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Social justice is not enough

The world is a mess and God wants us to do something about it: The sex trade in Thailand and Cambodia lays waste to 2 million young people and children. Justice must be done. The AIDS epidemic is ravaging countries like Swaziland and Botswana. 90% of adults have the virus where we …
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
The world is a mess and God wants us to do something about it:
  • The sex trade in Thailand and Cambodia lays waste to 2 million young people and children. Justice must be done.
  • The AIDS epidemic is ravaging countries like Swaziland and Botswana. 90% of adults have the virus where we work. Where is justice?
  • One half of the people on earth live on less than $2 a day. Will the poor see justice?
It’s horrific and must be stopped. God’s response in Amos 5 is “I want justice-oceans of it.” If we who follow Jesus don’t do something, who will?
Thankfully, a generation is rising up that cares deeply about social justice issues. Organizations like International Justice Mission and Invisible Children have met human trafficking head-on. AIM cares for widows and orphans around the world.
Our hearts want to respond to God’s call to defend the cause of the oppressed. But, justice is not enough. Justice, by itself may not touch a person’s heart. Victims’ families who see their child’s murderer hang may still go through life nursing their bitterness. They need grace.
Jesus brought hope in various forms, but he didn’t satisfy his disciples’ pleas for justice. His focus, his gospel, was a gospel of grace, not justice.
When I was in Swaziland in 2004, our team was intent on bringing justice, God told me in no uncertain terms, “Woe to you if you don’t preach the gospel.” We had a choice and decided to obey him rather than men. We realized afresh that we serve a God who wants to heal hearts as a top priority. He came to set us free.
Brad Greenberg, in a WSJ article, How Missionaries Lost Their Chariots of Fire says this: 

Spreading Christianity through deeds alone aligns with a quote
attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel always, and if
necessary, use words.” But research suggests that non-Christians often
miss the message without the words.

A 2006 study by Calvin
College’s Kurt Ver Beek found “little or no difference” in the spiritual
response between two groups of Hondurans-one which had its homes
rebuilt by missionaries who did not proselytize and the other by local
NGOs. Intuition would suggest as much. Unless foreigners explain that
they are motivated to help by their religious beliefs, locals may be
grateful for the new home but they should not be expected to connect
dots that they may not even know exist.

The reality is the Church
should be doing both: serving the needy and spreading the gospel. This
is what makes the humanitarian work of Christians different than that of
the American Red Cross. Both are motivated by the desire to help
others, but Christians are spurred by that Jesus thing.
When Karen and I graduated from Wheaton College in 1980, we went to Indonesia to address social justice issues. Wheaton gave me many good gifts, but it never trained me in how to minister grace. I learned that in 1991 as I came to grips with my own brokenness.
In the 30 years since we went to the field, young people have increasingly shifted their focus away from evangelism toward social justice. It’s a trend you see in good institutions like the YMCA or the Salvation Army as well. We start out with evangelistic fervor – a words+deeds formula, but gradually begin to shift to a deeds-only approach.
Social justice is a good place to start, but a poor place to finish. People need to eat. They need to be healthy. We need to show that we care. But a concern for justice is not enough – the poor and the oppressed need the whole gospel. What a privilege to discover Jesus’ gospel of grace! My life would be bankrupt without it. Only that gospel has the power to bring not only justice, but healing.

Comments (14)

  • That stats are scary, but I’m going to step out to make a difference. Thanks for being one of the people who have been a part of helping me make a difference in this world!

  • Romans 10:17 “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing from the Word of God”

    We MUST speak the truth of the gospel. It is the gospel that saves when the Holy Spirit convicts and God the Father draws one to His Son.

    It is the gospel which changes lives and causes God’s people to pursue justice.

    Too many live good and godly lives but b/c they never open their mouths and speak, their friends, neighbors, coworkers never hear the truth.


  • Again the Lord is speaking to this generation in no uncertain terms that we can not repeat the mistakes of the previous generation. The Lord has shown me that the heart of the previous generation was likened unto birthing Ishmael and expecting God to bless him (Amazingly God is loving enough that He did bless Ishmael but the covenant is with Isaac!).

    But Abraham did not insist on putting Ishmael ahead of Isaac and obeyed God’s voice in sending Ishmael away – albeit with a blessing.

