution of slavery and a costly civil war left a deep racial divide and bred resentment on every side. No sensible person would suggest that all the vestiges of those evils were totally erased by the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. Civil rights legislation now guards the principle of equal rights for all Americans, but no law can change the heart of someone who is filled with bitterness and prejudice.
Thankfully, however, much progress has been made. Racial relations in secular America are not what they were even fifty years ago. The American attitude has changed. White supremacy and all other expressions of racism are almost universally condemned.
As Christians we know that the human heart is evil, so undoubtedly there are still people who secretly harbor animosity against ethnicities other than their own. But any open expression of acrimony, ill will, or deliberate antagonism across ethnic lines will be scorned and emphatically rejected across the spectrum of mainstream American life today.
Of course, people everywhere still tend to overlook or be oblivious to customs, traditions, community values, and ethnic differences outside their own groups. Culture clash is a universal problem, not a uniquely American one—and it’s not necessarily an expression of ethnic hostility. But Americans’ contempt for racial bigotry is now so acute that even accidental cultural or ethnic insensitivity is regularly met with the same resentment as blind, angry racism—even a simple social gaffe is likely to be treated as bigotry. There are people—increasing numbers of them—so obsessed with this issue that they seem able to find proof of racism in practically everything that is said or done by anyone who doesn’t share their worldview.
I understand when fallen, worldly people filled with resentment lash out at others that way. I don’t understand why Bible-believing Christians would do the same. I thought the evangelical church was living out true unity in Christ without regard for race. That has certainly been my experience in every church I’ve ever been part of, and it’s also what I have seen in the wider evangelical world. I don’t know of any authentically evangelical church where people would be disrespected, let alone excluded, because of their ethnicity or skin color. On a recent Sunday night, we received about a hundred new members into Grace Church, as we do every month. It was another testimony to God’s love crossing all ethnic lines—the group comprised people of Hispanic, Filipino, Chinese, Ugandan, Nigerian, Mongolian, Korean, Ukrainian, Armenian, Lithuanian, Russian, Austrian, and Arabic descent.
As Christians we are reconciled to God and united with Christ. Embracing that doctrine should result in being reconciled with one another. This is a major emphasis in all the Bible’s teaching about forgiving one another as God has forgiven us. Christians should not be the ones dividing over race in a racially charged environment. We are the peacemakers and the lovers of all men. We don’t seek vengeance. We forgive seventy times seven.
And yet, as racial division has become more and more a focus in the secular academy and in the news media, evangelicals eager to engage the culture have taken up the issue. Unfortunately, many who have spoken on the subject have simply echoed the wisdom of this world rather than addressing the issue in a truly gospel-centered way. As a result, rancorous discourse over ethnic differences has eclipsed the gospel and divided the church—even among those evangelicals most likely to self-identify as “gospel-centered Christians.”
It’s quite common these days for Christian leaders addressing this matter to call people who have never harbored a racist thought to confess their guilt because their ancestors may have been racists. Repentance has been demanded of white evangelicals not for actual transgressions but because of their perceived benefit from “white privilege.” Supposedly, their skin color automatically makes them culpable for the racism of the past. One influential evangelical leader, in an article titled “We Await Repentance for Assassinating Dr. King,” suggested that racial reconciliation in the church cannot even begin until white Christians confess their parents’ and grandparents’ complicity in “murdering a man who only preached love and justice” (meaning Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.).
So according to this view of “social justice,” a person’s skin color might automatically require a public expression of repentance—not merely for the evils of his ancestors’ culture, but also for specific crimes he cannot possibly have been guilty of.
There’s nothing remotely “just” about that idea, nor does any part of it relate to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The answer to every evil in every heart is not repentance for what someone else may have done, but repentance for your own sins, including hatred, anger, bitterness, or any other sinful attitude or behavior.
As Christians committed to the authority of Scripture and the truth of the gospel, we have better answers than the world could ever give to the problems of racism, injustice, human cruelty, and every other societal evil. We have the cross of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit who grows and leads us in all love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22–23).
In the remaining pages, I want to discuss those answers, and specifically how we should respond when we suffer wrongly at the hands of unrighteous people, corrupt governments, or hostile persecutors. The New Testament’s answer to that dilemma is not the least bit obscure or mysterious.
