The Pursuit of Biblical Justice

What Is Justice and What Does It Mean to Pursue It?

Curated by Bethany Hoang, Stephanie Summers, and Bethany Jenkins

Course Introduction

About the Course

What comes to mind when you think of social justice? Is it human trafficking, racial prejudice, healthcare, or even Immigration reform?

Social justice is a trendy and vital topic, but it’s often a hotly debated one as well. Justice is a word that many people use, but very few define. Consequently, people will use one word with completely different meanings, and yet think they are speaking the same language.

Before we can think rightly about “social justice”, we must first understand biblical justice. How does the Bible define justice?

This course is designed to help bring clarity to the biblical notion of justice, as well as it’s social manifestation.

Each section of this course is designed to build upon the previous section. Proceed through the course by engaging with the content (video, audio, questions) and reading the course materials. Once you have finished, share the course with your comments about what you found helpful.

Defining Terms

"Justice" & "Righteousness"

“Justice” and “righteousness” are words used throughout the Old Testament that occur within the same semantic domain, and occur in relation to God, people, and society. The terms “justice” or “judgment” are often translated from Mish-pat (מִשְׁפָּט), which occurs 425 times in the Old Testament. Mishpat carries the nuance of being used most often in judicial settings, such as civil disputes in Israelite society.

The terms “righteousness”, “justice”, and “innocence” are often translated from the Hebrew words Ze-dek (צֶ֫דֶק) and its cousin, Ze-da-kah (צְדָקָה), which together occur 283 times throughout the Old Testament. These nouns carry the nuance of being used most often to describe something that reflects an accepted standard, like God’s law.

Take a moment to read this excerpt from an article by Tim Keller that we will be using throughout this course. It will expound upon the significance of these terms, how they are used, and why it matters for us today.

The Gospel and the Poor by Tim Keller

Christians are to “do justice” (Titus 2:12)–dikaioma. In Micah 6:8 we are told to “do justice, love mercy”. When Job is taking an inventory of his life, he said, “I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist him. The one who was dying blessed me and I made the widow’s heart sing. I put on righteousness as my clothing and justice was my robe and turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy and took up the case of the stranger. I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth.” (Job 29:12-17) Job is saying that these people are not treated fairly or justly in the social system: the single mother, the lame, blind, and poor, the alien and disadvantaged children. God demands that people without economic or social “clout” not be taken advantage of.

When the scriptural people of God seek redemption, they want something that goes far beyond personal salvation. In their eyes, God’s redemption means justice is coming, the King of all the earth is coming! They want “justice to roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24.) Do contemporary Christians bring the same passion to their hope of redemption as the people in the Bible did? When our earthly kingdoms have a good year, we don’t necessarily long for [justice] to break in. But if you are a slave in Pharoah’s kingdom, or in a Mississippi cotton kingdom “your kingdom come” means “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Cornelius Plantinga, Engaging God’s World, p.103-104.).

What is ‘doing justice?’

According to the Old Testament, God’s justice means to share food, shelter, and other basic resources with those who have fewer of them (Is 58:6-10.) Injustice happens when people are barred from fair wages and therefore from the same goods and opportunities afforded others. (cf. Lev 19:13, Jer 22:13.) In Luke 18:1-8 Jesus tells of a widow who seeks “justice” from a judge in her legal battle with some more powerful adversary. (The details of the case are not given.) The primary application is that God is a just judge and will ultimately bring about vindication for this people– therefore we should persevere in our faith in him. But it is obvious from the analogy that the “justice” both the human judge (finally begrudgingly gives) and the justice that God will eventually dispense includes meeting their basic material needs. Meeting basic human needs for food, shelter, health, and education then, is thus not simply a matter of “compassion” but also of justice. God is committed to justice and those with a relationship to him will be as well.

Why is meeting basic human needs called not just mercy but justice?

