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HOW NOT TO MAKE JUSTICE INTO A PROGRAM AT YOUR LOCAL CHURCH #2

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Post # 2 – RESISTING THE URGE TO SEPARATE PERSONAL FROM SOCIAL SALVATION or Going beyond being justified to being justice-ified.
If we are to avoid turning justice into another church program., we must first resist the urge to make salvation “about me.” Salvation we say is about a personal relationship with God. In Christ I am justified before God. After being justified through faith in Christ, I then set about to go to the next stage. I pursue personal holiness and social justice. Social justice becomes something I do after I get saved. Personal salvation and social justice remain split by the way we individualize salvation. The propensity to separate personal from social salvation runs deep.

I contend that we should fight this urge because it is this split that allows us essentially to turn social justice into a program. Justice becomes an “add-on” to personal salvation as opposed to an inextricable part of what it means to live the new life in God. This propensity is so deep that even Ron Sider, in his self defined “holistic salvation” still separates personal from social. (in Good News and Good Works: A theology for the whole gospel, Sider maintains a strict separation between evangelism of individuals and social action 158-165). Yet imagine what it would be like in our churches, if there were no such division. If we were not invited to go forward as individuals to receive something, but instead come forward to become part of something, what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ – the reconciliation of all men and women with himself, each other and all of creation, which BTW inextricably includes my own personal reconciliation with God.

I believe the bifurcation of personal from social salvation cannot help but make justice into an add-on. It is something people do after they have been saved. It then becomes a program. As I said in the Great Giveaway, “For evangelicals therefore, social action is primarily saved individuals acting as Christians out in the world against powerful sinful social forces. And we confine the work of social justice largely to the arena outside the church.” Justice becomes a program individuals sign up for instead of a way of life we live and inhabit the world with.

There are two theological culprits here that make possible this separation of personal from social salvation. One is a narrow “penal” view of the atonement. The other is the Lutheranized doctrine of justification by faith. I don’t intend to go deep here. Just offer places for further thinking.

Penal View of the Atonement: In regards to the penal view of the atonement, salvation is defined as accepting the pardon of God for my sin accomplished at the cross when Jesus, being my substitute, paid the penalty for my sin. This view of the atonement, some say, leads us often to making our salvation a legal transaction for self-possession. Participating in the righteousness of God, his reconciliation being worked out in the world through the victory on the cross becomes an after thought
I am not willing to dump the substitionary atonement. Its place in history and the church is too important. I am ready however to recognize its limits. Given our post-Christian context, I think we should rely less on Western legal notions of justice here, and stay closer to the Hebrew representational character of substitionary justice modeled by the priest laying his hands upon the lamb representing the sins of all Israel being taken away. But I also think we should adhere more closely to the Christus Victor (Gustaf Aulen) and Classical Views of the atonement where Jesus is seen as the Victor, the King, the one who has defeated sin, death and evil and now reigns in anticipation of the Final Kingdom of God. For here we cannot possibly receive salvation without participating in that salvation, the victory of God and the Reign of Christ over sin, death and evil. Here personal and social are so entwined we cannot distinguish them. This of course need not diminish personal conversion, it just clarifies we are being converted into a whole new mission and way of life.

Justification by Faith: Likewise, in regards to the Lutheranized doctrine of justification by faith, I think we should pay heed to a broader understanding, perhaps the “new perspective on Paul.” I am not in total agreement with all this literature, but I believe that Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, James Dunn and NT Wright have all helped us see that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith was not about the individual’s battle to be good through self-effort through the law. Rather Paul’s’ doctrine was an argument against the exclusivism of the Jews against the Gentiles. The law was the covenantal badge for being a member of the people of God, which signified the Jews were God’s people. Paul claims that marker is now justification by faith, an entrance into a new righteousness won by God thru the person and work of Jesus Christ. And so for Paul, justification isn’t for the relieving of the Jewish guilt conscience, which is always striving to maintain the standard of God’s law. It is for the establishment of a new righteousness in a people through Christ, foretold by the prophets concerning the coming Kingdom of God. Once we see justification in this light, justification cannot be separated from being part of the new justice/righteousness God is working in the world. We cannot receive salvation without becoming part of what God is doing to bring justice/righteousness to the world through Christ.

This is all summarized by a non-individualist (American) reading of 2 Cor 5: 17ff. For anyone united in Christ, there is a new creation: the old order has gone, a new order has already begun. (REV). We have entered into the marvelous world of God reconciling all things to himself (vs.18) … that we might become the righteousness (justice) of God (vs. 21) For this reading of righteousness see James Dunn The Justice of God.

And so… if we are to resist the urge to make justice into another church program we must overturn the split between personal and social salvation. We must go from preaching that all must accept Christ as personal savior to you are invited to enter a relationship with through Christ that changes everything. We must go from being justified … to being justice-ified. Justice can no longer be something we do, it is who we are.

Can anyone offer examples how this approach might impact the ethos of justice in their local church? I hope to give an example or two of how I’ve seen this take shape in our church at the Evolving Church Conference.

Next post – HOW NOT TO MAKE JUSTICE INTO A PROGRAM AT YOUR LOCAL CHURCH #3 RESISTING THE URGE TO MAKE JUSTICE ABOUT INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS or Going beyond individual rights to God’s righteousness

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