A Review of Dr. Tim Keller’s Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just

One of the hottest topics in evangelical circles is “social justice.” Many authors, including Kevin DeYoung, have addressed the subject of justice and the role the church should have in pursuing it. Dr. Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York (PCA), has also written a book on the topic of social justice. In Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, Dr. Keller explains his view on what justice is, why and how Christians should pursue it.

Dr. Keller opens his book with an explanation for why he wrote Generous Justice:

Most people know that Jesus came to bring forgiveness and grace. Less well known is the Biblical teaching that a true experience of the grace of Jesus Christ inevitably motivates a man or woman to see justice in the world. (8)

This really is the central theme of the book, and Dr. Keller works hard to drive this point home. He writes that his book is for people that “have not thought out the implications of Jesus’s gospel for doing justice in all aspects of life (9)” and those that don’t understand yet “that when the Spirit enables us to understand what Christ has done for us, the result is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor (10).”

According to Dr. Keller:

[T]he Bible is a book devoted to justice in the world from first to last. And the Bible gives us not just a naked call to care about justice, but gives us everything we need – motivation, guidance, inner joy, and power – to live a just life. (11)

Justice according to the Old Testament

Dr. Keller goes on to explain what the Biblical definition of “justice” is. Starting with Micah 6:8-9, Dr. Keller begins his exegesis with the Hebrew words for “mercy” and “justice”:

The term for “mercy” is the Hebrew word chesedh, God’s unconditional grace and compassion. The word for “justice” is the Hebrew term mishpat. In Micah 6:8, “mishpat puts the emphasis on the action, chesedh puts it on the attitude [or motive] behind the action.” To walk with God, then, we must do justice, out of merciful love. (17)

And

Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care. … Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor – those who have been called “the quartet of the vulnerable.” (17)

Dr. Keller then gives the following definition for Biblical justice:

The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to “do justice.” (18)

One of the significant aspects of Biblical justice is the connection between justice and righteousness. Because Israel was supposed to reflect God’s character to the world, justice and righteousness rightly fit together:

We get more insight when we consider a second Hebrew word that can be translated as “being just,” though it usually translated as “being righteous.” The word is tzadeqah, and it refers to a life of right relationships. … 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. Therefore, though tzadeqah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social. (21)

Dr. Keller notes that these two words, tzadeqah and mishpat, appear together more than three dozen times in Scripture. He believes that when these words are used in conjunction the best expression to convey the full meaning is “social justice” (23). As an example, he gives his translation of Psalm 133: 5 as “The Lord loves social justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love” (23).

Historically, the church has called giving generously “charity” or “mercy.” Dr. Keller believes that charity doesn’t carry a strong enough meaning:

[T]hey (some Christians) would insist that helping the needing through generous giving should be called mercy, compassion, or charity, not justice. In English, however, the word “charity” conveys a good but optional activity. Charity cannot be a requirement, for then it would not be charity. But this view does not fit in with the strength or balance of Biblical teaching. (24)

He then uses Job 31 to support this argument. Here he sees from Job’s defense of his life a definition of a “just man”:

This just man does not use his economic position to exploit people who are in a weaker financial position. Most interesting is how the text pairs “he does not commit robbery” with the explanatory clause that he actively gives food and clothing to the poor. The implication is that if you do not actively and generously share your resources with the poor, you are a robber. You are not living justly. (25)

According to Job, then, “[n]ot giving generously, then, is not stinginess, but unrighteousness, a violation of God’s law” (24).

Dr. Keller rounds out his use of Old Testament sources with a look at what Mosaic legislation says about “doing justice.” He notes that the law included warnings against favoring the rich over the poor and against taking bribes of any form (28). He also explains how the laws of release, especially in the year of Jubilee, were aimed at preventing extreme disparities between the rich and poor (34). He believes that “if Israel as an entire society had kept God’s law perfectly with all their hearts, there would have been no permanent, long-term poverty” (31).

