Biblical justice

By Brian Edgar

‘My daughter has a keen sense of justice’ she said, as we watched the child and her friends dividing cake and lollies at a party. My unspoken response was that the girl was pretty much like every other child (and adult, for that matter) in that she showed a strong instinct for self-interest in making sure that she got her fair share! Self-interest is natural and not necessarily wrong but it is certainly not the same thing as biblical justice. Even secular notions of justice which go beyond the childish attitude that ‘justice’ is ‘just me’ and  define it in terms of fairness, equality and honesty still fall short of ‘biblical justice’. The kind of justice (or righteousness) which the Scriptures present is certainly not about the well-off, the competent, the able or the privileged getting their fair share. It is not even defined primarily in terms of abstract notions of fairness or equality. Biblical justice means very practical, down-to-earth actions which take place to ensure that the weak are protected from abuse, that the poor have what they need, the stranger in the land is shown hospitality and that the socially disadvantaged are cared for. Even when this means giving them what they do not ‘deserve’!

The idea that justice does not just mean treating everyone the same was sharpened up for me in a discussion in a school council budget meeting at which one person was arguing that exactly equal amounts of money should be spent on each year level. This was, they said, the only way to be just and fair. Another argument was that the needs of particular groups of students were arguably greater and certainly more expensive to meet and thus I argued,  ‘doing justice does not always meaning treating people exactly the same.’ There may be reasons for preferential treatment for some and a case for people getting more than they ‘deserve’ if what they ‘deserve’ is based on some abstract notion of ‘fairness’.

This more radical kind of justice is based on the justice of God who, fortunately, does not give us what we deserve! Our sin deserves nothing but condemnation (Rom. 5:16) but ‘if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9). God’s forgiving justice means that we are ‘justified’, that is, treated as ‘righteous’ or blameless even when we are not. Forgiveness means being given ‘a righteousness that comes from God’ (Phil. 3:9). This is not ‘justice’ as the world understands justice, it is an undeserved act of grace.

In English we tend to use two sets of words, that is ‘justice’ (understood usually as an action one does) and ‘righteousness’ (understood usually as a state in which one lives) but both Old Testament (i.e. Hebrew) and New Testament (i.e. Greek) terminology uses the one word group (sdq and dik) for both. They are not meant to be separated. If we ask what a kind or a generous person does the answer is that they do kind or generous things and if we ask what a righteous person does the correct answer is that they do justice. The Bible is quite clear that there is an intimate connection between ‘being justified’ on the one hand, and ‘doing justice’ on the other. ‘Being justified’ not only means that we are treated as God’s children and given eternal life but also that we are to ‘live justly’ and ‘do justice’ for others in the same way that God has done this for us.

Christians are ‘justified’ or ‘righteous’ people because of Christ (not because of themselves) and therefore can live righteous lives. I have deliberately said ‘can’ live righteous lives rather than ‘must’ because God is gracious and has set before us an opportunity and a privilege and the presence of his Spirit makes it possible. It would also be true to say we ‘must’ live righteous lives because there is, in the call of Christ, an imperative, but the primary motivation for obedience to the call is love rather than duty.  I have perhaps laboured this point because too often the act of doing justice has been separated from the fact of being justified.

It is foolish to have automotive engineers who understand the detailed working of a braking system or a electronic carburettor who do not also understand the overall concept of a car, and it is just as foolish to have people focused on evangelical conversion who do not understand the importance of social justice or to have experts in social justice who do not understand the importance of evangelism and of being justified by faith. Only when they are together are they the gospel. Only when integrated is it biblical justice.

The Micah Declaration on Integral Mission expresses this point very well when it says, ‘It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather, in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. If we ignore the world we betray the word of God which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the word of God we have nothing to bring to the world. Justice and justification by faith, worship and political action, the spiritual and the material, personal change and structural change belong together. As in the life of Jesus, being, doing and saying are at the heart of our integral task.’

The Micah Declaration is so named because of the words of the prophet Micah whose answer to the question, ‘What does the LORD require of you?’ was simple and yet profound:  ‘To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8)  In Christian faith some things are, as the Lord Jesus pointed out,  more important than others. He called those who had taken the trouble to fulfil their religious duty to tithe by meticulously tithing everything, down to the herbs in their garden, nothing but hypocrites: ‘you give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.’ (Matt.23:23). What does this mean for us? When seeking to discern the appropriate application of a passage of scripture it is a good rule never to apply it to someone else without first seeing if it applies to oneself!

Our actions reveal the state of our heart. Indeed, because of this we are judged by our actions. God’s justice is permeated with grace but not with indifference to human sin and injustice. The biblical concept of ‘justice’ also includes ‘judgment’ and so the apostle Paul can speak of being ‘dead in your transgressions and sins’ (Eph.  2:1). He also says ‘to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life.’ (Rom. 2:17. Also see 2 Cor. 5:10) Doing justice is connected with a justified state.

Biblically speaking, justice is not a passive, neutral or abstract state. Justice is not biblical justice unless in some way it involves the weak, the poor, or the socially disadvantaged. As James wrote, ‘What good is it, my brothers and sisters,  if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’ (James 2:14-17)

There are real signs of hope that an integration of justification and justice will spread through evangelical churches. The church has traditionally been strong on community care which is, in many respects, close to the ideals of biblical justice and there are some evangelical churches which, without diminishing attention to evangelism have a strong focus on justice. There are many individuals, including many young people, with a global view, a deep sense of responsibility and a biblical vision for justice. But evangelicals still have a good distance to go to give biblical justice the place it deserves in its life and mission. Firstly, the church has to recognise injustice (eg abuse of various kinds) within the church and, secondly, it is in many ways, compromised in the way it spends large amounts of money on itself. Thirdly, some feel disempowered by the overwhelming weight and complexity of the problems and the lack of time available in churches to address them and, finally, there is a often a lack of modelling and teaching on justice. Some are not involved in biblical justice simply because they have not been adequately taught about it.

It would wrong though to suggest that pastors and people are unwilling to embrace justice as a prominent gospel theme. If there is one area of particular concern, but also of great potential, it is that of worship. The present alienation of the two great Christian activities of worship and biblical justice is disturbing. There is a need for a re-connection which will not diminish but actually enhance our understanding of God and his action in the world and lead to greater praise and worship.

The problems that inhibit this re-connection include the ever-present problem of competing priorities – so much is expected of so little time! In addition, some pastors do not teach on biblical justice out of a fear that congregations might shrink because the perception, and perhaps the reality, has been that a stress on justice does not grow a church  numerically. Churches, it is said, grow better if nothing controversial is said from the pulpit and the concept of justice (like the person of Jesus) can be controversial!  It may be though, that the decline in some justice orientated churches has been more because they have lost sight of other aspects of justice, including evangelism and justification, rather than because they have embraced justice as a mode of Christian discipleship.  Biblical justice can actually become a route to evangelical faith rather than a turn off!

Is it possible to rediscover the evangelical heritage of biblical justice and redefine the life and teaching of the church concerning mission? Can we have a vision for churches which are not driven by a focus on self-help or ‘What’s in it for me?’  but which are full of people who are captivated by Jesus and who believe that we should join him in his work in the world – rather than just trying to persuade people to come and join us in finding Jesus in church? We need elders and leaders with a strong sense of identity who are not affected by ‘growth at all costs’, to the detriment of other aspects of discipleship. They need to be people who understand that loss of integrity is worse than loss of income.

There needs to be an honest exploration of the values of the kingdom including such issues as how we earn and spend our money. Many churches need to shift from care and charity (which are good principles and strongly developed in churches) to justice (which is also good but more difficult). The themes of worship should be such that people are called to respond to the character of God in all dimensions. There needs to be a reversal of the trend towards the elimination of prayers of confession in order that churches can face the injustices of church and society and broader and more global prayers of intercession. There is a need for contemporary songwriters to extend their themes to justice and world issues. Congregations should be made aware of the Micah Declaration. And last, but not least, there is a need to read our Bibles without any blinkers. Biblical justice means not less Bible but more, especially the gospels and the prophets.

NOTE:  This article was written by Brian Edgar but the final five paragraphs owe much to the report of the group looking at Biblical Justice in the EA Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength consultation in May 2003. The group included Steve Bradbury, Sarah Champness, Brian Edgar, Pat Harrison, Alan Marr, Patricia Mayne and Grace Thomlinson.

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