The Epidemic of Ritual Confession of Sin

Psa 130 3f

In ritual confession, the offender may demonstrate deep emotion, but it is often dictated by fear of the consequence of sin, rather than sorrow for the gravity of the offence. So different is the contrast of the Apostle Paul between two sorts of emotions. “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.” (2 Cor. 7:10-11 NKJ). The sorrow of genuine repentance is really a cluster of dispositions all conspiring to oppose sin and to renounce it for its evil and gravity, not merely its dreadful consequence.

 

 Sorry na! (‘I am sorry already!’). To which the expected reply is Ok lang! (‘It is fine!’). This is the common exchange that transpires among Filipinos, between the one at fault and the one wronged. An easy apology with commensurate ease of exoneration. If the fault were due to natural limitation – mistaken information; late appointment due to traffic; etc. – the clemency that follows is just about regular.

But it is a far different issue when we are dealing with moral faults – what we, Christians, still call sins. A sorry na and Ok lang exchange, when it comes to sins, is exposing a very serious epidemic in the impoverished spirituality that is the mark of this generation of Christians. This is the epidemic of ritual confession.

A ritual, in the concise definition of Merriam-Webster is “the prescribed order and words of a religious ceremony.” Further, a more extended meaning denotes, “any practice done or regularly repeated in a set precise manner so as to satisfy one’s sense of fitness and often felt to have a symbolic or quasi-symbolic significance.” One can easily see how this fits the practice that is performed of confession of sin among Christians. This is observable in two orientations of confessing sin.

Ritual Confession of Sin to God

A precious verse of the New Testament has become the basis of so much ritual confession by Christians. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn. 1:9 NKJ). The call to confess is sufficient for many sinning Christians just to invoke the cliché of confession, and then claim that forgiveness is theirs as a gift in glossy wrapping.

This is isolating 1John 1:9 from the richness of John’s appeal to his readers to be in a serious fight against sin. Every believer who will invoke the promise of forgiveness to the confessing sinner in 1John 1:9 must have come to grips with John’s description of a serious believer in 3:8, 9 “He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose, the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” (1 Jn. 3:8-9 NKJ). It is not teaching that believers no longer sin. It is saying that believers do not continue sinning without the break of repentance and renewal.

Unfortunately, many professed believers may be continuing sinning, and the only break they have is a ritual confession that is without genuine repentance that is followed by practical renewal. The Puritan John Owen has a most helpful treatise on this subject that expounds Psalm 130, focusing on those words, “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared.” (Ps. 130:3-4 NKJ). He warns against the general assurance of forgiveness without having the contrition that is the prerequisite of it, and the fear of the Lord which is the fruit of it. He warns,

This notional apprehension of the pardon of sin begets no serious, thorough hatred and detestation of sin, nor is prevalent to a relinquishment of it; nay, it rather insinuates into the soul encouragements unto a continuance in it. It is the nature of it to lessen and extenuate sin, and to support the soul against its convictions… The doctrine of forgiveness is this grace of God, which may be thus abused. From hence do men who have only a general notion of it habitually draw secret encouragements to sin and folly.[1]

God is willing to forgive. But He can distinguish between contrite confession appealing only to the merits of Christ, and ritual confession that is satisfied with the motion and manner. We must confess our sin in the spirit of David’s own confession: “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart – These, O God, You will not despise.” (Ps. 51:16-17 NKJ). David knew the distinction between ritual confession of ceremonial burnt offering, and the acceptable confession of a broken and contrite heart.

Know that distinction yourself. The next time you confess your sin to God, examine if it is a broken one – or an empty ritual.

 

Ritual Confession of Sin to Neighbor

The greatest commandment of ‘Love God,’ is followed by ‘Love your neighbor’ as the second of the greatest commandments. This should apply to confession of sin when it comes to people Christians sin against. Sin must be confessed with brokenness to God. So with the neighbor, especially brethren in the faith. The greater the offence the deeper the contrition.

