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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Justification and Justice


Michael Horton

Release date:

June 22, 2017

I had an extraordinary experience in my junior year of college when I was a student at the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Already enthralled by the world-affirming aspects of Reformation theology, I was amazed at the cultural impact of the Reformation. While the rise of “universal human rights” theory cannot be attributed exclusively to the Reformers and their heirs, it was decisively shaped by them. I discovered Reformed thinkers such as Theodore Beza (1519-1605) in Geneva, Philippe Duplessis-Mornay (1549-1623) in France, and Samuel Rutherford (1600-61) in Scotland, who were among the first to lay out a rigorous case for the right of resistance to tyrants. They all opposed the rising tide of royal absolutism with a rigorous defense of the rule of law. In addition to several defenses of Reformed theology, Duplessis-Mornay developed theories of political liberty and human rights and drafted the Edict of Nantes (1598), modern Europe’s first bill of religious toleration. As the leader of the French Reformed (Huguenots), he implemented his theories as an ambassador to various European courts. I also found Johannes Althusius (1563-1638), a pioneer of constitutional law who applied federal (covenant) theology to civil polity, articulating the first sophisticated case for political federalism.

Yet when I came to Strasbourg that summer, I was quite shaken. Even more distressing than the lectures and reports from human rights leaders (including the UN General Secretary) were the late night conversations with activists from all over the world. Many of them related atrocities, some of which they witnessed, perpetrated at times by regimes supported by the United States. As co-heirs with Christ in the blessings of the new creation, believers are especially obliged to reflect on the ways in which our convictions, values, and actions follow the grain of the faith we profess. I had not realized just how much of the myth of America as the “redeemer nation” still clung to me, and God used that experience to bring my theory of total depravity to bear on national identity. Eventually, I leveled off and recognized also the hand of God’s common grace in American history, but without the aura of “the shining city upon a hill,” which is actually what Jesus calls his church (Matt. 5:14).

Although God’s Word is not a manual for cultural transformation, good theology creates a horizon for reimagining our relationships to one another as well as to God. And toxic theology, or even good theology perverted in the service of empire and ideology, has had disastrous cultural effects. Social justice is not a conversation that anyone can opt out of: every day we are engaged in secular rituals that either support or threaten the good of our neighbor. Evangelicals score high marks for charity (giving what we do not owe), but, in comparison with other traditions, evangelicalism has lacked the depth of theological reflection on justice (giving what we do owe). I believe that part of that is due to the tendency sometimes in the church’s history to separate the Great Commission given to it from the Great Commandment given to all human beings. Some culture warriors on the right have claimed recently that “social justice” is code for secular humanism; its very mention should raise “Red” flags. Today, however, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction, toward collapsing the former into the latter or the Great Commission into the Great Commandment. Both of these extremes exhibit a tendency to undervalue the distinct importance of both callings, as if everything that is worthwhile for Christian engagement must somehow be subsumed under the church’s commission and ministry.

There is therefore no better time to explore the relationship between making disciples and living as disciples in the world, or the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. In the great debates over the Trinity and the person of Christ, a crucial formula emerged: “distinction without separation.” The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are one God yet distinct persons, and Jesus Christ is one person in two natures. This formula has wider purchase across the whole field of theology, and in this article, I want to apply it to evangelism and justice.

The Great Commandment and the Great Commission

At their simplest levels, the Great Commandment and the Great Commission follow the distinction between law and gospel. A young lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:36-40). Jesus was simply repeating Moses (Lev. 19:18; Deut. 6:5). The second is like the first not only because it summarizes the second table of the law (love for neighbor), but because love for God is inextricable from the love of fellow image-bearers.