The Injustice of “Social Justice”
The besetting sin of pragmatic, style-conscious evangelicals has always been their shameless appropriation of fads and talking points from the unbelieving world. Today’s evangelicals evidently don’t believe the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God (1 Corinthians 3:19). Virtually any theory, ideology, or amusement that captures the fancy of secular pop culture will be adopted, cloaked in spiritual-sounding language, propped up with specious proof texts, and peddled as an issue that is vital to embrace if evangelicals don’t want to become totally irrelevant.
That’s precisely how evangelicals in the mid-twentieth century became obsessed for several decades with positive thinking, self-esteem, and “Christian psychology.” After that, it was marketing savvy and promotional strategies. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, postmodernism became the focus, repackaged and aggressively promoting itself as the Emerging Church movement.
Today, critical race theory, feminism, intersectional theory, LGBT advocacy, progressive immigration policies, animal rights, and other left-wing political causes all actively vie for evangelical acceptance under the rubric of “social justice.”
Not every evangelical leader who speaks about “social justice” supports the full spectrum of radical causes, of course. Most (for the moment, at least) do not. But they do use the same rhetoric and rationale of victimhood and oppression that is relentlessly employed by secularists who aggressively advocate for all kinds of deviant lifestyles and ideologies. Anyone who claims victim status can easily and effectually harness the emotional appeal of a plea for “social justice” both to gain support and to silence opposition.
Indeed, as “social justice” rhetoric has gained currency among evangelicals, just about every cause that is deemed politically correct in the secular world is steadily gaining momentum among evangelicals. It would be folly to pretend that the “social justice” movement poses no threat to evangelical conviction.
Evangelicals seldom spell out what they mean by “social justice”—possibly because if they gave an accurate definition of where the term came from and what it means in the secular academy, they might lose a lot of evangelical support. 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.
The rhetoric has been effective, and nowadays the typical “social justice” warrior is convinced that equal opportunity and equal treatment under the law are not sufficiently just; we haven’t achieved true “social justice” until we have equality of outcome, status, and wealth. That’s why we hear so much about income comparisons, racial quotas, and other statistics suggesting, for example, that systemic oppression by a male oligarchy is conclusively proved by the dearth of women pursuing careers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).
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 norms.
The connection between Marxism and postmodern “social justice” rhetoric is surely a valid and important point. But it is even more vital that we as Christians employ the light of Scripture to scrutinize and evaluate the ideas currently being promoted in the name of “social justice.”
No Justice but God’s Justice
The Bible has much to say about justice. In the English Standard Version, the word is used more than 130 times. It is never preceded by an adjective, except in Ezekiel 18:8, which speaks of “true justice.” It is occasionally paired with possessive pronouns. God Himself speaks of “My justice” twice in Scripture. Twice in prayers addressed to God, we read the expression “Your justice.”
The point? There are not different flavors of justice. There is only true justice, defined by God Himself and always in accord with His character.
It is a fact that the Bible puts enormous stress on the charitable aspects of justice—goodwill toward all; compassion for the underprivileged; assistance for the fatherless and the widow; love for foreigners; and care for the poor, especially providing needy people with the necessities of life (Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalm 140:12; Ezekiel 22:29).
But biblical justice is not a one-sided affair, showing partiality to the poor or disenfranchised in an effort to even the scales of privilege. In fact, Scripture expressly condemns that mentality as unjust (Exodus 23:3; Leviticus 19:15).
Justice in Scripture is often paired with the words equity and righteousness. Equity means equal treatment for everyone under the law. Righteousness signifies that which is consistent with the demands of God’s law—including punishment for evildoers (Jeremiah 5:26–29); obedience to governing authorities (Romans 13:1–7); penalties that fit the crime and are applied without partiality (Leviticus 24:17–22); and a strong work ethic, enforced by the principle that able-bodied people who refuse to work shouldn’t benefit from public charity (1 Thessalonians 4:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:10).
Those aspects of true justice are conspicuously missing from the recent evangelical dialogue touting “social justice.” Instead, what we hear is an echo of the same accusatory rhetoric and political slogans being shouted by secular “social justice” warriors. That fact ought to awaken the Berean urge in every Christian.