But if ritual confession is something that is epidemic among professing Christians in their approach to God, it is all the more so in confessing to brethren. After all, it is easier to resort to subterfuge and pretense with someone without divine omniscience. That is why it takes an uncompromising inner honesty for the person confessing. He must confess without minimizing, without forgetfulness, and without pretext.

We see shallow confession of sin in biblical characters such as Pharaoh (Exo 9:27); Saul (1Sam 26:21); and of course, Judas (Matt 27:4). They invoked the proper vocabulary – a reference to personal sin; they even demonstrate sorrow and shame – but they are still ritual confession.

In ritual confession, the offender may demonstrate deep emotion, but it is often dictated by fear of the consequence of sin, rather than sorrow for the gravity of the offence. So different is the contrast of the Apostle Paul between two sorts of emotions. “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.” (2 Cor. 7:10-11 NKJ). The sorrow of genuine repentance is really a cluster of dispositions all conspiring to oppose sin and to renounce it for its evil and gravity, not merely its dreadful consequence.

The stain that will not wash away[2]

There is a particular offence that is often covered over with ritual confession, but its effect is deep and lasting. This is the sin of sexual abuse. The figure pertains to one guilty of sexual misconduct and is drawn from Proverbs 6:33 “Wounds and dishonor he will get, And his reproach will not be wiped away.” (Prov. 6:33 NKJ). One who has committed this sin is often able to hide because the victim chooses to hide – in shame.

It does not help that some, with a sincere desire to help, end up charging the blame on the victim. We have often heard suggested: She is dressed so sexy, she must be asking to be raped! She is so at ease in the company of men, this is flirtation! Every woman fantasizes sexual assault. These are all myths – and among believers, a painful deception.

Thus, victims often have to grapple with self-blame. Why did I allow myself in that situation? It was supposed to be only innocent fellowship! Did I give any suggestion? But the blame is only on the abuser. He must have used an invitation to fellowship – coffee; chit-chat; movie; music; and so many more. But even before the invitation are the calculated moves that would ensure, the woman is in the snare of unavoidable intimacies and touches. And when it is done, it is made to appear that what happened is normal fellowship between Christian man and woman. The woman, often of very young age to understand fully, is left confused. She knows something went wrong but it all seems alright according to the man.

It is time that it is called for what it is – sex abuse of the cruel kind. And for professing Christians, thoroughly hypocritical. One day, the woman grows up and discovers what all the while she has been made to go through, and accountability time comes.

When confession is to be expressed, ritual confession is at its cruelest in this kind of offence. More than the consequence, it is the sense of gravity of the offence that matters. More than the fear of the abuser, it is the hurt on the victims that must be reckoned with. The healing of the victims matters more, without eliminating the restoration of the offender.

Going back to the stain that does not wash away, the text clearly attributes the stain to the one guilty of misconduct, not to the victim. He will carry the stigma.

By the grace of God, the victim can move on because God’s grace fixes what has been broken. By the same grace of God, the offender can also move on, but only after he has gone through the sorrow of true confession, of brokenness and repentance.

Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound (Rom 5:20). Grace will abound so much more when we reject the shallow peace of ritual confession.

[1] John Owen, Works: Temptation and Sin VI: 397

[2] This is a variation of the title of the book by John Armstrong, The Stain that Stays: The Church’s Response to Sexual Misconduct of its Leaders

Forgiven to Forgive

Christ came to forgive. How do I forgive?

Mat 6 12

Christians are as much weak as human nature in granting forgiveness.  But they have in them something that transcends human nature.  It follows from being a beneficiary of God’s gracious forgiveness in Christ.  Whatever the sins of others may be against us, we have sinned multiple times more against God – multiple times more in frequency, in gravity, and in apathy.  But when we come for Fatherly forgiveness, He forgives.