Here Dr. Keller anticipates an objection to his understanding of the importance of doing justice. Some Christians may believe that “justice” as he has defined so far is an Old Testament concern, that the New Testament “moves on” from the justice to grace:

Justice is all about “rights” and legal obligations, but Christ’s salvation is a grace that is undeserved. Christians should not be concerned with getting people their rights. The gospel is about love and service, about forgiveness and caring for people regardless of their rights. This reasoning seems plausible at first glance. However, when we study the gospels we find that Jesus has not “moved on” at all from the Old Testament’s concern for justice. (40)

Justice according to the New Testament

From the New Testament, Dr. Keller appeals to Jesus’s life, ministry, and teachings to help define Biblical justice and the necessity of Christians to pursue it. Jesus’s life illustrates how he identified with the poor:

While clearly Jesus was preaching the good news to all, he showed throughout his ministry the particular interest in the poor and the downtrodden that God has always had. Jesus, in his incarnation, “moved in” with the poor. He lived with, ate with, and associated with the socially ostracized. (40)

And

[H]ere is Jesus, the Son of God, who knows what it’s like to be the victim of injustice, to stand up to power, to face a corrupt system and be killed for it. 119

In his ministry and preaching, Jesus regularly chastised the Pharisees and other religious leaders for their attitude towards God’s people. Dr. Keller sees this as supportive of his basic premise, that grace makes us just:

Jesus not only shared the Old Testament’s zeal for the cause of the vulnerable, he also adopted the prophets’ penetrating use of justice as heart-analysis, the sign of true faith. … [I]n the mind of the Old Testament prophets as well as the teaching of Jesus, an encounter with grace inevitably leads to a life of justice. … Justice is not just one more thing that needs to be added to the people’s portfolio of religious behavior. A lack of justice is a sign that the worshippers’ hearts are not right with God at all, that their prayers and all their religious observance are just filled with self and pride. (43-44)

Another example of Jesus’s teaching on the topic of justice comes from the parable of the sheep and the goats. Dr. Keller interprets the parable to be instructions to the disciples about what kind of community they should form:

If we assume that Jesus was using the term “brethren” in his usual way, to refer to believers, then he was teaching that genuine disciples of Christ will create a new community that does not exclude the poor, the members of other races, or the powerless, and does deal with their needs sacrificially and practically. (45)

The book of Acts and the Epistles are full of examples of believers sharing their goods with each other as each had need. Most, if not all, Christians would agree that we have a calling to give generously in support of our brothers and sisters in Christ. But what of the poor outside the church? Are Christians under obligation to care for all the poor everywhere? Dr. Keller believes the answer is “yes”:

Our first responsibility is to our own families and relations (1 Timothy 5:8), and our second responsibility is to other members of the community of faith (Galatians 6:10). However, the Bible is clear that Christians’ practical love, their generous justice, is not to be confined to only those who believe as we do. Galatians 6:10 strikes the balance when Paul says: “Do good to all people, especially the family of faith.” Helping “all people” isn’t optional, it is a command. (50)

Dr. Keller uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to show that “anyone at all in need – regardless of race, politics, class, and religion – is your neighbor. Not everyone is your brother or sister in the faith, but everyone is your neighbor, and you must love your neighbor” (54).

So, according to Dr. Keller, justice is care for and concern for the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. Charity, or mercy, aren’t strong enough words to convey the importance and necessity of doing justice. The Old Testament concern for justice carries over into the New Testament through Jesus’s life and teaching and through the early Christian communities. And most importantly, doing justice, as he defines it, is the indication of hearts that are right with God.

