American Vision and the Word that Justifies

Introduction:

Joel McDurmon has written a lengthy explanation of why he could not sign the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel, and you can find his explanation here. What I would like to do in this space is provide a two-fold response to his explanation. The first is actually not a response, but rather a fistful of responses to things he said in the course of his article, none of which are the main thing. The second thing I want to do is explain how the concept of social justification explains what is actually going on here. This second section is going to be a bit more extensive, but I invite you along for kind of a road trip, trusting that it will also be truly informative. In a world gone crazy, anything that helps orient us should be a true help.

As different types of groups position themselves with reference to this Statement, this is not a matter of mere agreement or disagreement. Much more is going on. Tremors and shakes on the surface are one thing, tectonic plates another.

I do feel a bit bad for the length of this piece because all the blogging experts say that blog posts should be pithy and sweet, and to stop presuming that your readers have 19th century attention spans. But I have confidence in you all, and I also have labored to keep it interesting, relevant, and with a nice citrus aftertaste.

First, Some Surface Tremors:

Joel complains that crucial terms used in the document are not defined (e.g. intersectionality, postmodernism, and even social justice itself), and that it is not made clear who exactly is being opposed. Now that kind of specificity does happen sometimes in Scripture, as with Alexander the coppersmith, but who exactly were the beasts at Ephesus (1 Cor. 15:32)? And who did Paul oppose with tears, those enemies of the cross of Christ (Phil. 3:18)? And who were the dogs, the mutilators of the flesh (Phil. 3:2)? Who were the deceitful workers (2 Cor. 11:13)? If we follow the pattern of Scripture, it is not the case that precise definition and specific names are always necessary in order for us to know what kind of thing we are talking about. But with that said, if it must be spelled out, the kind of trouble spots that the Statement is addressing should be obvious enough—e.g. the Revoice conference, the MLK50 celebration, and the kind of evangelical Reformed subculture that made such things even a possibility.

He also says that this ambiguity leaves room for hypocritical slave-owners to sign it. And what good is a statement like this if a slave-owner could sign? Well, as I never tire of reminding pretty much everybody, it matters whether or not the slave-owner was Philemon or Simon Legree. Does it really bother Joel that Philemon could have signed this statement? I would think that would rather be kind of a feather in our cap . . .

And a third thing should be mentioned here. It has been alleged that this statement is nakedly reductionistic, and that it is just an exercise in just-keep-your-own-nose-clean-pietism. Two responses to this. First, I know something about the genesis of the Statement, and know that it was not coming from that quarter of the Christian world at all. I was not one of the drafters, but I was (very charitably) consulted, as was my colleague Toby Sumpter. Our views on social engagement are very well known, and that was no barrier to us giving suggestions and input. And that leads to the second thing. Not only are our views on social engagement well known, but so are our views on keeping the gospel clear of definitional confusing entanglements. If it does not bear fruit, it is not the gospel, but the fruit of the gospel is not the gospel.

Preaching Christ crucified will transform nations. Preaching transformed nations will transform nothing—except perhaps transforming once fruitful ministries into fellow travelers with the progressives.

This Statement wants to keep those things that are of “first importance” in their first and central place. Everything else follows, like goodness and mercy, all the days of our lives.

The Word That Justifies:

The second part of this post has to do with the necessary relationship of social justice to social justification.

Now here is the thing. I want to set out the phenomenon, and then undertake to explain what I believe is happening—not only to America, but also at American Vision. Joel is a precisionist, a logical guy. He and I have crossed swords before, most notably over abolitionism v. smashmouth incrementalism when it comes to the outlawing of human abortion. Mark that disagreement—it will come back around later. Passionate intensity is one of Joel’s characteristics, but it is going to betray him if he doesn’t return to something that his reconstructionist forebearers did very well—and which I see American Vision drifting away from.

I am talking about theology that works in terms of inescapable concepts—not whether but which. Not whether we impose morality, but which morality we impose. Not whether we have a theocracy, but rather which theocracy we have. In this regard, at just this point, I learned a great deal from Rushdoony and North (Joel’s father-in-law), and this is the main criticism I would offer to the new face of American Vision. Not whether we have social justice, but which social justice we will have. Not whether social justice will be grounded on social justification, but rather which social justification will be the ground of our understanding of social justice.

