I’m reluctant to write about this, mostly because I’m not sure that I can do a better job than what’s already being said about this. Nevertheless, the Sunday meditations are about what I’ve been thinking on, lately, and this is it.
In case you are not aware, John MacArthur has become very distressed at the state of evangelicalism in the world, and I can certainly relate to that. However, he is distressed that evangelicals are becoming too concerned with social justice. I really wish I were kidding about that.
To combat the horrific trend of evangelicals being concerned about justice for all, MacArthur has done what is becoming the new trend in evangelical gatekeeping: he created a Statement of what he thinks and got a lot of people to sign it.
That’s it. Not that I’m complaining, of course.
Everything about this from top to bottom is just ridiculous. I don’t mean ridiculous in the generic sense, I mean it is literally ridiculous. It looks like a joke, through and through. If I were writing a satirical article about Christian America, this is the kind of thing I would write. “Evangelical Leader Concerned with Christians Actually Improving Justice in World Stems Tide by Issuing Statement.”
On the one hand, it’s mystifying how someone could think, out of all the problems in the church and the world, that a growing concern for social justice is the big thing we need to head off at the pass right now. On the other hand, it’s equally mystifying to think that the “solution” to this or any problem is to draft a statement (it’s not even a petition) and have people sign it. It’s the perfect storm of the most ineffective means to combat a nonexistent problem.
It’s unclear to me exactly what got MacArthur up in arms about this issue. It’s not like the sort of evangelicals who are like John MacArthur are filling up the ranks of Black Lives Matter or consumed with their lobbying efforts for equal pay for women. I find it hard to believe that his church attendance has gone way down because his congregation was out counter-protesting in Charlottesville.
I cynically asked people this past week, “Where are all these evangelicals that MacArthur fears are too consumed with social justice?” and my friend Kirk reminded me that there is, in fact, a trend starting in this direction. Considering that the church should actually be at the forefront of being a prophetic voice against the powers that be and calling for more justice, more peace, and more compassion, it’s good that there are more evangelicals who have decided to get around to this. Maybe that’s part of what this animus against “social justice” is about. The existence of Christians who are now zealous for increasing justice in the world is an indictment to Christians who aren’t. And nobody likes to be criticized, especially when your status quo has made you very comfortable.
Maybe part of it, too, as Kirk pointed out to me, is that there is a fear of losing numbers. This fear is very legitimate. If your church seems set to prop up the existing power structure or at least leave it unchallenged, and the Spirit has moved in your heart to speak out for those who suffer injustice, then at some point you have to wonder about where you’re at. I know the election of Trump was something of a watershed for many of us. When this man embodies the hopes and dreams of what your church “stands for,” it really makes you wonder how much you’re on the same page.
I remember the day that the Reformed African American Network became The Witness for reasons that I’d sum up as, “We just can’t do this, anymore,” and it was a powerful statement to me.
It’s taking everything in me to avoid condemning this new Statement as a love letter to the Beast. Its express purpose is to pull Christians out of social activism in the world and reorient our focus to the afterlife. A spirituality like that serves the interests of the principalities and powers in this world. It helps them out. It keeps the engine running. I don’t believe John MacArthur is intentionally in his own mind trying to keep the powerful in power and assure them that evangelicals won’t rock their boat, but this is functionally what that statement declares.
But, no, I don’t think MacArthur sees it this way. I don’t think he intends it to be that way. But that’s part of the problem, too.
You see, the gospel in America is largely about giving people a better afterlife. This is the good news: that when you die, you’ll go to heaven instead of hell. That’s what Jesus and the Bible are all about, in this way of thinking. Social justice, the environment, poverty, sickness – these things are all potential distractions from the gospel, which is exclusively concerned about the saving of the soul and the furtherance of individual moral conduct. This world is not my home; I’m just a-passin’ through.
Now, please hear me. I believe that most of the people who are committed to this idea of the gospel are genuinely concerned about the eternal well-being of other people. What’s more, if this is what the gospel means to you, then anything else would be a distraction, wouldn’t it? What’s unequal pay or police brutality in comparison to the eternal fires of Hell?
However, I don’t think that version of the gospel is a gospel that Jesus, his followers, or anyone who might have heard him would recognize.
The creation narrative is one that functions more like prologue than anything else. It’s background information so that we might better understand the experiences of Israel in the world as the stories that formed the Old Testament were being formed.
