This article is adapted from a message delivered at Arise Community Church in Fenton, MO.
What comes to mind when you hear the word justice?
Probably a lot of things, because justice has been a hot button issue in recent months. You can hardly get on social media, watch the news, read something, or make a TikTok without being confronted by conversations about justice in one form or another.
But what is justice? What is just? How do we know? And why on earth does it matter?
I won’t pretend that I have all the answers to those questions. Like many of you, I’ve been wrestling with how to be just in the midst of an unjust, polemical, and inflammatory world. But as a Christian, one thing I am reasonably confident in is that my concept of justice must begin with God.
Scripture’s Portrayal of God as Just
One the clearest messages from scripture about who God is concerns His desire for everyone to receive fair and equitable treatment and to treat others likewise—in other words, about His justice. There are numerous passages about the justice of God in Scripture. To highlight some of the clearest examples, consider that Isaiah 30.18 says, Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.
In Psalm 9.7-8, we hear that, the Lord sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice, and he judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with uprightness. In Deuteronomy 10.18, we see that God executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. And in Isaiah 61.8, God says, For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrong; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Clearly, Scripture communicates that God is just. He loves justice, He enacts justice, He rules justly, and He is just. In fact, when it comes down to it, this is the real reason that we should be interested in justice: because we follow a just God. But God’s justice is not something abstract or arcane; it’s not as if God is just and keeps that justice to Himself. To the contrary, He expects those who follow Him to live justly as well.
Perhaps the best indication of God’s expectation for human justice comes in the words of the prophet Micah, who says: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6.6-8)
Here, Micah is saying that it’s not enough to just come worship God (to bow myself before God); it’s not enough to just bring offerings to God (to come before him with burnt offerings, thousands of rams, or rivers of oil); it’s not enough to just apologize when you mess up (to give the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul). None of those religious acts is what God really and truly wants. It’s not enough to give God lip service, to say that you follow God or come to church as way to please Him. No, what does the Lord require? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Several Old Testament scholars have called this a “summary of the prophetic ethical tradition.” That is, this is shorthand for how God expects you to live. Humility and love are key. But what leads the list? Justice.
One might summarize the Scriptural message concerning justice in this way: God is just and His followers should seek His justice. Those who claim to follow God, then, should obey His commands. Someone who says they follow God should follow His example and value what He values and seek justice as He seeks justice. Saying you follow a just God is nonsense if it’s not reflected in our actions. This is the biblical standard of justice: God is just and His followers should seek His justice.
This side of justice is often ignored. What’s not ignored, however, is the question that remains: how do we know what the (biblical) standard of justice is? Put another way, most people agree that justice is a good thing; where we disagree with one another is on what that justice looks like in our world. Pick any group of people and you’ll find differing views on what justice should entail, including divergent reasons for why we should pursue justice or the manner in which we should work towards justice in our world. And that’s okay—so long as we’re seeking God’s justice and not our own. And to assist with that task, I want us to think about two frameworks for understanding biblical justice: the characteristics of justice and the commitments of justice. In other words, what biblical justice is and what we can do to live justly as we follow a just God.
Characteristics of Biblical Justice
Let me begin by suggesting four characteristics of biblical justice.
First, biblical justice is always in process. This is something that the language of Micah 6.8 points to: we are to do justice. The construction here is present and active, meaning the work of justice should take place both now and in the future as something that’s continuously ongoing. Similar here are the words of Jesus (Mark 14.7): for you [will] always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. That is, justice isn’t a status that we’ll reach, but an aim to be working toward. In a broken world, there’s always something to be fixed. This is not the same as saying that nothing is ever just—Scripture commends just government (as in Romans 13.1-7) and the support of justice where it is already taking place. But biblical justice also doesn’t necessarily equate legal with just or view progress as completion.
Last year, I read Just Mercy by lawyer Bryan Stevenson. It’s a great book that weaves together his account of a particular case of misconstrued justice with the realities facing the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that advocates for fair and legal trials for everyone. This was a major theme throughout the book: justice is always in process. When one right is wronged, that doesn’t mean that other wrongs cease to exist. It’s not enough to root out one wrong and leave another. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Biblical justice is always in process.
Second, biblical justice is holistic. Biblical justice cares for human beings through every stage of life—from the womb to death and in every circumstance between. Psalm 146.7-9 puts it this way: The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless. God seeks justice for those in prison, those with disabilities, those who are beaten down, those who are refugees, those who have lost loved ones or been abandoned. God seeks justice for all these people and more—and we should too.
Those made in the image of God (that’s everyone) possess inherent dignity and value, no matter their stage of development, condition in life, material wealth, intellectual or physical capacities, skin color, manner of identity, or any other kind of differentiation. This is one of the reasons why, at Arise Church (where I pastor), we seek to support holistic justice: from conception to death and everything in between. It’s why we support pregnancy care, foster and adoption care, food pantries, supplemental food for students, homeless outreach, the fight against sex trafficking, equitable trials, racial justice, refugee care, and fair pay for poor coffee farmers. If, as one theologian said, there is no part of the world over which God does not say “mine,” then there is no place that the Church should not be willing to work in order to have God’s will be done.
