In 1967, amid civil unrest in the United States, Billy Graham gave the following sermon on social injustice, as part of The Hour of Decision radio program.
According to the Associated Press, when the World Council of Churches held a world conference on church and society in Geneva, Switzerland, a number of years ago, lavish praise of atheistic China and open support for Christian violence to achieve social change were just two of the shock features in the first week.
A young American theologian from a well-known seminary created a stir by advocating violence by revolutionary groups such as those in the American Civil Rights movement. He was reported as saying this was sometimes the only way of achieving social change in the face of a self-satisfied, indifferent power structure of a contented society. The Associated Press also reported that some of the officials of the World Council of Churches were pleased with the revolutionary remarks made during the conference.
I could not help wondering where the Lord Jesus Christ was in all of that. With our television screens filled with pictures of rioting, looting, killing and violence in various American cities, we had the spectacle of an American theologian calling for more violence in order to achieve social ends. It seems that some church leaders are willing to go even further than the humanist and the secularist, first in announcing the death of God, and then calling for violence.
How different from the attitude of Christ “who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return” (l Peter 2:23, NKJV)! How different from the admonitions of the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “Let us have no imitation Christian love. Let us have a genuine break with evil and a real devotion to good. Let us have real warm affection for one another as between brothers, and a willingness to let the other man have the credit. … When trials come endure them patiently; steadfastly maintain the habit of prayer. … And as for those who try to make your life a misery, bless them. Don’t curse, bless. … Live in harmony with one another …” said Paul. “Don’t pay back a bad turn by a bad turn. … As far as your responsibility goes, live at peace with everyone. Never take vengeance into your own hands, my dear friends: stand back and let God punish if he will. … ”
Paul continues (and I am quoting from Phillips’ translation, Romans 12), “Don’t allow yourself to be overpowered by evil. Take the offensive—overpower evil with good!”
“Every Christian,” he wrote, “ought to obey the civil authorities, for all legitimate authority is derived from God’s authority, and the existing authority is appointed under God. To oppose authority then,” said Paul, “is to oppose God, and such opposition is bound to be punished” (Romans 13:1-2, Phillips).
Certainly the church is to be concerned about the social injustices in our world. Even a casual study of the life of Jesus reveals that He was interested in man’s response to the social problems he faced.
The Great Change
Since Jesus Christ walked the earth, the thinking of the world concerning social matters has changed radically. Because of Him, the world has witnessed a new reverence for human life and learned something of the dignity and worth of man. Three out of every five men whom Paul passed on the streets of Rome were slaves. It was Christ’s assertion that every individual has immeasurable value in the sight of God, and it was this message that helped eventually to free the slaves. He said, “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep!” (Matthew 12:12, RSV).
It was Jesus who taught us that every person is a potential child of God. When He lived on earth, no one was His special pet because of riches or poverty. Rank and social distinction meant nothing to Him. It was for man, as man, that Christ cared.
And because of Jesus, women are respected and valued. In much of ancient literature woman was regarded as little more than an animal.
As a result of the coming of Christ Jesus, thousands of Christians through the ages have given of their lives to help their neighbor, to relieve poverty, to care for the sick. Most hospitals, orphanages, institutions for the poor and asylums have their origin in His followers. The social conscience was deepened by the coming of Christ.
“Why, then, is the world in such a desperate plight?” you ask. The answer is because it will not come to Jesus Christ that it might have life (John 5:40). The world has rejected Him. To be sure, part of its conscience still considers Jesus’ teaching, but its conduct doesn’t reflect His wisdom.
Christ can save the world only when He is living in the hearts of men and women. We talk glibly about the establishment of the Christian order of society through legislation, or social engineering, or even by violence, as though we could bring it down from the skies if only we worked and fought hard enough. The Kingdom of God will never come that way.
If the human race should suddenly turn to Christ, we would have immediately the possibility of a new Christian order. We could approach our problems in the framework of Christian understanding. To be sure, problems would remain, but the atmosphere for their solution would be completely changed.
I have an intense interest in those who are working in the inner-city churches. It is probably the most frustrating ministry of today—to face teeming areas of people of different ethnic groups, living in substandard housing, many of them unemployed. Religious ideas have little meaning for most of them. Their lives are disorganized. The inner-city pastor faces all their frustrations and tries with compassion to enter into their problems.
If we are going to touch the inner-city life of our communities, we must know their sorrows, their trials, their temptations, and we must stand with them in their heartbreaks. Jesus Christ entered into the arena of our troubles. He wept with those who wept and rejoiced with those who rejoiced. Anyone who cares enough to want to help people must somehow sit where they sit.
However, having said that, we must remember that they are still people; and as people they are sinners before God. We must not make the mistake of blaming all their troubles on an impersonal society that we think has done them a terrible injustice. In many cases it has, but this is not the total problem. It’s true that terrible social injustices need to be righted, but this is not the whole problem.
Christ States the Problem
The basic problem was pointed out by Jesus when He said, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man” (Mark 7:21-23, RSV).
You Can Have Peace
Real, lasting peace is possible. But there’s only one way to find it.
Jesus indicated that our problem is heart trouble. The greatest need of our great cities at this moment is evangelism.