 

In this season, so it is professed, that Christendom remembers the becoming-man (incarnation) of the Son of God, the issue of forgiveness presses hard on my mind.  After all, according to the Scriptures, “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.  For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.” (Heb. 2:17-18 NKJ).

Two questions press upon my mind that should resonate in every serious believer.  The first: Should Christians continue to ask forgiveness from God for their sins?  And the second: How readily and radically should Christians forgive those who sin against them and ask for forgiveness?

Prior to answering the question, we must be sure we know what we mean by forgiveness.  The Greek word aphiêmi in its literal sense denotes ‘to leave a particular location’ or ‘to dismiss a crowd’ [ Louw-Nida Lexicon ].  But used in the legal sense, its cognate word aphesis pertains to the removal of incurred guilt and its consequent punishment.  The contrast is clear in Acts 13:38, 39, “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:38 ESV).  This is the forgiveness every believer receives upon faith in Christ.  What a glorious salvation blessing a believer possesses all because of Christ!  “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7 ESV).

First Question: Should believers still seek forgiveness from God for their sins?

Only extreme perfectionists will dare to claim that they no longer sin – worse than an error, it is smug delusion.  Even as an object of Christ’s salvation, Paul still thought of himself at the time of his writing, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – and I am the worst of them all” (1Tim 1:15 NLT).  There is in every humble believer a resonant note of the same confession.

I just came from a conference in a far-flung area.  It became obvious during the discussion time that the participants, mostly pastors and church leaders, sincerely believed that, while admitting the continuing sins of believers, Christians need no longer ask forgiveness for their sins.  One explained that all he would do is to express gratitude to the Lord that whatever sins he committed, they have already been forgiven in Christ – past, present, and future.  So there is no place for genuine repentance and contrition, just claiming the forgiveness already possessed.

At the root of this notion is a deeply twisted confusion between justification and sanctification.  They are claiming justification reality of God’s judicial forgiveness of all sins for the day-to-day issue of sanctification which must clear one’s fellowship with God as the Father.  Justification is about God as the Judge.  Sins – past, present, and future – have been settled in His judgment court.  But it is not that we ask forgiveness for our daily sins.  It is about a disturbed fellowship with the Father.  And we are seeking the forgiveness of God as our Father – not as our Judge.

The New Testament makes clear that there is continuing forgiveness that the believer should seek and may experience on a day-to-day basis.  That is why in the Lord’s Prayer, following the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread” is the petition, “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Mat 6:12).  There is the stern warning of John against self-deception, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” (1 Jn. 1:10 NKJ).  Deriving from this reality is the duty, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn. 1:9 NKJ).  That there is such an experience of post-conversion experience is unambiguous in the exhortation to the sick, “And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (Jas. 5:15 NKJ)

Beyond the error of this notion that believers need not ask for forgiveness, it deprives the believer of that posture that cultivates humility and the exuberance of joy in God’s gracious forgiveness.

We have all heard of the Reformer Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses.  Perhaps, it is time we memorized the first thesis: Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying, “Repent ye, etc.” intended that the whole life of his believers on earth should be a daily repentance.

 

Second Question:  How readily and radically should Christians forgive?

The difficulty of this question is highlighted by CS Lewis: Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.[1]  His reflection on this is worth quoting at length:

Just when Christianity tells me that I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture, I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point.  I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do – I could do precious little – I am telling you what Christianity is.  I did not invent it.  And there, right in the middle of it, I find ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.’  There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms.  It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive, we shall not be forgiven.  There are no two ways about it.[2]

Christians are as much weak as human nature in granting forgiveness.  But they have in them something that transcends human nature.  It follows from being a beneficiary of God’s gracious forgiveness in Christ.  Whatever the sins of others may be against us, we have sinned multiple times more against God – multiple times more in frequency, in gravity, and in apathy.  But when we come for Fatherly forgiveness, He forgives.