We do not all start out with equal privileges and assets. For example, inner city children, through no fault of their own, may grow up with vastly inferior schooling and with an overall environment extremely detrimental to learning. Conservatives may argue that this is the parents’ fault or the “culture’s” fault while liberals see it as a failure of government and/or the fruit of systemic racism. But no one argues that it is the children’s fault! Of course it is possible for youth born into poverty to break out of it– but it takes many times more fortitude, independence, creativity, and courage to simply go to college and get a job than it does for any child born into a middle class world. In short, some children grow up with about a 200-Atimes better opportunity for academic and economic success than others do. (You can’t ask an illiterate 8 year-old—soon to be an illiterate 17 year-old–to ‘pull himself up by his bootstraps’!) Why does this situation exist? It is part of the deep injustice of our world. The problem is simply an unjust distribution of opportunity and resources.

Why should we do justice?

God tells Israel: “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:34) The Israelites had been ‘aliens’ and oppressed slaves in Egypt. They did not have the ability to free themselves–God liberated them by his grace and power. Now they are to treat all people with less power or fewer assets as neighbors, doing love and justice to them. So the basis for ‘doing justice’ is salvation by grace! Christians may disagree about the particular political approach to the problems of injustice. But all Christians must be characterized by 1) their passion for justice, and 2) their personal commitment to ameliorate injustice through personal giving, sacrifice, and generosity.

Source: “The Gospel and the Poor” by Tim Keller

Reflection Questions:

  1. Have you ever studied the categories of Justice and Righteousness through the Old Testament? What did you think these terms meant before this session?
  2. How should one apply these concepts in the Church era?
  3. What is the relationship between the gospel and justice?


Now, let’s move in the next two sessions to look at a brief biblical theology of ministry to the poor, beginning with the Old Testament.

Justice and Old Testament Theology



Adam is told to have dominion over all creation, both the physical and spiritual realms, to bring it under the order and rule of God (Gen. l:28). God’s servants are, therefore, to be concerned to subdue physical disorder as well as spiritual disorder caused by sin. Both are fundamental to covenant service.


Sin defaces all of nature. Man is alienated from God (Gen.3:8) causing guilt and hostility to the knowledge of the Lord. Man is alienated from himself (Gen.3:10), causing loss of identity and loss of meaning, as well as anxiety and emptiness. Thirdly, man is alienated from other men (Gen.3:7), causing war, crime, family breakdown, oppression, and injustice. Finally, man is alienated from nature itself (Gen. 3:17-19), causing hunger, sickness, aging, and physical death. God’s first redemptive action, the clothing of Adam and Eve, points to the salvation of Christ’s sacrifice, but it also meets a deep psychological need (for privacy) and a fundamental physical need (for shelter). In this first deed of ministry, God reveals that his redemption will heal all the effects of sin. We must follow Him in our own patterns of ministry.

Patriarchal Period

Abraham’s seed (through Joseph) first becomes a blessing to the nations through a hunger relief program (Gen 41:53-57). Job, who lived in this period, is aware that God’s judgment falls on those who forget the poor (Job 29:15-16; 31:16-23).

Early Israel

God gave Israel many laws of social responsibility. Kinsmen and neighbors were obligated to give to the poor man until his need was gone (Deut.15:8-10). Tithes went to the poor (Deut. 14:28-29). The poor were not to be given simply a “handout”, but tools, grain (Deut.15:12-15) and land (Lev.25), so that they can become productive and self-sufficient.

Later Israel

The prophets condemned Israel’s insensitivity to the poor as covenant breaking. They taught that materialism and ignoring the poor are sins as repugnant as idolatry and adultery (Amos 2:6-7). Mercy to the poor is an evidence of true heart commitment to God (Is.l:10-17; 58:6-7; Amos 4:1-6; 5:21-24). The great accumulation of wealth, “adding of house to house and field to field till no space is left” (Is. 5:8-9), even though it is by legal means may be sinful if the rich are proud and callous toward the poor (Is.3:16-26; Amos 6:4-7). The seventy-year exile itself was a punishment for the unobserved Sabbath and jubilee years (II Chron. 36:20-21). In these years the well-to-do were to cancel debts, but the wealthy refused to do this.

