It’s a pleasant surprise to see some of the authors at TGC finally, after years of using the term, discussing the meaning of the term “gospel issue” (See here and here). At this site, we’ve documented and described the use and abuse of it, and we’re glad that it is now under examination.
In this article, I will argue that social justice is not a gospel issue. Here is my argument concisely and simply put:
(1) Nothing concerning earthly life is a gospel issue.
(2) Social justice concerns earthly life.
Therefore, (3) Social justice is not a gospel issue.
Since this syllogism is valid, the rest of the article clarifies the terms and the shows the truth of the premises.
We begin with a discussion on the nature of pre-lapsarian (or unfallen) man—the human being as he was while in a state of integrity. The discussion might be a bit tedious, but it is necessary to demonstrate my conclusion. Here we rely on a standard distinction in the Reformed tradition concerning the original constitution of man as to his state of integrity, and I appeal to Calvin’s discussion in his Institutes (II.II.12-13).
Calvin argues that man possessed two sets of gifts, “natural” and “supernatural.” The former were those that immediately concerned life in this world, not only of craftsmanship and exchange, but also reason and the principles of civil society and governance, including every aspect of civil justice. Man was gifted, in other words, with all that is necessary for a just, orderly, peaceful, and harmonious civil society. These gifts provided a sort of orientation, orienting one to earthly things to fulfill earthly ends, both individual and collective. The second set of gifts, the heavenly gifts, are “holiness” and “righteousness.” Theologians have also called this “original righteousness.” These gifts elevated man toward the divine, making him suitable for heavenly life, which was promised even to unfallen Adam. As Calvin said, these gifts are the “pure knowledge of God, the method of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the heavenly kingdom.” They were necessary for man in his native state, for having a heavenly (not earthly) ultimate end, man had to possess (in addition to the means that oriented him to earthly ends) the means by which he orients himself to his heavenly end.1
Though Calvin calls the earthly gifts “natural” and the heavenly gifts “supernatural,” many Reformed theologians, in the interest of clarity, will call these “concreated” to emphasize that both are natural (or original and native) to Adam, though not natural in the same sense. The earthly gifts constitute man as man, meaning that in their absence man is no longer man (hence, they are essential to man as man). The heavenly gifts however are nonessential to man, though necessary for his integrity and moral rectitude and to make him “sufficient for the attainment of heavenly life and everlasting felicity,” as Calvin states. These gifts are accidental: that in their absence, man remains man—an unrighteous human but nevertheless still human. Put differently, the earthly gifts are constitutive of man, while the heavenly gifts are perfective of man.2 It is very important to understand that “perfective” does not indicate less in importance. Indeed, since they orient one to God and his heavenly kingdom, they are the most important and greatest gifts that man can have and therefore the most precious gifts man had to lose.
These heavenly gifts established man’s perfect rectitude towards both his heavenly and earthly ends. Without this original righteousness, man is both unrighteous in himself (lacking what is necessary to be complete in righteousness) and becomes unrighteous in consequence. Original righteousness orders man to heaven, not by destroying the necessities of earthly good and the present life, but by lifting man from an obsession with earthly life. It ensured that man’s earthly life remained only a means or a facilitator to achieve his ultimate heavenly end, rather than earthly life becoming the ultimate end of human existence and created things the objects of adoration. Without a heavenly orientation, man is drawn down to and lusts after the things of this present life.
This brings us to the Fall. Calvin argues that while the fall obliterated the heavenly gifts, it only wounded the earthly ones. They were “partly weakened and partly corrupted.” So man still possesses reason, knowledge of the principles of civil order and justice, and outward honesty. He argues that being a “social animal,” man is “disposed by natural instinct to cherish and preserve society,” resulting in “universal agreement” on the principles of laws and “ideas of equity,” which shows that “man is not devoid of the light of reason.”
