What do Presbyterians believe about biblical justice?
Jesus came to save institutions as well as souls
By Mark Achtemeier
Reprinted from the April 2005 issue of Presbyterians Today
From its earliest beginnings the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition has been deeply involved with ministries of justice. In the 16th century John Calvin's Geneva developed pioneering programs for public health, employment, and care of refugees and indigent persons. In the 19th century Presbyterian abolitionists fought to end slavery in America. In the 20th century Reformed and Presbyterian Christians were leaders in the Civil Rights movement and the international struggle against the racist Apartheid system in South Africa. And Presbyterian congregations today champion the cause of migrant farm workers, of unwed mothers, of impoverished immigrants, of inner-city homeless persons.
Not everyone understands why justice work should be such an important part of Christian discipleship. If Jesus says, "My kingdom is not of this world," why should the church be so concerned about matters of political, economic and social policy? Presbyterians sometimes hear other Christians wondering if these down-to-earth political concerns are a distraction from the church's proper calling of proclaiming the gospel and saving souls.
But justice work, as Presbyterians understand it, is all about salvation! The reason justice ministries have been such an important part of our tradition has to do with the very Biblical way in which Presbyterians understand God's saving work in Jesus Christ.
Simply "saving souls" is not in fact a very accurate description of what the Bible says Jesus came to accomplish. In Luke's Gospel Jesus quotes from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah in his first public description of what his ministry is about:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
- Luke 4:18-19
There is clearly something more going on here than a simple transformation of inward piety, or even a promise of heaven in the sweet by and by.
Re-making the world
What is going on in Jesus' ministry is nothing less than God putting right again everything that has gone wrong with the fallen, sinful creation. Jesus' presence with us is the forward edge of that new, restored creation breaking into the midst of the old. This is exactly what Paul is describing when he says "if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The newness of that dawning, restored creation takes many forms. We see in Jesus' sacrifice on the cross how the new creation overcomes our sin and alienation from God. In Jesus' resurrection we see how the new creation brings the overthrow of death's dominion over us. In the fruit of the Spirit we experience how this new creation extends even to our own hearts, recreating them in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
This new creation, which the Bible also calls the Kingdom of God, isn't fully here yet. But the New Testament insists that God's re-creation of the world has begun in the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
It is important to emphasize here that God is not simply re-making that little corner of creation occupied by the church. The Bible assures us that God is re-creating and perfecting the entire world. This is why the church confesses that Jesus is Lord not just of the church, but also of all creation.
The prophets' protest
What does all this have to do with the church's work for justice? Presbyterian Christians have always recognized that, along with our deliverance from the powers of death and sin, God's restoration of the fallen world involves also the healing of our corrupt and broken social relationships. God's coming transformation of the world involves the healing of human institutions as well as the healing of human hearts.
John Calvin, commenting on Genesis 1:28, observes how God originally set human beings on the earth to share the blessings of creation in such a way that all had enough to meet their needs. "Any inequality which is contrary to this arrangement," he says, "is nothing else than a corruption of nature which proceeds from sin."
The Old Testament prophets leave absolutely no doubt that the restoration of a just social order is a part of God's will for us. Again and again the Spirit-inspired prophets protest the corruptions of society that serve to keep the poor in a state of helpless dependence while the rich continue adding to their abundance. Over and over the prophets cry out God's judgment upon a religious observance that reassures the consciences of the comfortable while leaving the systematic exploitation of the poor unchecked.
I hate, I despise your festivals and
I take no delight in your solemn assemblies ...
But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
- Amos 5:21, 24
This witness of the prophets is a window into the heart of God, offering insight into the way God intends our world to be. In the New Testament these same loving intentions for the world become real and tangible as the new creation that dawns with the incarnation of Jesus.
Sign and anticipation
So Presbyterians work for justice in the world as a sign and anticipation of God's restoration of the whole creation, begun in Jesus. Our justice work is a sign, because it is evidence of God's re-creation of our own hearts after the pattern of Christ's own love. Just as Christ gave himself for the sake of the world, so Christ's church gives itself for the world in the struggle for a more just and peaceful social order.
Our work for justice is also an anticipation of God's restoration of the world, because we realize the full reality of the kingdom isn't here yet. Presbyterians take very seriously, for example, the Bible's message that God's kingdom will be a kingdom of peace. Anticipating the complete establishment of this kingdom, Presbyterians strive to live peaceably with one another, and we also work for the cause of peace in the world. We strive, in other words, to live in God's new creation even before it is fully present among us.
We know from our morning newspapers, however, that our halting efforts at peace are the sign of the kingdom's coming, and not its reality. It is God who will complete the transformation of the world when Jesus comes again. So while we strive to direct our actions in accordance with what God is doing, we realize it is God and not us who will ultimately restore creation.
The "how-to" debate
Presbyterians sometimes argue passionately about the particular forms our justice work should take. Just agreeing that the work is important is not enough to guarantee consensus on how we should go about it.
There is nothing wrong with such debate. As long as we avoid bitterness, debating how to do justice is surely a sign that we care deeply about this aspect of the church's life. It shows that our caring about justice is well grounded in an understanding of its Biblical and divine significance.
Working for justice is a rich part of our heritage as faithful Presbyterians, and one for which we can give heartfelt thanks to God.
Two unbiblical ideas: (1) It's all up to us. (2) Nothing is up to us.
The church's work for justice can run off the rails if we lose sight of what this means. If we forget that our justice work is a sign of God's restoration of creation, we may start to assume that everything is up to us, and salvation is the product of our own efforts. Such assumptions give rise to bitter disappointments when our efforts fail. They also lead to a loss of humility with its attendant capacity for self-criticism.
If everything hinges on our own efforts, then how dare anyone criticize the program plan! If our ultimate hope is in God, however, we can joyfully strive for justice as a sign of God's promised restoration, without the crippling burden of assuming it all rests in our hands.
The flip side of this problem is when we assume that nothing is up to us, and lose sight altogether of God's intention to restore human social relationships along with human hearts. Christians have sometimes embraced the very un-Biblical idea that salvation is simply a matter of disembodied souls getting into heaven after they die. This sort of tunnel vision gives rise to an utterly false dichotomy between evangelism and social justice.
Evangelism and justice work would be at odds with one another if we assumed—against the Bible's witness — that God's plan for salvation had nothing to do with restoring the world. But a re-constituted social order is as much a part of God's plan for salvation as redeemed souls and resurrection bodies. So we can be confident that our justice work, no less than our preaching, proclaims the joyous hope of God's coming kingdom to a needy and waiting world.