A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Ryan Speck
From the back cover: “Jeffrey D. Johnson is the author of several books, including The Pursuit of Glory, and is the founding pastor of Grace Bible Church and President of Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas, where he resides with his wife, Letha, and their four children.”
In his Foreword to this book, Owen Strachan declares, “Social justice is not just not the gospel. It is anti-gospel. It is anti-gospel in its principles and its finished convictions; it is anti-gospel in its presuppositions and its animating biases” (p. xv). Strachan calls Johnson’s book “the definitive accessible overview of this ideology” (p. xix).
Johnson acknowledges: “At first glance, it appears that social justice and Christianity have a lot in common,” both seemingly concerned about bigotry, racism, oppression, care for the needy, and peaceful unity (p. 1). “Yet, social justice is incompatible with Christianity because it is incompatible with natural revelation” (p. 1). Johnson defines natural revelation as “the knowledge that God communicates to man about Himself through nature that is universally and immediately understood by all” (p. 2). That idea of natural revelation (as the basis for individual, family, and civil authority) is an important concept in his book. To contrast Christianity with social justice, Johnson first establishes the true foundation for justice in Chapter 1 (“The Foundation of True Justice”), then he contrasts that true foundation with the contradictory, false ideology of social justice in Chapters 3-6 (“The Foundation of Social Justice,” “The Evolution of Social Justice,” “The Injustice of Social Justice,” and “The Intolerance of Social Justice”).
Chapter 1: The Foundation of True Justice
“What is God’s foundation for society? The simple answer is Himself . . . His Word and His law” (p. 7). These three foundations answer “the most basic questions of each of the main branches of philosophy: What is ultimate reality (Ontology); How do we know what we know (Epistemology); Who decides what is right and wrong (Ethics)” (pp. 7-8). Romans 1-2 and Psalm 19 reveal that natural law answers these three questions: “1. There is a God (Ps. 19:1-3); 2. We know there is a God (Rom. 1:2); 3. We know the difference between right and wrong (Rom. 2:12-16)” (pp. 11-12). For, in designing us, the Creator revealed our purpose. When you see a pair of needle-nose pliers, you can discern its purpose. It is absurd to say someone designed needle-nose pliers, then, later, we discovered a purpose for it (pp. 12-13). Since God created man, his purpose, knowledge, and ethics are clear in God’s design. God has given authority and jurisdiction, therefore, to the individual, family, state, and church.
The individual’s “rights and freedoms are rooted in the sanctity of human life” (p. 18). Thus, the individual has “inalienable rights,” including: “the right to life, the right to protect life, the right to work and provide for one’s life, the right to marry and raise a family, the right to worship God according to conscience” (p. 19). The authority of marriage includes the right to have children, the right of the husband and father to lead, the right of the wife to care for her husband, submit to him, and nurture her children, and the right of the children to submit to the father. The state has the right “to punish lawbreakers and protect the innocent” (p. 24).
However, the rights of the individual are not cancelled by the family, and the rights of the individual and family are not cancelled by the state. In fact, Johnson maintains that the state “is necessary because sin entered the world” (p. 24). Thus, individuals and families belong to the very good creation design, but the state does not—making individuals and family the most important, to be served by the state: “Individuals and families are not made for government; government is made for individuals and families. . . . It is imperative to understand that civil authorities do not bestow individuals and families their rights and freedoms. It is the state’s responsibility, as it rules under God, to protect the freedoms and rights of individuals and families” (p. 24). None of these spheres of authority can limit the authority of the others. “The division of power is a protection against the abuse of power” (p. 28). Every authority is from God. Therefore, “without God’s law [to guide each sphere of authority] as revealed in nature, justice and peace cannot exist in society” (p. 29).
