The Gospel Question

October 14, 2021 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments

Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement

This is part 9 of a multi-part series reviewing Thaddeus J. Williams’ book, Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice. This book is published at a critical time when many in our nation, including Christians, wrestle with the concept of justice. Williams starts with the clear biblical command that Christians must “do justice” (Micah 6:8) and “seek justice” (Isaiah 1:17). Not everything labeled “justice,” however, is necessarily biblical justice. Therefore, Williams poses twelve questions to help Christians discern true, biblical justice, while calling us to do true justice. I commend this book if you want to dig deeper and be more faithful in seeking justice. 

The ninth question Williams poses is the “Gospel Question.” He asks, “Does our vision of social justice distort the best news in history?” (p. 110). In this chapter, Williams tackles how the gospel and justice relate to one another. It is common to hear Christians say, “Justice is a gospel issue.” While justice is a biblical imperative, it is dangerous to not keep clear distinctions between the gospel and commands like “do justice.” Williams quotes C. S. Lewis, “Every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made… You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first” (p. 110). Williams applies this principle to social justice: “If we make social justice our first thing, we will lose not only the real first thing – the gospel – we will lose social justice too” (p. 111). 

To help clarify this distinction, Williams explains how a command like “do justice” is not of the gospel, but from the gospel (a result from gospel transformation). The gospel is a declaration of the good news of what God has done for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel is indicative, meaning that it is a statement of facts, which we receive and rest in. Commands, or imperatives, have no bearing on the gospel. “A gospel with additional requirements is not good news… There is a qualitative difference between fighting the injustice of slavery to become saved versus fighting the injustice of slavery because you are saved… I am arguing that making the imperative to work against such injustices either identical to or part of the gospel is to lose the gospel” (p. 113). 

Why is this so important? Without a clear understanding of the gospel, and how biblical imperatives flow from gospel transformation, we can easily get swept up into a “bottomless sense of never doing enough, of having more sin than we could possibly atone for” (p. 114). The current cultural emphasis on social justice, influenced by unbiblical worldviews like critical race theory, tends to lead to a weight of “infinite responsibility… infinite guilt, a kind of Christianity without salvation” (p. 114). Without a distinction between the gospel and commands, there is “no grace, no forgiveness, no open doors to paradise” (p. 116). 

Williams compares modern people of the 21st century, wrestling with this “infinite responsibility…infinite guilt,” with Martin Luther. “Before grace found him, Luther lashed his own back bloody, slept without a blanket in the subzero German winters, and sat in a confessional booth six hours a day, all to earn status as ‘a Very Good Person.’ Today we virtue-signal, we hashtag our solidarity, and we self-censor lest we utter blasphemy. This is what penance looks like in the twenty-first century. We have become a sort of collective Martin Luther in our quest to be very good people” (p. 116). 

We cannot let any command distort the best news in history. We cannot conflate obedience to any command with the hope and promises of the gospel. We cannot let anti-gospel calls to justice drown us in a sea of “infinite responsibility… infinite guilt.” And we cannot look for “not-guilty” verdicts from popular culture or our own efforts to do the right thing (or be the right person). We must keep the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection the “first thing,” our one and only hope of salvation.



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