Distinction without Separation

The Cultural Mandate
Key Verse: Genesis 1:28
And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.
Activities: Family, Culture-Making, and Renewal, Art, Music, Commerce, Politics

The Great Commandment
Key Verse: Matthew 22:37-40
And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
Activities: Hospitality, Visiting the Sick, Feeding the Poor, Caring for the Needy

The Great Commission
Key Verse: Matthew 28:19-20
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Activities: Preaching, Word and Sacrament Ministry, Discipline, Discipleship, Catechesis

Of course, the Great Commission is also a command, but it differs from the Great Commandment in several ways. First, they differ in their subjects. The Great Commandment is given to all people in every time and place, while the Great Commission is given to the church alone. Second, they differ in their mandate. The Great Commandment calls all people to love God and neighbor, while the Great Commission calls the church to make disciples of Christ. Third, they differ in their methods. The Great Commandment is natural, inscribed on the human conscience in creation as part of the image of God, and these natural precepts are codified and enforced by social institutions (the family, various voluntary associations, and the state). The gospel, however, is not something that all people know inwardly and innately; it’s a surprising announcement that must be proclaimed. Unsupported by the regimes of this age, the kingdom of Christ advances by Word and Spirit, through preaching and sacrament. While social justice has the divinely ordained power of the sword to back it up, the church’s mandate refuses all appeals to temporal power.

Finally, these mandates differ in their goals. In its fallen condition, the human race is incapable of fulfilling its original vocation. There is no perfect society. Nevertheless, the moral law that resounds in the human conscience cries out for specific legislation and enforcement in civil societies. There are better and worse societies, and Christians work alongside non-Christians to improve the common good. Eschewing utopian illusions of grandeur, Christians nevertheless respect civil authority because it is ordained by God. Even if constitutions, laws, and enforcement cannot create the City of God, they can preserve a relative justice and peace in the corrupt regimes of this age. However, the goal of the Great Commission is not simply the restraint of public injustice and violence, but also the justification of sinners that establishes peace with God and reconfigures our relationships in the communion of saints. As the blessings of the covenant of grace are greater than those of creation and providence, so too are the responsibilities. In our common society, we may be obliged to exercise coercion (especially as soldiers or police officers) and demand repayment of loans (especially as bankers), but in the communion of saints our recourse must be to church courts for reconciliation, and we are to share our goods with one another. This is not social justice in the City of Man, but the new kind of fellowship that can spring only from union with Christ. Yet the former is still taken seriously by God and indeed has serious implications, especially for those who suffer injustice.

The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5), as well as instructions in the Epistles (especially 1 Corinthians), does not provide a blueprint for civil society but for the new society that the Spirit has planted as embassies of grace in the midst of a passing order. In short, the goal of the Great Commission is to proclaim God’s justification of sinners, not to reform society. Each commission creates its own covenantal bonds: the one temporal and grounded in the original creation; the other eternal and grounded in the new creation. Even the best of societies belong to this fading age, while in its worst periods the church participates in the age to come.

With clear scriptural warrant, the Protestant Reformers taught that the moral law (summarized in the Ten Commandments) is, in Calvin’s words, “nothing other than the natural law given in creation,” while the civil and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament were given uniquely and exclusively to Israel as God’s holy nation. In the same way, the Sermon on the Mount is a new constitution, no less restricted to the same covenant community that had received the benediction from God (the Beatitudes, with which the sermon begins). In this sermon, Jesus contrasts the old covenant polity (defined by Israel as a holy nation, engaging in holy war against God’s enemies) with the new covenant polity (defined by the true Israel united to Christ, witnessing and suffering persecution for the cause of Christ).

Together with unbelievers, Christians may hold a variety of offices in society: as neighbors and citizens, as volunteers and taxpayers as well as recipients of public goods and services, as teachers as well as students, as employers and employees. In every family, too, parents hold an office that, in the case of believers, is both civil and spiritual. Yet only in the fellowship of Christ are all members baptized into the general office of prophets, priests, and kings. And only in this communion are there pastors and teachers, elders, and deacons ordained to care for the saints in their earthly pilgrimage. It is this ministry that Christ instituted in the Great Commission, with its fuller articulation in the Epistles where the nature and qualifications of each of these offices is set forth.

Through the office especially of pastors, the Great Commission is fulfilled by the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Neither in the Great Commission itself, nor in the many passages in Acts and the Epistles that unpack it, is there any mention of making disciples by community service projects, political protests, or other good works that belong to the vocations believers and unbelievers share in common. Far from the “deeds, not creeds” approach to “missional witness” these days, these biblical passages reveal explicitly that Christ’s mandate is fulfilled through proclaiming the gospel, baptizing, and teaching.