Chapter 2: The Foundation of Social Justice
What is the foundation of social justice? Marxism (p. 32). Who was the person Friedrich Engels (co-writer with Marx of the Communist Manifesto) hated most of all? Charles Spurgeon (p. 33). Why? “Marx was an avid atheist; he rejected the idea of God…. While some atheists only want to get rid of God while keeping all authority of the individual and family that flow from God, Marx wanted to purge everything associated with God” (pp. 33-34).
Marx’s answers to the three basic questions of philosophy are materialism (ontology), determinism (ethics), and positivism (epistemology). Since “the material universe is all that exists,” then “science … is our only valid source for knowledge” (p. 35). Infants are born innocent and ignorant. They learn by experience and by the influence of society around them. Man is a “materialistic machine” (p. 39). Man does not sin; he malfunctions. He need not repent but be repaired. When your car breaks down, you do not call it wicked—you repair it (p. 40). Man is not responsible for his malfunctions. Society is. Yet, Karl Marx was optimistic. As Johnson explains: “Like evolution in animals, the deterministic laws of science were naturally pushing society from chaos to utopia” (p. 42).
According to Marx, the sickness of society is “unjust and unequal distribution of wealth and power” (p. 45). Marx saw this systemic injustice at every level of society, including the family, which he intended to abolish. Thus, “communism required not only that the family be broken apart but that responsibility for education be stripped from the family and centralized under the direction and authority of the state” (p. 50). Since the mere existence of distinct states necessarily means differing distributions of wealth and power, Marx’s “new world order can have no borders, no distinct national sovereignty, and no classification of people” (p. 51).
Thus, Johnson warns: “Christians and churches who are entertaining social justice are courting a movement that has no room for God, individual freedom, or the family, as this founding father of social justice made clear when he taught that in the same way private businesses oppress their workers, the traditional family oppresses women and children” (p. 49). “To think social justice is just about ending unjust oppression, racism, sexism, and gender inequality is to be unaware that it is rooted in Marxism—which has no room for God, individual freedom, the nuclear family, or any form of nationalism” (p. 58).
Chapter 3: The Evolution of Social Justice
Critical theory is the vehicle Marxists use to promote their philosophy and grew out of traditional Marxism. In the 1920s, Marxists became frustrated. Where was the global uprising that Marx promised as inevitable? Frustrated Marxists established the Frankfurt School, known today as social Marxism. This school of thought rejected the moorings of positivism (the belief that science is the only source of knowledge), adopting relativism in its place. Their endgame, according to Horkheimer, a member of the Frankfurt School, was “individual self-emancipation and self-creation” (p. 71). Each man should be a god to himself—his own savior and creator. How did critical theory advocates pursue their goal?
The people “are unknowingly oppressed and, thus, need to be informed of their oppression. They need to be awakened” (p. 72). The people were oppressed by established institutions (family, state, corporations, classes) and by the language controlled by the establishment. Those oppressive institutions and their oppressive language must be dismantled. The world must be re-educated. Thus, adherents to critical theory slowly took over universities and gradually re-educated each successive generation “until they controlled the mainstream media and outlets of communication” (p. 72).
Regarding the oppressive family institution, “The traditional values of complementarianism, gender roles, sexuality, and parenting needed to be deconstructed. The traditional family is restricting and oppressive, even to those who willingly embrace it” (p. 73). Since the goal is global revolution, “nationalism, like racism, is oppressive idolatry of superiority” (p. 78) and must be deconstructed too. Regarding individual authority and rights, “Free speech is dangerous because words are dangerous. Language is how the traditional values of oppression and authoritarianism spread. Such oppression must be removed for people to feel free to ‘sin’ without a guilty conscience” (p. 79).
How exactly will social justice warriors free the world from such oppression? They may use brute force (less likely) or fear (e.g., political correctness and micromanaged pandemic regulations). However, most effective, they confiscate freedoms by “exchanging them for free handouts” (p. 80). They use the carrot, not the stick. Social justice is the opium of the people. As Johnson puts it, those who promote social justice “help get people to willfully exchange their God-given freedoms for a hot bowl of porridge” (p. 81).
