I am not the only one troubled by the following two truths:
(1) 35,000 children die every day in this world from starvation and preventable diseases. The HIV virus threatens to be an actual pandemic in Africa. Two billion people in the world live on less than 2 dollars a day. And so on. You've all heard the statistics. Hopefully they trouble you too.
(2) While more and more evangelicals are awakening to these miserable realities, there is a large group especially in the Reformed community that reacts against this evangelical awakening. These folks have reasonable concerns, but in general I think they are wrong. I'll explore some of that in detail later.
It is with these two truths in mind that I am starting this series on how a right theology of the cross will lead Christians to passionately pursue what we commonly call "social justice" ministry.
But we shouldn't call it that. What we should call it is "social mercy" ministry. Here's why:
"Justice" is a term the Bible usually uses for the faithfulness that He exhibits and His people often fail to exhibit in keeping His laws. That's why it is often paired with words like "righteousness" (Gen. 18:19), it is what we do when we refuse to accept bribes (Ex. 23:2; Deut. 16:19; 1 Sam. 8:3), and it is what God enacts when He punishes sinners (Job 8:3) or maintains by punishing Christ in their place (Rom. 3:21-25).
It is harder to pin down a consistent biblical definition of "mercy", but let's borrow Grudem's definition of it as an attribute of God: "God's goodness toward those in misery and distress." Compare this with God's grace, which Grudem defines as "God's goodness toward those who deserve only punishment." It is frankly impossible to argue that the Bible maintains such precise definitions of these two terms. It doesn't. These are merely helpful ways of categorizing two truths about God that are indeed biblical. The language is just meant to organize our thinking.
In any case, we should always recognize that words (biblical or otherwise) have ranges of meaning rather than some fixed dictionary definition. That's why there are multiple dictionaries, multiple definitions for words, and why dictionaries are always being updated, expanded, and even contracted--words just don't have fixed, inflexible meanings. A perfect illustration is my paragraph about "justice" above: there are multiple uses of the word in just those few examples.
In any case, "social justice" is not necessarily a helpful term because it suggests that the poverty that it aims to eradicate is always caused by injustice, which is debatable at best. The better way to talk about it is "social mercy". So that's the term I'm going to use. It's not the biggest deal in the world, and most of us know what each other means as we use the term "social justice", but I figured I ought to explain why I'm using the term I am.
The next post in this series will begin to argue that the cross demands that the church practice social mercy. I'm looking forward to the interactions we'll have about this massively important topic.