And mark it well—not whether American Vision opposes racial injustices (for they always have), but rather which racial injustices they oppose. Not whether they have a grid that rejects racism, but which grid that rejects racism.

Biblical Justification

It may appear to some as though I had wandered off the point again, but I can assure you I have not. This is pertinent. It will tie right in. Bear with me for just another moment. Trust me.

The gospel of Christ is objective, meaning that the facts of the gospel lie outside us, in history. Christ lived a perfect, sinless life, suffered, bled and died on the cross, was buried in the tomb according to the Scriptures, and rose from the dead on the third day, also according to the Scriptures. All that Christ is and all that He did is gloriously imputed to His followers, who are gathered out from among the ranks of sinful men. We, like the others, were guilty. We, like the others, were objects of wrath. When the virtue of Christ’s obedient death on the cross is imputed to us, this means that the penalty we owed for all our sins and crimes is a penalty that has been paid in full. We were guilty and because of the death of Jesus that was imputed to us we are now not guilty.

But it is not sufficient for men to be not guilty when the requirement of God is that we be righteous. Adam and Eve were innocent before they sinned, but they were not righteous in the sense of possessing a tested righteousness. So what God did concerning our deficiency with regard to this missing righteousness was this—He imputed the righteous life of Christ to us as well. This means that when God’s holiness requires that I offer up and submit to Him a life well-lived, a life perfectly lived, I am able to present to Him the life of Christ, as though I myself had lived that life. As Machen said near the end of his life, no hope without it.

The passion of Christ takes our guilt away and the life of Christ, culminating in His resurrection, imputes to us the righteousness of the life we should have lived but didn’t (Rom. 4:25).

Now this means that we are set free from every form of condemnation whatever (Rom. 8:1), setting us free to pursue a life of increasing sanctification. This is the bedrock of every form of Christian transformation—no condemnation. By every form of Christian transformation, I include individual sanctification and societal reformation. No condemnation is where we start, not where we end. No condemnation. And when this gospel is preached among a people, and the yeast of the kingdom begins to work through that society, what is nature of the yeast? It is the yeast of no condemnation.

Repentance is required because there are those who refuse to start.

“He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18).

Those who refuse to start the process are condemned already. Condemnation is where they were born—it is where all of us were born. But for all those who call upon the Lord, and who embark on a life of learning, discipleship, repenting, growing, transforming, and obeying, the starting pistol for this race indicates one thing only, and that is no condemnation. This is a gospel of grace.

Grace requires no condemnation, and grace is the only thing that can bring about lasting change, whether in an individual or in a society. This means that lasting change with regard to any injustice—whether regarding sex, race, class, capital, or education—will only be possible if someone is able to preach (convincingly) the realities of no condemnation. And the only form that such words about no condemnation can righteously take is the form it takes when the preacher is talking about the sinless one wracked on a Roman tree.

We strive to grow up into our sanctification, and it is God’s good pleasure to have us pursue that holiness (without which no one will see the Lord), and to do so without a condemnation-gun pressed to our temple. We are declared not guilty, and we are also declared to be righteous.

Absolute cleansing from all sin is given to us as an absolute gift. Absolute righteousness is given to us as an absolute gift. Whatever we are called to do in this world, however we are supposed to labor and work, must be done by us with a sense of the total relief that this message of biblical justification provides. To take a simple example, if you fight racism from a foundation of having been forgiven absolutely for all your racial animosity and vainglory, then you are really fighting racism. If you fight racism from a foundation of tracking around your perpetual racial guilt, then you are actually propagating racism, making things worse, and generally getting in the way.

This is a message of grace, and nothing but grace—and it leads inexorably and necessarily to moral transformation (Rom. 6: 1-4). All other systems are based on works, and depend for their motivation on some form of the lash. You will never be good enough, you will never be pure enough, and you will always be a misogynistic racist. You exude micro-aggressions.