Chapter 4: The Injustice of Social Justice
“Social justice, by its very nature, is not just. It wants to remove any objective standard, labeling the moral law of God a social construct designed by white men to keep their subjects obedient. . . . For social justice to work, so its advocates think, true justice must fail since it is based on a binding and authoritative law and thus is inherently oppressive” (pp. 84-85). Social justice would not make the playing field level but the players level. “The more athletic and skilled the player, the harsher the player must be treated to make things fair for the less athletic and skilled players” (p. 84). “You see, this is a war on God, who makes some people tall and some people short” (p. 109).
To accomplish this injustice, social justice warriors are following Saul Alinsky’s plan, laid out in Rules for Radicals, namely: “1. Divide and conquer, 2. Demonize institutions of power, 3. Control the narrative, 4. Relentlessly assault resisters, 5. Make globalism the solution” (p. 93). In the rest of this chapter, Johnson proceeds to show how this plan is being worked out in America today (which I leave for you to read for yourselves!).
The unjust dogma of social justice demands utter destruction of God’s laws and institutions. For, social justice warriors view these laws and institutions as inherently unjust (e.g., racist). We find no forgiveness for grievances in the doctrines of social justice. Rather, the only solution is deconstructing all institutions of power (individual rights, family values, etc.).
“With the freedoms God gave His image-bearers comes the responsibility to take dominion and provide for themselves through the work of their own hands. But Marxism reverses this by offering man an exchange of services—give us your God-given freedoms and we make sure you have food on your table and medicine in your cabinet” (p. 112). Yet, “God calls civil authorities to protect our freedoms from those who seek to do evil and take them away. But once the government seeks to strip the freedoms that God has given to His image-bearers, then the government has become an unjust institution” (p. 115). In fact, if Marxism has its way, injustice and oppression will only increase. For, Marxism “creates the very thing it claims to solve—oppression. Marxism cannot work without taking away our God-given freedoms and bringing us into submission and dependence on big government” (p. 115).
Chapter 5: The Intolerance of Social Justice
“Social justice is the godless religion of Marxists. It is an atheistic attempt to diagnose and solve the world’s problems without a divine being, divine truth, and a divine ethic. In addition to misdiagnosing the problem, social-justice-prescribed solutions only bring more injustice, more oppression, and more inequalities” (p. 117). So, why are some churches so friendly with social justice warriors and involved in this movement? Perceiving common concerns, “Christians, supposedly, are to support morality wherever they find it” (p. 118). Yet, “Inviting social justice to enter the church is like asking Satan to come and preach and then being surprised afterward that he tried to burn the place down” (p. 120). For, the goal of any Marxist ideology is the abolition of all religion.
In fact, social justice offers a counterfeit gospel: “Rather than changing the sinful heart—the id—social justice wants man to unleash it—so that one’s perverse sexual desires can be exercised without shame or restraint. . . . In lieu of offering forgiveness to oppressors, social justice wants continual repentance with no forgiveness. Rather than establishing justice, social justice wants to commit injustice by stealing from the Haves to give to the Have Nots. And, lastly, in place of heaven on earth, social justice wants to usher in the godless global tyranny of the state” (p. 121).
“Thankfully, God’s solution is the real solution to sin, oppression, racism, and injustice. The true gospel not only brings forgiveness, it establishes justice in the death of Jesus Christ. God’s law was satisfied at the cross where God’s wrath and mercy kissed. By faith in Christ, all sinners without distinction, including oppressors and racists and sexists, can be freely forgiven. The true gospel doesn’t restrain the heart of stone but exchanges it for a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:36). Sinners are truly set free in Christ Jesus. The gospel brings true unity with God and among all those in Christ, where there is neither male nor female or Jew nor Gentile (Gal. 3:28). Finally, only the true gospel will bring restoration to this broken world and establish utopia, which the Bible calls heaven on earth (2 Peter 3:13)” (pp. 121-122). Social justice warriors are attacking the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel is at issue, nothing less.
