Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just

Written by Timothy Keller Reviewed By James P. Gould

Justice is currently undergoing a renaissance in interest, in both academic and wider public concern. So it is no surprise to see Timothy Keller publish his latest work, entitled ‘Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just’. Yet Keller, in his introduction, boldly asserts that the Bible is a book devoted to ‘justice in the world from first till last’ (p. xiv). While many people would concede justice is an important concept, and a biblical one, could we term the Bible a book devoted to justice? Keller is evidently set upon dispelling preconceptions, and Generous Justice aims to both dispel evangelical assumptions and inform our understanding on this issue.

However, the intended scope of the thesis may prove problematic for the audience. Keller clarifies in his introduction that he is writing to inform both believers and non-believers. This is the book’s intended purpose. Is the book evangelistic or more formative for Christians in approach? Or is Keller attempting to do both at the same time? Ultimately, the book tends to be at parts more of an in-depth commentary on key Bible passages, more instructive for Christians in their approach to justice than a book encouraging non-believers to put their trust in Christ.

Moreover, this dual purpose raises questions concerning the overriding narrative and structure. Chapter 4 provides an expanded sermon, drawing out characteristically perceptive comments on the parable of the Good Samaritan. For the next few chapters Keller labours on contemporary human rights discourse and justice related jurisprudence—drawing on scholars such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Rorty, Michael Sandel, and Aristotle. Is Keller really certain of his audience? Like Keller’s The Reason for God (New York: Dutton; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008), Generous Justice distinctly targets his Manhattan professional audience. Yet does this exclude those who have not received a tertiary level education from fully engaging with Keller’s insights?

Generous Justice challenges every person to generate a new thesis about justice. He writes, ‘if a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice’ (p. 93). Justice follows justification. ‘For when the Spirit enables us to understand what Christ has done for us,’ Keller writes in his introduction, ‘the result is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor’ (p. xiii). The Christian’s response to grace offered in the cross of Jesus Christ is one of justice, both in thought and deed.

Moving from theory to practice, the reader is given a practical chapter on how we should do justice, moving from self-focused to a societal view encompassing the work of the church as central to social justice in the community. Keller’s appreciation of justice is an all-encompassing one, containing all spheres of life and all of society. For a Christian a life poured out in doing justice for the poor ‘is the inevitable sign of any real gospel faith’ (p. 189). Further to this, Generous Justice evokes a response from the reader: Keller’s vision of biblical justice finds application for every Christian. Keller draws a standard here—any Christian failing to meet this standard fails ‘to live justly and righteously’ (p. 112).

Generous Justice seeks to dispel myths and critique assumptions. One way it effectively does this is through Keller proposing a different way to understand evangelism and social justice. Keller’s understanding is that the concepts should exist in an ‘asymmetric, inseparable relationship’ (p. 139). He formulates a critique of the relationship concerning evangelism and social justice aimed at Christians, and he criticises Christians who suggest that justice should be performed only as a means to the end of evangelism. For Keller this is inherently wrong. Justice is not simply a means to an end. Rather, justice should be the natural action of a saved believer, not just something done for the sole purpose of evangelising others. At the same time, Keller believes that there is no better way for a Christian to lay a ‘foundation for evangelism than by doing justice’ (p. 142). This is because if someone is to share their faith with a person yet does nothing to meet that person’s practical and material needs through deeds, this ‘fails to show Christ’s love’ (p. 143). First John 3:16–17 is rightly brought to mind.

Yet would justice not entail evangelism? Here, once again, Keller controversially separates the two concepts. Adamant that the concepts should be separate, Keller draws the concept of grace into the argument. Keller defines grace as ‘giving the benefits that are not deserved’ while justice ‘is giving people exactly what they do deserve’ (p. 49). Grace entails that evangelism and discipleship cannot be effective without meeting the practical and material needs of those we meet (for example, caring about the conditions they live within). Social justice is a key calling of the Christian life, a fact that many churches and Christians often forget. Once again Keller should be commended for the way he dispels myths and provides a thoroughly biblical account of justice incorporated into life, all in a relatively short book. Clear biblical teaching is needed to provide questions and answers on this subject. Generous Justice gives a timely reminder of the importance of social justice, providing clear challenges, questions, and answers for every Christian.

James P. Gould

James P. Gould
University of Exeter, School of Law
Exeter, Devon, UK

Other Articles in this Issue

Listening to or reading the reflections of others on preaching is, for most preachers, inherently interesting and stimulating (whether positively or negatively)...

For Christians in the United kingdom, the Bible appears to have suffered a reversal of fortune with regards to its standing in public life.

The relatively recent interest among evangelicals in engaging ancient Christian tradition is without question a welcome development...

Scholars continue to discuss and debate the scope of the biblical canon...

Is the Reformation over? At first blush, this question would appear to be a rather peculiar one to ask...