This is why the Reformed tradition actually permits a somewhat positive view of fallen man as to his outward life in society. Althusius said for example, “In political life even an infidel maybe called just, innocent, and upright, because of” their outward deeds. Here is Herman Bavinck:
One must bear in mind that Scripture and the church, in teaching the total depravity of humanity, apply the highest standard, namely, the law of God. The doctrine of the incapacity for good is a religious confession. In light of the standard people usually follow in their daily life or in philosophic ethics, one can wholeheartedly admit that much of what people do is good and beautiful. (RD 3.122-3)
He also wrote,
With respect to the moral commandments of the second table of the law there is always much agreement among the nations, inasmuch as the work of the law continues to be written on their hearts. (RD 3.134)3
Fallen, unregenerate man is therefore capable of a significant degree of outward conformity to the Law of God, and many have been and are worthy of our praise and emulation with regard to their civil life, as Reformed authors have repeatedly affirmed.4
The Fall principally and firstly affected man’s perfective features by removing them. They were “withdrawn,” Calvin said. That is, man completely lost only his original righteousness. But the Fall secondarily or by consequence, and on account of its principal effect, corrupted man as to his earthly life, creating civil strife, conflict, and injustice. So the Fall did not result merely in a privation of heaven-oriented righteousness, but also in consequence the positive corruption of man’s earthly life. While the consequences extend to man’s outward life, the greatest consequence is the inability to act in accordance with the proper internal principle, manner, and end unto ultimate theological goodness.5
It is important to note that the corruption of man’s earthly life is not due to the loss of any natural gift (which he didn’t lose), but rather the disorder resulting from the absence of his supernatural gifts.
Now, this discussion so far has set the scene for us to discuss the principal and secondary effects of the Gospel. Just as the Fall firstly removed original righteousness and only in consequence affected earthly life, the Gospel firstly restores righteousness unto heavenly life and in effect corrects deficiencies in earthly life. The knowledge of the principles of civil justice were not restored, for such knowledge was never eliminated or removed. Calvin wrote that fallen “human nature possesses none of the gifts which the elect receive from their heavenly father through the Spirit of regeneration” (Institutes 2.2.20); and since fallen man, as Calvin acknowledged earlier, continued to possess knowledge of civil justice, such knowledge was not one of the gifts received by regeneration. Turretin likewise stated that though there are “natural remains of the image [of God],” the “spiritual and supernatural qualities…must be restored to us by the grace of regeneration.”6 With the restoration of these supernatural gifts, which constitutes the restoration of righteousness, one is reoriented and properly reordered to the heavenly kingdom, and in consequence errors and deficiencies in our earthly life undergo a process of correction.7
The Gospel therefore is principally about the restoration of man to his original heavenly destination by means of the person and work of Christ whose righteousness, being the same in substance as that of Adam’s original righteousness,8 is credited to our account and imparted to (or infused in)9 us, making us once again suitable and directed to heavenly life. The Gospel then is principally not for “cosmic redemption,” but the recovery of man’s original other-wordly end, namely heavenly life. As Turretin states, “Christ died that through him we might recover what we lost in Adam and merited for us eternal life.”10 Furthermore, just as Adam’s original righteousness secured man from lusting after the things of this world, so too does Christ’s righteousness, correcting what was deficient without restoring or adding to man’s earthly gifts.11 So the Gospel concerns earthly life (as it pertains to our civil life) mediately, meaning that the effects are subsequent to its immediate, primary and intended work—the restoration of heaven-oriented supernatural gifts.
From this understanding of the Gospel, Philip Melanchthon, the great early Reformer, writes:
The Gospel is the teaching of spiritual life and of justification in the eyes of God; but philosophy is the teaching of the corporeal life, just as you see that medicine serves health, the turning points of storms serve navigators, civil conduct serve the common peace of all men. The use of philosophy in this way is very necessary and approved of by God.
