Theonomy, Allistair Begg, and the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel.

If you haven’t heard about the recent Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel that was produced by John MacArthur, Phil Johnson, James White, and others, you can read about it here. The issues surrounding this statement are myriad and complex. However, as a Reformed theonomist and Christian Reconstructionist, I’ve found it very interesting to analyze the back-and-forth concerning this statement. I don’t find myself in either of the two camps. Perhaps I am a bit like Albert Mohler, who in the words of Steve Jordahl, “seems to take a middle ground between John MacArthur and the Marxist-inspired ‘social justice movement’ that the left is forcing on American culture.” And perhaps I am a bit like Jon Speed, who crafted his own statement on justice. Whatever the case, I believe that the two sides are often talking past each other and missing the main point: God’s Law-Word.

Long before this statement came out, I have argued for the application of God’s Law-Word to society. In the tradition of the Westminster divines, I have argued that “although Israel as a political body has expired—and along with it, its judicial law as a constitution—the general equity of those judicial laws is still required (Westminster Confession XIX.4).” All of the Bible is to be applied to all of society. Back in 2014, I wrote a blog post about the need for nations to submit to Christ and his law. In that post, I wrote the following:

It should be obvious: if a society is to honor Christ, they must follow His Law. The Church in America has largely abandoned the relevance and validity of God’s Law-Word for the civil government. We and our fathers have sown the seeds of humanistic, enlightenment thinking (baptized in the name of Christianity)—and now, my friends, we are reaping the whirlwind.

When will this nation wake up and say, “Hey, natural law isn’t working out so well for us in this nation”? Maybe it will be when we start getting arrested for helping the poor. Maybe it will be when we start getting arrested for preaching the gospel. Maybe then we will realize we are to bring all things under the Crown Rights of the King.

I have written many more articles on this topic (here and here, for example). There is much that could be written about my view, but the essence is that in order for blessing to come, God’s Law-Word must be followed. To the degree that a person, family, church, community, or nation follows God’s Law-Word, to that degree they will be blessed by God. Are there some difficulties in applying the Bible to life? Yes! It is challenging to interpret and apply both the Old and New Testaments, mind you! But that doesn’t mean we give up. I digress. The scope of this post does not allow me to fully defend my theonomic views. I point you to an excellent message by Steve Wilkins to accomplish that end.

Now, here is the interesting thing: some of the people that would strongly oppose my theonomic views are those who are behind this recent statement on social justice. However, their impetus for writing this statement had little to do with theonomists like me. Rather, it was in response to Christians who have, according to some, become caught up in the “social gospel” and “critical race theory.” Basically, what this statement is arguing for is the primacy of the gospel. One of the initial signers of the statement, Tom Ascol, stated that the purpose of the statement is to “protect the gospel.” The statement is all about keeping the gospel primary; it is about keeping other things from taking center stage. That is the same sort of language that has been used against my views: “seeking to apply God’s Word to society is losing sight of the gospel.”

It is this same rhetoric that is being used against those who are making a “big deal” about racism and “social justice” in America. (Now, I probably wouldn’t agree with a lot from those who are all about “critical race theory” either, I’m not sure. That’s not what I am focused on in this post.) But here is where it gets interesting. The writers of the statement are forced to affirm biblical law, something they are not wont to do when dealing with theonomists like me. Consider the statement’s section on justice:

WE AFFIRM that since he is holy, righteous, and just, God requires those who bear his image to live justly in the world. This includes showing appropriate respect to every person and giving to each one what he or she is due. We affirm that societies must establish laws to correct injustices that have been imposed through cultural prejudice.

WE DENY that true justice can be culturally defined or that standards of justice that are merely socially constructed can be imposed with the same authority as those that are derived from Scripture. We further deny that Christians can live justly in the world under any principles other than the biblical standard of righteousness. Relativism, socially-constructed standards of truth or morality, and notions of virtue and vice that are constantly in flux cannot result in authentic justice.

There is a phrase in this section that is very important: “We further deny that Christians can live justly in the world under any principles other than the biblical standard of righteousness.” If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was a theonomic statement! The following sentence is another argument in favor of applying God’s Law, not man’s law, to society: “Relativism, socially-constructed standards of truth or morality, and notions of virtue and vice that are constantly in flux cannot result in authentic justice.” This reminds me of what Greg Bahnsen, a stalwart defender of applying God’s Law-Word to all of life, had to say about justice:

Those who do not favor taking God’s law as the ultimate standard for civil morality and public justice will be forced to substitute some other criterion. The civil magistrate cannot function without some standard of good and evil. If that standard is not the revealed law of God, then in some form or expression it will have to be a law of men—the standard of self law or autonomy. Men must choose in their civil aairs to be governed by God’s law (theonomy), to be ruled by tyrants, or acquiesce to increasing social degeneracy.

