Category Archives: Social Justice and the New Testament

The Real Jesus—A Progressive Humanist?

In the previous three essays I have been addressing the problem of people who claim to be Christians but wittingly or unwittingly use Christian words primarily to celebrate the progressive agenda of liberation of the self from all oppressive structures, political, religious, social, moral, and natural. They give the impression that Jesus would fit right into progressive culture. And if one carefully selects sayings and stories from the Bible and places them in the progressive narrative, such a view seems plausible to people ignorant of the whole story. But things look very different if we reverse the procedure and think about ethics and salvation from within a full biblical picture of Jesus Christ and the nature and destiny of humanity. Context is everything.

The Real Jesus of the New Testament

According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, is Lord, Messiah, and Savior. He is the definitive answer to the questions, “Who is the true God?” (John 1:18, 14:9, 1 John 5:20; 2 Cor 4:6) and “What is the nature and destiny of human beings?” (1 John 3:1-3; Phil 3:21; 1 Cor 15:49). He is the Word of God who is God, who was with God in the beginning, and through whom God created all things (John 1:1-5; Heb 1:1-3; 1 Cor 8:6). He is the Savior, who through his death and resurrection saved us from sin, death, and the devil. In him God reconciled the world to himself “not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor 5:18-19). In the end, everything in heaven and on earth will be unified in Christ (Eph 1:10). In sum, Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15), the purpose of creation and providence, the means of salvation, and the consummation of all things in which God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

Unless they are ignorant or are being disingenuous, anyone who claims to be a Christian should be willing to confess the New Testament teaching summarized in the previous paragraph. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, is the measure of all our knowledge of God and of every dimension of our relation to him. To be a Christian is to be one under authority, to submit one’s mind and heart to the true teacher of what is right and good. Jesus made this clear many times: whoever claims Jesus as their guide must “deny themselves and take up their cross” and follow him (Mark 8:34). They must obey everything he taught (Matt 28:20; Heb 5:9). Already with this step, however, we stand in complete contradiction to progressive humanism, which will admit no other will or external order to which we must conform.

Jesus and the Law

Jesus’s teaching cannot be reduced to a few platitudes about love, tolerance, acceptance and belonging. Jesus showed the typical Old Testament prophetic ethics of care for the poor and the oppressed. But he did not exempt the poor and oppressed from the commandments. Following in the wake of John the Baptist, Jesus also preached “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:17). The one whom Jesus called “your father in heaven” is the God of Israel. Jesus fully and without hesitation acknowledged that the Old Testament law embodied God’s will and human righteousness:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:17-20).

In the following chapters, known as the Sermon on the Mount, far from liberalizing the law, Jesus intensified it and demanded internal as well external obedience. The law against adultery was expanded to include lust and divorce. The command not to murder was extended to hatred and harsh speech. Jesus ends with a warning to his audience to build their lives on his teaching or risk calamity in the day of testing (Matt 7:26-27).

Jesus criticized the Pharisees for focusing on externals and extra biblical traditions not because they oppressed our autonomy or made us feel uncomfortable but because they voided the original divine commands. When he spoke of genuine evils he made a very traditional list:

For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23).

Jesus the Obedient Son

Jesus set an example of obedience to his father in heaven and demanded obedience from his disciples. He prayed in the garden for exemption from suffering and death but submitted his will to that of the father (Matt 26:39). Paul holds up Jesus’s attitude toward the will of God as a stance all believers should follow (Phil 2:5-8; cf. Heb 5:8):

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Jesus: Not a Progressive Humanist

I could continue indefinitely with this line of thought showing that Jesus does not fit the image of a modern progressive. Only with great distortion and huge omissions can his teaching and his example be used to support this view. Jesus was a faithful Jew. He affirmed the biblical framework for understanding our duties to God: God, creation, moral law, providence, righteousness, judgment, and salvation. Within this framework, human beings are God’s creatures made in his image. They depend on the Creator for their existence and sustenance. They owe God thanks and worship. God’s wisdom and will are displayed in the created order. Hence human beings should trust, obey, and love God. God is the designer of human nature and therefore the author of the moral law, known in creation by reason, in the law and the prophets, and in the teaching, action, and example of Jesus Christ.

Within the progressive humanist framework, attitudes of worship, faith, humility, trust, confession, obedience, repentance, conformity, and submission are rejected as self-loathing born of internalized oppression. Within the Christian story, however, they are pathways to freedom and wisdom and salvation. They are characteristics of a good person. From a biblical perspective, attitudes of rebellion, defiance, self-indulgence, transgression, and self-assertion are judged to be ungrateful, self-destructive, foolish, and sinful. But within the progressive value system they are celebrated as heroic, virtuous, enlightened, and right. They are evidence of self-respect and authenticity.


These two frameworks are irreconcilable. Jesus’s observation concerning the love of money applies equally to the choice between the biblical and the progressive narratives:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matt 6:24)

Hence it is completely illegitimate to quote Jesus in an argument designed to deny the moral law, efface the order of creation, or nullify the commandments. To reject the biblical framework within which Jesus lived and taught while quoting him in support of the progressive agenda is to reject the real Jesus and invent another.