Social Justice – Common Grace or Saving Grace?

Rom 3 26

This is the good news that is to be proclaimed by the Church, as the agent of the kingdom of Christ.  It is imperative that the Church should not lose sight of this mission as one of saving grace.  It must not be confused with common grace.  The task of proclamation for salvation cannot coalesce with militancy for a just society.  Preaching is not protest.  Justification is not social justice.

 

A heated debate is currently raging among evangelical brethren in America.  The subject is the place of social justice as a theme of gospel proclamation, and as a mandate of church mission.

Concerned evangelical leaders have publicized their position in “The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel.”  Its key negation states, “We deny that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church.  Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head.”[1]

Predictably, those on the opposite side have criticized this position.  One critic says of this statement, “At worst, it represents a toxic agenda to discredit and undermine godly men and women crying out for biblical social justice, national and ecclesiastical repentance, and meaningful reconciliation.”[2]

Each side of the debate has legitimate concerns, seeking fair assessment and response by the other.  Both sides must resist polarizing their position, while demonizing the other.  It is my humble submission that the subject can be addressed by appeal to an old pair of perspectives of grace – as common grace and as saving grace.

 

God’s gracious dealing with mankind can be categorized as common grace or saving grace.

While God’s grace is a clear concept of the Bible, differentiating it as ‘common’ grace and ‘special/saving’ grace is a theological construct.  It is not biblical vocabulary as such.  But the legitimacy of such categorization arises from the need to see God’s favor even on unbelievers who do not have the blessing of salvation.  Thus, such favors are described as common grace, because even if they are not saving, they are still undeserved by sinful man.  Whereas, salvation blessings on believers, and the Church, are called saving grace.

Theology traditionally includes under common grace such blessings as morality, civilization, human vocation, and prosperity.  In his address to the farmers of Lystra, Paul affirms that “(God) did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).  It is impressive that even amidst their pagan idolatry, Paul is not restrained from recognizing the hand of God in the blessing of their vocation.  Common grace also includes good works of unbelievers.  Cornelius, even as an unbeliever, was commended for his ‘prayers and alms as… memorial to God’ (Acts 10:4), and yet he still needed to know the way of salvation.

The concept of common grace acknowledges that there is blessedness and goodness in the human community that does not constitute their salvation; but they are still God’s favors that remain undeserved by man – and hence, grace.  John Calvin acknowledges that God honors even the morality of unbelievers:

Hence this distinction between honorable and base actions God has not only engraved on the minds of each, but also often confirms in the administration of his providence. For we see how he visits those who cultivate virtue with many temporal blessings. Not that that external image of virtue in the least degree merits his favor, but he is pleased thus to show how much he delights in true righteousness, since he does not leave even the outward semblance of it to go unrewarded. Hence it follows, as we lately observed, that those virtues, or rather images of virtues, of whatever kind, are divine gifts, since there is nothing in any degree praiseworthy which proceeds not from him.[3]

The significance of this distinction can have a telling effect on the way we weigh God’s various dealings with people.  Michael Horton warns against this confusion,

When we confuse these two categories, it is easy to see success in business as a sign of divine favor and floods in a particular region as the sign of divine reprobation… The ungodly mistake God’s common grace for saving grace by presuming that because things are not so bad right now, they are not under God’s displeasure, while believers wonder, ‘Why do the wicked prosper?’ (Psalm 73).  Unless we understand the difference between common grace and saving grace, unbelievers will be led to presumption and believers will be led to doubt.[4]

This is where we need to rightly place social justice and the gospel in the category of grace each belongs.

 

Social Justice is in the realm of Common Grace

The equality of all mankind is a principle based on God’s creation.  All are equal, regardless of ethnicity and social class, because we are all human beings by virtue of God’s creation.  “The rich and the poor meet together; the LORD is the Maker of them all” (Prov. 22:2).  Upon the equality of all stands the imperative of justice that must treat all equally.  There should be no innate advantage of one race/class over another.  Where racial advantage is obtained, it is unjust because it vitiates the equal creaturehood of every man and woman.