The threat of the “social gospel” has led staunch opponents of theonomy to agree with one of the most basic tenets of theonomy: God’s Law must be the standard for social or public justice! In many ways, this is what I would expect. The signers of this statement are men who believe in Christ and the authority of the Bible. They are seeing what happens when people vocally and publicly promote something other than biblical law. They have been forced to see the antithesis that Van Til and Bahnsen taught about. While they would have happily agreed that God’s Law, not man’s law, is the standard for personal morality, now they have been forced to say it is the standard for (social) justice as well!

I will manage my expectations, however. I do not expect them to embrace what the Westminster Divines or Bahnsen taught. This is because they will most likely continue to see a dichotomy between the gospel and the application of the gospel in the world. They will fight against a false system of justice, but they will not do the work of applying God’s Law-Word instead. The result is that Christians will know a lot about what we shouldn’t be doing, but not what we should be doing. The Christian’s duty will (perhaps unintentionally) be reduced to simply “preaching the gospel.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am all about preaching the gospel. My theonomic views do not take away from my passion to preach the gospel to unbelievers. (If you doubt that, watch a clip of me preaching the gospel in streets of Washington, D.C. just a couple months ago.) The gospel is primary. The gospel is the power of God for salvation. But the gospel also has everything to do with law, obedience, and righteousness:

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (1 Timothy 1:8-11, ESV, emphasis added)

The signers of this statement, men like John MacArthur and Phil Johnson, would affirm that entirely when it comes to personal sins. They would say the gospel has everything to do with God’s Law and obedience and righteousness, relating to the individual. In fact, MacArthur battled those who would disagree with the necessity for personal obedience to God’s Law in his book, The Gospel According to Jesus. What these men seem to deny is that the gospel impacts society just as much as it does individuals.

To better explain what I mean, consider what Russell Moore (who didn’t sign the statement) said in response to some questions arising due to the statement being put forth:

So, if you were in the Southern Baptist or Southern Presbyterian context in 1845 and the question of slavery comes up, the response is going to be “You are distracting us from the Gospel. We need to be the people who are sharing the Gospel and evangelizing the world and not to get involved in these social issues like slavery.” Well, if you stand up and call people to repentance for drunkenness and adultery but you don’t call them to repentance for participating in or applauding the kidnapping, rape, forced servitude of image-bearing human beings, then you have spoken to it. You have said, “This is an issue to which you will give no account at judgment.” That is not what the Bible teaches.

Do you see what Moore is saying? He is saying that those who are opposed to speaking about God’s Law being applied to certain sins (slavery, kidnapping, rape) are more than willing to speak about God’s Law being applied to other sins (drunkenness and adultery). This takes us to the crux of the matter. The gospel has everything to do with our behavior. But our behavior, when it involves other people, is social. The Moral Law of God, the Ten Commandments, contains four commandments that speak of our duty toward God and six commandments that speak of our duty toward people. God’s Law is clearly concerned with social justice and righteousness. (For a good example of this, see my post on the application of the Eighth Commandment.)

Understand, of course, that I am not saying that I support those who would make racism or [fill in the blank]the only issue. Another post is warranted for me to discuss that. However, suffice it to say that the solution to injustice—whether it has to do with “race,” or the FDA terrorizing Amish farmers, or Planned Parenthood murdering babies, or women being sexually abused—the solution to all these things is God’s Law-Word being applied. In order for injustice to be corrected, justice must be applied. There is to be one law, one standard, one plumb line. There is to be one standard that is applied to all people, no matter the shade of their skin or the sins of their ancestors: the divine Law of God. That, my friends, is the solution. That has never happened perfectly, but to the degree that we have seen the gospel prevail in societies throughout history—and to the degree that we have seen God’s Law-Word applied—to that degree we have seen great advances in justice and freedom.

I want to give an illustration that shows how many people are missing the point when it comes to this issue. While, to my knowledge, neither Todd Friel nor Allistair Begg have signed the document, their statements highlight an aspect of the discussion that concerns me. Furthermore, many who are promoting the statement have shared the following clip by Begg, at least indirectly citing it to support their affirmation of the statement.

Screenshot 2018-09-18 at 3.48.58 AM Clip of Allistair Begg speaking about the church and social issues

Todd Friel, with Wretched.org, produced a show that included several clips from a sermon by Allistair Begg. One portion of Begg’s comments have been circulated around Facebook, garnering nearly 200,000 views. The text for the video states: “Alistair Begg: The call of the Church is NOT social issues.” In the one-minute clip that is shared, Begg says:

We are not in the world today to reform the world. Our mandate in the world is not political, it’s not social, and it’s not economic. The fact that many of us have lived through a period of time in the United States whereby the social, political, and economic concerns have increasingly encroached upon the minds of those who should know better and have begun to  take on virtually a life of their own, whereby we have begun to be seduced by the idea that these really are the issues—that if we could fix this and fix this and fix this, then we would be fine. But we were never invited to fix this and this and this. The calling of the church is to proclaim the gospel. And whenever that which is central, namely the gospel, becomes peripheral, then that which is peripheral inevitably becomes central.

