This piece marks the third in a four-part series exploring a Biblical approach to justice. Over the course of the series, we will ask how we define justice, how we pursue justice, what role the government is to play in this, and how we navigate the so-called 'culture wars' raging around these issues. It is our prayer that these resources help you to better understand the Bible's teaching and the culture around us so that we might live and speak for Jesus as we seek justice.
Throughout the book of Micah, God rebukes Israel for her idolatry and injustice; or, in others words their failure to relate rightly to God and others. In the midst of the promises of judgement we get these words: ‘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.’
Whilst addressed specifically to Israel, the book as a whole begins ‘hear, you peoples, all of you, listen, earth and all who live in it, that the Sovereign LORD may bear witness against you, the Lord from his holy temple.’ This suggests a wider call to the nations to take heed of God’s justice and listen.
This is particularly apt when considering the public facing nature of our faith which Leeman and others effectively argue constitutes a new type of ‘polis’. Within such a context, this call to ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God’ epitomises the calling upon our lives from our Creator. It is right, therefore, that we heed this call.
In ‘Understanding Justice’ we saw the inherent dangers of a reductionist understanding of justice which made a totality of a single principle. Justice is far more comprehensive than we tend to think, and it all flows from God’s character and design.
To think through the call to ‘act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God’ provides a helpful framework to pick up on Biblical themes inherent to true justice, defined as relating rightly to God and others.
To use Koyzis’ classical definition of justice as ‘to render to each person her due’ we must explore what is due each of us and what this looks like in the Bible. I will argue that Biblical justice is done when the judgement/act is proportional, restorative, and rightly recognises those responsible.
Right back in Genesis God establishes proportionality as a key tenet of Biblical justice. ‘Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.’
Those who commit a crime shall expect to face the consequences of their crime accordingly; in this instance a life for a life, a principle that is reaffirmed in Leviticus: ‘Anyone who takes the life of a human being is to be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life. Anyone who injures their neighbour is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death. You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.’
To pursue justice is to pursue what is proportional. In the negative sense, the sentence must match the crime, and in the positive sense, we must act proportionally; for example, treating fellow humanity with dignity and respect. Note in these two passages, the recognition of humanity’s inherent worth as they image God, and the absolute equality of this for all humanity whether foreigner or native born. To act justly is to adhere to proportionality.
Biblical justice is inherently tied to restoration. Most obviously we see this at the Cross where ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ In God’s grace, His judgement has a restorative function; here restoring us to our true purpose to image God to the world as living embodiments of His righteousness & justice.
There are countless examples of God exhibiting justice whereby His people are restored, firstly in their relationship to Him, but also to their communities. For instance, Adam and Eve in the garden are punished severely, with the introduction of death the high point of a number of curses. Yet, God’s punishment is not absolute – death is not instant. God’s sentence is followed by a moment of restorative grace as He clothes them, covering up the nakedness and shame they now feel. More crucially though, He promises a way back for humanity. As the snake is condemned we see the glimmer of hope: ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.’
Furthermore, the very heart of the Old Testament Law is the sacrificial system - a means by which one may account for one’s sins - confessing privately and publicly, before being welcomed back into communion with God and their community.
Or consider the judgements rendered by the prophets in books such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, yet accompanied with wonderful promises of restorative grace. ‘Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end…’ ‘I will surely save you out of a distant place, your descendants from the land of their exile...’ ‘My dwelling-place will be with them; I will be their God and they will be my people.’
So, whilst there is a time coming when God’s judgement will be comprehensive and total, until that day, the Bible shows God’s judgement is flowing with grace – a grace that restores and offers a way back. As we seek to act justly, we must temper our desire for final judgement with a grace that offers restoration.
Acting justly means recognising and accepting responsibility. If you have ever watched the TV show The Apprentice, you will be accustomed to people shirking responsibility and seeking to frame their teammates to take the blame for any failures in the task.
These blame games are evident right back at the start of sinful humanity, with Adam blaming Eve and Eve blaming the snake when caught out in Genesis 3. It is our natural instinct to avoid taking responsibility for our sin, and yet the Bible does not allow us to do this, reminding us that ‘there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.’ In this instance, we see God punish each person liable appropriately – each is responsible for their part in the crime.
