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“This doesn’t make sense,” I thought. “Why does God in the Old Testament keep admonishing His people to ‘do justice and righteousness’ and not to oppress the vulnerable?”
I’ve been reading through the Old Testament for over a year now. I kept seeing God (through the prophets) telling Israel to care for the vulnerable and not to use power for their own gain. This theme is repeated over and over and over and over again.
I’d been told in church all my life (explicitly and implicitly) that the gospel and the Bible are about God wanting a relationship with me and how to follow Him. My churches told me that I then was to share this gospel with others so they could have a personal relationship with Jesus and follow Him. The goal of Christians is to go to heaven and to bring as many people with you as you can. Those who don’t follow Jesus end up in hell.
Here’s what I didn’t understand. If what my churches taught me was the case, why is the Bible talking so much about creating a just society? Why is God so concerned with Israel’s disregard of the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed? This isn’t talking about knowing God so you can go to heaven.
I also started wondering why the Bible talked so much about these things, yet the American church is only concerned about select issues of justice and caring for the vulnerable. Are we reading the same Bible?
As I studied more, I began to realize that the Bible’s definition of the gospel couldn’t match our American definition. When Jesus began His ministry (Mark 1), He said, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). If what He meant was “Believe in my finished work on the Cross and my resurrection so you can go to heaven,” then He was talking gibberish. He hadn’t died or resurrected yet.
As I studied even more, I saw the prophets foreseeing a day when Israel would dwell peacefully under the reign of a Davidic king. The poor would not be oppressed under this king. He would reign with justice and righteousness. And then, in the Gospels, I saw Jesus claiming to be this king. And I saw Paul, in his definition of the gospel, say, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3, my emphasis). That is, Christ died for our sins according to what the Law and Prophets foretold. And I saw in Revelation 21:4 that “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed.”
I realized that God’s desire all along has been to dwell with humans—under His kind rule, with perfect peace and justice.
Our American gospel isn’t necessarily wrong. God wants us to know Him, follow Him, and teach others to do the same. These things are indeed accomplished because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But it’s a truncated gospel.
Unfortunately, this truncated gospel has profound negative implications. If the gospel is that Jesus is king and He is establishing His reign, then we, as citizens of that kingdom, are expected to work to fulfill His kingdom. We pledge allegiance to Jesus as king, and we joyfully live out the values of His kingdom. This means telling others about our great king. It also means we naturally work to fix brokenness in society. It means we lift up the poor and oppressed—not only through meeting their immediate needs, but by working toward a just society that doesn’t systematically disenfranchise anyone. The gospel, by its true definition, necessarily entails that all wrongs be made right. All wrongs, not just people not knowing Jesus. That’s why Jesus said, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). All wrongs being made right isn’t just for later; it’s for right now (on earth as it is in heaven).
But if the gospel is simply that Jesus died for individuals so they can know Him, then everything else is secondary (or not important at all). This is why American Christians focus so much on evangelism—because we think that’s what we’re primarily called to. Other issues of justice don’t matter as much. Our churches tell us that life’s goal is to know Jesus so we won’t go to hell. Once we achieve that, we’re good, and the rest doesn’t really matter. That’s what enables certain Christians to hear calls for racial justice and respond, “Why don’t you just focus on the gospel?” It’s what allows us as the church to gloss over social problems and claim we don’t have any involvement in them. It’s what allows us to be so inwardly focused at times.
This individualistic gospel hurts our reputation and witness. The world sees our apathy (and antipathy) toward social reform and concludes that Christianity isn’t for them. Why, the world thinks, would we want to be associated with a religion that ignores or minimizes the suffering in our society?
Many pastors, especially in the neo-reformed camp, try to distinguish between saving faith and non-saving faith. They say believers are justified (made right before God) when they first trust in Jesus, but that if a person truly believes then he or she will inevitably walk in love and holiness (sanctification). They emphasize that a true believer will love her neighbor and work to undo injustice. This is how they end up exhorting people to work for the world’s restoration while still managing to keep the focus on individual salvation. But I don’t find this distinction helpful. One of its biggest drawbacks is it makes genuine Christians fret about if their faith is “saving” faith. This makes Christians overly inward focused as they try to analyze their lives and figure out if they’re really following Jesus. They may not realize it, but they may be comparing themselves to another Christian who has different skills, gifts, and personality. They may see that other believer as “truer” because he or she is more vocal or flashy about faith, when the difference is simply skill set and personality. Not every believer will look the same because we have different callings in different contexts. Many believers who do the most for God’s kingdom never or hardly get any recognition. Instead, let’s focus on our king, and know that if we are allegiant to Him then we are His children.
I hope and pray that the American church will begin to understand that the good news of the Messiah (anointed one) is that He is king and His reign is on earth now and is coming in full. He is making all things right and He is using His people to accomplish that purpose. My fervent prayer is that we’d realize the gospel is bigger than we ever imagined. Our current gospel is too small. We’ve accepted a truncated version of God’s kingdom. And as a result, our love for the world is correspondingly curtailed.