So I am not talking about trifles. All genuinely Christian social action is grounded on the rock of an absolute declaration of not guilty. “Social justice,” in every form I have seen it take, drives people before it with a whip—you are guilty, you toxic male. You are guilty, white boy. You are guilty, you conservative. You are guilty, you grandchild of complacent Republicans. You are guilty, you there with a savings account. You are guilty, you descendant of slave owners. You are guilty, guilty, guilty and though you will never be able to fix it, we might be willing, in a spirit of benevolence, to let you try. And then to try again. Welcome to the squirrel cage run of salvation by works.

The Structure of Social Justice:

The world really is messed up, and something needs to be done to put things to rights. That much should not be controversial, and usually isn’t. What is controversial is what happens when we try to decide who should be allowed to be responsible for putting things right. In any given circumstance, those who are allowed to pursue the implementation of social justice have to be a justified class. Those whose contributions to social justice are recognized as such are the justified class. Those who do something to advance genuine justice on the ground, if they are not members of the justified class, have their contributions serenely ignored.

So the definition of social justice rides on the definition of social justification. We cannot pursue social justice without designated arbiters of whether or not it is “happening,” or whether “that counts,” or if it represents “genuine progress.” This is a deep structure in the world. It is necessary, given how God governs the world. All doctrines of sanctification (including the false ones) are dependent on their corresponding doctrine of justification. This justification is provided by God or by the god of the system. The law that defines the nature of sanctification will either come from God or from the god of the system. And God, or the god of the system, will determine who the arbiters or referees of social justice actually are. In any system, only the justified get to determine the nature of justice.

And if you want to know whether you are dealing with the living God or with just the god of the system, all you need to do is look at the identity of the justified class. If they are the saints of God, as defined by the book of Ephesians, the justice they are pursuing really will be justice, biblical justice. It will really do people good. But if they are the ungodly, unbelievers who caused the problem with their last round of reforms and who are agitating for the authority to institute the next round of reforms, you will know that the “sanctification” being urged upon us is the kind of social justice we actually deserve to get, good and hard. After ten years of living under that kind of social justice, you will find it harder and harder to distinguish it from social injustice. What got Venezuela where they are now? It was the dogged pursuit of social justice without reference to Christ or the law of God. That is the future of every form of godless social justice.  

So another inescapable concept is that justification is always a matter of imputed righteousness. It is a legal and forensic category. It is of course legal and forensic in the world of Protestant theology, which is simply a restatement of Pauline theology. But it is also legal and forensic in all the secular knock-offs and counterfeits. It is a legal and forensic category for anyone who presumes to have the authority to pronounce on what is and is not social justice, what does and does not constitute a real contribution to justice. The referees and arbiters assume this right on the basis of a mere declaration, the imputation that comes to them from the god of the system.

Whenever a group has received the blessing of imputed righteousness from the god of the system, they are then authorized to pursue social justice, and to pronounce on its successes—whether or not they have been successes. Especially if they have not. Only the “saints” are authorized to undertake the task of “sanctification.” Anything done by interlopers will be ignored and/or reviled. Donald Trump could make every black person in America into a millionaire by this time next week, and his lame efforts would be scorned and derided, and why? Because he is not justified. More about this shortly.

And this is why a coterie of Hollywood gropers can be put in charge of the #MeToo movement. This is how the glitterati can fly around the world in private jets (the kind of jets that burn jet fuel), attending conferences about the existential threat of climate change. This is why the carriers of poverty contagion that we call socialists can be put in charge of helping the downtrodden. They are all given a pass on their actual behavior and its actual consequences because of this imputed “righteousness.” But it all comes crashing down at some point because every secular example of this imputed righteousness is based on a lie. It cannot stand. It is idolatrous. It collapses.

Christians have an imputed righteousness also, but in our case—being based as it is on the death and resurrection of Jesus—the declaration of our righteousness is righteous. Because of the sacrifice and raising of Jesus, God can be just and the one who justifies (Rom. 3:26).

