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No Justice; No Peace

July 11, 2016

No justice; no peace.

 

It is one of the most natural aspects of humanity to demand justice. There is an innate sense of right and wrong so much so that as people we form societies on ought’s and ought-not’s. When the ought-not’s take place we demand that justice be administered so as to balance the scales and set things right in society. In fact, justice is one of the most recognized ought’s in human culture. It is an objective standard that we appeal to when an ought-not takes place. We demand justice when someone violates our rights or the rights of other people and that is a good and right thing for us to do.

 

The reason for this is because we are created in the image of God who is Just. Justice is a standard that lies outside of the realm of subjective preferences. We know that when a man breaks into another man’s home and takes something that does not belong to him, or when one man takes the life of another man, that there must be some sort of retribution to pay. This is due to the simple fact that God has ingrained in us the sense of “good” and “evil”—we are moral creatures.

 

Peace is also a common desire that humans share. Justice and peace are not exclusive; rather they flow from one another. We demand justice because it is a disruption of peace, and when we have peace it is because people are acting just towards one another and injustice is punished. The oft repeated mantra being recited through the streets of New Orleans and other places in the country right now is, therefore, a worthy and noble saying. It is right to say that when there is no justice, there is no peace.

 

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Unfortunately the ones protesting in this way (or at least the ones I’ve witnessed on social media and various news outlets) do not have the proper framework from which to consistently hold to this view. If they did, we would see these protests being done in a much different way. It is strikingly ironic when the ones calling for justice are the very ones promoting injustice. I understand that the point they are making is that they will not let peace reign unless justice prevails. Yet the injustice is being leveled against commuters on highways and against the citizens in the neighborhoods where these marches are taking place, and that is not being taken into consideration. In other words, you cannot hold a group of people to a standard that you are not willing to live by. The old argument of, “They did it first!” is not one made from a sense of justice or out of a duty to pursue peace.

 

Christianity is the only worldview from which we can draw the ideas of justice or peace. It is because of the Triune God of the Bible and the fact that He has created that we can look at things and say to ourselves, “that isn’t right”. Without this foundation, the cries for justice and the pursuit of peace have no chance of sustaining a movement. Justice and peace as ideas will fail to be maintained because they will be built on the shadow of what they are and not the substance of what they are. Human philosophy and tradition is empty whereas Christ is the fullness of deity dwelling bodily (Colossians 2:8-10). Jesus is the prototypical image of God and as such He represents the epitome of justice and of peace. Christ suffered the worst offense of injustice in order to provide peace for His people by defeating His enemies and over coming the grave. It is once we establish our worldviews on those facts that we can plead for justice and offer hurting people peace.

 

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ was also the purest expression of justice that there will ever be. God demonstrated His justice by pouring out His wrath against injustice on Jesus instead of on His people. This had to be done because God cannot wink at sin, justice must be administered. If we, as mere humans, can feel such outrage when men commit atrocious acts of injustice, how much more when men commit atrocious acts of injustice against the Just One. Why do we feel the need to call for justice lest there be no peace, when in the very same breath we violate the Law of God and therefore commit an eternally unjust act?

In order to rightly call for justice we must understand it. Majority of the people marching to this phrase simply do not have that understanding, which is why the calls for justice will fail and peace will always elude them. The protestor’s first need to have their unjust acts dealt with before they can operate in a just way.

 

It is true that unless there be justice, there will be no peace.

 

Biblical Theology

The King and Us

February 11, 2016
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The Bible is a story of kingship.

Kingship frames the whole thing. The the very first chapter of the Bible shows us mankind given the specific vocation of taking dominion over creation (Gen. 1:26). The very last chapter, the account of the new creation, climaxes with the statement that the servants of God “will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:5). If ruling over creation was the original intention and the goal that is finally met, we can probably assume that everything in between ties into that theme in some way.

Sure enough, kingship is also the center and highpoint: The anointed King, Jesus, exalted to reign at God’s right hand (Acts 2:34-36). This is the gospel that was promised beforehand (Isa. 40:9-11; Isa. 52:7), the Son of David and Son of God who calls for obedience among all the nations (Rom. 1:3-5).