Faithful Presence

As new creatures in Christ, we are born again by God’s Spirit and, as we read in 1 Peter, we “are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). For we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession,” that we might “proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). Therefore we rejoice with a worship-centered form of life and daily existence; our priestly vocation before the throne of God’s mercy is foundational for our life in Christ. Explained in terms of our citizenship in the kingdom of God, this priestly mission of God’s people in the present age comes to expression, as Meredith Kline relates, by way of being built up by God into a “living people-temple.”

But what does this entail with respect to our citizenship in the common City of Man? Positively, Kline explains, “It must be recognized that the whole life of God’s people is covered by the liturgical model of their priestly identity. All that they do is done as a service rendered unto God. All their cultural activity in the sphere of the city of man they are to dedicate to the glory of God.” This “sanctification of culture” is subjective, meaning that it happens within the inner man, it “transpires within the spirit of the saints” as we become this people-temple by the weekly ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Negatively, Kline continues, “It must be insisted that this subjective sanctification of culture does not result in a change from common to holy status in culture objectively considered. The common city of man does not in any fashion or to any degree become the holy kingdom of God through the participation of the culture-sanctifying saints in its development. Viewed in terms of its products, effects, institutional context, etc., the cultural activity of God’s people is common grace activity. Though it is an expression of the reign of God in their lives, it is not a building of the kingdom of God as institution or realm. For the common city of man is not the holy kingdom realm, nor does it ever become the holy city of God, whether gradually or suddenly. Rather, it must be removed in judgment to make way for the heavenly city as a new creation.”

All quotations are taken from Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Two Age Press, 2000), 201 (emphasis added).

Collapsing the gospel into the law and the Great Commission into the Great Commandment, many Christians today speak of our “living the gospel,” even “being the gospel,” with gratuitous appeals to participate with God in his redeeming and reconciling activity through their good works. However, this rhetoric is in danger of advancing another gospel, which is no gospel but rather the summary of the law. Many who speak in this way appeal to 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul refers to “the ministry of reconciliation” (v. 18). Yet, upon closer inspection, the apostle teaches the opposite to this Pelagianizing interpretation. First, he is defending his apostolic office, which centers on proclaiming Christ rather than ourselves. Second, he says that the inauguration of the new creation and God’s reconciliation of the world in Christ is a completed event. “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself” (v. 18). Third, when Paul adds, “and gave us the ministry of reconciliation,” he explains, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (v. 19). The reconciliation of which Paul speaks is not social justice: the duty that all people owe to God and to one another according to the moral law. Rather, it is the gospel that announces the fact of God’s completed work for sinners in his Son. God in Christ is the subject of the reconciling action; the apostles are the subject of the proclaiming action. To be sure, this is an important ministry—even participating with God—but it is qualitatively different from the work of God in Christ that they proclaim. They are not saviors and lords, but official messengers. “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (v. 20).

The gospel does not relieve us of the duty to love God and neighbor. Again, “distinction without separation” is our rule. From eternity to eternity, the moral law reveals God’s will for our lives. The law, however, cannot save. Far from reconciling sinners to God and to one another, the law condemns us before God; and even though it may restrain injustice and violence to some extent between sinners through ordained coercion, it cannot create that city whose builder and maker is God. Our good works as believers receive their direction from the law, but can draw their strength only from the gospel. Confusing these good works with God’s work of reconciliation and redemption comes as close as anything could to Paul’s famous anathema in Galatians 1:6-9. After all, “if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:21).

It is through the gospel that the Spirit creates, grows, and expands Christ’s church. That is why the churches of the Reformation confess that the true church is visible wherever the Word is truly preached and the sacraments are properly administered according to Christ’s institution. And, I would argue, the third clause of our Lord’s mandate (“teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded”) justifies the Reformed addition of a third mark, namely, church discipline. Already in Acts 2 we see the Great Commission playing out on the ground. At Pentecost, the Spirit empowers Peter to proclaim Christ as the fulfillment of the Scriptures, convicting many of their sin and opening their hearts to receive the good news. Those who believe are baptized (with examples in Acts of whole households being baptized along with a believing parent). “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Any program for missional outreach that omits these elements—or even makes them subordinate to humanly crafted initiatives—is a mission different from the one Christ ordained for his church.

