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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Redeeming Justice

Published Friday, May 1, 2020 By Michael S. Horton

It’s been eight years since I wrote Christless Christianity, and things don’t seem to have much improved out there. Evangelicals on the right fawn over Donald Trump as the “defender of the faith” (apparently meaning the Christian faith). After a couple generations of being gripped by the fear of man more than the fear of God and confidence in “that Word above all earthly pow’rs,” many evangelicals have shown the world that they will overlook anything contrary to “the faith” for the assurance that Jesus has—or rather they have—a bodyguard in the White House.

Meanwhile, pioneers of yesterday’s “Emergent Church Movement,” such as Doug Pagitt, have become acolytes for the Democrats. Mangling Jesus’ promise in John 14:12 in a move that sounds eerily similar to Joel Osteen’s exegetical magic, Pagitt’s book Outdoing Jesus: Seven Ways to Live out the Promise of “Greater Than” merely substitutes the miracles of the Social Gospel for those of the Prosperity Gospel.

Once again, we encounter a distinctly American Jesus as political football, a mascot in the culture wars, a trademark for whatever sociopolitical ideology one happens to prefer. And since the cycles of political campaigning have become as unending as California’s fire season, one can always scan CNN or Fox News to find a talking head who claims to represent our Lord’s political agenda. Whatever one’s social, political, or regional demographic, “the (Christian) faith” has become a Christless cloak for group narcissism, which is also known as identity politics.

At least for Christians, it should be recognized that the main casualty in the culture wars is the Christian witness. Most importantly, the gospel has been confused with the law, as if we could save ourselves or America or the world by political policy and cultural power—which means of course that wherever we align, “we” are the righteous and “they” are the villainous and loathsome sinners. The gospel has been just as surely assimilated to the law on the Right as on the Left. But the law also has been trampled, and that is what I want to focus on in these reflections.

Dubbing fellow Christians with whom they disagree as “social justice warriors,” many conservatives fail to recognize that they are just as obsessed with public policy; the differences are merely over which agendas to pursue. Is the right to life anything but a social justice issue? To defend civil protection of marriage as between one man and one woman is just as much a concern for social justice as the defense of equality before the law for all, whether gay or straight. We defend traditional marriage because we love God and our neighbors, including those rebelling against God’s created order. In fact, the very phrase “social justice” comes from a long history of Christian influence from Augustine to the present.

According to Katherine Connor Martin, head of US dictionaries for Oxford University Press, the moniker only became a slur in 2015 in the wake of the Gamergate controversy.1 Deployed routinely as an insult by Fox News hosts, “social justice warrior” has become the scarlet letter attached to anyone who raises concerns about the environment, racism, poverty, or other issues that Christians, including many conservative Protestants, have traditionally cared about.

In 1947, Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism called evangelicals to a more theologically robust awareness of public responsibility. In the 1970s, Francis Schaeffer awakened American evangelicals to the scandal of abortion-on-demand and euthanasia. But few today remember his provocative critiques of other tentacles of nihilism: Pollution and the Death of Man and extensive challenges to racism and apathy toward those who suffer economic injustice in such works as Whatever Happened to the Human Race? and A Christian Manifesto.

I understand why many Christians bristle at the term “social justice.” Over the past decade, it has been coopted for a radical liberal agenda. “Fundamentalist” in its bullying demands, the secular Left has been remarkably successful in its sweeping experiment of social engineering. And it happened with whiplash speed. One need only recall that in 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama opposed same-sex marriage “for religious reasons” and by 2015 draped the White House in rainbow lights to celebrate the Supreme Court’s endorsement of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges.

But the radical extremism of the Left has only pushed the other third of America into its own kind of extremism. What remains in this Manichean war between Light and Darkness is a division into two parties that seem to share little in common for the public good. In fact, some conservative brothers and sisters cannot even talk to more progressive fellow believers—those who don’t think that global climate change is a hoax or that being a person of color, a woman, or poor stacks the intergenerational deck—without charges of heresy. I have been in meetings where Francis Schaeffer would have been booed with shouts of “social justice warrior!” Aided by overactive bloggers and trigger-happy Twitterers, Christians and churches in the United States have not been this divided since the American Civil War.