Third, biblical justice is restorative. Scripture certainly mentions and, in certain areas, commends retributive justice—where offenses result in punishment that is proportional to the injustice. But while there is a place for retributive justice (mostly, it seems, at the hands of God ordained governments), the fullest picture of justice that Scripture paints involves restorative justice. Restorative justice prioritizes the rebuilding of relationships, rehabilitation of lapses, and forgiveness of sins rather than the exacting of punishment. The model for restorative justice is, of course, the work of Jesus.
As the Apostle Paul explains it, All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5.18-19) That is, those who follow Jesus have been given the task of restoring those who wrong us because that is precisely what God does for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Who are we to perpetuate or allow injustice, we who have been so mercifully forgiven of our injustices?
Finally, biblical justice follows from faith. Historic Christianity has always viewed the pursuit of justice as a response to the work of God in the world and as a result of following Jesus. Very simply, we pursue justice for others because God first pursued justice for us (cx. 1 John 4.19). Christianity proclaims that Jesus is the saving king who has come to save us from our brokenness and the work of eradicating unjust brokenness in the world flows from that reality.
This leads to an important implication: not every pursuit of justice is a pursuit of biblical justice. Not everyone who positions their cause under the banner of justice in our world accords with what Scripture teaches about the justice of God. This is why it’s so important to think critically; followers of Jesus shouldn’t just jump onboard every seemingly well-intentioned or helpful sounding cause. In the words of Matthew Lee Anderson, “Where sin unmakes the world, justice demands the mercy of God: [but] any attempt to restore the world on other terms can only breed new wrongs.” As followers of Jesus, the justice we pursue should follow from our faith and take on the character of the One we follow.
Commitments of Biblical Justice
Biblical justice is always in process; it’s holistic; it’s restorative; and it flows from our faith in Christ. But what can we do in order to enact this justice in the world? What are the commitments of biblical justice? I have some more suggestions for you.
First, dig deeper. Don’t just take my word for it, don’t just listen to your favorite podcaster, or read the headlines on Facebook—dig deeper and learn more about biblical justice and what it can look like in the world. Start with Scripture. I highly recommend the introduction to biblical justice produced by the Bible Project, as well as a Bible study put together by Love Justice International. These are both great places to begin as you dig deeper into biblical justice.
Second, get your hands dirty. Don’t just think about justice; don’t just listen to me talk about it; don’t just do the bare minimum and think that’s enough. Do something! Tangibly support your local food pantry, school support networks, homeless outreach, and/or orphan care, as we do at Arise. Do what you can to jump in and serve in your community. If you feel strongly enough about an issue, go peacefully protest on its behalf. Don’t stand on the sidelines—do something! A word of wisdom: don’t try to do everything. But find something you’re passionate about (perhaps even something your local church is passionate about) and jump into the work of doing justice here in our community.
Third, engage civically. I know politics is miserable. But you cannot completely ignore the political sphere and still hope to make a difference in the world. For better or worse (and let’s be honest, it’s mostly worse), the political sphere has tremendous influence over our world. So engage civically on a national and local level. Please notice that I’m not saying just vote here—this is not another Facebook ad reminding you to register to vote. Voting is one way among many to engage with justice, but it should not be the only way that you take a stand for what you believe is just and right. Let me recommend another resource here: Compassion and Conviction, published by the AND Campaign as a guide for faithful civic engagement. The justice of God cannot possibly be limited to our politically oriented expressions of justice; but neither should we ignore the political process if we want to see biblical justice at work.
Finally, financially support those making a difference. Live generously and support people and organizations who are pursuing biblical justice in our world. We believe very strongly in that principle at Arise. It’s why when we receive donations, at least 10% of that goes directly to those spreading the Kingdom of God in St. Louis and around the world. This includes organizations like the International Justice Mission (which is committed to ending human slavery and sex trafficking), our local Pregnancy Care Center (which supports moms facing unplanned pregnancies), and the Equal Justice Initiative (which works for racial justice and criminal justice reform). These are organizations that are doing good work, which is why Hayley and I support them not only through our giving here at Arise, but also on our own throughout the year. But let me encourage you to put your money where your mouth is and to financially support organizations that are pursuing justice.
God is just—Scripture consistently testifies to that fact. God is just and His followers should seek His justice. Not just by doing whatever we think feels right or doing what is convenient; but by being committed to biblical justice and living out that justice in our lives. This is how we’re called to live: To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with a God who responded to our injustices by sending His Son Jesus to die for us and bring us just mercy. Won’t you follow that God and seek His justice too?
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