For Christ did not come into the world to teach precepts about (civic) morals, which man already knew by reason, but to forgive sins, in order that he may give the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him.12
Finally, he writes:
Neither does the Gospel bring new laws concerning the civil state, but commands that we obey present laws, whether they have been framed by heathen or by others, and that in this obedience we should exercise love….They were in the error that the Gospel is an external, new, and monastic form of government, and did not see that the Gospel brings eternal righteousness to hearts (teaches how a person is redeemed, before God and in his conscience, from sin, hell, and the devil), while it outwardly approves the civil state.13
We can conclude, following this argument and these authorities, that civil justice, of which social justice (however you want to define it) is a species, is only a secondary matter to the Gospel and therefore social justice is secondary to the Gospel. The Gospel firstly brings, as Melanchthon said, “eternal righteousness to hearts,” not civil righteousness to earth.
The Gospel Issue
This brings us to our original question: is social justice a gospel issue? Of course, one’s answer will depend on one’s definition of “gospel issue.” A useful definition must set apart some issues from others. If we say that a gospel issue is any “implication” of the Gospel, then it would seem that all of earthly life is a gospel issue, for all of earthly life (given the argument above) is an implication of the gospel (viz. every aspect of earthly life is potentially a deficiency to be corrected). If, for example, I have a deficiency in my obedience to traffic laws, then traffic laws are a gospel issue for me, for any deficiency in my conformity to earthly duty is a gospel issue. If this can be a gospel issue, the term isn’t very helpful.
I cannot analyze every possible definition here, but there is a way forward I think. We’ve recognized two sets of effects of the Gospel, one immediate (eternal righteousness and redemption before God) and the other mediate (the correction of deficiencies in one’s earthly life). What we receive in the Gospel is itself most precious (Christ) and far greater than civil righteousness (Christ’s righteousness), and the immediate benefits are more glorious and unmerited than any benefit in earthly life (both the ability to worship the true God and to attain heavenly life). The issue of the Gospel is not our life on earth, and to call anything else a gospel issue without serious qualification demeans what God has given us in his Son.
For this reason, only that which pertains to or immediately points to (viz. the true worship of God) our heavenly inheritance is a gospel issue. Except for our worship of God on earth, our earthly life does not pertain or immediately point to our heavenly inheritance.14 So nothing concerning our earthly life is a gospel issue. And since social justice concerns our earthly life, social justice is not a gospel issue.15
My conclusion in no way diminishes the importance of pursuing civil justice. Christians, after all, remain fully human, and as such ought to pursue civil justice, for civil justice is a human end. It is however not a gospel issue, nor a direct end of it. That is to say, by fighting for civil justice one is not fulfilling some direct intention of the Gospel. Rather, one is fulfilling a human end as a consequence of the Gospel’s secondary effects.
Moreover, the Gospel did not inaugurate a political, social, and economic project. While it can and has corrected major deficiencies in social and political order, it generally does not call for radical changes, nor fundamentally transforms civil order or its principles. Fallen man, after all, is capable of maintaining civil order and justice in conformity with the created order and the Gospel does not add to or nullify the natural principles of civil order and justice. This explains why appeals to the “universal consent of the [pagan] nations” concerning just civil principles and law is ubiquitous in the Reformed tradition.16
And just as the conversion of the king of Nineveh, following the ministry of Jonah, did not cause him to throw down his crown before the people, ask for their forgiveness, spread his wealth around, and establish a liberal democracy, the Gospel does not cause political revolution, nor upend traditional order.17 The Gospel is not an earthly (or ecclesiastical) political project to remake the fundamentals of civil order. The fundamentals of civil order were never lost.