In 1986, Dana Carvey’s character Enid Strict (a.k.a. “The Church Lady”) debuted on Saturday Night Live. But we had already met her in the late nineteenth century, when she was the leader of the Temperance Society, preaching hellfire for the men in the saloon, and marching for women’s rights. In both Britain and America, progressive politics emerged within such dissenting evangelicalism, especially the revivalism of Methodists and Baptists. Then in the 1920s, American Protestantism divided into “modernists” and “fundamentalists.” The former gave up Christianity for a Pelagian anthropology and Arian Christology, paving the way for today’s gnostic secularists. While posing as liberal and open-minded, the secular Left exhibits what remains of its revivalist fervor, moral superiority, and censorious finger-wagging. One can hardly imagine a more self-righteous modern “Church Lady” than the average CNN talking head or college student body president. Pressing the imagination, such representatives employ legalistic rhetoric for what are essentially antinomian principles. There are no moral absolutes, except the ones the priests of the Left agree upon—and for which they are willing thereafter to persecute others for questioning.

Not to be outdone, conservative Christians often share more in common with their leftward nemeses than they suppose. For them as well, politics is the sharp end of the spear: change the government and political policies, get enough judges on the bench, and America can become a “Christian nation” again. To raise the issues of social justice, other than defense of the unborn and traditional marriage, provokes the charge of “social justice warrior.”

Conservative parents and pastors have every reason to be concerned when the younger generations bring secular brainwashing into the church. But it might humble us to bear in mind that they are reacting against their elders’ secular brainwashing on the Right. Pastors and other Christian leaders appear regularly on television—and in the pulpit—not as experts in God’s saving revelation in Christ, but to preach public policy or to defend the president. More time seems to be spent pontificating on politics instead of exegeting Scripture and announcing the greatest story ever told, in which they remind us that there is a better city with lasting foundations.

But the earthly city matters too in its own way. In the remainder of this article, I want to challenge us all to recover robustly Christian categories for thinking about and acting on matters of public justice.

The Law and the Gospel: Against the Gnostics

Two of the most potent heresies in the ancient church and ever since are Gnosticism and Pelagianism. They both contradict the law and the gospel, but in different ways. Confident that human nature is not fallen and can be improved by moral effort, Pelagians see God’s grace as no more than giving us the right instructions and maybe a little empowerment along the way. Gnostics, however, view the Creator and Law-giver of the visible world as a maleficent demon, who intends to imprison our divine inner self within the limitations of embodied nature with its laws. I’d like to focus on the gnostic impulse that exhibits itself in certain forms of progressive and conservative movements today.

Let us recall that God’s law consists of everything in Scripture that faces us with God’s demands. Even those who do not have God’s written word know by nature what the law requires; it rings in their conscience (Rom. 2:14). But ever since the fall, no one fulfills these demands: “No one is righteous, no not one” (Rom. 3:10). The gospel, on the other hand, is God’s word of mercy. After telling us that “by the works of the law no one will be justified,” Paul adds,

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 3:21–24)

Christianity may be undermined by assimilating the law to the gospel (antinomianism) or the gospel to the law (legalism). The first gnostics were united in despising the visible world and its alien god—whom they identified with Yahweh, the Jewish God of the Old Testament.

On this basis, some were antinomian: Why not show off your rebellion against the God of creation by flouting his law? Besides, life in the body here and now is of no consequence. Regardless, even if orgies and trysts were frowned upon, they were merely occasional sins as opposed to marriage and procreation, which represented a state of sin. But most gnostics were ascetic: they forbade marriage and the eating of certain foods and wine and participating in common worldly activities that contribute to material well-being. Antinomianism and legalism were just two sides of the same coin of condemning this world as intrinsically evil and opposed to the inner spirit.

From the same premise, some gnostics wanted to flee the world and the body, flying away to the upper realms; while more revolutionary types wanted to destroy this world and erect a new one—of pure spirit, ruled by the “godly”—on its ashes. One thinks of the fateful experiment of Luther’s nemesis, Thomas Müntzer. As Marx and Engels pointed out so long ago, radical Anabaptists like Müntzer were pioneers of what is known today as progressivism. But they are also mediators of the gnostic impulse that encompasses much of conservatism today.

Classic conservatives affirm the natural order. Sometimes they do so in a way that absolutizes the status quo and ignores the claims of justice and genuine progress in human rights. As G. K. Chesterton quipped,

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition.2

But much of the Christian political and social conservatism that I see today seems more like just another sort of gnostic sect.

