The short answer: No. The long answer: yes, ish. For the full answer, keep reading.
My main area of service these days is as a worship leader. I am also, however, someone who’s always loved a challenge, and so one of my favourite scriptures – as a worship leader – comes from Amos 5:21-24:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
“I despise your religious festivals”, “away with the noise of your songs!”; guess the worship meeting’s cancelled, then?
Well, not quite. You see, all these things that God condemns in the passage from Amos – burnt offerings and grain offerings, religious festivals and songs – are things that God previously commanded, in the books of the Law. They’re not bad things. So why is God so vehemently angry with the Israelites for doing them?
The answer comes in the last two lines of v.24. The problem is not what the Israelites are doing. The problem is what they’re not doing. They are perfectly religious, but they have forgotten justice.
The same theme occurs again and again in the Bible. Through the prophet Isaiah, God observes that the Israelites are great at following religious strictures. They cry out in dismay that they have fasted but God doesn’t seem to have heard. The problem is God has heard – God has heard the cries of the poor and oppressed and He’s seen that despite all their supposed, showy religion, the Israelites do nothing for them. Denouncing Israel as a nation merely seeming eager to know His ways, God declares:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
And likewise, in Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Those who engaged in social justice He speaks of being welcomed into the new creation, but to all those who do not feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite in strangers, clothe the naked, or tend to the sick or incarcerated, Jesus declares, “Depart from me, you who are cursed” (Matthew 25:31-46). Those who commit to social justice he welcomes into the Kingdom; those who do not, he turns away.
God despises empty worship, and no worship appears more empty to God than the worship of a thoroughly “religious” person who does not care for those around them – a religious person without true faith. The sheer ferocity of the terms God uses to convict those who reject the call for social justice is staggering; it is little wonder that Jesus declared that the second greatest commandment and one part of summarising all the Law and the Prophets should be “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39-40).
Does this mean that I can only enter heaven, that I am only saved, if I help the poor and needy? Absolutely not. Our salvation is by grace, a free gift from the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, which we play no part in, no good work or observation of law, save only in repenting of our sins and accepting the gift that is freely given to us (see Romans 3, Galatians 2-3). So why does Jesus say, in Matthew 25, that those who do not engage in social justice are turned away?
It is because social justice is not the source of our salvation, but it is the visible outworking of a real and saving faith. As James writes, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). We are not alive because we move and breathe; we move and breathe because we are alive. Likewise, faith is not “alive” because of deeds – the power of salvation does not lie in deeds or law, but in faith only – but if your faith is alive, it will result in a desire to do the will of Him who has redeemed you by His grace, in accordance with the faith God has given you. In the same way, Paul writes, “if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). Faith is only faith if it leads to the love that Jesus preached as He bled out on the cross to save us, once for all.
There is one test of whether your faith is real, genuine faith, or merely belief, which as James writes, even the demons have (James 2:19): does it bring justice with it? Do you hate what God hates? Do you weep over the suffering that God weeps over?
In the gospel of John, Jesus says: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” (John 14:23.) If we truly love Jesus, we will want what he wants, because we are overwhelmed by grace, abounding in gratitude, and our hearts are being transformed into the likeness of his own. When we obey his teaching, he tells us that all the Law and the Prophets are summarised in two commandments, to love God with everything we have, and to love others. The second commandment of course follows from the first; if we really love God with everything we have, we will love others, because we know they are made in the image of the God we love. And if we truly love our neighbour, if we truly love God’s creations in the people around us, then we will follow the fast of Isaiah 58 – we will loose the chains of injustice, untie the cords of the yoke to set the oppressed free, break every yoke, share our food with the hungry, provide the wanderer with shelter, and clothe the naked. We won’t just brush the suffering in our world under the carpet and wish it away – for as James teaches, “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:16). No, we will sacrifice – sacrifice our time, our money, our very lives – for the people God has created and loved, even as Christ sacrificed for us. In short, we will commit to social justice.
This is not some new, “social” Gospel. This is not Christianity and social justice, or Christianity+. This is just plain, old, real Christianity. The distinctiveness of Christians through the ages has always come from a radical and utterly self-sacrificial justice.
The Gospel was always meant to be “good news to the poor” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18). Our salvation comes by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:16) and by the free gift of grace that God has so lavished upon us; nothing of what we do can ever add to or take away from that. If we do our social justice because it’s a “good thing”, to try and add to our “Christian Points” and make ourselves a “good person”, we should at once reject it from our lives – that is not the justice God desires. Rather, in faith, the test of our faith is whether it overflows in the love that leads us to social justice; if we are lacking in the desire to do justice, we should pray that God may increase our faith. Justice is not the source of our salvation – but it is the test of our faith.
In all his ministry, Jesus brought salvation and justice together, forgiving sins and bringing healing together. The ministry of every Christian is like it. Social justice is not a source of salvation, and it will never change the world until God’s Kingdom comes. But it is the real outworking of the love that comes from true faith, the test of our faith, and the secondary proof of the Gospel we preach.
If that is so, “let justice roll on like a river”!
Toby Lowther | 2nd year @ univ