Text: Isaiah 10
Should Christians devote themselves only to evangelism and personal morality, or should they concern themselves also with issues of social justice?
Consider the following scenarios:-
An elderly lady lives on her own just down the road from you. She has difficulty getting out. Do you (a) tell her that God loves her; (b) offer her a lift to the shops once a week, or (c) lobby for improved public transport so that she and people like her can get out and about themselves?
Someone you work with is being bullied by another colleague. Do you (a) hand each of them a copy of the Four Spiritual Laws; (b) offer to mediate between victim and offender; (c) agitate to get bullying and harrassment outlawed in your company?
You are walking through the centre of town late at night, and you come across a teenager who has been attacked and is lying in the gutter bleeding. Do you (a) invite him to church next Sunday; (b) apply first aid and then take him to the A & E department; or (c) join a campaign to make the streets of Norwich safer?
I’ve put the choices very crudely. But I want to suggest that many Bible-believing Christians feel more comfortable with issues of evangelism and personal morality than with matters of social justice. As John Stott has pointed out ‘the evangelical stereotype has been to spiritualise the gospel, and deny its social implications; while the ecumenical stereotype has been to politicise it, and deny its offer of salvation to sinners. The polarisation has been a disaster.’
It was not always so. In fact biblical Christians have a long and noble history of social involvement. The gospel has spread throughout the world very largely by a succession of great waves that we sometimes refer to as ‘revivals’. And as each wave has broken it has refreshed, cleansed and purified the society in dramatic and far-reaching ways. Take just one example. The early years of the 19th century in this country saw the end of exploitation of women and children in coal mines, the reduction of the working day in factories from 16 hours a day to a maximum of 10, the development of Trade Unionism, the transformation of the status of people with mental illness from that of abused prisoners to that of protected patients, the formation of the YMCA, the founding of the RSPCA, the promotion of public parks, garden allotments, workmen’s institutions, public libraries, and night schools. All these date from and are directly related to a period of evangelical revival that is known as ‘The 2nd Great Awakening’.
But what does the Bible itself teach about the need for the people of God to commit themselves to social justice?
In Isa 10 we are confronted by a God who has just about had enough with his sinful, wayward, ungodly people. Vv 1-3 form the climax of a passage that began in 9:8 and which speaks of a downward spiral of national decline, political collapse, social anarchy, and systematic injustice.
The Lord pronounces a woe on his own people, because of their unjust practices. Notice how he singles out for special mention the plight of the most vulnerable in society: this is absolutely typical. ‘Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.’
The chapter as a whole teaches a number of things about God’s justice. For one thing, it teaches us that God’s justice is inscrutable. In vv5ff, everything seems out of control. God’s people are going to be destroyed by Assyria, but then Assyria herself will be destroyed for over-reaching itself and putting itself above God. This section of the chapter is a classic on the issue of divine-sovereignty/human responsibility. Each nation is held accountable for its own actions. But God is sovereignly at work in their actions and counter-actions, weighing the nations in the balances, gradually, inexorably dispensing justice and righting all wrongs. This is good news. All who are crying out for justice can take heart from the knowledge that God, the just judge, is working his purpose out, however much the appearance may be to the contrary. We ourselves may feel hopelessly confused by wrongs and unjustices in our own world. But we can, we must, take heart from the fact that God is still ‘Lord of history’, and that he is working all things out, and is in the process of righting all wrongs, inexorably, inscrutably. The cries of the poor, the oppressed, and the exploited do not fall on deaf ears, and in the last day, if not before, they shall see that he has done ‘all things well’.
This chapter also teaches us that God’s justice is merciful. In vv20ff God, in faithfulness to his age-old covenant, promises that ‘a remnant will return’. Though his people are to be punished severely, the long-term purpose is not destruction but discipline, not ruin, but redemption. God’s justice is merciful. It isn’t that he is somewhat just and somewhat merciful, not quite one thing nor the other, as though he can’t make up his mind. He is totally just and totally merciful. His mercy is always just, and his justice is always merciful.
This combination of justice and mercy constitutes the greatest moral problem in the universe: how can God be merciful towards sinners without compromising his justice? The answer is stated in no less than 14 different ways in Isaiah 53, that the suffering Servant of the Lord has suffered the penalty that we deserved: ‘We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ The answer is filled out in the NT, as in Rom 3:23ff ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.’ 2 Cor 5:21 ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ This is no legal fiction, this is the one and only basis on which any of us can make our peace with God.
But the point I return to from Isaiah is this: the Lord loves justice; he hates injustice. Isa 61:8 spells it out: ‘I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity.’
God is so passionate about justice that he doesn’t just sit there contemplating it, or pontificating about it, or wringing his hands in despair when it goes missing: because justice is what he loves, justice is what he does. Psa 146:7-9 says, ‘The Lord upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free, the LORD gives sight to the blind, the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.’
God is so passionate about justice that he doesn’t just practice it himself, he wants his people to practice it too. In fact, he tells us that without justice the best of our public worship is a waste of time. This is the gist of Mic 6:6-8 ‘With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ Amos 5:21 – “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
By the way, these two words, ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’, are twin words, and together give a sense of the breadth of the concept. Indeed, in the NT when you read the word ‘righteousness’ you can often substitute the word ‘justice’ and get a good sense of the meaning. For example, when in Mt 5:6 our Lord says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” you could equally read, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.” To quote John Stott again: ‘biblical righteousness is more than a private and personal affair; it includes social righteousness as well. And social righteousness, as we learn from the law and the prophets, is concerned with the promotion of civil rights, justice in the law courts, integrity in business dealings and honour in home and family affairs. Thus Christians are committed to hunger for righteousness in the whole human community as something pleasing to a righteous God.’
‘The handmaid of justice is truth; the child of justice is freedom; the companion of justice is peace; safety walks in its steps; victory follows in its train; it is the brightest emanation from the gospel; it is an attribute of God.’
God is passionate about social justice, and he wants his people to be passionate about it too.
What about evangelism? ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel,’ cries Paul, and we must echo his words in this and every age.
What about personal morality? ‘Strive for holiness, without which no-one shall see the Lord,’ urges the writer to the Hebrews, and we must take that command to heart also.
‘Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless,’ says the Lord through his prophet, and we are thus called fight for what is fair and right and true, and especially to uphold the cause of the most vulnerable.
How? By living lives that bear witness to a better way. By preaching it and teaching it in our churches. By engaging in social work and education. By using the media to influence society for good. By forming or joining pressure groups to affect legislation. By entering power structures, such as public services, trades unions, management and professional organisations, to change things from within. By running for elective office and by using our votes to elect better representatives. By boycotts, strikes and other forms of industrial action. By engaging in acts of civil disobedience. All these things, and many more, we can do, according to necessity and opportunity. Is it right to do so, to commit ourselves to social justice? God has said ‘Yes’; we dare not say ‘No’.