Jesus gave a hard-to-swallow rule on forgiving brethren.  “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.  And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying,`I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” (Lk. 17:3-4 NKJ).  In the face of such requisite readiness to forgive, the apostles could only respond in entreaty, “Lord, increase our faith!”

I know how to be hurt, to be betrayed, how to nurse the pain that demands a satisfaction of double retaliation.  But then, I myself fall into sin… How terrible is this?  Just when I received a mercy-gift from the Lord, and I sinned!  Just when I had been spared, I used the sense of freedom to yet sin again?  Am I a hardened sinner?  The heart made tender by grace tells me I am not for I find myself crying to my Father for yet another forgiveness only on the basis of Christ.  He forgives me yet again.

Then comes my offender with a broken heart asking for my forgiveness.  Every fiber of my being cries, “Hang!”  Only to be reminded, Someone hanged on the Cross for me – and for him.  Moist with tears of compassion, I hear myself say willingly, “I forgive!”

 

[1] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 3. 7

[2] ibid

Born of a Virgin? Why?

Isa 7 14

The wonder is not how finite man is made into a divine; rather, it is the infinitely divine becoming genuinely human – new-born infant!

 

In what could be the earliest confessional statement of the Church outside of the New Testament, the Apostles’ Creed affirms of Jesus in its third line, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. This is a confession that goes back to the two birth narratives of the Gospels – Matthew 1:18 – 23 and Luke 1:26 – 38. All of orthodox Christendom affirms the virgin conception of Jesus. Why is this significant?

Roman Catholics use this as a basis for the exaltation of Mary in their hierarchy of saints. One must not dismiss this lightly. The recognition of Mary is pronounced in the Lukan narrative. The angel called her, from the well-known KJV translation, blessed among women! (Luke 1:28). Mary herself, conscious of the implication of her favor, said: behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed (1:48).

What must be rejected is the excess to which this Mary-exaltation in the Roman Church was carried. Dogmas developed that gave Mary a position contrary to her original status as a humble maid of Galilee. This includes Pope Pius IX’s declaration of Immaculate Conception as church dogma in 1854. This certainly is against Mary’s confession of God as my Saviour in the Magnificat (Luke 1:47) – owning her need of salvation as herself a sinner. She acknowledges herself as beneficiary of God’s mercy (1:50). One should also deny the tradition of perpetual virginity – to which even some reformers subscribed. It is expressive more of the medieval disdain for sexual union than a serious theological deduction. The time-reference of Matthew should be significant: Joseph took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son (Matthew 1:24, 25). Mary’s role as a dutiful wife would have normalized after the birth of Jesus.

So why was Jesus conceived of a virgin? Jesus’ was not the only miraculous birth. Even Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ birth was preceded by the account of the conception of Elizabeth leading to the birth of John the Baptist. But all other such miraculous births were of married women who could not be pregnant, or of mothers past their pregnancy age. Such was Sarah’s birth of Isaac. The case of Jesus was unique as the only case of conception by one who was a virgin. Was it necessary? For what?

Continuity and Discontinuity

As the Son of God was to become Man, his humanity must be continuous with the humanity that then existed. He cannot be like Adam, created from the dust, without human parentage. The becoming-Man of the Son of God was to be an act of sharing with flesh and blood (Heb 2:14). Thus, the conceiving by Mary gave him his human substance. The begetting was by the Holy Spirit, but all the conceiving was by Mary. Everything in the process of conception followed the natural human development. This is a marvel in itself. God became everything that humanity undergoes from embryonic to fetal development in the womb! He was, in every way of his human nature, born of a woman (Gal 4:4).

Ancient art has attempted a variety of ways to portray Jesus as super-human: the child with a halo on the manger! Even Martin Luther’s carol says, the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes! Why not? The wonder is not how finite man is made into a divine; rather, it is the infinitely divine becoming genuinely human – new-born infant!

