Christians with a social conscience. The idea wasn’t supposed to be so controversial. But it seems whenever you combine the notions of justice with the gospel, the antennae go up for critics of the social gospel. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a proponent of the social gospel. It is a false gospel as much as it replaces the absolute necessity of personal conversion and sharing the good news of Jesus’ death on the cross to reconcile sinners to himself. But the social gospel appears a plausible alternative to the traditional message of the gospel because it’s not hard to find a myriad of passages in the Bible that emphasize the justice of God. This idea of biblical social justice is actually all over the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Historically, Christians of all traditions, including conservative Protestants, have stressed the need for God’s people to advocate and work toward a more just society for all—particular for those who suffer various forms of injustice. But with the resulting bifurcation of Christendom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (particularly in the Global West), the trend has been for the theological liberals to dominate in social concerns. Yes, theological conservatives have adopted certain social problems that were largely ignored (such as abortion)—transforming them into culture war issues, but too often Christians who emphasize personal salvation through Christ have turned a blind eye to the systemic difficulties that so many face. The widow, the orphan, the sojourner, and the poor have not been helped holistically. What the Church has needed for a long time is a move of the Spirit to stir the consciences of God’s people to feel God’s concern for the downtrodden.
In Tim Keller’s small book, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (GJ), the author describes his own personal experience of having his spiritual eyes opened to the great need for the Church and for Christians serving in the public square to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Keller’s treatise amounts to a compelling case for three kinds of people to consider:
- Christians who tend to put deeds at the heart of their faith at the expense of beliefs.
- Christians who tend to put beliefs at the heart of their faith at the expense of deeds.
- Non-Christians who have a social conscience and wonder if Christianity and the Church are even necessary to be a good person and perform good deeds for others.
The table of contents demonstrates the scope of GJ:
- What Is Doing Justice?
- Justice and the Old Testament
- What Did Jesus Say About Justice?
- Justice and Your Neighbor
- Why Should We Do Justice?
- How Should We Do Justice?
- Doing Justice in the Public Square
- Peace, Beauty, and Justice
But the book is quite a bit more than the eight chapters. Recently I read a comment on the nature of Keller’s books. Nearly everything this author writes contains a booklet within the book. GJ is no different. Most readers will skip the GJ endnotes as these kinds of things are normally bibliographical and useless to everyone but the student, scholar, and the enthusiast pursuing tips for further study. But Keller’s notes are substantive. Really! They enrich the argument of the book by including helpful illustrations, additional arguments, and engagement with important tangential ideas. The endnotes also contain the author dialoging with critics and other points of view. I imagine an editor moving much of the content in the first draft manuscript of a Keller book to the back of the book to enhance readability and crisp coherence of the main text. But then again, maybe the endnotes are by the author’s design? Either way, my point is don’t miss ’em. You might put your finger at the back of the book and flip to them each time one is cited. That’s what I did. My experience was this practice didn’t significantly interrupt the flow of my reading the main text, but rather enhanced it.
There are a few controversial points the author makes, although much of what he says may come as a surprise to some readers. For instance, the assertion that we owe justice to the poor as a debt to be paid is sure to raise eyebrows! (For those who find themselves surprised, GJ will be an eye opener regarding what the Bible teaches about justice.) As for the debatable parts, it seems to me the objectors will be Christians who ignore other perspectives on social justice. For example, some who lean conservative on the political spectrum may be conditioned to believe that injustice is primarily a personal morality issue. This kind of Christian will become frustrated with personal dysfunctionality and immoral choices, and so turn on a person in order to assign blame. Never mind the environmental and social factors that may be casting a shadow of hopelessness over a person’s life, illuminating the reasons why the person made such a destructive choice. On the other hand, some who lean liberal on the political spectrum may consider injustice as primarily a social issue. This kind of Christian will likely rage and work against the social forces that contribute to oppression for individuals, families, and entire communities, and so excuse a person’s foolish choices in order to avoid assigning personal blame. Never mind the personal and moral responsibility that a person may shirk that directly contributes to more suffering. People who cannot or will not see the insights of both sides will chafe at Keller’s expansive perspective of the problems that foster suffering. Although it is possible Keller leans in one direction more than the other, it’s probably a good test of the reader to observe how you categorize the author. Do you think he is too liberal? Do you think he is too conservative? Perhaps both sides need a biblical corrective balance.
Another point where I can see where critics would chafe is Keller’s advice for Christians to do justice in the public square. He encourages believers as individuals (not as institutional churches) to work of justice as co-belligerents, not allies, with unbelievers. The idea conveyed by ally is someone who basically agrees with you. Thus an ally to a Christian is someone who is either a believer himself or a person who is at least friendly toward Christianity. But only working for justice by cooperating with allies severely limits the number of people Christians may strategically work alongside. If believers recognize agreement with an unbeliever in the relevant social justice issue, then other issues in which there are no agreement are irrelevant for the project. Those disagreements may even provide springboards to sharing the gospel with unbelievers who Christians strategically work with. Where is the controversy here? Some believers view this position as watering down a Christian’s public witness, perhaps even lending a sort of righteous legitimacy to unbelievers who are not reconciled to God through their good social works.