Still, in those narratives, God does not create man in Heaven, nor does He create man as a disembodied spirit living out his eternal destiny. Man is placed in this world with a family and the happy state of creation is mankind living in loving relationships with other people and with God Himself. When mankind rebels, they are not sent to Hell, but rather are exiled out of the Garden and into a world that now has pain and struggle and, ultimately, the supremacy of death. This is the prologue of a world where the line of the faithful all but fizzles out and the world is full of violence. It’s all wrong. Mankind is learning better ways to lie, steal, kill, and declare themselves God. This culminates in the passing away of that world via the Flood.
It’s worthy of note that, in the story, God does not send all these people to Hell nor whisk Noah into Heaven. The world that arises from the flood waters is a new one in one sense, but it’s also the same earth it was before. God saves an entire family. We once again have people meant to live in loving communion with one another and God Himself, and indeed the words to Noah reflect the commission given to Adam. Mankind, in communion with one another and God, in this world. The people who would turn the world into the opposite of God’s intention have been removed from it.
As humanity begins to recover, they conspire to build a fortification against another Great Flood. God does not send them all to Hell, but rather confounds their purposes and disperses them into the world as separate nations.
It is out of this dispersion that God calls, once again, a family to be His people in the world. He does not whisk them away to Heaven. He instead has them live out their generations in faithfulness, growing in number, but always a faithful community in the present evil age providing a model of what it means to be the people of God in the world. They have children, grow old, die, and their children have children, grow old, and die.
This is where most of the biblical story starts. We follow the ups and downs of this community throughout history and, when they are in trouble in this world, God saves them in this world. Faithfulness, destiny, salvation, justification, and eschatology never at any point leave the trajectory of this world and these people living it. God’s judgement is destruction and His favor is long life in the land.
As Israel careens onto a downward slope of disobedience, prophets arise to warn her not about Hell, but about exile and destruction. And as she begins to suffer these things, the picture of redemption her prophets hold out for her is not a spiritual existence in Heaven but a freedom, peace, prosperity, and protection on the earth.
It is into this picture – this historical, this worldly, this creation-y, this people-y picture that Jesus comes.
When Jesus comes, he does not simply tell people to pray a prayer of repentance so that they can go to Heaven when they die. Jesus heals the sick. Jesus casts out demons. Jesus makes sure hungry people are fed, the poor are taken care of, and parents are honored. And lest we think these are all just signifiers of Jesus’ divinity, he commissions his followers to do the same things, and they do.
If Jesus as prophet and Messiah is jettisoning all the this-worldly facets of deliverance to focus on the afterlife, I want to see evidence. I want to see the compelling case that Jesus breaks radically from the viewpoint of the Scriptures and the prophets before him to redefine all extant categories in terms of an eternal afterlife. I feel that case cannot be easily made.
Does Jesus care about the spiritual reorientation of the lost? Yes, he does. Does he hope in resurrection? Yes, he does. But the good news Jesus brings is not, “Pray a prayer of repentance and ask me to come into your heart, and you’ll go to heaven when you die!” It’s, “The kingdom of God is at hand, and your King is here!”
And the kingdom of God is not a purely spiritual realm that one gets into after death; the kingdom of God is on earth in the midst of men and you can enter into it, today.
The kingdom of God is all the things the Old Testament hoped it would be: a people faithful to God enjoying His protection and well-being in the world, so much so that others would see it and want to be part of it. The gospel isn’t simply about what happens after you die, it’s about how masters treat their slaves, the sick being healed, husbands and wives and children, orphans and widows and strangers.
It is a gospel that looks like this:
Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Zacchaeus did not pray a sinner’s prayer and long for heaven. Zacchaeus quit abusing his power, ended his corrupt economic practices, and restored the financial welfare of everyone he’d wronged. His sinner’s prayer was repenting of his injustice and turning around to do justice.
I say to you, if one man recites the Sinner’s Prayer, and another man ends his corrupt practices and restores everyone he has harmed, which one of them has truly repented?
Look, the first century Roman Empire did not care what you taught about the afterlife. It did not care about a message that, if you repent of your sins, you’ll go to Heaven when you die. The government does not execute you because of your views on the afterlife.
The Roman Empire executes you when you appear to be a threat to the power structure. When you stop putting a coin in the guild bowl, when you stop bowing before the likeness of the Emperor, and when you stop standing and putting your hand over your heart when the eagle banner is carried past. When you say that Caesar is only in power because God presently allows it and the real King who commands your real loyalty is Jesus Christ – a man crucified for insurrection, which didn’t work by the way.
Those are political problems. Those are this-worldly commitments and Rome is quite concerned about those things. They don’t care if you believe you or they will go to Heaven, Hell, or Horus. They care if your good news threatens their power, which it can only do if it addresses the way this world works in the here and now – who is in charge and what does that society look like?
The gospel in every age has always put this creation, what it looks like, and what human community is supposed to be like front and center.