Two Americas and a Justified Church

As we consider the vitriolic state of our current political scene, we can use this insight to help us make sense of what is going on. For over a century, the system of social justification in our country has been in the hands of the progressives. If you were a liberal, you were on the side of the angels, and if you were a conservative, you were allowed to come tagging along behind as a member of the loyal opposition, just so long as you kept it to a low level of respectable growling, and didn’t oppose too much, or too effectively. This was a conservatism that was simply “the shadow that followed radicalism to perdition,” to use Dabney’s phrase. If anyone got too strident in their opposition, they could simply have their credentials revoked, and this meant they were now officially an extremist. And if you were relegated to that status, it meant that you couldn’t participate in the game anymore.

We are living in time when the old order of social justification is collapsing, and is being challenged by a new rival. This is the deeper meaning of Trump, which I need to save for another post. But in the meantime, it should simply be noted that the church should be challenging all of this, from a distinctly biblical basis. We must challenge the right of the world to determine who the socially justified are, and consequently what social justice actually is. This is what I think Joel is missing.  

When the message of gospel grace is preached in the world, it will always be necessarily disruptive. It will always challenge the powers that be, which means that preachers of such grace either need to dilute their message, so it ceases to be a threat, so that it matches or approximates what the world defines as social justice, or they need to develop a theology that invites them to challenge the powers that be, root and branch.

Conclusion:

So why do I think Joel is missing this point? Well, Joel laments the fact that John MacArthur showed up at the motel where Martin Luther King was shot the day after the murder. Using this as a metaphor for the lamentable inaction of conservative Christians on racial issues during the civil rights era, he wonders why we conservative Christians were a “day late.” Why not a day early?

He also says that God is going to have to raise up another reformer in the mold of Martin Luther King.

“With theological constructs and power structures like this, another MLK will probably have to arise. You can bet he won’t be fully orthodox, because the orthodox people won’t address the truth. So, God will send another liberal to do the job the church should have been doing all along while it was allegedly fighting liberals.”

You can see here, plainly, how social justification works, and how neglect of this understanding is in the process of transforming American Vision. When this next King shows up, denouncing racial injustice, will Joel be there by his side? Clearly, yes, for the usual collection of conservatives is denounced for not having been there the first time. But King was a statist, a liberal, and a walking bête noire— right out of Joel’s cabinet of private political horrors. The reason that does not matter is that King was justified. But by whom?

When it comes to alliances, Joel is usually a purist. I mentioned earlier a clash that he and I have had over the tactical difference between settling for nothing but his absolute ban on all abortions now versus my (smashmouth) incrementalist approach. He would say, in effect, “tactical difference, nothing. Human lives are at stake.” He says that no compromise is to be permitted which says, “and after that you can kill the baby.” Now we both believe that God’s law prohibits all abortions, we both believe all abortions ought to be against the law, we both believe that pro-life Christians should not rest until that goal has been achieved, and so on. You would think we should be able to find common ground, and not get into a confrontation over it. But nothing doing. That would be a moral compromise. So Joel and I cannot team up, despite agreement on almost everything, and he could team up with “another liberal.” Nothing can account for this except an understanding of social justice arises out of a particular take on social justification.

So coming alongside the next Martin Luther King would be a different matter for Joel, and why? Because he would be a socially justified spokesman. I am by no stretch a socially justified anything. I am a socially-designated gremlin, a wraith, a loup-garou, a hob-goblin.

If John MacArthur had showed up a day before King’s assassination, that means he would have showed up on the day of King’s last adulterous fling. So if we conservatives had come alongside King, as Joel says we should have done, what decision would we have faced? What decision would we have faced immediately? The answer is that we would have had to decide whether King’s justified status meant that his adulteries should be ignored. Here is a genuine question for Joel. Should they have been?

So this is how we can see that, when it comes to social action, Joel is reacting more to the world’s signals of social justification than he is to the biblical system of justification that the Statement proclaims. Please note that I am not saying that Joel denies biblical justification. He is my brother in Christ. I am saying that Joel does not understand that the system of biblical justification is an inescapable rival to every other system of social justification.

And I do understand that I need to develop all of this more. But any more words, and I am afraid I shall be trespassing upon your patience.