This equality is to characterize society as human society – not Christian society.  Equal treatment is to be extended to all as human beings, not as a believer or unbeliever.  In other words, one does not need to be a gospel believer to receive equal treatment as a human being.  It is his as one created in the image of God – as much as every other man and woman.

It is for this purpose that human government was put in place to have oversight of justice in human society.  “The king establishes the land by justice” (Pro 29:4).  Such a ruler need not be a believer in order to rule with justice.  Nero was the cruel emperor of the Roman Empire when Paul wrote of such rulers, “he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4).  Peter makes it imperative for Christians, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:13-14).

It proves a point material to this debate – that social justice can be obtained, not by necessity of the gospel, but the right application of the truth of creation of all mankind.  Even unbelievers can be instrumental to the promotion of justice and the reformation of society so that equality of all is the order that prevails.  It does not take a Christian president to reform society to become more just, and its people socially moral.  The Christian mission does not depend upon human government to pursue its goal.  Social justice is common grace and not of the essence of the gospel.

 

Church Gospel Mission is in the cause of Saving Grace

 Because individual Christians live in the two realms of common grace and saving grace, they have the responsibility of actively supporting causes and policies that promote social justice.  But the kingdom that Christ brought about by His death and resurrection is about saving grace – salvation of sinners by the grace of God through gospel faith.  This is the kingdom in which Jesus began to sit upon His throne from the time of His resurrection (Acts 2:30-33).  This kingly reign is yet of a priestly nature for the purpose of mediation and intercession (Heb 8:1ff).  This is not to be mistaken for any human government which has the mandate of justice in society.

The justice that concerned most the saving work of Christ is the justice of God that demands the vindication of His broken law.  That vindication demands the punishment of sinners.  This creates that great mystery expressed of old, “How can a man be righteous before God?” (Job 9:2).  What the redemptive work of Christ has done is to solve that mystery through His death.  It was a substitutionary death that satisfies the justice of God.  The result is that God “might be just and the justifier of the one who believes in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).

This is the good news that is to be proclaimed by the Church, as the agent of the kingdom of Christ.  It is imperative that the Church should not lose sight of this mission as one of saving grace.  It must not be confused with common grace.  The task of proclamation for salvation cannot coalesce with militancy for a just society.  Preaching is not protest.  Justification is not social justice.

We commend the usefulness of social action; but the Church has weightier matters in its hand.  Kenneth Myers warns,

Although one might respect the intentions of people who promote them, the use of boycotts in the name of Christ is always liable to distract attention from the authoritative proclamation of truth and repudiation of error that is the first duty of the church of Jesus Christ.  It suggests that Christians are to be identified essentially as part of a political movement, rather than as a spiritual body… If public protest gives the impression that Christians are principally concerned about power in the political order, it will become that much more difficult to take thoughts captive to the obedience of Jesus Christ.[5]

The cry for justice by the oppressed is real.  Christians must be decisive voices to arouse the collective conscience of society.  But the Church is to be another voice, or better, Another’s voice – that of Christ through the preaching of the gospel.  Through living the truth of the gospel, the Church is to be a demonstration of that new humanity that learned to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” – a precursor of the time when “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore’ (Isa 2:4).  It envisions the kind of earth it will someday become when “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord” (Rev 11:15).

But while that is not yet, the Church must be on the mission of saving grace.

 

[1] “The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel” VIII. The Church; https://statementonsocialjustice.com/

[2] “Why I cannot and will not sign the ‘Social Justice and the Gospel Statement’” RyanBurtonKing.blogspot.com

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: III. 14. 2

[4] Michael Horton, Where in the World is the Church? (Moody): 189

[5] Kenneth Myers, “Proclamation Instead of Protest” from Michael Horton (ed.), Power Religion: 46f

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s