In the book of Galatians, the Apostle Paul warned Christians against those who preached a different or distorted gospel.1 The threat to the Galatian church was an attempt to combine faith in Christ with the requirement to keep the law, especially circumcision, for the purpose of justification.2 Paul argued that trusting in human ability to keep the law was both impossible and dangerous.3 Instead, he preached the good news that Christ redeemed those who “live[d] by faith” in Him from the “curse of the Law.”4 While the law served to make sinners aware of their need for Christ’s atoning work, and as a guide for Christian living, keeping it was never part of the gospel itself.5 This is why Paul always described the gospel as a work of God on behalf of believers.6 It was this idea, that the “just shall live by faith” alone, which sparked the Protestant Reformation.7 Adding the requirements of the law to the gospel created an impossible standard for sinners to reach, denied the sufficiency of the atonement, and destroyed the good news of the gospel. Today, the social justice movement is serving as the occasion for many leaders in churches and organizations with Protestant faith statements to severely blur the line between the law and the gospel.
Walter Strickland, a Southern Baptist professor who is heavily influenced by liberation theology, attaches the work of liberation from systems of oppression to the gospel. In 2016, he told interviewer Lisa Fields that The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone was a “beautiful monograph” she needed to read and “be blessed by.” He also described Liberation and Reconciliation by J. Deotis Roberts, which condemns the “Bible based gospel” and promotes the teachings of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx as necessary for Black Theology, as his “favorite theological book of all time.”8 In both cases, Strickland endorsed the works of liberation theologians for how they improved his understanding of the gospel.
J. Deotis Roberts helped him see “the universal imperatives of the gospel” by imagining a more relatable Christ who appeared culturally as “whoever you are wherever you are.”9 James Cone introduced Strickland to the concept of “systemic sin” and opened his eyes “to the idea that Christ is trying to restore brokenness” by addressing issues like racial oppression. In an interview from 2018, sponsored by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Strickland described James Cone as someone “who wanted to see social vitality of the gospel.” In light of Cone’s teaching, it was up to believers to “do the work of the social implications [or] the social outworkings of the gospel” which meant understanding “the brokenness of creation” and “fixing it.”10 In direct contradiction to Jesus’ teaching, Strickland even described “a summary of the gospel” as “to love God and neighbor,” which Jesus clearly taught were actually the “two commandments” underlying “the whole Law and the Prophets.”11
During a panel discussion on race and justice in the wake of the civil unrest following George Floyd’s death, Strickland claimed that American Christians, in order to justify slavery, constructed and passed down a “half gospel” which saved people’s souls but neglected “the weighty matters of the law.” Instead he advocated the “two parted reality of the gospel” which included accomplishing “justice.” This perception, that the gospel preached in most evangelical churches is somehow incomplete without the command to work toward social justice, saturates the language of many leaders in evangelical organizations. Unfortunately, for Walter Strickland, the gospel includes keeping a social justice version of the law.
In contrast to what can at best be described as a muddled understanding of the relationship between the law and the gospel, J. Gresham Machen declared that “peace comes only when a man recognizes that all his striving to be right with God, all his feverish endeavor to keep the Law before he can be saved, is unnecessary, and that the Lord Jesus has wiped out the handwriting that was against him by dying instead of him on the Cross.”
Machen continued by stating:
Very different is the conception of faith which prevails in the liberal Church. According to modern liberalism, faith is essentially the same as “making Christ Master” in one’s life; at least it is by making Christ Master in the life that the welfare of men is sought. But that simply means that salvation is thought to be obtained by our own obedience to the commands of Christ. Such teaching is just a sublimated form of legalism. Not the sacrifice of Christ, on this view, but our own obedience to God’s law, is the ground of hope.
The gospel is not something to be trifled with or distorted. Even obscuring its clarity, according to the Apostle Paul in Galatians 2:14, is grounds for confrontation.
1 Gal 1:8
2 Gal 2:16, 3:2-3, 4:21
3 Gal 1:8, 3:10, 5:1-3, 6:13
4 Gal 3:11-13
5 Gal 3:24, 5:14, 6:2.
6 Rom 1:16, 1 Cor 15:1-4.
7 Wilhelm Rein, The Life of Martin Luther, trans. G. F. Behringer (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1883), 38.
8 Walter Strickland, The Balanced Scholar: The Life and Work of J. Deotis Roberts, interview by Lisa Fields, October 14, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxqW-HQ8Fuc.
10 Walter Strickland, From the Lectern – E075 – Remembering James Cone; Part II, interview by Courtlandt Perkins, October 28, 2018, https://www.podbean.com/site/EpisodeDownload/PBC092792H4PE; Walter Strickland, From the Lectern – E074 – Remembering James Cone Part; I, interview by Courtlandt Perkins, October 15, 2018, https://www.podbean.com/site/EpisodeDownload/PBC092E0ZNVYE; James Deotis Roberts, Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), xvii, 54.
11 Matt 22:35-40.