    In K.P. Yohannan’s book “Revolution In World Missions” this very dis-ease is addressed. Yes it is a dis-ease of the eyes of the heart. They must be opened to hearing and obeying God’s Voice. When Mary poured out the extravagant, no holds-barred anointing from her broken alabaster box – to the objection of the “religious spirited” people and the “crooked” thinking of Judas Iscariot, what did Jesus say?

    ->Matthew 26:11-13, “For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.”<-

    We are to put seeking the Kingdom business first THEN the other is added. Not the cart before the horse proverbially.

    God will bless the work of HIS hands and we are His hands and feet but we are to have the mind of Christ not be self willed or have the mindset of fallen man. The world’s “economy” is busted and all plans to prop it up are failing.
    Only in God’s economy is there unlimited resources and sufficiency to meet every need.

    Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you. Matthew 6:33

    It is the only moral compass necessary and it turns the heart, mind, soul and strength to God and everything else in the Body follows where you face.

  • Seth,

    I know that God led me to your blog, specifically to squeeze my heart in this area of missions and reaching others for Christ. It’s unfortunate in a way, that it had to come from an internet source rather than the teaching of God’s Word through local ministry. Not to put down a church or a pastor, it’s just that I feel that the dynamics of churches are changing fast. For example we’ve replaced the Bible on our laps to a projection screen, etc..I am concerned with the whole state-of-the-art mentality that I see so much of these days, and I am young! I can’t imagine how our elders feel.

    All that to say that after I read your blog this morning. I met with the Lord and asked Him what it is that He wanted me to do with regards to this social justice idea. And very gently here’s what he said to me..”Read John 13 entirely.” WOW!!! It is a powerful reminder to serve others by the same measure in which HE served!

    John 13:12 for example, says this.. (NLT) After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing?”
    The footnote of my Bible says that Jesus did not wash his disciples’ feet just to get them to be nice to each other. His far greater goal was to extend his mission on Earth after He was gone. These men were to move into the world serving God, serving each other, and serving all people to whom they took th message of salvation.

    God is doing a good work through you Seth. Your obedience to HIS call has reached out and touched me. May God continue to bless your work.

  • Thanks Seth for this insightful analysis of the realities of the Kingdom agenda. It is interesting that through the years I had the chance to consult a great deal with the Salvation Army. Most people don’t realize they are organized as a CHURCH first and it is out of the local corps ministries take place which always include an invitation to receive grace from Jesus. I used to tell their leadership “It isn’t just what you do but WHY you do what you do that has you standing as America’s favorite charity. With over $1.5 billion in annual revenue from all sources just here in the USA you can see their influence. But if they back away from their roots I once said in a plenary speech God will write “Ichabod” over the door.

  • good thoughts…i think the part of the problem is that so many people are still in need of experiencing God’s grace and redemption in their own lives…it’s hard to share with others that which you don’t understand on a personal level.

    i think before the world race, when people would ask me why i serve God or how does God make a difference in my life, besides salvation i really didn’t have a great answer. now that i’ve gone through a lot of that brokenness, experienced God’s grace and redemption, it’s so easy for me to say, “THIS is how God makes the difference in my life every single day.” and i really want to bring others into that.

  • AMEN!

    I’m all for social justice – I just started a campaign with Charity:Water to give up my birthday this year – but it’s NOT enough.

    I’ve heard non-Christians use that quote to try to silence evangelists, and my response is always, “It’s necessary to use words.” It’s a fine quote – whomever said it – as long as we remember that scripture says, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” It IS necessary. Do both.

  • Oh how I am encouraged after reading your blog today Seth, and these posts, especially from Rebecca who describes herself as “young”. I have hope that many of our kids are getting it.

    In Wipe Every Tear, we emphasize both sides of this. We MUST take care of orphans, widows and the hopeless, but the greatest hope is in Jesus.

    Our feeding of families in the slums of Manila bring relief of hunger pangs for but a short time, while the hope of Jesus lasts forever!

    Keep it up brother. Bless you.

  • Excellent post. I’ve often wondered if people cling to social justice so tightly because they don’t want to deal with possibly having a person dislike them for saying the name of Jesus. You can’t really fulfill the gospel without doing both parts of the equasion.

  • Steph Tyrna just reposted this and it is my first time seeing it. All I can say is- Amen- yup, that’s my DNA.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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