In many ways, this is a clear, informative, insightful, and alarming book that every Christian would benefit from reading. Johnson cites original sources well, proving his claims. Johnson has an overarching grasp of the issues and speaks directly and clearly to those issues. Any Christian wondering about social justice would do well to read this book. No doubt, it would make a nice gift for Christians who are confused by or being enticed by this destructive ideology.
However, I would have liked to see Johnson use more Scripture and establish a fuller expositional basis for the foundation of true justice. Except for an extended quotation of Romans 13:1-7 (p. 25), which Johnson does not exposit at any length, he simply alludes to Scriptural passages in parentheses. Perhaps he assumes much that he says is generally accepted in the Church. However, I take issue with one of his principles, namely, that state authority is necessary only because sin entered the world (p. 24). Johnson claims that, while individual authority and family authority are part of God’s good creation design, civil authority is not. Civil authority is necessary because of evil. Johnson appears to come to this conclusion because he sees the role of civil authority only to deal with evils in the world (“to punish lawbreakers and protect the innocent,” p. 24). Would Johnson object to the state’s role in supplying infrastructures, such as roads? Even the perfect angels have an authority structure (e.g., the “arch-angels”). Is that authority structure only due to sin? Likewise, in Luke 19:17, the good and faithful servant is rewarded (upon the return of his Master) with rule over ten cities. Does this not describe some form of civil authority in Heaven? Johnson makes a blank statement, which leaves many unanswered questions on a controversial topic.
Since Johnson views individual authority and family authority as proper spheres of authority before sin entered, and civil authority is but necessary since sin, he seems to see individual and family authority as superior to civil authority. In fact, he seems to see this as an ascending order of authority: individual first, family second, and civil a distant third. Thus, when civil authority fails to protect individual and family rights, does that “unjust institution” (p. 115) have any right to exist? Johnson maintains “God has imbued the family with the authority and responsibility to protect the inalienable rights of the individuals within the family” (p. 22). Thus, the father especially is responsible “to protect them from all enemies and forces—including overreaching civil authorities—that would attempt to encroach on their freedom to obey God” (p. 22). What exactly does that mean? Do individuals and fathers have the right to remove failed civil authorities? Given how David responded to King Saul (e.g., 1 Samuel 24:4-6) and how God alone grants authority—so that God alone removes it—how exactly does anyone have the right to protect himself and others from civil overreach? Johnson’s view of civil authority certainly leaves critical questions unanswered.
Likewise, Johnson sees a lesser basis of authority for the state (as opposed to the church), when he explains: “The authority of the state is natural revelation, and the authority of the Christian church is special revelation—the Scriptures” (p. 26). This strikes me as an odd statement. Is natural revelation sufficient for the state to rule? The state must rule ethically. Should the state only look to natural law to discern ethics? If natural law were sufficient in a fallen world, surely God would never have needed to give us the Bible.
In my estimation, Johnson belittles the role of civil authority in his zeal to affirm and defend individual and family rights. His decisive statements on civil authority raise a number of important, unanswered questions in my mind. Certainly, his opening chapter “The Foundation of Truth” forces the reader to make important distinctions in the various realms of authority, compelling us to recognize rightly that all authority is from God. However, I would have liked to see Johnson develop the nature of civil authority by expositing more Scripture to reinforce his points.
As helpful as Johnson’s first chapter is (diminished somewhat by what I thought deficient), I found his unmasking of social justice in the following chapters to be exemplary and most compelling. His clarity and citation of actual social justice proponents make this work convincing. He leads his audience inexorably to the conclusion that social justice is at war with God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and so with Christians. May we take this important lesson to heart!
Ryan Speck is Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Columbia, MO, and is Review Editor for Theology here at Books At a Glance.
Buy the books
WHAT EVERY CHRISTIAN NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT SOCIAL JUSTICE, by Jeffrey D. Johnson