*We’ll refer to the weak, elderly, mentally and physically handicapped, refugees, new immigrants, working poor, natural disaster victims, unemployed, single parent families, orphans—all under the heading of ‘the poor’.

Justice and New Testament Theology


The Ministry of Christ

Jesus proves to the Baptist that he is the Christ by pointing out that he heals bodies and preaches to the poor (Matt 11:1-6) even as the prophets said he would (Is.11:1-4; 61:1-2 cf.Luke 1:52-53). Jesus teaches that anyone who has truly been touched by the grace of a merciful God will be vigorous in helping the needy (Luke 6:35-36; Matt. 5:43-48). God will judge whether we have justifying faith or not by looking at our service to the poor, the refugee, the sick, the prisoner (Matt. 25:44-46). Jesus, in his incarnation, “moved in” with the poor (Luke 2:24; II Cor. 8:9). He lived with, ate with, and associated with the lowest class of society. He called this “mercy” (Matt. 9:13). The Bible demands that we emulate Him in it (II Cor. 8:8-15).

The Early Church

The church reflects the social righteousness of the old covenant community, but with the greater vigor and power of the new age. Christians are to open their hand to the needy as far as there is need (I John 3:16-17; cf. Deut. 15:7-8). Within the church, wealth is to be shared very generously between rich and poor (II Cor. 8:13-15; cf. Lev. 25). Following the prophets, the apostles teach that true faith will inevitably show itself through deeds of mercy (James 2:1-23). Materialism is still a grievous sin (James 5:1-6); I Tim.6:17-19). Not only do all believers have these responsibilities, but a special class of officers–deacons–is established to coordinate the church’s ministry of mercy. This shows that the ministry of mercy is a required, mandated work of the church just as is the ministry of the word and discipline (cf. Rom. 15:23-29). Paul tells the Ephesian elders in his farewell address that he has taught them the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). It is highly significant, then, that in his very last words, Paul exhorts them to give to the weak and poor (v.35). Not only did Paul consider mercy to the poor as part of the “whole counsel of God”, but he deemed it so crucial as to make it the very last piece of teaching he gave them.

The End of History

The goal of history is a new heavens and new earth–a totally restored creation. Wholistic ministry looks to and is victorious in the consummation.

Summary: The church is not simply a collection of individuals who are forgiven. It is a “royal nation”, a new society (I Pet. 2:9). The world must see in us the wisdom of God, namely, what family life, business practices, race relations, and inter- personal relationships can be in all their beauty under the kingship of Jesus Christ. We are a pilot plant of the kingdom of God. (See Francis Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man, Tyndale, 1970, pp. 81-93.) The church is to use its gifts and power to heal all the results of sin, spiritual, psychological, social, physical.

*We’ll refer to the weak, elderly, mentally and physically handicapped, refugees, new immigrants, working poor, natural disaster victims, unemployed, single parent families, orphans—all under the heading of ‘the poor’.

Justifying Faith Leads to Justice

So far, we have looked at word studies and a short biblical theology of the concept of justice as it relates to the social realm. But what about one of the biggest justice categories in the Bible, justification through faith? The doctrine of Justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone has been arguably the central Christian tenant since the Reformation.

It is no secret, as Tim Keller observes in the video you are about to watch, that people who are really into justification tend to be quite nervous about justice. And people who are really into justice tend to shy away from justification. It’s rare to find people combining both justification and justice.

In this video, Keller will discuss how and why justification through faith and justice in our world should never be separated.

  • Tim Keller - Generous Justice

Reflection Questions
  • How does Keller define justification? What does he say this has to do with justice?
  • Luther says, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” What types of acts flow from a heart that has been saved by faith?
  • To which side do you lean—justification or justice? Why? On what truths and promises of God do you need to meditate in order to be more balanced?