Progressive gnostics bristle against the very idea of nature; the world and the self are merely empty canvases on which we may apply our creative designs. We are not created but are self-creators—indeed, divinities in our inmost being. Our body is a plastic container we can manipulate, sexualize, advertise, and indulge as we see fit. There is no intrinsic design, origin, purpose, or goal for human beings—just a menu of endless options for expressing the inner self we elect to become. Forget the messiness of embodied, committed, mutually dependent relationships. Gratification is just a mouse-click away. The nihilistic despair of our age, especially among younger generations—evident in anxiety and depression, the soaring rates of suicide, addiction to smartphones, pornography, drugs, and alcohol—is the fatal index of this denial of being creatures of a Creator who made us a certain way, for himself and for one another.

Conservative gnostics may appear at first to be otherwise. After all, they stand for Judeo-Christian culture, affirming “one nation, under God,” and insist that there is a law above the laws of the land. And yet, one discerns a different version of this world-despising attitude: This world is just a sinking ship and the most responsible thing is to save as many souls as we can, to paraphrase the evangelist D. L. Moody. On one side is the soul, which needs saving; on the other side is the body, which is destined to perish along with the visible world. This is a gnostic rather than a Christian eschatology. Christians proclaim “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” We proclaim redemption, not annihilation; the world saved from the reign of sin and death, not “the late, great planet Earth.”

Those who believe we are saved with our bodies and this world will live in grateful thanksgiving, loving and serving our neighbors in body and soul (Rom. 8:18–25). Those who believe we are saved from our bodies and this world will naturally assume that the stewardship of creation and justice toward our neighbors are a distraction at best and heresy at worst. Thus the two versions face off every day in our society, especially in the perpetual news and election cycles.

Justice and the Bible

“Righteousness” is one of the central themes of the Bible. Without it, God would not be God; this world would be the work of the devil (or random, meaningless chance—which amounts to the same); the claims of justice would be dismissed rather than fully met in the person of Christ.  Without righteousness, the guilty would be let off (as Marcion advocated), not justified; the world would be destroyed (a common gnostic hope) rather than restored; God’s redeemed would be left under the power of sin, looking forward to dying (or killing) instead of “the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”

It’s not that evangelicals don’t talk about righteousness. On the contrary, social and personal holiness have been the twin sails of American revivalism—to the point at times of sailing into Pelagian waters. But it is mostly the righteousness we think others lack. Marsha Witten documented this in her fascinating study of sermons on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Southern Baptists and mainline Presbyterians differed sharply over who was in the doghouse—the prodigal who left his family for sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, or the stingy older brother. But they agreed in deflecting sin to outsiders.3

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, however, observed after his American tour,

God did not grant a Reformation to American Christendom.  He gave strong revivalist preachers, men of the church, and theologians, but no reformation of the church of Jesus Christ from the Word of God. . . . American theology and the church as a whole have never really understood what “critique” by God’s Word means in its entirety. That God’s “critique” is also meant for religion, for the churches’ Christianity, even the sanctification of Christians, all that is ultimately not understood.4

It is a bare theism or civil religion—something to which Bonhoeffer was acutely sensitive from his experience (and eventual martyrdom) in Nazi Germany. “Christendom, in American theology,” he added, “is essentially still religion and ethics.” As a result, he concluded, “the person and work of Jesus Christ recedes into the background for theology and remains ultimately not understood, because the sole foundation for God’s radical judgment and radical grace is at this point not recognized.”5

Putting Justice in Its Place: Law (Justice) and Gospel (Justification)

Social justice, both the idea and the phrase itself, was formulated within a Judeo-Christian framework. If we think the term has been co-opted by radical progressives, the questions then are: What do we put in its place? What is an alternative name for this claim that God places on all of us to love our neighbors?

How about “public justice”? Or, along with the Protestant Reformers and their heirs, call it “civil justice”—that righteousness in relation to fellow humans (coram hominibus) that falls short of righteousness before God (coram Deo). Whatever name we give it, according to Scripture there is such a thing as systemic, social, public sin, especially when a particular group has a history of being subjected to injustice. The fact that we are no longer under the old covenant theocracy does not obviate the fact that God holds people accountable, not just for private sins but for public ones. America has no covenant with God (and if it did, it has never been kept). In the new covenant, the church is a worldwide empire of priests, not a geopolitical nation. But like all other nations and their leaders, the United States will be judged one day. And the God who told Israel what he hates—oppression of the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the alien; who says “the earth is mine and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1) and reserves his wrath for those who sacrifice children to Baal—is the same God who will arraign the world before his throne on the last day.

