There are two misunderstandings about justice that have led to confusion in the Christian community.
First, there’s often not a clear distinction between the law of God and his gospel, especially in discussions related to justice. These two aren’t the same thing. The gospel literally means “good news.” It’s the good news that “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Romans 5:10). The gospel is good news when we understand that we do not and cannot earn our salvation. The work of redemption and justification has been finished by Christ, on the cross, at Calvary.
The gospel is not the law. Many Christians misunderstand the law. Some think that when Jesus died on the cross, he did away with all our moral obligations. This not the case.
Remember, the law of God gives us our moral standard in life, including the standard of justice. Of course, Jesus is the only man who ever lived up to that standard, but—with God’s help—we still need to pursue a holy life. Peter said, “Be holy yourselves also in all your behavior.” He then quoted the Law: “Because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15–16).
Think about what Jesus said in Matthew 22. A lawyer asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Notice the question is about law, not the gospel. This is really important. Jesus answered, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Now listen to his summary statement: “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Christians miss this here. Notice our obligation to love is not the gospel. Loving God and loving your neighbor is law.
Here’s why I bring this up: The gospel is about God’s love for us. It’s his rescue plan for sinners. The law is about our love for God and others. It tells us how to love God and neighbor. The law cannot save us; only the gospel can. However, the law—summarized by Jesus in the two great commandments—instructs us on how God wants us to live our lives. This means all our discussions about justice should be understood as part of our obligation under God’s moral law to love our neighbors. His law is what gives us our standard of justice towards others, transcending culture’s constantly changing and sometimes twisted ideas of what’s just.
The lack of distinction between law and gospel is the first misunderstanding. Now let’s look at the second.
The misconception is found in two views many Christians adopt when justice comes up in conversation. Both are well meaning, but both are mistaken. I call these the “Gospel Only” view and the “Justice Only” view.
People holding the “Gospel Only” view often believe anything having to do with “doing justice” is related to liberal politics, critical theory, or Marxism. This view is often expressed when people say, “Justice is for liberals,” or, “Justice is part of cultural Marxism” or, “Just preach the gospel.” This is a problem since it misrepresents what justice is. Folks who hold this view usually have a low view of the law. Remember, our standard of justice is grounded in God’s moral law.
The “Justice Only” view is on the other end of the spectrum. Folks holding this view often say things like, “Preach the gospel and, when necessary, use words,” or, “Social justice is the gospel.” This is a problem because people holding this “Justice Only” view conflate the gospel with law. Those who hold this view are vulnerable to falling into the trap of social justice because they believe doing “good” is the gospel. This group has too high a view of the law, and often they don’t know it.
On the Theology Mom podcast, Krista Bontrager points out that one of the major pitfalls of this view is that everything becomes a gospel issue. Things like wearing masks, or getting vaccinations, or opening churches during government shutdowns become gospel issues, meaning there’s a salvific component. This is clearly false. Some of these issues might relate to justice, but they’re not gospel issues.
These are the two confused views. But there’s a third option. It’s not one or the other. It’s both, properly understood and in proper balance.
The gospel and law work in tandem, bringing people to Jesus (and ultimately salvation) and helping Christian ambassadors bring about a more just society. We need to abandon the justice vs. gospel extremes. Our focus as Christians is not “We just need to preach the gospel.” It’s also not “Social justice is the gospel.” Instead, we partner with Jesus to preach the gospel, make disciples, and teach them to obey biblical principles in all areas of life. As people embrace Christ, the Holy Spirit changes their hearts and desires, and they begin to be conformed to Christ’s image and to reflect his image in their actions. Both law and gospel play a part in the Christian life.