The post links to the full Wretched episode. I encourage you to watch it, because Begg has to make so many qualifications with what he saying that Friel even alludes to the fact that it sounds like he is “talking out of both sides of his mouth.” Why? Because Begg actually affirms what theonomists and Christian Reconstructionists have been arguing for:

The gospel is the answer to slavery…The gospel is the answer to human trafficking…The gospel is the answer to the upside down world in which we presently live…[History tells] us that the abolition of slavery was brought about by Christian men and women.

Begg references William Wilberforce and his quest to end slavery and guess what he attributes his mission to end slavery to? “Answer? The gospel. The gospel.” Begg continues: “You see the gospel changed [Wilberforce’s] heart. Changed his mind. Changed his mind about everything. And caused him to say this is wrong and this must be addressed.”

Now, wait just a minute! If the gospel does not address social issues, then how could the gospel have caused him to not only say slavery “is wrong,” but that “it must be addressed”?

Well, the gospel does have a lot to do with social issues. Jesus Christ died for sinners, rose from the dead, and was given all authority in heaven and on earth. When someone believes in the gospel, they submit to Jesus as Lord and they seek to honor him in every area of life. Are social issues the only issues? No. Personal piety is essential as well. But none of these things are mutually exclusive. Preaching the gospel is not mutually exclusive from seeking to apply the lordship of Christ to all of life.

Begg goes on, however, attempting to defend his initial statement that “we are not in the world to reform the world”:

You say, “Aren’t you talking out of both sides of your mouth?” No, careful. The distinction between the responsibility of the church to proclaim the gospel, and then for the pastor-teacher to proclaim the implications of the gospel in the outworking of that in, every area of life. So that, Wilberforce did not sit under a steady diet of non-Bible teaching whereby his pastor was constantly going on and on and on about the issue of the day. He sat under the instruction of the Bible, [his] pastor was going on and on and on always about the gospel. And he realized that when the gospel changed him, he had a role to play in society. And so do you. But it’s not my role.

Huh?

There are at least two major problems with these statements.

(1) Begg trys to draw some imaginary distinction between the role of the church and the role of Christians in general. The church is made up of…you guessed it…Christians! To say that every single Christian has a role to play in society but that the church doesn’t have a role to play is to make a distinction without a difference. Maybe Begg is just saying we all should be involved in reforming society, but he shouldn’t? Beats me.

(2) What does he mean that Wilberforce sat under a pastor that went “on and on and on always about the gospel”? What does Begg mean by the “instruction of the Bible”? A pastor that is teaching the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) will deal with much more than what Begg refers to as the “gospel.” He will teach on murder (Exodus 21:12), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), bestiality (Exodus 22:19), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), being a false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:5), prostitution and rape (Deuteronomy 22:24), and several other crimes. He will teach on protecting the innocent and helping the needy (Proverbs 24:10-12). He will teach on the role of the civil magistrate (1 Peter 2:14). The list goes “on and on and on,” to borrow Begg’s phrase. I love Allistair Begg, but he is simply not making any sense. He is, in fact, talking out of both sides of his mouth. (He does sound great doing it though, with that accent!)

I responded to a friend who shared this post with the following comment. (Remember, the text that Todd Frield included with the video said: “Alistair Begg: The call of the Church is NOT social issues.”)

Me: “…but the call of every Christian is!”

I said that not only because I believe it, but because it is exactly what Begg argues for in the full clip! However, the response I got from the person who posted the clip was the following:

“No my friend. We don’t preach a ‘Social Gospel’ We preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ!”

I have no issues with the man who responded this way. I understand why he is reacting this way. He sees the “social gospel” as a threat to the truth. If, by the “social gospel,” he mean socialism or anything other than biblical law, I’d agree with him. But Allistair Begg was not talking about that. In fact, Begg, seemingly contrary to his initial statements, makes a great case for the social application of God’s Law-Word to society. I do not agree with everything Russell Moore says, but he rightly stated: “The mission of the church is not simply to preach the Gospel but to disciple—to shape and form consciences of people to live as followers of Jesus in every area of their lives.”

The Great Commission of Jesus Christ knows no limits. There is no area of society that is off-limits to his lordship. God’s Law-Word must be applied to every social, political, and personal aspect of this earth. To argue for anything else is to argue to human autonomy.

The issues swirling around the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel may seem like they have little to do with what I am arguing for here. However, when you understand that both sides are trying to figure out how to apply God’s Word to society, you come to see that the answer has been right in front of us all along: “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20).


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