Dallas Willard – Can Social Justice Be Just Another Works-Righteousness Gospel?

The end of last week, I was with the T.A.C.T. group, Theology and Culture Thinkers Group in Woodland Hills (LA) California. This is a group called together to deal with the crisis regarding the lack of discipleship in the evangelical church of North America. I was honored to be invited. I was honored to spend some time among outstanding concerned people of the Navigators and Leadership Catalyst among other organizations.

Dallas Willard spent some time with us. It was rich. I offer the following summation of just one of the many presentations he challenged us with.

Dallas asserted that there are “3 Gospels Heard at the Present”

1.) YOUR SINS WILL BE FORGIVEN and you will be in heaven in the afterlife if you believed that Jesus suffered for your sins
2.) JESUS DIED TO LIBERATE THE OPPRESSED and you can stand with him in that battle.
3.) DO WHAT YOUR CHURCH SAYS and it will see to it you are received by God.

Dallas said compare these 3 gospels with the following:
4.) Put your confidence and trust in Jesus and live with him as his disciple now in the present Kingdom of God (Matt 6.33; Rom 8.1-14; Col 1.13; 3. 1-4; John 3.1-8).
He said “Salvation is participating now in the life which Jesus is now living on earth – Of course that involves forgiveness and heaven afterward and much more.”

Dallas made the point that in relation to gospel 1.) you have to trust something Jesus did .. not in Jesus.
In relation to 2.) you have to trust something Jesus said … not in Jesus himself.


Now Dallas would never be one to devalue the works of social justice. But it is the characterization of the gospel 2.) here that peaks my interest. In regard to the (some?) gospel(s) of social justice, he suggests you have to trust something Jesus said … not in Jesus himself.

As I have been thinking about the upcoming Evolving Church Conference in Toronto, Dallas’ point about gospel no. 2 above is a challenge. For I have been considering for a long time how social justice can just turn into another program, or become something we do because we’re supposed to. Pretty soon, social justice dies the death of all human efforts made apart from God. It is only as a manifestation of the Kingdom of God that the powers, the institutions of evil and the machinery of death can be undercut and destroyed. Of course the missional churches have been saying that mission is not another program, it is our life, it is the joining in with God in what He is already doing.

Not surprisingly however, this is easier said than done. And so this question is important to me, how can we avoid the mistakes of no. 1, and no. 3 as we go about justice in no. 2? HOW CAN WE NOT MAKE JUSTICE into another works righteousness devoid of power and transformation, another thing we are supposed to do? How do we instead see justice come as the manifestation of the Kingdom breaking through into our lives into the world? Where do people become formed in Christ so that justice flows out of our lives as opposed to something we are told we should be doing (another layer of works righteousness).
It seems to me this failure was the problem of the last unsuccessful wave of protestant justice. It simply lost the power of the person and work of Christ, thereby losing the people and turning justice into a campaign that inevitably made people feel better about themselves. HOW DO WE ESCAPE THIS?
Of course Dallas’ no.4 is key, the Kingdom of God is where we must start. We must see justice as a manifestation of the Lordship of Christ over all our social forms of injustice. But I believe the local church; human on human justice is also key. I believe all other justice that would transform the structures must see first a structure transformed, i.e. us, the church, the little guys. I believe also we must undergo a spiritual formation that shapes us for mission. yet I believe we must see that in mission we are shaped and transformed by God. All of these things are stuff I hope to sketch comments on for my upcoming conference presentation on “justice in but not of capitalism”

I was incredibly blessed to be among these people at T.A.C.T.

What practical things can we do to avoid the pitfalls of gospel no. 2 becoming the same as gospel no. 1, and .3?


Don’t Forget! Doug Pagitt comes to the Up/rooted gathering tomorrow nite (Tuesday February 27) 7 p.m. at Life on the Vine . Come and meet some people. I’ll be there. Plenty of others!

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