How Should We Talk About Justice and the Gospel?

Recently, stern and sometimes angry commenters here at TGC called me a left-wing stooge of socialism for an article I wrote about economic justice and the gospel. Which is funny, since the last time I wrote an article for TGC on economic justice and the gospel, stern and sometimes angry commenters called me a right-wing stooge of capitalism! (Alas, that earlier thread is now lost in the mists of internet history.)

As C. S. Lewis once said, if the Lilliputians think me a giant and the Brobdingnagians think me a dwarf, perhaps my stature is not actually very remarkable.

This amusing episode points to a much more serious problem. We don’t seem able to talk about the gospel and justice without getting into fights with each other. As a result, the church isn’t presenting a unified witness to the world about God’s demand for justice or his offer of grace to the unjust.

What Is Justice, Exactly?

The first issue on which we need clarity is one of the oldest in history: What is justice? The controversy about my latest TGC article revolved around this question, as have many debates in the history of both the church and the culture.

I used the term “economic justice” simply to indicate justice in the realm of economic activity. The common thread in the reactions to my article was an objection to the way I used the term “justice”—an objection that would have been equally relevant if I’d been talking about justice in the family, the church, or any other context rather than the economy.

With varying degrees of civility, my interlocutors contended I erred in using “justice” as a broad category including a wide variety of moral duties toward others—duties of generosity and respect as well as those of promise-keeping and debt-paying. To equate justice with this broad set of duties, they argued, implies that civil law must enforce it. In the context of economics, this would mean socialist schemes for massive forced redistribution of wealth.

It’s noteworthy that while my interlocutors insisted it was important to define justice narrowly and specifically, their accounts of what we should call “justice” didn’t overlap much with each other. It’s even more noteworthy there was little interaction with Scripture in their replies.

It’s true—as I’ve devoted my career to arguing—that we must distinguish carefully between the broad set of moral duties we owe to our neighbors and the narrower set enforced by civil law. I’m as much against socialism or large-scale redistribution of wealth as anyone, and have devoted a fair amount of effort to opposing it. One of the greatest threats to justice in our generation is the paternalistic degradation of the poor, whom our welfare systems (both civil and ecclesiastical) often keep in a state of economic dependence to the technocratic elite.

But there are simply no grounds, whether scriptural or philosophical, for limiting justice to that subset of politically enforceable duties. It’s not true, either in Scripture or in the history of political philosophy, that the word “justice” applies particularly to moral duties enforceable by civil law, while other moral duties must go by some other term.

Justice Is Bigger than You Think

Although murder and theft are often focal points (and understandably so!) when Scripture describes justice, it also associates justice with a broader set of duties, including generosity: “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18); “Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!” (Ps. 106:3); “It is well with the man who deals generously and lends; who conducts his affairs with justice” (Ps. 112:5).

In his song of praise, Moses declares of God: “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice” (Deut. 32:4). Does “all his ways” include only promise-keeping and debt-paying?

Some passages do seem to suggest “justice” may not encompass literally all our duties to our neighbors. For example, Jesus’s reference to “the weightier matters of the law” as “justice and mercy and faithfulness” bears reflection (Matt. 23:23; compare Luke 11:42). But this example doesn’t negate the relatively broad set of referents justice seems to have in many other passages. Scripture may or may not warrant the use of “justice” to refer to literally all our duties to others, but it clearly warrants the use of that term for a broad set of them.

One particularly interesting verse is Jeremiah 10:24: “Correct me, O LORD, but in justice; not in your anger, lest you bring me to nothing.” Here “justice” refers not to duties required by God’s law, much less some arbitrarily chosen subset of those duties, but to a relationship of care and nurture that stands behind the law’s enforcement, rendering it restorative rather than merely punitive.

Even the pagan sages are wise enough to know justice can’t simply mean the duties enforced by civil law. The definition of justice as mere promise-keeping and debt-paying is the first notion considered and rejected by Socrates in Plato’s Republic. Anyone interested in understanding the reasoning for why “justice” must include a wide breadth of duties to our neighbors could benefit by reading that passage.

Justice and the Gospel

How, then, do we relate justice to the gospel? Not, as some of my interlocutors suggested, by keeping them safely isolated in separate compartments. The gospel is a gospel of justice as well as a gospel of mercy.

Isaiah actually identifies justice with redemption: “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness” (Isa. 1:27). Our redemption by justice is located in the coming Messiah:  “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa. 42:1). Matthew’s account echoes Isaiah: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles” (Matt. 12:18).

The gospel isn’t only a message of forgiveness but also of restoration to righteousness. God forgives our injustice in order to restore us to justice. He saves us not only because he loves us, but also because he hates sin and will not allow his beautiful world to forever remain under the influence of evil.

Many are fond of quoting Ephesians 2:8–9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Praise God for this astounding work! But we ought not sever grace from its purpose. Read on to verse 10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

This is why our restoration to right standing before God is called “justification.” There’s a reason this term isn’t translated “righteousness-ification” or “goodness-ification.” The scriptural term invokes justice; God declares us just in Christ. Since Scripture doesn’t use “justice” in a narrow way, it can describe our being accounted righteous in God’s sight as being declared just.

And if God declares us just in Christ, we are just indeed. We will become people who do justice. We will keep promises and pay debts—and give generously, and treat all with respect, and do all we can to bring into the present a foretaste of the reign of justice to come.

The church must hold up for the world a powerful vision of justice, deeply rooted in a theology of grace and inspiring us to sacrifice all for righteousness’ sake. The gospel call to repent from sin and follow Jesus with our whole lives is meaningless without such a vision. What is sin? What is repentance? We cannot answer if we cannot say what justice is.

The gospel itself requires the church to have a vision of justice that challenges the world’s greed and oppression. And by freeing people from their spiritual slavery to guilt and fear, the gospel exposes the wickedness of worldly powers who exploit spiritual slavery for selfish gain. That’s why the church on earth is “the church militant.” The church is not the church if it’s not at war with the world’s injustice.

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