Social Ethics and Sanctification

This year some theological and pastoral heavy-hitters signed “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel.” This statement, coming from a pocket of the conservative evangelical sector, has been the source of much consternation and debate since its publication. Among the contentious claims of the statement, which are generally found in their “denials” rather than their “affirmations,” the one which has caused me and many of my peers and mentors in ministry both frustration and sadness, is the idea that the gospel ought to be purely preached as Christ’s atoning, justifying work; the social justice implications of this work ought to be left out of gospel preaching. The signers deny that anything other than the person and work of Jesus Christ to save sinners, “whether works to be performed or opinions to be held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel.” The statement continues, “This also means that implications and applications of the gospel, such as the obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel”.

I would ask the signers, that sinners are saved to what end? And with what effect? If the gospel is merely and purely Christ’s work in saving sinners, then what is to follow? I suggest that such a view smells of modernist individualism; an over-emphasis on personal salvation, without an eye to what the gospel, and indeed much of the New Testament, says about social ethics and justice.

To put it plainly, a preaching ministry that focuses solely on the gospel as individual salvation misses half of the content, and the beauty, of the full gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is not only that we are justified by the blood of Christ and adopted as sons of God, but that we are freed and empowered to live as such. The Apostle James plainly teaches that faith, which is that by which we receive salvation, is no faith at all if it is not a living and active thing.

In Article VI of the statement, Romans 1:16-17 is cited (among other passages) to support their position. In this passage, the Apostle Paul writes that the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”. Amen! However, why stop there? Paul is developing an argument in this letter, and this is only the beginning. He goes on from there to write immediately not about one’s individual standing before God due to their sin nature per se, but more specifically about the unrighteous social ethic of Jew and Gentile (see especially Romans 1:22-23, 25, and 29-32).

John Webster locates the sanctification of the Christian first and foremost in their justification. We are saved sola fide, and this faith continues on as a lived and worked-out faith. Webster claims (rightly, I believe) that our holiness is at the same time an indicative (something God accomplished for us, that we now possess) and an imperative (something we must now go and do). He writes, “Indicative holiness is the revelation of the inescapable conclusion under which our lives have been set — namely, that as those elected, justified and sanctified by the mercy of God, we are equally those who are determined for the active life of holiness. Because grace is ‘double grace,’ it is election to activity.”

I want to suggest a brief theological consideration, and two more practical thoughts. First, the imperative to “be holy for I am holy” is only possible because of the indicative of our justification. And it begs us to ask of the text “how is God holy?” We must not neglect God’s triune nature. God displays his holiness inside the trinitarian economy—it is a social ethic, of sorts. Our holiness, then, cannot be merely an individualistic holiness if it is to be “as I am holy.” We were created as individual social beings, and our sanctification is on both the individual and social levels.

Second, consider what kind of malnourished and ill-equipped local churches they would be who are fed a diet of only justification and individual sanctification, and never social justice and social ethics. Doing justice, loving mercy — the church ought to be the place in society today that you can see this happen, and find the love of God evident and manifest. If not there, where?

Lastly, the current social justice issues of racial reconciliation, gender equality, and the like are not only hot-topic issues in society at large, but are causing radical disunity in the body of Christ. If preachers are not freed and encouraged to address these issues straight-on, as the Apostles did in their day (consider Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2 for not walking in step with the gospel as he refused to eat with Gentiles), then the one place on earth which should be resound with the authoritative and Spirit-powered sounds of good news for the world will be so silent as to be conspicuous. It is a poor witness to the world, and a poor representation of the heart of Jesus, who would that the love displayed within the walls of the church would be the single greatest apologetic of the truth of him and his work to save (John 15).



“The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel | For The Sake of Christ & His Church.” The Statement on Social Justice the Gospel. Accessed September 24, 2018.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016).

Webster, John Bainbridge. Holiness. London: SCM Press, 2003.

7 months ago

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