What’s been done in the name of Jesus?
What’s been done in the name of Buddha?
What’s been done in the name of Islam?
What’s been done in the name of man?
What’s been done in the name of liberation?
And in the name of civilization?
And in the name of race?
And in the name of peace?
Everybody loves to see justice done
On somebody else.
-Bruce Cockburn, “Justice,” Inner City Front
We all want justice, or so we say. Often, great evil is done in the name of “justice.” The prophet Amos cried out, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24). God’s people had been treating poor people unjustly while thinking their worship of God was still pure. It was not. God opposed it in strong terms.
This is what the Lord says:
For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name. They lie down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge. In the house of their god they drink wine taken as fines (Amos 2:6-8).
Just as Amos had prophesied against Israel’s pagan neighbors for their injustice (Amos 1:3-15), so he accused God’s people of the same. Israel had oppressed the poor as well as committing heinous sexual sins. But what is justice from a biblical perspective? Is there a difference between social justice and biblical justice?
God and Justice
God’s unchanging, perfect character is the source and foundation of justice. God’s law is the standard for true justice. The Psalms declare that the Creator is passionate about justice:
He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—he remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked (Psalm 146:6-9).
Justice is making something wrong into something right in the right way. It treats people fairly and without prejudice. All should be treated equally before the law, and we should not treat people with favoritism based on wealth or race (James 2:1-13; Galatians 3:26-28).
The Meaning of Justice
We can start to trace the meaning of justice with the Ten Commandments. A just man or woman is one who tries to obey all the commandments (Exodus 20:1-18). This person gives God and people their moral due. God should be honored as the one true God, his name hallowed, idols avoided, and his holy day set apart for rest. We are commanded to treat others as God requires by honoring our elders, not murdering, stealing, committing adultery, bearing false witness, or coveting what does not belong to us. Jesus summarized these truths when asked about the greatest commandment:
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:37-40).
The just man or women will live their lives based on these commands, not to earn salvation (which is impossible), but as the pattern of obedience to God and for love of neighbor (Ephesians 2:8-10). We can think of justice as it relates to individual behavior and to societies at large. Although Americans live in a representational Republic that gives us the vote and significant influence, most Americans can do little to effect major changes in society. However, a good person will do as the prophet Micah said:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).
Humility involves the character of one who avoids pride and knows that all his or her gifts come from God. Mercy means not taking revenge, but leaving it in God’s hands; it extends grace, not punishment, which belongs to the law and to God’s final judgment. As Paul writes, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
But what is justice? Timothy Keller explains two senses of justice in the Bible:
Rectifying justice is mishpat. It means punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment. Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else.1
Although Keller (oddly) does not make this point, justice regarding abortion in America means that it should be illegal because it is murder (mishpat), and that biblical family values should be encouraged, which would cause fewer women to seek abortions (tzadeqah).2
Injustice as poverty can occur for many reasons, as when a judicial system is rigged to benefit the powerful (Leviticus 19:15), or loans are granted with excessive interest (Exodus 22:25-27), or wages are wrongly withheld from workers (James 5:1-6). However, not all poverty is the result of injustice, since sloth and foolishness can be responsible (Proverbs 6:6-7; 23:21).3
What of Social Justice?
This is only a primer on justice, biblically considered. But what of calls today for “social justice” and “equity”? Those making these demands often assume a critical race theory (or cultural Marxism) worldview which claims that all discrepancies in wealth or achievement among races are due to an unjust system. Disparities in achievement between whites and blacks, for example, are caused by “systemic racism,” which can only be redressed through top-down governmental controls that produce equal outcomes (or equity).
My recent book, Fire in the Streets, addresses these matters in depth, but a few comments suffice.4 While the Bible does speak of unjust systems, it never undermines the responsibility of individuals morally and financially. Calls for massive State programs and regulations to address disparate outcomes often overlook the criteria of merit for the sake of an artificial result.5 These measures do not address crucial cultural factors such as educational achievement (drop-out rates), family structure (absent fathers), average age, and other issues. Moreover, the call for socialist redistribution of wealth has not benefited people of color overall, as Charles Murray and Thomas Sowell have noted. They have, rather, fostered dependency and robbed people of agency. A generally free market wherein merit determines success within a fair system of law is a better bet than draconian attempts by the civil government to generate equity, come what may.6
True and total justice will only come when Jesus returns at the end of the age (Matthew 25:31-46; 2 Peter 3:11-13). But that is no excuse to do nothing now! Because of Christ’s coming victory, his followers should work for real justice in our broken world. However, we should be mindful of mere “human philosophies” that masquerade as justice, such as critical race theory (Colossians 2:8). Paul says that because of Jesus’s work on the cross, his resurrection, and his coming again, we can take heart in all our godly endeavors:
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, where he has served since 1993. He is the author or co-author of fourteen books, including the best-selling, Unmasking the New Age, the much-used apologetics textbook, Christian Apologetics, and introduction to philosophy, Philosophy in Seven Sentences, a memoir, Walking through Twilight, and a children’s book, I Love You to The Stars (with Crystal Bowman).