Kingship is included as a blessing of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 17:6), and is central to the plot of the Old Testament from the refrain in Judges (“there was no king in Israel”) to the establishment of the monarchy under Saul, to the life of the messiah David who composed royal psalms, to the glory of Solomon who receives tribute from the nations (2 Kings 4:21), sits on the throne of Yahweh (1 Chron. 29:23), and writes to his “son” a book of instruction in royal wisdom (Prov. 8:15), to the many wicked and righteous kings of Israel and Judah who usher in the exile, with the prophets all the while promising a better King to come (e.g., Isa. 9:6-7; Jer. 23:5; Mic. 5:2-5). The kingdoms under the whole heaven being given to the saints of the Most High in their head, the Son of Man, is the great vision of Daniel (Dan. 7:13-14; Dan. 7:27), and it is this theme that the nativity story consistently highlights (Matt. 2:2; Luke 1:32-33).

This theme is perhaps the most all-encompassing in the biblical narrative. It’s the story of the image of God. God rules over creation and creates man—Adam, his son—in his image to rule over creation in his name, with wisdom, true righteousness, and holiness (Eph. 4:24). When man fails, God sends his true Image (Heb. 1:3, Col. 1:15) to restore the image of God in man. It’s in the restoration of this image after cleansing from sin that our salvation consists (Rom. 8:29).

I say all this as introduction.

It’s an essential but often overlooked context in which to understand the “practical” sections of Paul’s epistles. Take for example Colossians 3:1-17. That passage is a classic of “practical religion.” It’s a passage in which we’re told what to do, but does this based on the reality of our re-creation in God’s image, which is a royal image.

Here’s how the text begins:

If then you were raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Think on the things above, not things on the land. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life is manifested, you also will be manifested with him in glory.” (Col. 3:1-4)

What is the command? It is to “seek” (the word means pursue or seek to obtain) “the things that are above,” and to “set your mind on” or “think about” these things.

What are those “things that are above”? We are told that they are associated with Christ being seated at God’s right hand, and they are contrasted with “things upon the earth.” It would be a mistake, though, to assume that these “things upon the earth” are the mundane things or secular things and endeavors, as though we are being called to some kind of monkish asceticism. That would be a mistake, because ascetic avoidance of the mundane in the name of religion is specifically rebuked in the previous verses (Col. 2:20-23), and because the “things upon the earth” are explained in 3:5 as various sins, not “earthly” or secular activities. 

In other words, we are not to seek or set our minds on sin, but on the things above, where Christ is ruling at God’s right hand. Christ rules there in wisdom, righteousness, and holiness. That is what we are to seek after and set our minds on: The image of God, so that we administer and reflect the rule of Christ the king in the world: That God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

The reason given for this command is that we have been raised with Christ (Col 3:1, “If then you were raised…”). We were raised with him and seated with him in heavenly places. This is a position of rule and authority, and so it reinforces the point that setting our mind on things above, where Christ is reigning, involves our practicing that rule in the world now. We are to do this in hope, knowing that our true life is hidden with Christ and will be manifested with him—in glory. Glory, another hint that this passage should be understood within the context of rule in God’s image. We are to learn the humility and wisdom of the rule of Christ now, because we will ultimately reign with him.

This understanding of the passage is born out in the exhortations in the following verses (Col. 3:9-10), where we are called to put off the old man (Adam) and put on the new man (Christ) – the new man which is specifically said to be renewed “in the image of its Creator.” The phrase, taken from Genesis, speaks of rule and dominion.

It’s important to emphasize that our original human calling, to have dominion over creation, a calling renewed and empowered by the gospel, is one of “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:12). It’s a rule that must look like Christ’s: Love, humility, service, and if necessary suffering and death for the sake of faithfulness to God. It’s remarkable and worth noting here that as prescribed in the Law, the king of Israel’s primary job was to model humility (Deut. 17:19-20). This, of course, is what Jesus fulfilled (Phil. 2:5-7), and what we are called to imitate. That is the path by which we can hope to find ourselves among his servants in Revelation 22:5, reigning with him forever.

It’s the knowledge that we are kings and queens in training that should inform our living now. Paul assumes this for the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:1-3), and it’s the assumption that underlies the practical exhortations of the New Testament.

 

Biblical Theology

“Spiritual” or “Irrelevant”?

January 27, 2016
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There has been a significant push in recent years in the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) toward racial reconciliation. This was beginning in earnest toward the end of my time in seminary (RTS-Jackson, a virtual PCA Mecca), and at last year’s General Assembly the topic was of central concern. It will be addressed again this year, and  over at Ref21 Rick Phillips has written a brief article ahead of the Assembly with some proposals for racial reconciliation overtures.

