How the Church Gets Justice Wrong (and How to Begin Getting It Right)

Although God’s Word is not a manual for cultural transformation, good theology creates a horizon for reimagining our relationships with one another as well as with God. Likewise, toxic theology, or even good theology perverted in the service of empire and ideology, has had disastrous cultural effects.

Social justice is not a conversation that anyone can opt out of: every day we are engaged in secular rituals that either support or threaten the good of our neighbor. Evangelicals score high marks for charity (giving what we do not owe), but, in comparison with other traditions, evangelicalism has lacked the depth of theological reflection on justice (giving what we do owe).

Part of this is due to the tendency in the church’s history to separate the Great Commission given to her from the Great Commandment given to all human beings. Some culture warriors on the right have claimed recently that “social justice” is code for secular humanism. Its very mention should raise “Red” (i.e., Marxist) flags.

Today, however, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction, toward collapsing the former into the latter, or the Great Commission into the Great Commandment. Both of these extremes exhibit a tendency to undervalue the distinct importance of both callings, as if everything that is worthwhile for Christian engagement must somehow be subsumed under the church’s commission and ministry. Both of these extremes separate the Great Commission from the Great Commandment. 

There is therefore no better time to explore the relationship between making disciples and living as disciples in the world, or the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

At their simplest levels, the Great Commandment and the Great Commission follow the distinction between law and gospel. A young lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “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 first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:36-40).

Jesus was simply repeating Moses (Lev. 19:18; Deut. 6:5). The second is like the first not only because it summarizes the second table of the law (love for neighbor), but because love for God is inextricable from love of fellow image-bearers. Of course the Great Commission is also a command, but it differs from the Great Commandment in several ways.

How the Great Commandment Differs from the Great Commission

First, they differ in their subjects. The Great Commandment is given to all people in every time and place while the Great Commission is given to the church alone. Through the office especially of pastors, the Great Commission is fulfilled by the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Neither in the Great Commission itself nor in the many passages in Acts and the Epistles that unpack it, is there any mention of making disciples by community service projects, political protests, or other good works that belong to the vocations believers and unbelievers share. Far from the “deeds, not creeds” approach to “missional witness” these days, these biblical passages reveal explicitly that Christ’s mandate is fulfilled through proclaiming the gospel, baptizing, and teaching.

Second, they differ in their mandate. The Great Commandment calls all people to love God and neighbor, while the Great Commission calls the church to make disciples of Christ.

Third, they differ in their methods. The Great Commandment is natural, inscribed on the human conscience in creation as part of the image of God, and these natural precepts are codified and enforced by social institutions (the family, various voluntary associations, and the state). The gospel, however, is not something that all people know inwardly and innately. It’s a surprising announcement that must be proclaimed. Unsupported by the regimes of this age, the kingdom of Christ advances by Word and Spirit, through preaching and sacrament. While social justice has the divinely ordained power of the sword to back it up, the church’s mandate refuses all appeals to temporal power.

Fourth, these mandates differ in their goals. In its fallen condition, the human race is incapable of fulfilling its original vocation. There is no perfect society. Nevertheless, the moral law that resounds in the human conscience cries out for specific legislation and enforcement in civil societies. There are better and worse societies, and Christians work alongside non-Christians to improve the common good and work towards social justice.

Eschewing utopian illusions of grandeur, Christians nevertheless respect civil authority because it is ordained by God. Even if constitutions, laws, and enforcement cannot create the City of God, they can preserve a relative justice and peace in the corrupt regimes of this age. However, the goal of the Great Commission is not simply the restraint of public injustice and violence, but also the justification of sinners that establishes peace with God and reconfigures our relationships in the communion of saints. 

Salvation—redemption and reconciliation—cannot be achieved by our good works, but we were saved for good works. Since God does not need our works, the only place for them to go is out to our neighbors who do need these good works, which the gospel frees us and enables us to do. When the church is fulfilling the Great Commission, it actually shapes its members to go out and fulfill the Great Commandment, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God” (Mic. 6:8). Where Scripture addresses questions of life and justice, the church must speak. 

Although Scripture does not tell us which causes or political candidates to support, its gospel brings renewal as well as forgiveness, and its law guides us, corrects us, and provides wisdom for relating to our neighbors and the wider creation. In other words, through Scripture, God gives us the corrective lenses through which we view ourselves and the world. Through the ministry mandated in the Great Commission, we all become better equipped not only to use our spiritual gifts in the body of Christ and to share the gospel with others, but also to glorify and enjoy God in our worldly stations.

Where Scripture speaks, the church speaks. Where it presses God's claims of justice on behalf of our neighbors, we must hear and obey. Yet the church has neither the authority nor the competence to bind its members' consciences in matters beyond Scripture's scope.


Recommended Resources: 

“Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”: Christians and Social Justice

When a Pastor Needs to Preach Politics

Becoming Practical Atheists While Believing the Truth 

Civility in the Public Square


Adapted from Michael Horton, “Justification and Justice;" "Mercy Ministry and Social Justice" Modern Reformation, Sep/Oct 2011. Used by permission.

Photo of Michael Horton

Michael Horton

Michael Horton (@MichaelHorton_) is the Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. The author of many books, including Core Christianity, he is also the host of the new Core Christianity radio show, a daily Bible question-and-answer show broadcasting nationwide. He lives with his wife Lisa and four children in Escondido, California. 

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