The Way Things Are Meant to Be

In the image of the triune God, we were made with expansive hearts to be in relationship with God and one another. As Jonathan Edwards writes,

Before, and as God created [man], he was exalted, and noble, and generous.

His original design for us was self-giving, not self-serving. It was justice, not injustice. In the fall, however, we embraced injustice. We sought our own and blamed others.  

Immediately upon the fall, the mind of man shrank from its primitive greatness and expandedness, to an exceeding smallness and contractedness.

Adam said, “Don’t blame me; blame her.” And Eve said, “Don’t blame me; blame the serpent.” (Gen. 3:8-13)

Our gracious God, though, has not left us alone. In Jesus, justice and order are redeemed. On the cross, justice and mercy kiss (Ps. 85:10) for God put to death the dividing wall of hostility between both man and God, and man and man (Eph. 2:11-11). And we are now called to live in light of our justification, even as we await ultimate justice from the One who is both the just and the justifer of those who have faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26). Until then, the best we can pursue is proximate justice.

TGC Theological Vision for Ministry

5. The Doing of Justice and Mercy

When you understand the biblical categories of justice and mercy, and the overall emphasis placed on these categories in Scripture, then the question becomes how you translate these things into ministry. At TGC, we have attempted to distill our understanding of justice and mercy as they are manifested into ministry through the following statement taken from our Theological Vision for Ministry document.

God created both soul and body, and the resurrection of Jesus shows that he is going to redeem both the spiritual and the material. Therefore God is concerned not only for the salvation of souls but also for the relief of poverty, hunger, and injustice. The gospel opens our eyes to the fact that all our wealth (even wealth for which we worked hard) is ultimately an unmerited gift from God. Therefore the person who does not generously give away his or her wealth to others is not merely lacking in compassion, but is unjust. Christ wins our salvation through losing, achieves power through weakness and service, and comes to wealth through giving all away. Those who receive his salvation are not the strong and accomplished but those who admit they are weak and lost. We cannot look at the poor and the oppressed and callously call them to pull themselves out of their own difficulty. Jesus did not treat us that way. The gospel replaces superiority toward the poor with mercy and compassion. Christian churches must work for justice and peace in their neighborhoods through service even as they call individuals to conversion and the new birth. We must work for the eternal and common good and show our neighbors we love them sacrificially whether they believe as we do or not. Indifference to the poor and disadvantaged means there has not been a true grasp of our salvation by sheer grace.

Justice Needs a Face

Justice is not just policies and theories. It’s people and families, too. Yes, we need to advocate for just systems in the public square and in government, but seeking justice must also be personal. For we cannot have true justice unless we remember that each person is made in the image of God.

Meet Kunthy and Chanda. They were sold by their mothers to human traffickers, who held them in a brothel and brought men in as customers to evaluate them for sexual exploitation. The traffickers escaped the force of the law because they bribed those in power to look the other way.

Human trafficking is a $32 billion a year industry—that’s $7 billion more than McDonald’s typically makes in a year. Today over 20 million people, 26% of which are children, are in slavery. This is injustice.

And Kunthy and Chanda give a face to injustice.

  • Bethany Hoang - Meet Kunty and Chanda

Reflection Questions
  • What is injustice?
  • What is justice? What did it look like in the lives of Kunthy and Chanda?
  • Who are the people in your life that give you a face of injustice? Can you name them? How might you be a part of bringing justice to their situations?

  • John Perkins - We Don’t Give Dignity to People; We Merely Affirm It.

  • Stephanie Summers & Michael Gerson - Case Study on Juvenile Justice

Mourn with Those Who Mourn

We know that the Psalmists understood injustice because one-third of the Psalter consists of songs of lament, expressing deep sorrow for both individual and corporate suffering and a longing for God’s blessing and intervention.

In a broken world, lament is not something we avoid, as if injustice might go away if we just ignored it. On the contrary, lament is a gift. As Bethany Hoang writes in The Justice Calling:

Lament is a gift. In the midst of everything going wrong around us—whether in the world at large or in the lives of people whose names and faces we know and hold dear—lament is a gift given to help us hold fast to God. God invites lament because he knows our temptation to turn away rather than toward him in the heat of hardship (p. 104-105).