While in every way human, this God-made-man is virgin-conceived, and thus, without a human father. As theologian, GC Berkouwer, puts it:

The human procreation of a human life is not the way of incarnation. At the end of such a way we shall not find Jesus Christ. In analogy with what Jesus says concerning Abraham, we might summarize the relationship with: before Joseph was, Christ is. This is no biological explanation nor does it eliminate the fatherhood, but it recognizes the uniqueness of this birth, which may also be described as a coming into the world. [1]

Lutheran theologian, Robert Duncan Culver, adds his own take:

The virgin birth provides a reasonable explanation for how a divine Being who is without beginning might take to himself a human nature without the procreation of a new person. [2]

In being born, Jesus is like any human being. In being born of a virgin, Jesus is not like any human being. He is continuous with humanity, but at the same time, is the Inaugurator of a new humanity.

Humanity without Corruption

The virgin conception of Jesus spares him of that corporate connection with Adam that grounds the imputation of sin. This seems to be the point of contrast in 1 Corinthians 15:47, The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. Both the first Adam and Jesus, as second Adam, are possessor of the divine Image of their respective humanity. In contrast with the first Adam’s humanity as earthly, Jesus’ is heavenly. The latter’s divine image is not just inherited from Adam, but all his own as a man from heaven. While it has nothing explicit to say of the virgin birth, it does corroborate the idea of a different origin of Jesus’ humanity. Says Gordon Fee,

Paul urges that since believers have borne the image of the man of earth, they should also now (because they will) bear the image of the man of heaven. The christological significance of this text is its certain emphasis in context on Christ’s humanity and thus on his being the second Adam, the one who has most truly borne the divine image in his human life. [3]

This significance of the virgin birth is underscored by Reformed theologian, John Murray,

The Son of God was sent in that very nature which in every other instance is sinful. The Son came by a mode that was supernatural, by a mode consonant with his supernatural person, and by a mode that guaranteed his sinlessness. But he came in a way that preserved fully his organic and genetic connection with us men who are all sinful flesh. He was made of the seed of David, of a seed that was sinful, and of a woman who was herself sinful and afflicted with the depravity incident to fallen humanity. He came into the closest relation to sinful humanity that it was possible for him to come without thereby becoming himself sinful. This is the incarnation that actually occurred. [4]

William GT Shedd affirms,

The doctrine of the sinlessness of Christ is, thus, necessarily connected with the doctrine of the miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit. The one stands or falls with the other. [5]

Test of Supernatural Presupposition

If for nothing else, belief in the virgin conception of Jesus tests the supernatural commitment of any theologian. J Gresham Machen spent his life and ministry contending against the Liberals of his day. He saw in the issue of the virgin birth a test case.

It is perfectly clear that the New Testament teaches the virgin birth of Christ; about that there can be no manner of doubt. There is no serious question as to the interpretation of the Bible at this point. Everyone admits the Bible represents Jesus as having been conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the virgin Mary. The only question is whether in making that representation the Bible is true or false. [6]

To return to Culver,

In a practical way, the virgin birth tests whether a theologian or a theology is approaching Christianity with wholly naturalistic assumptions or is open to the supernatural… This does not make the virgin birth central to the structure of Christian doctrine and the plan of salvation, but it is a useful test. [7]

Conclusion

Ultimately, the uniqueness of the birth of Jesus is grounded on the uniqueness of his saving mission. It is not the manger that has become the central symbol of the Christian faith – but the Cross. It is those who see the need of a Saviour from sin who will see the necessity of sinlessness as prerequisite to His saving work. It is those who see their need of salvation from sin who want the One born of a virgin. The Saviour of sinners must Himself be a Man – but not like any man.

Endnotes:

[1] GC Berkouwer, The Work of Christ: 122

[2] Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: 48

[3] Gordon Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study: 119

[4] John Murray, Collected Writings II: 133

[5] William GT Shedd, Dogmatic Theology: 639

[6] Gresham Machen, Virgin Birth: 382

[7]  Culver, 481

 

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