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Let the Church Be the Church! Calvin’s Theology of Social Justice

In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr., accused the white American church of compromising the gospel. The most painful compromise, he argued, was not some churches’ obviously heretical defense of racism and segregation. The most painful compromise came from those moderate white pastors who refused to let the church be the church:

I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.

Numerous theologians have since picked up on Dr. King’s critique. From the careful Willie Jennings, who maintains that Christian theology has never truly come to grips with its own complicity in colonialism, to the radical James Cone, who famously described the mainstream church’s witness as “white theology,” critics have argued that when it comes to the kingdom and its righteousness, the Western church has lost its way.

It seems easy to dismiss these theologians out of hand. Too many of them appear too willing to jettison orthodox Christian teaching for increasingly radical forms of liberation theology that have little to do with the gospel. And yet, to do so would be to miss an opportunity. The reality is that many of these criticisms of traditional Christianity are far more on target than we’d like to admit.

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Jesus and Social Justice

I came to grips with this reality in seminary when I studied Jesus’s preaching in Matthew 5 and Luke 4. The standard evangelical interpretation of Jesus’s proclamation that he came to “proclaim good news to the poor” and “set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18)—at least in the respected commentaries I was reading—was that Jesus was using metaphors to describe salvation from spiritual poverty and oppression. And there seemed to be a general consensus that when Jesus described those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—and are persecuted for it—he was talking about those who yearn for justification and sanctification (Matt. 5:6, 10).

So I was surprised when I turned to John Calvin, only to find that, at least with respect to these passages, his interpretation was closer to that of the liberation theologians than to much of contemporary evangelical theology. For example, on Jesus blessing those who suffer for righteousness’ sake:

I say that not only they who labor for the defense of the gospel but they who in any way maintain the cause of righteousness suffer persecution for righteousness. Therefore, whether in declaring God’s truth against Satan’s falsehoods or in taking up the protection of the good and innocent against the wrongs of the wicked, we must undergo the offenses and hatred of the world, which may imperil either our life, our fortunes, or our honor. (Calvin, Institutes 3.8.7)

I wondered if Calvin’s theology might help the church recover a more faithful gospel witness in the area of social justice. I wasn’t disappointed.

Read the rest of this article at The Gospel Coalition.

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