In this article, I have nothing to say about race relations generally or the PCA’s institutional responsibilities specifically. Instead, I just want to address Phillips’ third point, which I will quote in full:

We should avoid diverting the church from its spiritual mission by means of permanent committees for social justice.  Sean Lucas’ book clearly shows the peril to a Christian church of embracing a mission of social change or justice.  It was PCUS’s Permanent Committee on Social and Moral Welfare that played a significant role in leading that denomination away from the gospel.  It was largely because they embraced social justice as a mission of the church that the mainline Presbyterians today frequently issue demands for divestment from Israel or for peace proposals in the Middle East but no longer declare the atoning work of Christ for the forgiveness of sin (see Lucas, 41-52).  Jesus assigned the church its mission in the Great Commission, directing us to evangelism, discipleship, and church-building (Mt. 28:18-20).  While the church can and should speak prophetically to the culture on matters of sin, and should seek to cross cultural boundaries with the gospel, these activities can and should be done under agencies devoted to [the] church’s spiritual mission (Jn. 18:36).  For the PCA General Assembly or its presbyteries to erect permanent committees devoted to societal reform is to walk down a well-worn path away from its Christ-ordained unity in gospel mission.

On the one hand, Phillips seems to be primarily concerned with a question of means. “Permanent committees for social justice” would be bad, according to Phillips, because they can lead away from the gospel and unity in gospel mission, and even a failure to declare the atonement of Christ. Why this should necessarily follow, Phillips doesn’t say—presumably it’s explained more in Sean Lucas’ book to which Phillips refers.

Some of Phillips’ statements seem to go beyond the issue of means. He charges the PCUSA with going astray “because they embraced social justice as a mission of the church.” The implication is that social justice is no part of the church’s mission, beyond perhaps “speaking prophetically to the culture on matters of sin.”

Social justice is not the church’s concern, suggests Phillips, because its mission is spiritual. For some time now, I have had the feeling that “spiritual” is often used in a way that translates roughly to “no real world application.”

The two passages which Phillips cites (the Great Commission and Jesus’ words to Pilate) are two passages that are often called upon to justify this principled disengagement from questions of social justice.  In fact they don’t justify disengagement at all, or point to the idea of the church having some “spiritual” mission in contrast to one that deals with the real world.

The Great Commission is often too narrowly understood. The common way that it’s quoted is “make disciples of all nations” — as though what’s being called for is simply gathering some individuals from each ethnicity to convert, put in the church, and disciple them. In fact, a more literal translation is, “disciple all the nations.” There is no preposition in the Greek here. That is, it isn’t “make individual disciples out from each nation”; but rather “disciple the nations themselves.” The apostles would have understood this:

Psalm 2:7-8
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;

    today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    and the ends of the earth your possession.”

Psalm 67:4
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you judge the peoples with equity
    and guide the nations upon earth.

Psalm 72:11
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you judge the peoples with equity
    and guide the nations upon earth.”

Isaiah 2:4
He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war anymore.

Of course we have to make individual disciples. That is a first step. But the goal is for the nations themselves, as nations, to become tribute for the King of Kings. He has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, and so of course the church should speak with the authority of Christ to issues of social justice. If we are to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, then of course part of the church’s agenda must be working toward that end. How exactly that is to be done (political activism, or whatever) is one question, but social justice certainly does fall under the scope of the gospel of Christ, and lawmakers, judges, and Presidents are as much accountable to Christ as we are. The Great Commission, sometimes seen as prescription for some kind of narrow “spiritual” mission, is in fact as all-embracing as heaven and earth. McDonald’s workers, homemakers, entrepreneurs, Supreme Court justices, presidents, kings, and cops are all to submit to the rule of Christ. The church’s mission is to offer worship to God by prayer, sacrament, and proclamation of his word which calls all men everywhere to repent. That means we must be able to instruct everyone what repentance in their various cases and conditions should look like. How “social justice” can escape this program, I have no clue.

The second passage Phillips cites is John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” His kingdom is not from here. It’s from heaven. It’s a kingdom that doesn’t advance by means of the sword or operate by worldly principles. How this statement of Jesus would argue against the church pursuing social justice I can’t figure out though, unless “not of this world” means something like “has no application or relevance to the world.”

That’s not what Jesus meant, even if it would be nice and would exempt us from getting our hands dirty.