Yesterday following the morning service a dear and faithful brother approached me at the door. In his customarily intense way, he looked me in the eyes and thanked me for the sermon. He expressed his appreciation for how the gospel was present throughout the exposition. Then he moved from appreciation to loving critique. Not about the sermon, but about my posts on Ferguson-related themes. He asked if I thought the gospel should run throughout Christian comments and responses to Ferguson.
Of course, I agreed. We are gospel people. We ought always make the gospel plain. He leaned in a little tighter and asked if I thought I’d done that. My honest answer was “no.” Not because I don’t believe in the gospel’s constant relevance, but because I believe escapist appeals to “the gospel” actually allow Christians to forsake Christian responsibility to be engaged socially and politically in remedying injustice in this life.
A few other people were beginning to bunch up in the line, so my brother graciously moved on. I think we both knew the conversation wasn’t finished. For my part, I’ve been thinking since then of how to speak about the gospel in a way that’s rooted and applied. When I told my wife about the conversation she looked at me with that “I’ve been telling you that” look. So, here goes. An attempt to apply the gospel in actionable ways to these Ferguson—Staten Island—Cleveland—New York kinda times we’re in.
- Stick Close to Jesus Personally
I received a reminder of this from a fellow elder just as I was writing this post. The reminder came in the form of a quote from chapter five of The Bruised Reed, where Sibbes writes, “That age of the church which was most fertile in subtle questions was most barren in religion; for it makes people think religion to be only a matter of cleverness, in tying and untying of knots. The brains of men inclining that way are hotter usually than their hearts.” We must recognize the danger of entrapment in “subtle questions,” whether they’re the subtle questions of theology or of sociology. Those dangers include—to paraphrase Sibbes—hot heads and cold hearts. A quick visit to most twitter feeds and Facebook pages will supply ample evidence that this heating of the crown and cooling of the chest is well underway among many Christians.
We have it on the greatest Authority that, “Whoever abides in [Christ] and [Christ] in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Apart from Christ we can do nothing. We become unfruitful in spiritual knowledge and barren in our activism. Nothing could be more vital in Ferguson-like times than we sing and pray, “Jesus keep me near the cross.” To put it another way: We must first apply the gospel to our own lives by immersing ourselves in the truth of God’s word, warming ourselves with the Spirit’s fervency in prayer and keeping ourselves in the love of God. We begin here and never finish this delightful duty.
- Actually Share the Gospel with Someone
The gospel is no one’s hope if the gospel is not shared. If we are escapists, we say “the gospel is what’s needed” only to go about our merry way without actually speaking to anyone in need of it. So, if we would be Christ’s ambassadors in this time, we should join a protest line, drop by a police station, or knock on doors to ask if we can tell others about the Son of God’s death, burial, resurrection and return to redeem people from their sins and to renew the cosmos. We should position ourselves to actually call people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. We should always be active evangelists, but these life-and-death, edge-of-your-seat times of conflict should heighten our pleading with the world: Be reconciled to God.
- Avoid the Condemnation of Others
The angel instructed Mary to name the Savior “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to rescue it from the judgment that is coming (John 3:17). Ours is not a message of condemnation but of clemency. That’s why any talk of the just judgment of victims, while true in some very general sense, cannot be mistaken for a “gospel-centered perspective.” If we say, “Brown got what he deserved,” or “Garner died because he was overweight and asthmatic,” or “The officer ought to be _____,” we are not speaking the language of the gospel. We have reverted back to our native tongue: Law. We have begun to require eyes and teeth in recompense for eyes and teeth. That, beloved, is decidedly not the gospel. That is not grace. That is not the forgiveness and redemption our Lord offers.
So the last people who should write and speak to finally condemn others are Christians. Of all people, we should be the ones who genuinely weep at life cut short because we know mercy is new every morning and a sinner just might be saved the next day! After the loss of life itself, the most lamentable thing I’ve seen in these times are the significant number of Christians who feel perfectly justified in reductively totalizing a person with a label like “thug,” proclaiming their death “just desert,” and who do so in the name of “the gospel.” Their condemning words and attitudes betray the most essential element of the gospel—grace. Though judgment, wrath and hell are necessary aspects of the gospel–the bad news the good news answers–if we stop there then we have actually stopped short of the gospel itself.
- Commit Ourselves to Act
A justified people must act justly. I realize that there’s difficult work to be done in defining “justice” in individual cases. But that’s work we must do if we claim to be gospel people. For Christ was crucified and resurrected as an act of righteousness. God was vindicating himself at the same time He was justifying sinners (Rom. 3:24-25; 4:25). So saving faith and temporal justice are not at odds. The scripture tells us of the man of faith, Abraham, “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen 18:19). The most natural desire in the world for the Christian who understands the centrality of justice to the gospel ought to be to obey Micah 6:8—“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” This is what is good. Let us not miss the emphasis on taking action—do justice. And it is gospel good. Notice how the apostle Paul finishes those beautiful statements of the gospel in Titus 2 and 3 with an exhortation to good deeds. He says, we who believe ought to be “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14) and “careful to devote ourselves to good works” (Titus 3:8).
