Reformed Theology and Social Justice
In my previous post, I discussed the necessity of having a worldview of creation and resurrection to form a coherent vision of social justice, one in which we can be confident our work in the present will come to fruition in the resurrection. In this article, I want to extend the discussion to the particularities of the Reformed tradition, hoping to see what a Calvinistic worldview has to say about social justice. I will argue that the Reformed tradition reveals a strong biblical theology for social justice, grounded in the restfulness of the gospel and the unrest of the brokenness of the world.
Growing up as a low-church Methodist, I always envisioned Calvinism as an odd sort of bird. God is love, right, so why would I want to worship a God, who, it seemed to me, didn’t love a significant number of the world’s population? And why would I want to worship a meticulously sovereign God, who, it seemed to me, would be responsible for the sin of the world? And this logically airtight system of individual salvation looks nice in an acronym (TULIP), but certainly it has no basis in Scripture?
I’ve come to believe these were the wrong questions to be asking. While at college, I came to know and read a number of Reformed Christian students (not least, my beautiful fiancé), pastors, and scholars, and I was fascinated by their robust vision of the good news of Jesus Christ. This gospel was not one that started with the individual, but one of a historical drama of the scriptures, in which God continually declares his creation good, longing to “reconcile the world to himself in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:9). 1
This drama of redemption history can be helpfully outlined as a four part series of creation-fall-redemption-consummation.2 In the first act, God creates a very good world, culminating with his creation of humanity in his image, male and female, as his representatives on the earth, to reflect God’s righteousness and justice into all creation. The second act, the fall, makes no pretense that this world is the way that it ought to be, having denied the God in whose image we were made. Both our individual sins, in how we neglect our neighbors, and in our creating and sustaining of institutions that perpetuate “structures of sin,” reflect a deeply broken world in need of renewal. 3
The beautiful good news, found in the third act of redemption, is that the creator God has not left broken creation to run amok. God called a people, Israel, to be who Adam and Eve were supposed to be, binding Himself to the Israelites in covenants, teaching them how true Image-bearers are to live. In the book of Isaiah, God explains what this redemption looks like, “But now thus says the Lord, he who called you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”4 This proclamation occurs in spite of dozens of chapters of God’s displeasure with Israel, explaining that they have not “ceased to do evil, learned to do good, sought justice, corrected oppression, brought justice to the fatherless, and plead the widow’s cause.”5 The New Covenant of Christ is one in which the promise of redemption to Israel is culminated, in which true righteousness is available to humanity as the God-man, the Righteous One, offers union with us. James K.A. Smith summarizes,
“The cup that is the covenant ‘in His blood’ anticipates and reminds us that the covenant comes to its climax in the God-man who, as God, articulates the conditions of the covenant and, as human (the second Adam), is finally the first human being to faithfully keep the promise. And the risen, covenant-keeping Son of God bequeaths to us his Spirit, both to seal us as members of this covenant people and to empower us to keep the covenant”6
Thus, within this third act of redemptive history, we now live and breathe. We live in a time between the times, as it were, within a broken and fallen world (the second act), and awaiting a new creation, a new body, a new heavens, a new earth (the fourth act). Within this present time, just as he did Abraham and Israel, God redeems his people outside of anything they have done, indeed, in spite of what they have done, to be the kind of people that are called to image who God is into the world. It is within this “already, and not yet” that we exist, between an already inaugurated kingdom and a not yet of true restoration.
I want to argue that this vision of the scriptures as articulated in the Reformed tradition provides the best narrative in which we are to ground our work of social justice. Characterized by the restfulness of the good news of the righteousness of Christ, offered to us outside of anything we have done, and the unrest of a still-broken creation, awaiting the resurrection, is where we should find our vision for social justice.
“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”7 In Christ, and not in ourselves, do we find righteousness, the only fount in which we can taste reconciliation to the Father. Our work of social justice is not an offering to reconcile ourselves to God, rather Christ’s work becomes our solid ground. This is good news both for the liberal Christian who views the Christian faith to merely be motivational toward social justice, and for the legalist who sees his/her work as earning God’s favor. As Reformed Christians like to say, “There is nothing you can do for God to love you any more, and there is nothing you can do for God to love you any less.”
Not only do we rest in our present justification, but we also see a future consummation to our work of social justice. It will not be in vain, for the Christ who motivates us to “proclaim good news to the poor” and “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” is the one who fulfills the proclamation in the release from sin and death in the resurrection.8
Thus, our work of social justice is not the foundation in which we find our rest, rather rest is in Christ’s work and Christ’s righteousness. Social justice work is then a response to the grace we find in Christ, an act of worship to the God who “creates us in Christ Jesus for good works.”9
Just as in the times of the biblical prophets, we live in a time of pervasive sin, both individual and structural. Christians are called both to repent of the sin in their own hearts, and to recognize the sin outside of themselves that lead to all kinds of social ills. With the drawing of the Holy Spirit and the nourishment of the Lord’s Supper, the Church is called to see this pervasiveness of sin, and work to rectify it in the present world. As N.T. Wright says, “God puts people to rights so that we might be putting-to-rights people here on earth.”
In conclusion then, those Christian denominations and traditions which do not view or emphasize redemption as encompassing the entirety of creation, that believe justification in the present requires works, and/or do not recognize the pervasiveness of human sin in the world and in ourselves10 do not, I believe, have a full biblical theology of social justice. In contrast, the Reformed tradition offers a robust biblical vision of creation/fall/redemption/consummation, pulling the believer into the restfulness of the gospel and an unrest in the brokenness of the world.