Words matter. Because ideas matter. Particularly theological ideas. There are few theological words which have greater significance in the history of the church than the word, justice. It’s the root of justification––the doctrine, according to Calvin, which is the hinge upon which the faith turns. But there’s a deeper foundation to the doctrine of justification: the justice of God. This was His motive in offering His Son as a propitiation for our sins: that He would be just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus (Rom.3:26). With such profound theological and historical significance to the very heart of the Gospel, itself, it’s difficult to imagine that a conservative, evangelical organization called The Gospel Coalition would carelessly misuse the concept of justice. And yet that is precisely what they’ve done in the latest article by Greg Forster.
Charity = Justice?
“Economic justice,” Forster claims, was the answer from Jonathan Edwards on how to pursue truly spiritual discoveries. “Economic justice” isn’t Edward’s term, though. Edwards wasn’t as sloppy a theologian as that. No, “economic justice” is Forster’s term for what Edwards rightly called charity––aid to the economically poor. If Forster wants to inform the Church of Edwards’ position, though, why not call it charity, like Edwards does? Why use an entirely new term, which is foreign to the author whose position you are trying to present? I can’t read Mr. Forster’s motives, but I can tell you the obvious result of this term-shift, regardless of what his intentions were.
To see the danger (and remarkable theological negligence!) here, one need only consider the meaning of the term being replaced (charity), and the term replacing it (economic justice). What is charity? It is helping those in need. It’s giving to those who have not earned it. It’s a picture of the gospel. It’s grace in action, on a human level. It’s a wonderful thing. What is justice? It’s getting what one deserves. It’s balanced scales. An even transaction. Getting what one is due. So, economic justice is meant to communicate getting what one deserves, economically. It means getting the money one is due. If charity is helping the poor, and if Mr. Forster refers to helping the poor as “economic justice,” then Mr. Forster is telling us that the poor deserve the monetary help––not as a gift, but as a right. If charity is justice, then the lack of charity is unjust. If money is owed to the poor because they need it, then need––instead of property rights––is the new standard of justice; and the extent to which you do not give to those in need, is the extent to which you are a criminal, guilty of an “economic injustice”. If it sounds Marxist, that’s because it is. And this article is just the latest Marx-inspired articles on “public justice,” “social justice,” and who knows what other perversions of the concept of justice TGC can have dreamed up.
Grace is NOT Justice
But the problem with this equivocation between charity and justice is not merely that it’s inspired by cultural Marxism. That’s actually relatively insignificant when compared to the theological fall-out which is sure to come if this atrocity isn’t corrected, and fast. Remember that I said charity is a picture of the gospel? That’s why it’s such an important practice for the Church: it demonstrates the grace of God. Now, ask yourself this: if charity is a picture of the grace of God in the gospel, then what message are we sending about the grace of God, and about the gospel, when we preach that charity is deserved? Answer: We are teaching that God’s grace is, likewise, deserved. When we teach that we owe money to the poor, we are teaching that God owed us the cross. When we teach that the poor deserve monetary assistance, we are teaching that we deserved what Christ accomplished for us. When we teach that “economic justice” consists of giving to those in need, we are teaching that divine justice consists of the same––and the inevitable result is a grace-less universalism in which everyone gets all the blessings of heaven, because they need it. You cannot pervert the meaning of justice in “society” or in the “economy,” and not expect it to bleed over into theology. You cannot have one standard of justice in Church on Sunday morning, and another for the world the rest of the week. No doubt The Gospel Coalition has good intentions, but we all know what they say about good intentions and the road to hell. Far be it from conservative evangelicals to join in that paving project. If we have any hope of preserving the integrity of the gospel for the next generation, this wicked equivocation between charity and justice needs to end. Now.
It's true that we ought to practice charity, but we must not say that we owe it to those in need. If we owe it to anyone, we owe it to God––but only in a voluntary fashion. We must not say that the poor deserve charity. They don't. That's why charity is a picture of the gospel. We deserve to be denied the charity of Christ if we deny charity to others––but that's not because we owed it to them. It's because we owed it to Christ to love Him enough to share that love with others. We, as Christians, must participate in charity––not to meet the requirements of "economic justice," but to demonstrate the grace of God in the gospel. We can't communicate the grace of God, though, if we insist on calling it justice. In our zeal to do what's right, we must be careful not to undermine the very purpose of what we're doing. We must not, in the name of the gospel, gut the very essence of that gospel. We must not equate grace and justice.