Motivation for Doing Justice

Having explained what Biblical justice is, Dr. Keller moves next to why Christians should do justice. He gives two basic motivations for doing justice. The first is that all people are made in the image of God and therefore have a “right to not be mistreated or harmed” (63). Related to that, if we understand the doctrine of creation, we understand that all we have belongs to God (65):

Therefore, just men and women see their money as belonging in some ways to the entire human community around them, while the unjust or unrighteous see their money as strictly theirs and no one else’s. …There is an inequitable distribution of both goods and opportunities in this world. Therefore, if you have been assigned the goods of this world by God and you don’t share them with others, it isn’t just stinginess, it is injustice. (66-67)

Second, Christians should be motivated to do justice because we have received God’s grace through redemption (67). This again is the central theme of Dr. Keller’s book. Dr. Keller believes that because we have received God’s unmerited favor and not what we deserve (grace and not justice), we will then be motivated to give others what they deserve:

If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn’t live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God’s grace, but in his heart he is far from him. If he doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced, and at worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just. … People changed by grace should go, as it were, on a permanent fast. Self-indulgence and materialism should be given up and replaced by a sacrificial lifestyle of giving to those in need. They should spend not only their money but “themselves” on others. What is this permanent fasting? It is to work against injustice, to share food, clothing, and home with the hungry and the homeless. That is the real proof that you believe your sins have been atoned for, and that you have truly been humbled by that knowledge and are now living a life submitted to God and shaped by knowledge of him. (68-69)

To help explain why receiving what we don’t deserve will make us give others what they do deserve. Dr. Keller uses the book of James to show the link between being justified by faith and doing justice. James, of course, discusses the issue of works as the evidence of true faith:

However, James does not merely say that true faith will change one’s life in general. He goes on to describe the “works” that he says always accompany a living, justifying faith. If you look at someone without adequate resources and do nothing about it, James teaches, your faith is “dead,” it is not really saving faith. So what are the “works” he is talking about? He is saying that a life poured out in deeds of service to the poor is the inevitable sign of any real, true, justify, gospel-faith. Grace makes you just. If you are not just, you’ve not truly been justified by faith. (71)

So if you are a Christian, you will do justice; and if you don’t do justice, you aren’t really a Christian.

Practical Application

What does doing justice look like in today’s society? Dr. Keller first describes three levels of help that vulnerable people need:

Vulnerable people need multiple levels of help. We will call these layers relief, development, and social reform. Relief is direct aid to meet immediate physical, material, and economic needs. … Common relief ministries are temporary shelters for the homeless and refugees, food and clothing services for people in need, and free or low-cost medical and counseling services. … A more assertive form of relief is advocacy, in which people in need are given active assistance to find legal aid, housing, and other kinds of help, such as protection from various forms of domestic abuse and violence. …

The next level is development. This means giving an individual, family, or entire community what they need to move beyond dependency on relief into a condition of economic self-sufficiency. … It includes education, job creation and training, job search skills, and financial counseling as well as helping a family into home ownership. …

Besides relief and development (both individual and corporate) there is social reform. Social reform moves beyond the relief of immediate needs and dependency and seeks to change the conditions and social structures that aggravate or cause that dependency. …

This approach goes beyond just helping individuals. It seeks to change social arrangements and social inst. In some cases, it means changing laws. … There are city agencies that are not fair in the attention and resources they give to middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods over poor ones. There are judges who take bribes, legislators who are “bought” by special interest money, banking policies that discriminate against neighborhoods, building code inspectors in the pocket of landlords and real estate interests, and corruption within the law enforcement system. To address and rectify these practices is to do social reform. (79, 85-86)

Dr. Keller goes on to give some practical ways that Christians today might seek to do justice:

In our world, this could mean prosecuting the men who batter, exploit, and rob poor women. But it could also mean Christians respectfully putting pressure on a local police department until they respond to calls and crimes as quickly in the poor part of town as in the prosperous part. Another example would be to form an organization that both prosecutes and seeks against loan companies that prey on the poor and the elderly with dishonest and exploitive practices. (22)

And

How can business owners follow the same principles today? They should not squeeze every penny of profit out of their businesses for themselves by charging the highest possible fees and prices to customers and paying the lowest possible wages to workers. Instead, they should be willing to pay higher wages and charge lower prices that in effect share the corporate profits with employees and customers, with the community around them. This always creates a more vibrant, strong human community. (32)