Christians are free, however, to take up vocations that are not given to the church as a special institution but still ordained by God. The Great Commission doesn’t call us to be parents—or even to marriage. In fact, the examples of Jesus and Paul underscore this point! Nevertheless, marriage and the family are divinely ordained institutions. The Great Commission does not provide a roadmap to peace in the Middle East or domestic economic policy. Yet even as it is written on the conscience, the Great Commandment and the institutions God established in creation retain their divine authorization. Salvation—redemption and reconciliation—cannot be achieved by our good works, but we were saved for good works; and since God does not need them, the only place for them to go is out to our neighbors who do.

We have to struggle against the notion that in order for something to be honorable and divinely ordained it must be holy rather than common. I am called to love and serve my neighbor not because in doing so I am extending the kingdom, or even as a pretext for evangelism. Ultimately, I am called to do this because my neighbor is created in God’s image. As God’s image-bearers, especially those whose voices are ignored or marginalized, these neighbors are God’s own claim upon me and my life. Through their cries, I hear God’s call, “Adam, where art thou?” And I dare not generalize or deflect this summons, replying with Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Spirit of the Law

In his commentary on the eighth commandment in the very first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), John Calvin highlighted not only the command’s negative prohibition, “Thou shalt not steal,” but also its positive implications:

The commandment means: Since God is to be feared and loved by us, we are not to filch by fraud or seize by main force what belongs to another….But, if there is in us any fear or love of God, we are rather to press with every effort to aid either friend or foe, as much as we can with advice and help, to hold onto his possessions, and we are rather to give up our own than take away anything from another. And not this alone, but if they are pressed by any material difficulty, we are to share their needs and relieve their penury with our substance.

As Calvin and the other Reformers believed, the “do not” form of many of the Decalogue commandments also carried with them—with force—what we ought to do constructively to seek the love and well-being of our neighbor.

All believers participate in the holy vocation as prophets, priests, and kings. Through their witness to Christ and the mutual admonition, instruction, and service through diverse spiritual and temporal gifts, all members exercise this holy office. Some are also called to particular offices as pastors, elders, and deacons. However, all believers are also called to common offices, instituted in creation and the Great Commandment rather than in redemption and the Great Commission. When we are fulfilling our daily callings that contribute to the common good, and when we care for our children or elderly parents, work as volunteers for a women’s shelter, render pro bono legal advice or medical treatment, we are—as Luther put it—the “masks” that God wears to love and serve our neighbors. Even the baker is a means through whom God provides us, and all people, with daily bread. None of these callings is included in the Great Commission, yet these are only the tip of the iceberg of vocations to which God calls all people—Christian and non-Christian—in the Great Commandment.

By its mere existence in the world—what one Christian sociologist has recently called “faithful presence”—the church witnesses to a new creation whose undying life it has already tasted. God has given some Christians great opportunities to lead remarkable reforms in society. Like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, however, Paul clearly distinguishes this from the church’s calling. Pastors and elders oversee church discipline, but they have no authority to discipline the world. “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” (1 Cor. 5:9-13).

Though in degree far from the consummated reality, the church is qualitatively different in kind from all other social institutions and communities. As a weekly “re-salinization plant,” the church bathes its members in this new world, who are then shaken out of the saltshaker into the world in witness and service to their neighbors. Too often today, the salt loses its savor. Even though people come regularly to church, they find that they are not supported sufficiently in their longing to know better what they believe and why—and yet, they are expected to find their ministry in the church rather than their calling in the world. Instead of being in the world but not of it, they become of the world but not in it. Paradoxically, it is only when the church is doing something other than engaging in social justice missions that it actually shapes members “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [their] God” (Mic. 6:8).

Michael S. Horton is J. Gresham Machen Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.