In order to lament, though, we must first listen to those who are victims of injustice. For although the obligation of justice call us to action, its twin obligation of empathy calls us to draw near to one another, just as Christ drew near to us. He did not wait for us to listen to him before he became incarnate. He initiated and put himself in our shoes.

This is how we humble ourselves to listen to those who are victims of injustice. This is how we live, as Jonathan Leeman says, “according to love, not self-seeking power.”

  • On the Obligations of Empathy in Situations of Racial InjusticeRuntime: 18 min

    A discussion with Isaac Adams and Jonathan Leeman

Reflection Questions
  • In what ways does the gospel call us to sympathize with another’s pain?
  • How does injustice threaten our communities and churches?
  • Can you think of a someone in your life who has experienced, or is experiencing, pain as a result of an unjust situation in his or her life? Have you listened to him or her tell you about it? How can you love him or her in this situation?

Social Justice Is Not Social Gospel

What comes to mind when you think of social justice? Human trafficking? Racial prejudice? Heathcare? Immigration reform?

Social justice is a trendy and vital topic, but it’s often blurry, too.

One thing we know it’s not is a social gospel. By advocating for social justice, we’re not advocating for a social gospel. A social gospel is a false gospel that says we’re saved through our good works of justice, that personal holiness and evangelism don’t matter.

Social justice, on the other hand, is tied to personal holiness. For as we saw in our first class, Justifying Faith Leads to Justice, righteousness and justice are inextricably linked in the heart of God. As David Platt says, “A robust commitment to the gospel and the Great Commission will inevitably lead to encounters with the impoverished, the orphaned, and so forth.”

Reflection Questions
  • How can the worship service itself point to justice?
  • As you consider your own church’s weekly worship service, how might it propel you to both recognize injustice and work towards justice in your own life?
  • Where do you see injustice in your vocation—whether as a church leader, a businessperson, a doctor, a stay-at-home mom, or even a citizen of your community? How might you be a part of speaking into that injustice?

Set Your Sights on the Horizon

As we live in hope of Christ’s return to fully and finally set all things right, how do we become a people who witness to persevering hope in the face of real injustices in our world? How do we hold fast to hope for victims of injustice who wait to be rescued? And what about those who perpetrate injustice? What is our hope for all who commit horrors of abuse in this world?

All of creation is aching and groaning for redemption, for justice that not only protects victims from violence and holds criminals responsible for their crimes, but also for justice that stretches all the way to the final fulfillment of shalom—to the redemption and reconciliation of even the most vile evil (and human perpetrators of evil) known to our world. No sin, no brokenness, and no brutality is beyond God’s love and the power of the ultimate restoration and culmination of his glory in the age to come.

Yet facing and fighting the daily reality of injustice, even as we long for all things to be made new in the coming of Jesus Christ, is hard. How do we persevere in hope?

We must remember that justice has a source, and that source is not dependent on what we have or don’t have in our hands, or on our good but faulty intentions. The source of justice in the midst of even the most heinous injustice in our world is Jesus Christ. God’s very character is one of justice, and Jesus is the manifestation of his justice both now and for eternity. God is the one who reveals the justice calling upon our lives, because God is the source of justice.

Therefore, even as we fight to push back injustice in our lives and to shine the light of justice, we remember what David told Goliath, and what the Lord told Jehosaphat: “The battle is not yours, but God’s.” We do God’s will, but he is the One who makes our work effective. The battle belongs to the Lord.

  • Bethany Hoang - The Source of Justice Is God Himself

Reflection Questions
  • When you see injustice in your community or in the world, and you’re powerless to do anything about it, how do you feel?
  • How might knowing that God is the source of justice help you persevere in your work for justice?
  • What promises of Scripture can help you know more about God’s justice in a way that can give you an increasing, persevering hope?

  • Exile

    Video from "For the Life of the World"