The Gospel and Justice
"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.” Genesis 18:19
It was a cold December morning when the protestors took the streets again. Frustrated and tired, they marched in Manhattan after the grand jury’s non-indictment of officer Daniel Pantaleo, who, just a few months prior, had given a lethal chokehold to Eric Garner. As reported by CNN, the protestors marched while shouting “No justice, no peace. No racist police.” This was not a new phenomenon. People have always had to protest the deaths of unarmed black men in our nation's history. But these protestors' slogans, intentional or not, echoed back to the very words of the prophet Isaiah: "The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths; they have made their roads crooked; no one who treads on them knows peace.”
To clarify, the protestors probably had no intention to echo the very words of God when they chanted in the streets. In fact, their version of “justice” and “peace” might be totally different than God’s version. Yet, remarkably, even some secular protestors understand there is a link between justice and peace. The only question is, whose justice? Whose peace?
God Loves Justice
Every person works from a standard outside of themselves. Every worldview has a concept of “justice” and “righteousness.” But many cannot even define what justice is, or scarily enough, define whose standard of justice they are pursuing. This question is of the utmost importance for Christians because we read in Psalm 89:14, "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne…” and again in Isaiah 61:8, "For I the Lord love justice…” Our God cares about justice because it is the foundation of His throne and His desire is for justice to rule over all the earth. If our God loves justice, so should we. How does God define justice?
Our foremost verse is Genesis 18:19. In it, we hear the first echoes of God’s desire for justice. In the opening verses, Abraham has hosted a dinner for three men, a representation of the Lord himself (18:1). After that dinner, the men tell Abraham he will have a child (18:10) in his old age who will eventually bless the whole world. Once they leave, they tell Abraham of the coming judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah (18:17). This culminates in verse 19 where God declares four things about His future people through Abraham: 1) they will be chosen, 2) they will do righteousness, 3) they will do justice, and 4) they will be inheritors of a promise. I want to specifically hone in on God’s usage of the words “righteousness” and “justice.” These words are foundational to the Christian understanding of justice. God's people will be the instruments of living rightly before God to the world and the exacters of God's justice, bringing peace to the oppressed.
In the original Hebrew, the word for “righteousness” is tsĕdaqah, and the word for “justice” is mishpat. These words have almost the same meaning, but there is a distinction. To be righteous is to “live rightly before God and others.” To do justice is to “make the wrong right.” In other words, we have right-living and wrong-righting. If we all lived rightly before God and others, we would have no need for making wrongs right. But ever since the Fall (Genesis 3) we live in a sinful, broken world that requires a standard of punishing wrongdoers. Because of the Fall, we want to define good and evil for ourselves at the expense of others. We make our own standards, we become our own gods. In wanting to become our own gods, our societies and cultures begin to reflect our twisted and broken standards so that true righteousness and true justice “are far from us” (Isa. 59:9).
If righteousness and justice go hand in hand, how do we live rightly before God and others? We trust in the Lord, we love His scripture, and we bear fruit in keeping with repentance (James 2:23, Psalm 1:2, Luke 3:8). We treat each and every person as an image bearer of the living God, worthy of all honor and respect regardless of ethnicity and culture. This is one of the ultimate safeguards against racism. God continually shows us what it means to live rightly before Him and others. On the flip side of right living is wrong-righting. In our fallen world, not everyone will want to live to please God and will kill, steal, and destroy at the altar of their own standard of self-righteousness. So, we must punish the wrongdoer. One of the ways wrongdoers are punished is through the government that both understand their submission to God as the ultimate standard of justice and recognizes the Imago Dei in all humans (Romans 13).
Justice also has a bigger flip-side to it that focuses more on restoration that rectification. We see this clearly in James 1:27, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
Also in Matthew 25:44-46, "Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Justice is punishing the wrongdoer, yes, but it is more so restoring the wronged. Part of that might be the punishment of the wrongdoer, but it might more so be meeting their needs. Helping to pay rent, driving them to doctors appointments, having them over for meals, advocating for them in the public square, and most importantly, telling them about King Jesus, the ultimate example of righteousness and justice. This is justice. This is righteousness.
Doing righteousness and justice is intensely practical, but can never fully be practiced by those who don’t follow Jesus as King. Without Christ, we have no way of overcoming the fallen condition of our hearts (Romans 3:23). We have no way of knowing the God before whom we must act righteously (Isa. 53:6). We have no way of being empowered to follow the correct standard of justice. Without Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we are utterly helpless to pursue true righteousness and true justice. The standard is too high for us. Therefore, we are under God’s just wrath for our sins against Him (Eph. 2:3). We are the wrongdoers worthy of eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46). We are the trespassers worthy of God’s full justice. However, we read in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that God sent Christ to be our substitute so that now, by the Spirit’s work (Ezekiel 36:26-27), we can know what it means to live rightly and to right the wrongs. Justice and righteousness are first fulfilled in our being made right with God. As a result, we can go into the world with this revolutionary, good news message: That God through Christ has made peace by the blood of his cross (Col. 1:20). Now we are the peacemakers through righteousness and justice because "Christ himself is our peace" (Eph. 2:14).
Justice lies at the very heart of the Bible. Without God satisfying His justice against us in Christ, we are left to define justice for ourselves. Without God’s justice, there can be no peace between God and man, and secondarily there can be no peace between man and man. Are the protestors right in shouting “no justice, no peace?" Perhaps. It all depends on how you define “justice.” We’ll be exploring over the next few posts just what exactly is the Christians’ call in the midst of the social justice movement. For now, know that our God of perfect justice and righteousness is reigning over all things. His promise to us is to come back and to make right all things in heaven and things on earth (Isa. 9:6-7). And we know,
"Every word of God proves true;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.”
- Proverbs 30:5
Generous Justice by Tim Keller
Justice by The Bible Project
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson