How to Think Biblically about Justice
The task I have been given is to answer the question: How do we think about social justice issues in light of the reality that redemption has not yet been brought to completion? As Christians, we want to be able to think about these issues Biblically. And make no mistake about it: the Bible has plenty to say about justice. Here are a few examples, and this doesn’t exhaust the texts to which we could point:
The Bible gives us God’s expectation for us concerning justice: He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8)
The Bible gives us God’s commendation of a man (Abraham) who did justice: For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him. (Gen. 18:19)
The Bible gives us God’s command to do justice: Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. (Ps. 82:3). And though this verse is particularly addressed to rulers, I think we can agree that it applies to all who are in a position to help and defend those who cannot help or defend themselves.
The Bible gives us God’s evaluation of justice-doers: To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice. (Prov. 21:3)
Clearly, God cares about justice, and what God cares about, we should care about. But we should care about it in the way God cares about it.
So this is what we want to address. In particular, what I want to do is to give you a framework within which to think about these things. I cannot address every issue – in fact, I don’t have the expertise or experience to sort out all the issues surrounding the debates over things like reparations and racial reconciliation. But there are a number of solutions out there parading as justice which in fact are very different from the Biblical view, and we want to be able to spot those and to discern what is genuinely wrong about them. We also want to have a positive view of Biblical justice. In other words, I want us to have Biblical discernment as we think about the constellation of issues surrounding the social justice debates. So we’re going to be looking at the big picture here, which I hope will help you as you delve into the details of the debates.
How should we do this? Any solution that is authentically Biblical is going to have to tie into the Bible’s overarching themes, and that is how I want to approach this topic. That is, I want us to look at justice along the arc of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.
In talking about creation, we are assuming a couple of things at least. First, we are assuming that there is a God, the God who created all things and upholds all things by the word of his power. This universe is guided and directed; it is not undirected matter in motion. We are not philosophical materialists. If we are going to be Biblical, we must at least affirm the opening statement of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Second, we are assuming that the creation has meaning, objective meaning, and purpose, and that this meaning and purpose is not created by us but is revealed to us.
But that of course begs the questions: what Creator and what meaning? We must therefore confess God as he has revealed himself to us in the world and in the Word. The God who created all things reveals himself to us as “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice goodness, and truth” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 4). Especially in terms of what we are speaking to, we must affirm that “He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he” (Deut. 32:4).
God is a God of justice, and he has revealed what that standard of justice is in his Law, written in the hearts of all men, testified to by conscience, and above all, by Scripture. It is God’s law, not man’s law, that must decide for a Christian what is justice and what is not.
But what meaning has he given to us? At the very beginning, we are told that God made man – male and female – in his image (Gen. 1:26-28). There is a lot of debate about what exactly this means, but it does at least imply that all men and women are endowed, as the Founding Fathers of our nation put it, by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and all men are to be treated equally and with dignity. You don’t trash God’s image. And when you look at your fellow man, whether he is African American or Indian American, Asian or Caucasian, Hispanic or Native American, rich or poor, famous or unknown, you are looking at an image-bearer of God Almighty. This is the ground of justice on a horizontal level – the fact that all men are created in the image of God.
Incidentally, I think it warrants saying that getting upset over the term “social justice” is really a waste of time, because all justice is social justice. All justice is about maintaining right relationships between man and God and between man and man. If anything is wrong with the phrase, it is that it is a bit redundant, like talking about wet water or hot heat. But there is nothing wrong with the term itself. In fact, it might be helpful in forcing us to see the fundamental nature of justice in terms of social relationships.
The implication of being made in God’s image is brought out in our Lord’s summary of God’s law: “Jesus said unto him, Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:37-40). Note the priority. Love God above everything else. Hallow his name. Let his kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Then love your neighbor as yourself. Sometimes justice is defined as “giving someone what is due to them.” But we must be careful that we define “what is due” in Biblical parameters. Biblically, it fundamentally means loving your neighbor as yourself.
How do you define “neighbor”? We do it in light of our Lord’s words in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:29-37). Your neighbor is anyone within your social sphere of influence, whether they are well known by you or not, whether you like them or not, whether you agree with them or not. They are image-bearers, and you have a responsibility to them. In other words, as Christians, we care about our communities and feel the responsibility of caring for those around us precisely because we are called to love our neighbors – our fellow image-bearers – as ourselves. And we care about equity – giving to other what is due to them – because we are called to love our neighbors – our fellow image-bearers – as ourselves. All this, we must reiterate, arises from the foundation of the Biblical doctrine of creation.
But this is not the whole story. We are told in Genesis 3 that man fell from his state of uprightness into a state of rebellion and sin. He fell from relating correctly with God and his fellow man to relating in self-serving and wicked ways; we now take advantage of those around us instead of serving them and loving them as ourselves. In fact, we must go further. According to Romans 5 and Ephesians 2, all mankind are implicated in Adam’s first sin. He is our federal head and representative and what he did has affected the whole human race. We are now born in a state of condemnation and sin, dead in sins, and under the wrath of God. We are not born into this world with a blank slate, and we are not simply the product of societal influences. We are hostile to God and unable to keep his law and love our neighbor as we ought.
Now, we must also say that the Bible affirms that the image of God is not completely gone (cf. Jam. 3:9). It is marred, perhaps beyond recognition, but the fall has not erased those creation mandates of love to God and love to neighbor, of a responsibility toward our community and an urgency for equity. But it does mean that the fundamental problem – the fundamental justice issue – is the issue and problem of human sin, of personal sin. The injustice in this world cannot be seen purely in terms of environment or class struggle or education. It is a problem of the human heart, and as long as the human heart is a sinful heart, there will be injustice in the world.
Our fall in Adam and its consequences in original and actual sin is crucial in thinking about justice. First of all, the Bible teaches us that sin is a primarily a personal thing. The apostle Paul put it this way, “But let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For every man shall bear his own burden” (Gal. 6:4-5). The burden under consideration is the burden resulting from living in a fallen world with fallen hearts. That we will bear our own burden is a testament to the fact that we are all ultimately responsible for the sins that we commit, for the choices that we make, for the burdens that we create. As Paul put it in another place, “But why dost thou judge thy brother? Or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:10-12). Every human being bears personal responsibility for their actions before God. It bears underlining this fact, for this is the thing missing in virtually every secular theory of justice.
This needs to be balanced, however, by two further considerations. First, though we are accountable for our sins, we are not always responsible for all the outcomes of our choices. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that poverty, as one example, is not always an outcome an individual is personally responsible for (though it certainly sometimes is). There are factors in this world that we cannot control. A person’s health may deteriorate or the people around us may become unstable and unreliable, and a person can through no fault of their own end up with nothing. If you don’t believe me, sit down with Job and let him explain it to you.
Second, the fact that sin a primarily a personal thing doesn’t erase the reality of corporate responsibility. If you believe in Adam’s fall and the doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin to the human race, then it is impossible to escape the reality of corporate responsibility: in fact, it is the only adequate explanation for the way things are! But beyond Adam’s sin there are multiple examples of this in the Bible: Achan’s family perishes for his sin, the Amalekites are struck down by King Saul because of the way their ancestors treated Israel generations before, Israel in King David’s day endures famine because of an injustice committed by King Saul in his day, and on and on. We don’t exist on our own. Though we are individuals, we are individuals in families and tribes and nations and societies. We are on a team in some way and the mistakes of one member of the team affects everyone and can often implicate everyone.
Of course there are limitations to this. Kevin DeYoung notes, for example, that the apostle Peter accuses his audience in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost with murdering Jesus, although many of them may have had personally little to do with it in a direct sense. But you don’t hear this accusation repeated later on or in Jewish synagogues in other parts of the Roman Empire as the gospel spread out. We can and should explore where the limitations are with respect to national and/or generational sin – sins like racism or abortion – but it is a question that needs to be asked because corporate responsibility is not a secular invention; it is a Biblical category.
That being said, we must recognize that if Ezekiel 18 says anything, it is that personal sin takes ultimate priority over the sins of the fathers. In particular, you can’t and shouldn’t hold an individual responsible for the sins of others in which they have not participated in some way (although we often bear the consequences of the sins of others). The fact that in Ezekiel 18 this principle is illustrated by the relationship of a father and son should make us very careful in attributing blame to others because of the sins of their fathers or their group.
To sum up, injustice in the world is a matter of sin, sin against God above all and sin against man. It is a failure to love God with all our hearts and our neighbor as ourselves. Injustice can have corporate dimensions, but it is primarily a matter of personal responsibility. One more thing to underline in discussions of justice is that this is a universal phenomenon. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). No one is innocent. There are no people groups which are better than others in that sense. Jew and Gentile, black and white, rich and poor: we are all guilty before God and stand under his judgment. As Paul puts it in Eph. 2:3, we are all “children of wrath, even as others.”
But thank God, fall is not the end of the story, either – though it could have been. Fall is met by God with redemption. Redemption is the Trinitarian task of restoring what sin broke in the fall. “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” The image of God was marred, but in redemption, God is restoring that image (cf. Eph. 4:24). As a result of Adam’s fall, we are born dead in trespasses and in sin, but in redemption God is bringing us to life again in Christ. As a result of the fall, sin has entered into the world with injustice inevitably in its wake, but in redemption, God is chasing sin out of the world along with all the injustice, and one day the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.
God has not then left all humanity to perish in their sin, but before the foundation of the world he chose a people for himself to love and bless. He will save these people, the elect, by Christ his Son, who came to fulfill God’s broken law in their place and to satisfy God’s justice on their behalf. This redemption is applied by the Holy Spirit in regeneration, conversion, sanctification, and glorification (Rom. 8:29-30). It is cosmic in its scope (Eph. 1:10), presaged in the appearance of the kingdom in Christ’s earthly ministry in Palestine.
This redemption is primarily vertical (restoring our broken relationship with God) with horizontal implications (restoring our broken fellowship with our fellow man). See Eph. 2:11-22. As God restores us so that we love him, we will also love our neighbor.
Redemption, though it is a work of the Holy Trinity – the Father initiating the work of redemption in election, the Son accomplishing the work of redemption on the cross, and the Holy Spirit applying the work of redemption in regeneration, conversion, sanctification, and glorification – it is done within the context of the church. It is the church for which Christ died (Eph. 5:25). As God undoes the fall, the church should reflect this reality and pursue its implications in every domain of life. In other words, the church should reflect God’s passion for justice in the way we love those in the church as well as those outside the church.
It is often said that the church’s primary mission is to preach the gospel. That is absolutely true. But the response to the gospel – though it is not to be identified with it – is just as necessary. And repentance is a part of a proper response to the gospel. Moreover, repentance is not only vertical; it is also horizontal. John the Baptist’s response to those who asked him what they should do shows this. If we are not repenting of mistreating our neighbor, then we have not truly repented of our sins toward God. We cannot hate our brother and love God, says the apostle John (1 Jn. 4:20). We cannot curse those in whom the image of God resides, says the apostle James (Jam. 3:9-10). We cannot look at the injustice in the world and turn a blind eye; we must labor to get it out of our own hearts, then out of our churches, and then out of the world.
In other words, there is a place in the mission of every Christian and church to advocate for the poor and marginalized, for those who have been sinned against and mistreated and abused. We don’t do this as a way to redeem ourselves, but we do it because we have been redeemed and we want to reflect back to the world the heart of the God who has redeemed us – and since God is a God who cares about justice, we too care about justice and work for justice in the world.
But we do so, if we do so Biblically, in an atmosphere of grace. The world not only misses the reality of sin; it also misses the reality of grace. Redemption can’t happen apart from grace and therefore working for justice is never going to happen apart from grace. Grace heals the wounds which injustice created and makes possible reconciliation so that justice can have a future among us. And we who are justified by grace apart from works should be the first to extend grace to those who have sinned against us, who should be the first to be willing to be reconciled with those who have hurt us. There is a reality check for us in the Lord’s Prayer in this respect: as we ask God to forgive us, we confess that we forgive those who sin against us.
Grace is often pitted against repentance and restoration, but this is not the way the Bible speaks of repentance and grace. In fact, in Acts 11 we read that God granted the Gentiles repentance unto life (ver. 18); the implication there is that repentance is a gift of God’s grace. It is the grace of God that not only gives us the opportunity to repent but which also creates in us a heart of repentance.
In the same way, the Christian view of justice does not pit repentance and grace against one another. One makes way for the other, and our lives ought to reflect that. We should work to repent of the ways we have sinned against others, and to extend grace to those who have sinned against us. We should work to see the priorities of God’s kingdom extended in the world around us, but this not only means pursuing justice; it equally means showing grace and receiving grace. We would do well to remember that in the debates surrounding justice in our day.
Redemption has a goal: the restoration of all things in Christ. But that goal has not yet been accomplished, and it will not be until Christ comes again in the glory of his kingdom. Though glorification is absolutely sure, it also awaits the future to take place. It is at this point that I am more directly addressing the question that I was assigned. But we cannot of course do this adequately apart from the backdrop of creation, fall, and redemption.
There are two aspects to the consummation: one positive and one negative. The positive aspect is encompassed in the renewal of the heavens and the earth and in the resurrection of the just who will inhabit the new world in the age to come and enjoy eternal and ever-increasing blessedness. The negative aspect is encompassed in the future judgment of the wicked, the “everlasting punishment” that our Lord warns us about in Mt. 25:46. However, both of these realities are future, and there are two things about the not-yet aspect of the consummation that needs to be considered as we think about the injustice around us.
First, the not-yet aspect of eternal felicity means that we cannot create utopia here; that is impossible, and history bears this observation out. Every attempt to do this always ends up, not with utopia, but with concentration camps. The reality is that not everyone is going to agree with your definition of what utopia looks like. But you can’t have utopia unless everyone goes along with you! And so for those who won’t agree, you have to use force to compel them to come in, and that usually ends in gulags and prisons. Any social justice scheme which expects to create a utopia here therefore must be suspect.
Nevertheless, it also means that, since the goal of all things is a new heaven and new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13), we should seek to approximate this goal as much as possible in the world in which we live, while recognizing that it is neither possible nor even desirable to fully eradicate all injustice in this age. But the church should be the first place where this starts. If we cannot pursue justice in and through our churches, how can we expect justice to flow down like rivers? In other words, we should not let the future of the consummation become an excuse to presently do nothing.
I think the miracles of our Lord are instructive here. When you think about it, though our Lord’s miracles did address themselves to the hurt and the inequities created by the fall, they could not have been for the purpose of creating a utopia on earth. They weren’t meant to bring a sudden conclusion to the hurt that sin had brought into this world, for in terms of their global impact, relatively few people were healed during our Lord’s earthly ministry. However, they did have a purpose, and the apostle John lets us in on it: “And many other signs [miracles] truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (Jn. 20:30-31). In other words, the miracles of Christ were meant to point people to Jesus (hence, they were called “signs”). In a similar way, the Christian is meant to hold up the light of Christ in this world; to be a witness to the power of the gospel and the beauty of grace. The church is meant to be a place where the powers of the age to come are being played out, and that means, at least in part, that the church is meant to be a place where justice is celebrated and pursued through the power of God’s grace in us.
Second, the not-yet aspect of eternal judgment helps us to keep a pursuit of justice from becoming about revenge. We are not giving up on justice when we obey our Lord’s words: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath, for it is written, Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore, if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink, for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head. Be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:19-21).
So, what does the redemptive arc of Scripture tell us? It tells us that we are to pursue justice, and this means first of all loving God with all our hearts. It means loving our neighbor as ourselves. It means recognizing the true scope of sin and its impact in every human heart and every human institution. It means pursuing justice in light of gospel realities, and in particular, in the power of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
The Contours of Biblical Justice
In light of the above parameters, we can say the following things about a Christian view of social justice.
First, Biblical justice is defined, not by utilitarian factors or majority rule or what makes most people happy or in terms of political and economic power, but by God’s transcendent moral law which is revealed to the conscience and most clearly in Scripture. And this law is summarized in every age by, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Second, the command to love your neighbor as yourself implies the necessity of pursuing equity in human affairs as well as recognizing the dignity and essential equality of every human being. It also implies a commitment beyond self-interest to the needs of the community of the people around us. Hence, a pursuit of Biblical justice brings with it a commitment to advocate for the welfare of those who are less fortunate than we are: for the widow and the fatherless, and for those who cannot defend themselves.
Third, Biblical justice cannot be ultimately achieved apart from dealing with human sin and recognizing that human sinfulness is universal, inherent, and has both individual and corporate factors – although the factor of individual responsibility takes precedence over the factor of corporate responsibility. Though we recognize that injustice can become enshrined in the laws of men and in man-made systems and economies and should be dealt with on that level, the teaching of Scripture tells us that injustice will not be rooted out if we are not willing to fundamentally deal with it on the level of the human heart. This means that Biblical justice should be seen most clearly in the church in the lives of people who have been reconciled to God and to each other because Christ satisfied the demands of Divine justice in their place.
So when we are confronted with other views of justice, we not only need to ask what it involves in terms of our responsibilities to others, but also what does it say about the foundations of human equity and dignity? What you will find is that many of them have no such foundation because they are based on things like “common sense” and appeals to the emotions (even though they falsely claim to be based on reason). The danger with that is that what may be common sense to one generation is not necessarily so to the next. Another question to ask is, What does it say about human nature? Again, most secular views assume that human nature comes into this world a tabula rosa, and/or basically good, and therefore locates problems of injustice entirely in things outside us, like the environment or economic and political systems. The resulting solutions they present are therefore naive and incomplete at best. Finally, ask the question whether or not the theory preserves the Biblical balance between individual and corporate responsibility. Many views are either/or, when the Bible embraces both.
As we end, let’s come back to where we started. Why should we care about justice? We should care about it because God cares about it. Justice, when it is pursued Biblically, is a beautiful thing. One day, when our Lord returns and establishes justice and judgment over all the earth, we will see it to be so. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
Some Recommended Reading
This is obviously not an extensive reading list by any stretch of the imagination. But this is where I started, and perhaps you might find it a helpful place to start, too. The first two are online collections of articles and the last four are books. Just a note: all sources (with the possible exception of MacIntyre) are well within the evangelical Christian orbit of thinking, so if you want to read outside this orbit, you will need to look elsewhere.
1. Kevin DeYoung, Thinking Theologically About Racial Tensions. This is a collection of articles DeYoung has written on race and justice originally for his blog.
2. Tim Keller has several helpful articles on race and justice which you can find here:
3. Thaddeus Williams, Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice (Zondervan, 2020).
4. George Yancey, Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility (IVP, 2006).
5. Mark Vroegop, Weep With Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation (Crossway, 2020).
6. Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, 1988).
 See https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/thinking-theologically-about-racial-tensions-sin-and-guilt/ He summarizes by saying, “To sum up: the Bible has a category for corporate responsibility. Culpability for sins committed can extend to a large group if virtually everyone in the group was active in the sin or if we bear the same spiritual resemblance to the perpetrators of the past. Furthermore, the sins of others can be imputed to us if there is a natural, moral/political, or voluntary union.”
 Verse 20 is especially to the point here: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.”