Nevertheless, responsibility is not simply the matter of an individual, but Biblically has a distinctly corporate feel too. For example, in 1 Kings, God punishes Ahab for stealing Naboth’s vineyard, promising judgement not just on himself and his wife Jezebel (key instigator in the crime), but also his entire household: ‘because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD. He says, ‘I am going to bring disaster on you. I will wipe out your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel – slave or free. I will make your house like that of Jeroboam son of Nebat and that of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have aroused my anger and have caused Israel to sin.’’
Ahab’s sin is not simply an individual matter. It has consequences for his family, his rule, and his nation. Likewise, we see whole nations punished for their idolatry, not just their leaders or individuals.
In the New Testament, we see Peter tell the entire crowd they were responsible for the death of Jesus: ‘This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.’ Tim Keller points out that it is even deemed Biblically appropriate, at times, to confess crimes of which one is not personally guilty, as is done in Ezra 9 and Daniel 9.
In our individualistic society, we are far too quick to limit the liability of sin to our own person. We baulk at such a comprehensive punishment because we fail to understand how sin affects a community. Perhaps this is something the ‘woke social justice movement’ will help us better understand, a healthier recognition of responsibility for the sins of our nation and systems.
Biblical justice is inherently merciful. The principle of restoration has already provided one notion in which justice is driven by mercy. I will argue here that mercy doesn’t simply temper Biblical justice, limiting the judgement and providing a way back through grace, but that it is actively present in just actions.
Already touched upon in our analysis of Genesis 9 and Leviticus 24, the Bible bestows an inherent dignity upon all humanity due to their being made in God’s image. Whilst all creation has a natural worth given by their Creator - ‘God saw all that he had made and it was very good’ - humanity has a unique place within His masterpiece.
It is humanity, made in God’s image, that is given a distinct calling to rule over creation and is blessed in this task. It is for this reason that the first murder is met with such severity. Human life is inherently valuable; each and every human images God.
Psalm 139 speaks with great intimacy of God’s creating work on display in human life:
‘For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.’
To love mercy is to recognise this inherent dignity amidst a sinful world which is predisposed to undermining the Biblical emphasis placed on the value of life and eroding the sanctity of what it means to be human. This is why Christians stand against abortion, racism and xenophobia, and why for all our disagreements or disputes with elements of the ‘social justice movement’ we ought to be utterly committed to fighting for respect and dignity for all people.
Marginalised and vulnerable
For this same reason, Biblical justice holds the upmost concern for the marginalised and vulnerable in society. It naturally follows that if all humans have intrinsic worth, then to act justly and to love mercy is to care for those in society that no one else will.
The Psalms are flowing with God’s concern for the needy. Take, for example, David’s proclamation, ‘I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy’. Or consider this proverb: ‘Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God.’
God’s very heart is for those who have no dignity in the eyes of the world. Deuteronomy tells us: ‘For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.’
This the archetype category of the marginalised and vulnerable Biblically: those without parents to care for them, a husband to provide for them (in a patriarchal society), and those without a home or community. Again and again, God calls on His people to love mercy and care for those who have nothing.
In His opening case against Israel in Isaiah, we see these words: ‘Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.’ To honour God is to care for the fatherless, widow, and the foreigner and Israel’s failure to do so proved, in part, their undoing.
Biblical justice is crucially not a limited thing. It is not a series of tick boxes, but an overwhelmingly generous entity, flowing out from the character and actions of God towards His creation and His people. When Jesus is asked ‘who is my neighbour?‘ or in other words, ‘how do I satisfy this command?’ Jesus responds with ‘the parable of the Good Samaritan, which basically corrects the question… ‘Don’t ask, ‘Who is my neighbour?’, but ask ‘Who can I be a neighbour to?’” In other words, don’t ask, “Who do I have to love?’ Ask, “Who can I love?’
Dan Wu puts it like this: ‘Love should be our goal in life. So whenever we interact with someone, our first thought should be ‘How can I do good to you in the way God has done good to me?’’  God’s work in our life brings about a radical response to how we engage with the world around us. Motivated by love and changed by generosity, walking a merciful and just life is one in which God’s people pour themselves out to those around them.