The Apostle Paul stood in the heart of pagan, secular, immoral and violent Corinth and said, “We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks [Gentiles] foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (l Corinthians 1:23-24, NKJV).
The proclamation of the Gospel is still the desperate need of men today. We are never going to reverse the moral trends without a spiritual awakening, and we are never going to have a spiritual awakening until the cross of Jesus Christ is central in all our teaching and preaching.
David Brainerd, in his journal of his life and doings among the American Indians, said, “I never got away from Jesus and Him crucified. And I found that when my people were gripped by this great evangelical doctrine of Christ and Him crucified, I had no need to give them instructions about morality. I found that one followed as the sure and inevitable fruit of the other.”
Behavior is Rooted in Belief
Dorothy Sayers said, “We have been trying for several centuries to uphold a particular standard of ethical values which derives from Christian dogma, while gradually dispensing with the very dogma which is the sole foundation for those values. If we want Christian behavior, then we must realize that Christian behavior is rooted in Christian belief.”
James Stewart, professor of New College in Edinburgh, said, “The driving force of the early Christian mission was not propaganda of beautiful ideals of the brotherhood of man; it was proclamation of the mighty acts of God. … At the very heart of the apostles’ message stood the divine redemptive deed on Calvary.”
If the church wants high, moral standards in the nation and a new social justice, then let the church get back to preaching the simple, authoritative Gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
It was this Gospel that brought about many of the great social reforms of the past. The preaching of the cross and the resurrection have been primarily responsible for promoting humanitarian sentiment and social concern during the last 400 years. Prison reform, the prohibition of the slave trade, the abolition of slavery, improvement in working conditions, the protection of children, the crusade against cruelty to animals are the outcomes of great religious awakenings brought about by the proclamation of the Gospel.
The Most Penetrating Thought
Dr. F. L. Foakes-Jackson, the distinguished church historian, said, “History shows that the thought of Christ on the cross has been more potent than anything else in arousing a compassion for suffering and indignation at injustice.”
But what are we witnessing today? Many of our ecclesiastical organizations are making resolutions and pronouncements. They are lobbying to bring into being and enforce the social changes envisioned by church leaders as a part of the world where the church shall be the dominating influence. When most major Protestant denominations have their annual councils, assemblies or conventions, they make pronouncements on matters having to do with disarmament, federal aid to education, birth control, the United Nations, and any number of social and political issues.
I am not finding fault with consideration of such matters. However, the pendulum has swung too far and the emphasis is now being misplaced. Very rarely are resolutions passed that have to do with the redemptive witness of the Gospel. We have been trying to solve every ill of society as though society were made up of truly Christian people to whom we have an obligation to speak with Christian advice.
We must realize that while the law should guarantee human rights and restrain those who violate those rights, whenever people lack sympathy for the law, they will not long respect it even when they cannot repeal it. Thus the government may try to legislate Christian behavior, but it soon finds that man remains unchanged.
The changing of lives is a primary mission of the church. The only way to change people is to get them converted to Jesus Christ. Then they will have the capacity to live up to the Christian command to “love thy neighbor” (Matthew 22:39).
The Disease of Human Nature
There is no doubt that today we see social injustice everywhere. However, looking on our American scene, Jesus would see something even deeper.
If only we would begin at the root of our problems, which is the disease of human nature that the Bible calls sin! This is why Christ came and died on the cross, this is why He shed His blood—to do something about this disease that mankind is suffering from.
We in the church today are in danger of becoming blundering social physicians, giving medicine here and putting ointment there on the sores of the world. But the sores break out again somewhere else. The great need is for the church to call in the Great Physician, who alone can properly diagnose the case. He will look beneath the mere skin eruptions and pronounce the cause of it all: “Sin!”
If we in the church want a cause to fight, let’s fight sin. Let’s reveal its hideousness. Let’s show that Jeremiah was correct when he said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). Then when the center of our trouble is dealt with, when this disease is eradicated, when we point people to the Cure which is Christ and Him crucified, and when people receive Him, then and only then will we live with each other as brother with brother.
I believe in taking a stand on moral, social and spiritual issues of our day. I have used the radio program, The Hour of Decision, for years to preach on every social issue I can think of. I have talked on everything from bad housing to highway safety. However, the social issues of our day have not been the main theme of my preaching.
You Need Christ
My main theme has been the same as that of the early apostles: “That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (l Corinthians 15:3-4, NKJV).
In Europe, several countries have what is called the welfare state. Allegedly, many social problems of these countries have been solved. However, church leaders are beginning to realize that man cannot live by bread alone (Matthew 4:4). They are beginning to realize that individuals have deeper spiritual needs to which only Christ can minister. That is the reason why tens of thousands flocked to Earls Court in London to hear the Gospel and why thousands of them responded to the appeal to receive Christ as Lord and Savior.
You today need Christ. Many of you have Social Security. Others of you may be termed wealthy. But you, too, have found that “man shall not live by bread alone.” You need Christ to help meet the inner needs of your life—the boredom, the lack of satisfaction, the lack of purpose in your life. You need Christ to give a purpose. You need Christ to give that new dimension which is called eternal life. Will you receive Him today as your Lord and your Savior?
Scripture verses are taken from the King James Version unless indicated otherwise.
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Help us fulfill our mission of proclaiming the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to all we can by every effective means available to us and by equipping others to do the same.