And

Rather – to put this in a more modern context – he (Jesus) is saying that we should spend far more of our money and wealth on the poor that we do on our own entertainments, or on vacations, or on eating out and socializing with important peers. (42)

And

In general, to “do justice” means to live in a way that generates a strong community where human beings can flourish. Specifically, however, to “do justice” means to go to places where the fabric of shalom as broken down, where the weaker members of societies are falling through the fabric, and to repair it. This happens when we concentrate on and meet the needs of the poor. (113)

Realizing that some Christians might balk at his approach to doing justice, Dr. Keller addresses a couple of concerns that might be raised:

Many Christians resist the idea that social systems need to be dealt with directly. They prefer the idea that “society is changed one heart at a time,” and so they concentrate on only evangelism and individual social work. This is naïve. (86)

And

Many believe that the job of the church is not to do justice at all, but to preach the Word, to evangelize and build up believers. But if it is true that justice and mercy to the poor are the inevitable signs of justifying faith, it is hard to believe that the church is not to reflect this duty corporately in some way. (90)

Dr. Keller is careful to say that evangelism is very important because it is the “most basic and radical ministry possible to a human being” (92). However, Christians should be careful not to do justice just to reach people with the gospel. “If we only help people who are responding to the gospel, we will be perceived as only helping others in order to help ourselves, namely, to increase our own numbers” (92).

Working with Non-Christians to do justice

Despite the considerable effort Dr. Keller makes to demonstrate that “[i]t takes an experience of beauty to knock us out of our self-centeredness and induce us to become just” (116), he says that Christians should not be surprised to find non-Christians who share their passion for doing justice in the world (97):

In short, the Bible warns us not to think that only Bible-believing people care about justice or are willing to sacrifice in order to bring it about. … Christians should realize then some part of society will always recognize some of what the Bible calls “justice.” … We have said that Christians should acknowledge “common grace,” that non-Christians share with us common intuitions about the good, the true, and the just. We should appeal to those common values and work alongside our neighbors in an effort to improve justice in society. We should agree that, according to the Bible, all the various views of justice out there in our society are party right. (103-105)

So, grace will make you just, but “common grace” may also drive non-Christians to seek to do justice in the world.

Conclusion

Having answered the questions: what is Biblical justice, why should Christians pursue it, and how, Dr. Keller finishes the way he began:

A life poured out in doing justice for the poor is the inevitable sign of any real, true gospel faith. (120)

4 thoughts on “A Review of Dr. Tim Keller’s Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just

  1. Rachel Miller says:

    Daniel~ I think there are serious weaknesses in Dr. Keller’s book. I think that his insistence on justice vs. grace/charity/mercy goes against everything I hold dear about the gospel. I think that his particular application of “doing justice” is rather left-leaning, and not as politically neutral as Keller seems to suggest. What his argument seems to boil down to is: if you are a Christian, you must do justice in the way he defines, or else you aren’t really a Christian.

    What are your thoughts?

  2. hluna1 says:

    Hi Rachel I am a believer who has been stirrred to do justice, and frankly, there is too much injustice in this nation and across the world. I agree with many of the things that Keller says, however, I do not agree that he makes living justly contingent on having a genuine faith for salvation- that appears to be a works based salvation. In addition, he seems to be very redistributive in his views of how government should respond to the injustices plaguing the quartet of the vulnerable, racial and ethnic minorities, and the problems with unequal access to quality education and mass incarceration. I certainly believe in living justly and righteously, but how the government should go about rectifying these injustices or if they have any bussines intervening at all is a matter of viewing what the scriptures say and what the values of this country are and certainly scripture must take precedence over our own personal and political values and opinions. Finally, we must consider that we are not under the law but under grace although there are many examples in old testament. I do agree that we need to bring about rectifying justice for the injustices plaguing this country.

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