God takes his righteousness, or justice, seriously because he created the world naturally good and humans in his own image. There is a created origin, purpose, and goal—that is, a nature—that we did not and cannot choose or unchoose for ourselves. Take away justice and you deflate the whole cosmos of its ethical significance. If the creator of the visible world is someone or something other than the sovereign God, then nothing we do matters.

Now to be fair, the folks I have in mind are only half-hearted gnostics. In both liberal and conservative versions, some concern for the body and this world remains. Liberal gnostics may not be troubled by an elective procedure involving the partial birth of an infant with a beating heart, crushing his or her skull and discarding the “fetus” (simply, Latin for “offspring”) as no more than a ball of tissue. But they are terribly concerned that the children whom parents elect to keep have good medical care, safe drinking water, and clean air. For conservative gnostics, the issues are exactly reversed. And for some at least, it seems that bodies matter when it comes to same-sex relations but not as much when women and children, even in the church, are abused.

But gnostics of any stripe have no good reason to care about any of these issues at all. By contrast, Christians have every reason to seek justice for everyone in every situation, to love and serve their neighbors and to embrace the world simply because it is God’s world and he has redeemed it.

When I hear conservative Christians lambast “social justice,” I ask them: Do you believe that God is righteous and that the same God who justifies the ungodly in his Son according to his gospel lays a claim on them to heed the commands of his law? What is social injustice other than collective sins? We were not created alone, we did not fall alone, and we are not redeemed alone. In both creation and redemption, we are social creatures. As such, we are both sinners and sinned-against, and we sin not only by ourselves but with other sinners, seeking to justify ourselves as belonging to the right group and condemning other groups on which we can project our own fear, anger, and insecurity.

We do not rightly divide the word when we either confuse the law with the gospel or dispense with either. No one is justified by refraining from homosexual practice, but those who are justified are new creatures in Christ, required to abandon such a lifestyle. Abortion is not the unpardonable sin, but does that mean Christians are free to sin? With the apostle Paul, we must say, “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2).

On the one hand, we know that we cannot transform the world into a perfect society, any more than we can attain perfection in personal holiness. We wait patiently for the return of the only Redeemer to raise our bodies in glory and to fill the earth with ultimate justice, peace, and righteousness. On the other hand, “we press on” in repentance and faith—not only in guarding our hearts against pornography but also against our complicity in social injustices.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic. 6:8)

Justice matters, because the Creator-God matters. The earth doesn’t belong to CEOs or politicians. We aren’t left here merely to save souls, waiting for the world to burn while we demand our share of personal peace and affluence. In Christ, the Father made all things, visible and invisible; by his same Son, he redeemed all things, visible and invisible.

Just because our good works cannot justify us does not mean that they do not glorify God and serve others. Just because God’s common grace in the City of Man merely restrains sin, rather than cancel its debt and bondage, does not lessen its value. Just because we will not reach perfect justice between neighbors in this age does not mean we should not reach for greater justice than we see around us. Just because we are not called to save the world from environmental disaster does not mean we should not seek to be good stewards of God’s creation. Christ is Lord not only over the church in saving mercy, but also over the whole earth in providence and, at the last, consummated grace.

To uphold the law is not only to affirm the Triune God as Creator, but to testify to that righteousness—ultimate justice—that he fulfilled by his mercy in his Son. Besides the law and the gospel, the most difficult distinction to hold simultaneously is the relative justice to be pursued in the temporary kingdoms of this age and the ultimate justice that will be realized at Christ’s return. Justified by grace alone, every Christian is obligated to pursue justice toward all. Not because we are our own and can do whatever we want, but because we are the Lord’s by right of creation and redemption do we discover the freedom to embrace others—believers and unbelievers—as a gift rather than a threat. We will not all agree on every policy issue (either personal or public ethics), but as Christians we may never dispense with the responsibility to look up to God in faith and out to our neighbors in love.


Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.

  • Michael S. Horton

  1. For this intriguing development, see Abby Ohlheiser, “Why ‘Social Justice Warrior,’ A Gamergate Insult, Is Now a Dictionary Entry,” The Washington Post (October 7, 2015).
  2. G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News (April 19, 1924), https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/01/chesterton-on-checks-and-balances.
  3. Marsha Witten, All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
  4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism without the Reformation,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works, Theological Education Underground: 1937–40, vol. 15, ed. Victoria J. Barnett, trans. Victoria J. Barnett et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 438–62, esp. 61–62.
  5. Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism without the Reformation.”
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