EDITOR'S NOTE: The background research for this article is from John D. Barry's new book, Jesus' Economy: A Biblical View of Poverty, the Currency of Love, and a Pattern for Lasting Change.
A core part of the gospel is and always has been justice. To claim anything otherwise is to misrepresent Jesus. Jesus says he came to proclaim "the gospel to the poor," which includes liberty for captives and healing for the hurting (Luke 4:16–21).
Right now, there is a lot of debate about the terms "social justice" and "social gospel." This whole argument is akin to debating the wallpaper color while the building is burning down. I don't care what you call the fire; it is here. There are people of color who live in a world full of racism. Some people are impoverished and feel that they can never rise. There are still people being sex trafficked and enslaved around the globe. There is corruption on local and societal levels at work in our world. The gospel should speak to all these things.
Real people are dying because of poverty, racism, and corruption in our world — and those are injustices. The Bible speaks against such unfairness and makes them central to God's message. The prophet Micah defines what God really wants of people by saying, "do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:7–8). Likewise, early church leader James says that "true religion" is to "visit orphans and widows in their affliction" (James 1:27). I just checked this morning, and this is the Christian religion according to the Bible.
Furthermore, Jesus said that when he returns, he will be able to tell who his followers are by their love for the impoverished, hurting, marginalized, and oppressed (Matthew 25:31–46). I'm not saying here that we aren't saved by grace alone — Jesus' sacrificial death — for we are. The problem is when "doctrine" is divorced from "action,"; the two are not in opposition to one another, but the same. Right thinking isn't enough without right action; likewise, right action without right thinking is problematic.
When Jesus was asked about the "greatest commandment," he replied that it is to love God with your whole being, and, without prompting, he said that the second greatest commandment is like it, "to love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:28–34). At one point, Jesus was asked, "Who is my neighbor?" He replied with the well-known story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). To first-century Jewish ears, the Samaritan wasn't good, but bad: The Samaritan had the wrong religion, culture, and ethnicity. Jesus says the person closest to loving their neighbor is the one who crosses racial, cultural, and ethnic lines to self-sacrificially help the oppressed. The gospel also addresses racism, and Jesus makes the anti-racist message front and center.
Jesus repeatedly defined "eternal life" as involving believing in him (John 3:16), but he also made clear that only those who embrace acts of justice understand that "eternal life." A rich man asks Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" After some discussion about keeping God's commands, Jesus tells the man to sell all of his stuff, give it to the poor, and follow him. (The man goes home sad.) A person with the eternal life of Jesus acts justly and self-sacrificially — that is central to the gospel (Luke 18:18–30). Even the story of the Good Samaritan starts with that same question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Clearly, Jesus has a different economy in mind, another way of living. Jesus wants Christians to create an economy where equality is in place, where the impoverished and marginalized are empowered. The gospel, according to Jesus, is not just about what a person believes, but also how they live. Jesus prioritizes justice for the impoverished and marginalized.
I don't know about you, but I cannot stand for any version of Christianity that fails to prioritize Jesus' gospel. While there is much hurt in this world and an immense opportunity to share the gospel, influencers use "gospel" merely as terminology without acknowledging its essence, i.e., salvation and transformation. Label justice how you wish; I plan to take action.