This point where Keller makes the argument that Christians, not the institutional Church, should be involved in social justice issues is sometimes identified with the social gospel. Honestly, I think this is not a mistaken but a dishonest critique. This is unfortunate because Keller goes out of his way to highlight that the Church as an organization should not be involved in social projects that seek to address injustices. He argues that the deacons (mercy servants) of the Church should attend to the physical, financial, and worldly needs of people connected to their congregation first, and then to serve those individuals and households outside the church. Nothing controversial here. That is the standard, traditional, historical, and orthodox position on the duties of the diaconate. When it comes to systemic injustices that impact whole communities, this is where the church as organization should equip and encourage the church as organism to engage society. Again, nothing controversial here. So why do some accuse Keller of propagating a social gospel? The social gospel may be defined as a “movement [that] applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war.” The social gospel is explicitly derives from Christian ethics and not from theological implications of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Maybe people label GJ as social gospel because Keller sees the church as both organization and organism, as institution and movement, as Christians gathered from the world and Christians sent back into the world. Perhaps opponents read into the vision statement of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Keller’s congregation, a tendency to social gospel:
As a church of Jesus Christ, Redeemer exists to help build a great city for all people through a movement of the gospel that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice, and cultural renewal to New York City and, through it, the world.
But as I read this statement, social justice is the third of four gospel fruits that Redeemer envisions coming from a movement of the gospel in their community. The way this vision statement flows, and the way GJ argues, the gospel fruit are not independent, but they are in order of priority and flow from prior fruit. Thus, first personal conversion leads to community formation as more and more converts commune together. Secondly, this community formation gives birth to social justice as the converted community seeks to love those around them. And thirdly, social justice inevitably produces a renewal of the culture. That is manifestly not the social gospel. Keller’s description of social justice is grounded in the gospel alone, not Christian ethics. Incidently, biblical social justice follows the logic of indicative (what is true of Christians as they are “in Christ”) leading to the imperative (what Christians must do because they are “in Christ”). GJ follows the indicative–>imperative logic. The social gospel cuts off the gospel indicative and thus loses its foundation. The social gospel declined as a historical movement because its imperatives were quite literally baseless–without a base to stand on. Whereas biblical social justice is firmly grounded in the gospel. This is where GJ seeks to ground doing justice.
So how does Keller propose churches may avoid the trap of getting sidetracked from its commission to disciple the nations and love people with deeds of mercy? GJ employs a simple distinction between relief, development, and reform. According to Keller, the church as organization is called by God to provide relief and development to the poor and needy. Relief describes the act of providing for immediate and urgent needs. Food, clothing, shelter, overdue bills. Development is the act of providing the necessary assistance to mitigate the factors that led to needed relief. Budgeting, debt repayment plans, gainful employment, making wise choices. But when it comes to (social) reform, Keller follows theologian Abraham Kuyper who taught that the Church organic works to fix systemic and institutional problems that contribute to an unjust environment that makes it easier for people vulnerable to fall into need.
Churches under their leaders should definitely carry out ministries of relief and some development among their own members and in their neighborhoods and cities, as the natural and crucial way to show the world God’s character, and to love the people that they are evangelizing and discipling. But if we apply Kuyper’s view, then when we get to the more ambitious work of social reform and the addressing of social structure, believers should work through associations and organizations rather than through the local church. While the institutional church should do relief inside and around its community, the “organic” church should be doing development and social reform. [pp. 145-146]
All along the author’s argument, the gospel of Christ is employed to make the case that God’s grace makes a person into one who loves and acts justly. But the capstone and final chapter aims directly at the reader’s heart to become a more just Christian. Keller writes that all true Christians have a social conscience, and if they don’t then they aren’t really Christians because such a person does not know the heart of God. However, he admits that many Christians have a dormant social conscience that is waiting to wake up to the beauty of being a just person. This kind of person is the author’s target in the last chapter. If truth and goodness as noble virtues are themselves inadequate to change the heart and raise us to responsive action motivated by thankfulness, then perhaps the virtue of beauty is the catalyst the ignites the fuse. Keller’s appeal is not to abstract beauty. That would be contrary to everything he says and does. No, the beauty to which he points the reader is Jesus Christ. If we begin to see God in the face of the poor, then our hearts will begin to be not only persuaded to do social justice, but our hearts will be changed as well.
GJ is a unique social justice book in my estimation. It is intelligent, accessible, persuasive, cogent, interesting, and moving without guilt-tripping. If you are a Christian who is somewhat baffled by believers who seem “better” and “more loving of others” than you—no matter how hard you try to grow a social conscience—then you’ll want to read this book. I believe it will be the missing ingredient you need to gain God’s heart for justice. Righteousness comes as a gift from God. It is all of grace. Being just to others apart from that gift cannot make you righteous before God. Only the gospel can do that. And yet, the Christian who begins to understand that gift of grace is in the only position to become a more just-righteous person as God’s grace arrests him and changes him from the inside out. Personally, spiritually, emotionally, relationally, socially, culturally, communally, totally.
Interview with the author about the book
What is Biblical Justice? By Tim Keller
What We Owe the Poor, by Tim Keller
A sermon on “Justice” by Tim Keller
Generous Justice, conference talk and panel discussion:
Front Porch Inspired (includes links to chapter summaries and discussion questions)
Orthodox Presbyterian Church (reviewed by Tony Monaghan)