In the USA, some Christian leaders are debating the nature and place of social justice. One side wants to define the Gospel as a proclamation that does not entail social justice. The other side affirms that the Gospel alone saves while also emphasizing those saved by the Gospel will necessarily live by the Gospel, which means doing justice. As might be obvious, the difference here is slight but significant enough to warrant discussion.*
My observation here is that the debate partly revolves around how the Old Testament applies to the church today. By grasping this point, parts of the dispute become much clearer. And it is worth exploring how the Old Testament relates to us today because this knowledge will help believers live their life as they ought to (2 Tim 3:16). The discussion matters.
The old covenant’s relationship to the new covenant
Two presenting issues within the current discussion are (1) can or should we repent for the sins of earlier generations? and (2) is social justice a gospel issue? Both questions relate to how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament; or rather, how the old covenant relates to the new covenant.
Peter Gentry observes, “[I]t is the interpretation of how the old covenant relates to the new that is the basis of all the major divisions among Christians; that is, all denominational differences derive ultimately from different understandings of how the covenant at Sinai relates to us today” (Kingdom through Covenant, 2018: 339). Gentry rightly locates large-scale differences among believers to be rooted in how Christians perceive the old covenant’s relationship to the new. The same observation holds true, at least in part, when it comes to social justice.
Old covenant believers lived under a covenant requiring social justice
Social justice may be a slippery term today, but everyone can agree on the essential meaning if not the specific applications: justice that happens within a society. For Israel, their covenantal foundation (Exod 20) entailed covenantal judgment (Exod 21–24). The latter, based on the former, explains how God’s covenant with Israel requires certain societal standards of justice. The ESV, for example, adds the title “Laws About Social Justice” to Exodus 22:16. This is because social justice as defined above makes up a significant portion of the Book of the Covenant.
The Book of the Covenant includes Exodus 19–24 with Deuteronomy (see Exod 24:7; 32:33, 34; Deut 29:1; see Gentry, 2018: 339), and it forms “the heart of the old covenant” (Gentry, 2018: 339). Significantly, the giving of the Book of the Covenant follows God’s rescue of Israel from Egyptian slavery (Exod 1–15). The covenant follows God’s act of salvation.
Yet God’s saving act (the Exodus) grounds the covenant (Exod 19:4–6; 20:2), and the covenant grounds the judgments (Exod 21–24). As noted, the judgments outline various forms of justice in society. In this sense, God’s salvation grounds and requires obedience. God’s saving act and covenant result in Israel acting justly within society. Put simply, Israel’s salvation and her call to justice coincide.
Here is the point: If someone sees new covenant ministry quite differently than the old covenant, then that person will less likely see social justice as being part of the church’s identity. The more someone sees continuity between the covenants, then one may more likely see justice as being part of the new covenant reality.
I’ll tie together this idea at the end more clearly, but I first discuss the second presenting issue of the current justice debate: repenting for the sins of the past.
Old covenant believers sinned and repented in groupish ways
Under the old covenant, Israel seemed to see themselves of a corporate whole. So God says to Israel:
But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land (Lev 26:40–42).
God says that when Israel goes into exile if they confess their iniquity and “the iniquity of their fathers,” he will remember his covenant with them.
Daniel obeys God’s word here many years later when he confesses that “because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people have become a byword among all who are around us” (Dan 9:16). He then confesses on behalf of his people. He says that he was “confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel” (Dan 9:20). In this passage, Daniel does not appear to repent for the sins of prior generations; yet he does confess that they did in fact sin (Dan 9:16).
In other words, God sent Israel into exile due to generational sin (fathers sinned, their children sinned, etc.). Daniel confesses the truth of past sin. Yet he does not seek to repent on behalf of those who died or for past sin as if it was his own. He was “confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel.”
I have to grant the possibility that Daniel may say “the sin of my people Israel” to mean the sin of those alive and dead. In which case, he would be repenting for the sins of forebears. If that’s the case—and it might very well be, since God is the God of the living not the dead—then Daniel 9 may be one example in the Bible where someone repents for the sins of others.
The solidarity of punishment and repentance also rolled over into the idea of kingship. The king of Israel represented the people. When David took a sinful census, he said: “I have sinned greatly” (2 Sam 24:10). Yet David’s punishment extended not to him individually but to the people of Israel as a whole (2 Sam 24:10–17). Still, it is clear that David owns his own sin, and the people who suffered were not individually responsible (2 Sam 24:17; cf. Ezek 18).
In light of these passages, how much of this corporate emphasis carry over into the church’s life? For some, the idea that a white person should confess that their grandparents were sinners and that they themselves benefit from generational racism belies the Bible’s focus on individual culpability for sin. But since old covenant believers often sinned and repented as a group, then might this same sensibility transfer over to the present?
The more discontinuity one sees between the Old and New Testaments, the less likely the answer becomes “yes.” The more continuity one sees, the more likely someone might answer in the affirmative. Still, it is not as if these Old Testament passages exactly correspond to today for Israel was under a specific covenant with God which entails certain groupish behaviours. Yet the underlying wisdom of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel does apply to us today in some way since all Scripture is inspired for our spiritual benefit (2 Tim 3:16).
Reflections on the carry-over from the old to the new
My purpose in writing here is to tease out one aspect of the current debate, namely, how directly old covenant requirements carry over into the life of the church today. Obviously, Israel formed a nation, not churches within nations. So, that difference alone makes a huge mark.
Yet Israel had to be just among its own people as well as foreigners: “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exod 22:21). And the inner and exterior expressions of justice carry over to the church. Paul writes, “let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). He also brackets Romans with the phrase “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). Certainly, the obedience of faith does not only relate to Romans 1–11 alone but also to Romans 12–16 in which Paul exhorts believers to do good works.
The point being is that it is not easy to separate our faith and our works. True faith works (James 2). Jesus himself tells the rich young ruler to sell all that he has, give to the poor, and follow him. Yet Jesus’ point here seems to be that one should give up everything and follow him—not exactly that giving to the poor is part of following him (but see Gal 2:10).
And no New Testament example of preaching the Gospel includes anything but the story of Israel, Christ, him crucified, and the resurrection, and so on. So we must distinguish between the preaching of the Gospel and the obedience of faith. The latter implies an already existing belief in the Gospel, which changes how we live as when Paul says he does not lie because the promises of God have come true in Jesus (2 Cor 1:20).
When it comes to social sins and repentance, a similar paradigm from the old covenant carries over into the new covenant. Paul writes, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26). The opposite must be true: if one member does wrong, all somehow share in this shame. And this seems to be Paul’s point when he instructs the Corinthians not to tolerate sexual sin in their midst (1 Cor 5:1–13).
Still, we have no direct evidence that we somehow share the guilt of another’s sin in the church. We might be culpable if we tolerate it, but it is still we who are tolerating it.
It seems clear that under the new covenant we voluntarily bear each other’s burdens like Christ bore our sin on the cross. This fulfills the new covenant law. As Paul writes, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:1–2).
Grasping how the old relates to the new will at least help us to think through the current debate. It merely is one part of a complex dispute. In the end, the current justice debate among Evangelicals is an intramural dispute on how the Gospel and justice coincide. We can hope that cool heads rule the day and that we come to a clearer understanding of the truth through prayer, the Spirit, and Scripture. At the end of the day, Christ will grow his church despite our best and worst efforts at defining justice in relation to the Gospel.
*A third group also exists which would essentially place social justice within the orbit of the Gospel (e.g., Union Seminary). But this group does not exist within the Evangelical church in the USA (or if it does, it does at very fringe), which is where this debate currently is happening.