What might doing justice look like? Any number of things is possible. Not all Christians are called to the same actions. But here’s a sample: join an area protest, write to your elected officials, support an advocacy organization, get involved in the political process, join a discussion group on these issues, do evangelism in a “Ferguson” and a gated community. Let us commit ourselves to act not just where Fergusons are concerned but everywhere there’s injustice.
- Develop a Special Regard for the Fatherless and Poor
As I’ve engaged various persons in discussions we frequent theme is the fact that Michael Brown’s parents were not married. People pointed with great zeal to the breakdown of African-American families and the absence of fathers as an explanation for the behavior they thought they saw in Brown and justification (even if sad justification) for the officer’s actions. In so many words they were saying, “We wouldn’t have had this problem if Black families were intact.” And that they offered as a “gospel perspective.”
But the scripture calls us to a different posture. Not so much different as if family stability and marriage do not matter. They do. Different in terms of how we position ourselves for justice in such cases. Consider Deut. 24:16-18—“Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin. You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.” Mike Brown doesn’t deserve death because his father sinned against his mother. And if we regard him as “fatherless,” then we shouldn’t be sneering and condemning but actually more eager to see that justice for Brown is done. Psalm 82:3 declares, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.” Isaiah declares that we should “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17). James tells us this posture lies at the heart of true religion (James 1:27).
Why should we think this an application of the gospel? Is it not because we who were sinners were adopted by God the Father through Jesus Christ the Son? We were orphans, separated from the love of our True Father. But we were not finally rejected or vilified. We were loved. We received a Mediator. Jesus became our Advocate. Our adoption was completed and we became the family of God. If we want to live our the faith and the gospel in trying times like these, we need to be the people who adopt the Michael Browns (literally and figuratively) rather than condemn them or justify any injustice based upon their fatherlessness.
- Cultivate Gentleness in Conflict
In our day and age, few things could be more sapping of Christian activism and encouraging of conflict than many of the so-called “news outlets” we consume. Good journalism remains hard to find. We can find it, but it means turning off the constant blare of talking heads, pundits and political hacks masquerading as journalists. It means avoiding the rapid-fire opinions of blogs—perhaps including this one. These sources flood our minds with worldly thinking. They stir us up to greater levels of fear and anger. They keep us from reacting and speaking as we ought.
Instead, “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.” Why? “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:24-26). If we care about gospel fruit in the midst of Ferguson-Garner situations, we need to learn what our mothers tried to teach us as children: kindness, patience and gentleness. Our effectiveness as witnesses depends on our avoiding that quarrelsome spirit of the age while replying with gospel-inspired kindness. Maintaining this posture requires we turn off the TV and the talk radio so that we can renew our minds and refuse the squeezing pressure of the world (Rom. 12:1-2).
- Lean In for the Long Term in the Messy Times
When news of Michael Brown’s death spread, the world—including the Christian world—found itself quickly polarized. Most people considered the Brown situation messy, unclear and a “bad case” for establishing justice. A week later the Staten Island grand jury failed to indict an officer in the choking death of Eric Garner. The video evidence and the illegality of the evidence led parties long divided to chorally decry the injustice.
Here’s the thing: Bible-believing Christians have a repeated mandate to “not pervert justice,” especially on behalf of the victimized (Exod. 22:16; 23:2; etc). If we are to prevent the perversion of justice, then as Christians we need to be most involved in the least clear situations. If we believe we have the mind of Christ, if we believe we bear the message of hope, if we believe ourselves to be salt and light in the world, then we must reveal that mind, deliver that message and spread our salt and light where and when others are least likely to do so. We cannot retreat to the convenience of “neat” cases when the very nature of injustice is its messiness, its defiance of order, it’s stubborn insistence on not conforming to goodness and righteousness. Restricting ourselves to the tidy cases provides us more comfort and convenience but it does nothing for the poor, oppressed and mistreated whose cases go unnoticed by video cameras or whose testimonies are challenged. I most want Christian minds and sensibilities where the world is most likely to get it wrong.
It’s good to partner wherever you can with whomever you can if in good conscience you agree. But sooner or later, there’ll be another messy case and this temporary unity will revert to the deeper disunity beneath. We had better have a deeper, biblical theology of humanity, love, justice and mercy to sustain us when it’s messy and when we disagree on this or that particular.
The Christian life, if it’s a truly gospel-centered life, is a life of constant repentance. Sometimes the Lord uses the megaphone of suffering to turn us to himself once again. Luke 13:1 records an incident not too unlike Ferguson, Missouri. A representative of the state, in the person of Pilate, killed some Galileans and mingled their blood with the sacrifice. Pilate desecrated both life and religion.
When asked about this horror, the Lord Jesus informed his followers that such tragedies were a call from God to repent lest they likewise perish. If we would have a “gospel perspective” on the tragic deaths Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others at the hands of police officers, then we must read these situations as cautionary tells. We must ourselves turn again to God recognizing that apart from His grace and mercy it could be us perishing in similar situations. As the Lord makes clear, Brown, Gurley, Garner and Rice were not worse sinners than us. We are, like them, like everyone, in desperate need of grace to repent of sin and turn afresh to God. Our involvement in these tragedies will give us plenty of opportunity for such repentance.
There is more that could be said. But I hope this provides some ways to think through the application of our message in these trying times. We really must avoid the escapism that so often plagues our witness to insert ourselves waist high in the messiness of life.