Widening the Gospel
Even more troubling are statements that have been made by certain evangelical thought leaders who claim that anyone who doesn’t advocate for “social justice” is preaching a truncated gospel. Some say that those who reject their “social justice” ideology don’t have any gospel at all. Anthony Bradley, chair of religious and theological studies at The King’s College, posted this remark online (he has since deleted it):
Here’s the problem (and this will be hard): from a black church perspective, evangelicals have never had the gospel. Ever. Read the book Doctrine A[nd] Race. Here then is the actual Q: When will evangelicals embrace the gospel for the first time ever?
Those who say such things typically bristle when critics compare their views to Walter Rauschenbusch and the social gospel. But the argument and most of the rhetoric are identical. Rauschenbusch was an early-twentieth-century liberal theologian and author of a book titled A Theology for the Social Gospel. He taught that Christians need to repent not only for their personal transgressions but also for “social sins.” Like most of today’s evangelical “social justice” advocates, Rauschenbusch insisted (at first) that he had no agenda for doing away with any vital gospel truth; he just wanted to widen the focus of the gospel so that it would encompass social evils as well as individual sin and redemption. But soon Rauschenbusch was saying things like this:
Public evils so pervade the social life of humanity in all times and all places that no one can share the common life of our race without coming under the effect of these collective sins. He will either sin by consenting in them, or he will suffer by resisting them. Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B.C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A.D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins. Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: MacMillan, 1917), 247, emphasis added.
Several of America’s largest mainstream Protestant denominations eagerly imbibed Rauschenbusch’s ideas. They quickly drifted even further into liberalism until they had abandoned any commitment to the authority of Scripture. By then they had long since lost the gospel completely.
Why? Because those who let the culture, a political ideology, popular opinion, or any other extrabiblical source define justice for them will soon find that Scripture opposes them. If they are determined to retain their perverted idea of justice, they will therefore have to oppose Scripture.
Furthermore, every attempt to widen the scope of the gospel will ultimately put the gospel so far out of focus that its actual message will be lost.
The message of “social justice” diverts attention from Christ and the cross. It turns our hearts and minds from things above to things on this earth. It obscures the promise of forgiveness for hopeless sinners by telling people they are hapless victims of other people’s misdeeds.
It therefore fosters the works of the flesh instead of cultivating the fruit of the Spirit.
Let Us Not Provoke One Another or Envy One Another
Christians are the last people who should ever become offended, resentful, envious, or unforgiving. Love “does not take into account a wrong suffered” (1 Corinthians 13:5). The mark of a Christian is turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, praying for those who mistreat us. Christ is the example whose steps we are to follow: “While being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23).
Hatred, envy, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, hostility, divisiveness, bitterness, pride, selfishness, hard feelings, vindictiveness—and all similar attitudes of resentment—are the self-destructive works of the flesh. The beneficial fruit the Spirit produces are the exact opposite attitudes: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” The NIV translates 1 Corinthians 13:5 this way: “[Love] keeps no record of wrongs.”
Such godly qualities, frankly, are in short supply in the rhetoric of those advocating for “social justice.”
Doing justice—biblical justice, not the secular substitute—together with loving mercy and walking humbly with God are all essential virtues. Those are the chief practical duties incumbent on every believer (Micah 6:8). Constantly complaining that we are victims of injustice while judging other people as guilty of sins we cannot even see is antithetical to the spirit of Christ.
As Christians, let’s cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, the qualities named in the Beatitudes, the virtues outlined in 2 Peter 1:5–7, and the characteristics of love listed in 1 Corinthians 13. Any notion of moral equity that omits or minimizes those righteous qualities cannot be called justice.
 Pragmatism, quite simply, is the notion that the truthfulness or value of any strategy, idea, or truth claim is determined by its practical results. If a tactic produces a desired effect, it is deemed good. In the realm of church growth and gospel ministry, pragmatism as a guiding philosophy is severely flawed—even dangerously detrimental—for a couple of reasons that should be fairly obvious.
First, pragmatism alone cannot define what “the desired result” ought to be. If the goal is bad and the strategy works, it’s a bad strategy. In fact, if the desired end is evil, the strategy used to achieve it is by definition evil. Second, and more to the point, raw pragmatism is unbiblical. God’s Word itself is the only reliable definer of good and bad.
 Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: MacMillan, 1917), 247, emphasis added.
© 2019 by John MacArthur. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations, unless noted otherwise, taken from the New American Standard Bible ®, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation and are used by permission.