We can further conclude that churches, as institutions, should not make “social justice” (or anything regarding civil justice) a primary concern, for the church as institution must concern itself primarily with the central purpose of the gospel, which is “eternal righteousness in hearts” and pointing believers to their heavenly home. The institutional church, furthermore, does not have any unique insight into civil/political matters, being neither a political deliberative body, nor an institution possessing some new deposit of the divine will for civil society. Preachers and theologians should just preach and teach the gospel and leave politics to Christian political theorists and statesmen and leave law to the jurists.18
The Gospel is indeed social, for it secures a heavenly society—one to be revealed in the eschaton. But it did not restore some long lost principle of just civil/social relations, nor inaugurate a social project. Social justice is not the issue of the Gospel.
1 Turretin quote, “Since his noblest part is spirit (even of heavenly origin) touched with a vehement desire of heavenly goods (by which alone its infinite appetite for the highest good can be satisfied), he could not obtain on earth his full felicity, but must be gifted with it at length in heaven where he can enjoy the fullest and most perfect communion with God, in whom his highest good resides. For although on earth he could in some measure give himself to be enjoyed, it is certain that the immediate and absolute fruition of God is not to be sought apart from the beatific vision which can be looked for only in heaven” (IET 8.6.8)
2 Turretin distinguished between the different ways that things can be “natural”: “Natural is taken in four ways: (1) originally and subjectively, drawn from nature and concreated or born together with it and most deeply implanted in it (which is opposed to the adventitious); (2) constitutively and consecutively, constituting the nature of the thing or following and flowing from the principles of nature (as such as are the essential part or properties of a thing which is opposed to the accidental); (3) perfectively, agreeing with the nature and adorning and perfecting it (opposed to that which is against nature); (4) transitively, which ought to be propagated with nature” (IET 5.11.2).
3 On this point Althusius says, “There is a knowledge and natural inclination for this law [i.e., natural law] in the human heart. Because of it, a person knows what is just and is urged by the hidden impulse of nature to do what is just and to not do what is unjust.” On Law and Power, 9. See here for similar quotes. This relatively positive account points to two important truths: 1) even civil righteousness (i.e., outward acts in conformity with God’s law) is far below complete righteousness before God (which requires rectitude of the heart) and 2) that man lost not his ability to recognize and even perform/enact civil justice in his earthly life, but rather he lost the ability to perform ultimate good unto heavenly life.
4 As Turretin states, “Although some of the heathen (comparatively considered and in relation to each other) may have been better than others; although their works civilly and morally speaking may be called virtues, and so followed by the double reward of a well-regulated life, both positive (as productive of some temporal good and peace of conscience in this world) and negative (as making their punishment more tolerable), nevertheless (theologically speaking and relatively to God) their works best in form were nothing than more splendid sins and in the sight of God worthy of no reward” (IET 1.4.17)
5 As Turretin says, “For in reference to the principle, they [the unregenerate] could not proceed from faith or a clean heart (of which they were destitute); so as to the mode, they had no internal and spiritual obedience; and as to the end, no direction to the glory of God….Now a good work is from an entire cause, but an evil work from even a single defect” (IET 10.5.4) Also William Perkins wrote, “True it is, that among Turks and infidels, many a civil man will do works of mercy, of civil justice, and liberality, and will abstain from outward sins, and live orderly. Now these, and such like, though in themselves they be good works, so far forth as they are required by the law of nature, or commanded by God’s Word, yet in an infidel, or an unregenerate person, they are sins. For first, they proceed from a heart which is corrupt with original sin, and with unbelief (for the heart is the fountain of all actions [Matt. 12:35]) and also they are practiced by the members of the body, which are weapons of unrighteousness. Therefore they must needs be like unto water springing from a corrupt fountain, and running through a filthy channel. Secondly, these works are not done for God’s glory, and the good of men. Thirdly, they are not done in obedience to God, according to the rule of goodness, the will and Word of God, and therefore cannot be good works.” (An Exposition of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, Works, vol. 1, p. 235).
7 For Calvin, the Gospel diverts the believer from his obsession with earthly concerns, directing him to heaven. He writes, “we creep on the earth; nay, we find that our flesh ever draws us downward: except then the truth from above becomes to us as it were wings, or a ladder, or a vehicle, we cannot rise up one foot; but, on the contrary, we shall seek refuges on the earth rather than ascend into heaven. But let the word of God become our ladder, or our vehicle, or our wings, and, however difficult the ascent may be, we shall yet be able to fly upward, provided God’s word be allowed to have its own authority.” Commentary on the Twelve Minor Prophets: Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, trans. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 59 (comment on Habakkuk 2.1).
8 As Turretin said, “The same righteousness which is restored by Christ was given at first to Adam (as to the thing had, but not as to the mode of having). For the former was in him from his origin and by nature; the latter, however, only supernaturally and by grace; the first mutably, the second immutably and incapable of being lost” (IET 5.10.21).
9 As Turretin writes, “Just as Christ sustains a twofold relation to us of surety and head (of surety, to take away the guilt of sin by a payment made for it; of head, to take away its power and corruption by the efficacy of the Spirit), so in a twofold way Christ imparts his blessings to us, by a forensic imputation, and a moral and internal infusion. The former flows from Christ as surety and is the foundation of our justification. The latter depends upon him as head, and is the principle of sanctification. For on this account, God justifies us because the righteousness of our surety, Christ, is imputed to us. And on this account we are renewed because we derive the Spirit from our head, Christ, who renews us after the image of Christ and bestows upon us inherent righteousness.” (16.3.6).
10 Turretin continues, “…it is necessary that it should have been lost for us in Adam and that Adam would have attained it, if he had persevered in obedience. Nor would Christ be called the tree of life, if he had not restored that life to us whose promise this tree sealed to our first parents.” (IET 8.6.5)
11 The Protestant Reformers were very clear that Christ did not add new precepts to the moral law. As Calvin said, “We must not imagine Christ to be a new legislator, who adds any thing to the eternal righteousness of his Father. We must listen to him as a faithful expounder, that we may know what is the nature of the law, what is its object, and what is its extent” (Commentary on Mt. 5:21)
14 I acknowledge that our earthly life facilitates and indirectly assists us in achieving heavenly life, but my definition refers to what either directly pertains to heavenly life or immediately points to it.
15 One could, of course, define “gospel issue” differently, but one’s definition must not be ad hoc (viz. that its limits must not be arbitrary) and must avoid encompassing all aspects of humans society as a gospel issue, which is what follows in my view from Kevin DeYoung’s recent discussion. DeYoung’s last paragraph before his conclusion is formalized as:
(1) All necessary concerns for Christians are Gospel issues.
(2) The Second Table of the Decalogue is a necessary concern for Christians.
Therefore, (3) The Second Table of the Decalogue is a Gospel issue.
Using the conclusion (3):
(3) The Second Table of the Decalogue is a Gospel issue.
(4a) Social justice is part of the Second Table of the Decalogue.
Therefore, (5) Social justice is a Gospel issue.
The problem is that the subject of (4) or the minor term can be any duty of the Decalogue (which is a summary of all duties in human society), such as obeying traffic laws. So. (4b) Obeying traffic laws is part of the Second Table of the Decalogue. Therefore, (5b) obeying traffic laws is a Gospel issue. In the end, his argument makes everything pertaining to our duties in human society a gospel issue, which would include traffic laws, mowing our lawns on time, clothing decorum, and much more.
16 As Turretin says, “[T]he consent of the nations [is evidence of the natural law], among whom (even the most savage) some law of the primitive nations obtains, from which even without a teacher they have learned that God should be worshipped, parents honored, a virtuous life be led and from which as a fountain have flowed so many laws concerning equity and virtue enacted by heathen legislatures, drawn from nature itself. And if certain laws are found among some repugnant to these principles, they were even with reluctance received and observed by a few, at length abrogated by contrary laws, and have fallen into desuetude” (IET 11.1.13).
18 See Junius and Althusius on the role of the theologian.