Generosity is the principle behind laws such as the principle of gleaning where God says ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.’ Likewise, gospel generosity drives the ministry of Jesus.
Take, for example, this extract from his engagement with some of the Pharisees: ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ Or another example would be Jesus’ commendation of the widow who gave all she had into the temple treasury.
Biblical justice is a life of giving to others at great cost to oneself. It is radical and far more powerful than a series of rules. It is poignantly distinct, in a world which pursues justice with neither grace nor mercy. It is a reflection of our Saviour’s generosity towards us.
Walk humbly with your God
Justice is both an active way of life (positive justice) and also a series of judgements (negative justice). Pursuing justice in our messy and broken world requires submitting to the Judge of all and walking alongside Him humbly. I will argue that this constitutes a recognition of the flawed justice achievable before Christ’s return, a submission to authorities, and a life that is hopeful and repentant in its pursuit of justice.
Limited and imperfect
G K Chesterton once noted: ‘Lenin said that religion is the opium of the people… [But] it is only by believing in God that we can ever criticize the Government. Once abolish the God, and the Government becomes the God. That fact is written all across human history’.
Without a God, without an ultimate arbiter of justice, our society cannot live with itself. Crimes and transgressions cannot be left to go unpunished. Injustice and wrongdoing cannot go unnoticed or uncorrected, because, if there is no God, then this is as good as it gets. And if this is as good as it gets, then we are all in trouble, because this isn’t good enough. People are murdered, bullied, oppressed, belittled, abused. Poverty, racism, war, and sickness still destroy the lives of millions each year. It simply cannot do. In a world without God the fight for justice becomes fervent, religious, totalitarian.
Large sections of the ‘justice’ campaigns in modern society tap into this sentiment. There can be no peace, no harmony, without justice. All wrongs must be ruthlessly punished, for we must prove to ourselves and to one another that we are righteous, that we do live an upright life, that our society is moral. Anything less is to acknowledge that this, our only shot at life, conforms more to our dismissed notions of hell than it does the heaven we were designed for.
Brad Littlejohn puts it like this: ‘Before the Lord of Justice, all of us deserve to be stoned. And when we try to set ourselves up in his stead and demand perfect justice here in this life, we are apt to begin stoning one another.’ We cannot live up to the standards we demand, nor our souls necessitate. We cannot live with the sin inside ourselves.
In a society profoundly shaped by Christian ideals, our standards of morality are incredibly high. What results is an incredibly poignant sense of sin that cannot be removed, for the rejection of God also rejects the grace that is able to wash us clean. Instead, we are overcome with shame and guilt. Unable to ease our conscience and transform our own hearts (let alone our world), we must become increasingly militant and performative, where morality becomes all about external appearances, to satisfy this longing for justice and 'prove' our sincerity to others.
There is much we can sympathise with as Christians. Nonetheless, we must acknowledge that the justice of this present life will be imperfect. God has given authorities ‘for your good’ but those authorities are flawed, riddled with the destruction unleashed at the Fall. Moreover, we know that ‘the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth’. This world is not as it should be. There is suffering, sickness, sin and death. But just as with childbirth there is something good on the way. There is new life coming. We know that there will be a final judgement when justice will be done, when our sin will be done away with in full, and where God will establish a world in which there is no more ‘death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’
To act justly and to love mercy is clearly to pursue what is good and just. However, we must walk humbly with our God recognising His ultimate Lordship, His judgement, and His plan for the redemption of all things. We are not the final arbiters, nor can we establish God’s justice outside of His redemption plan. This we must recognise. Justice will be imperfect and limited until that day. But do not grow disheartened, for we have the hope of that day to sustain us in the fight.
Be patient and set your hearts and minds on the coming justice.
Submissive to authority
As we pursue justice we come to a problem: ‘Every judge and political leader is in some measure part of the problem with society, rather than part of the solution. We are thus tempted to conclude that judgment must start at the top, that there can be no peace until we have purged the halls of power, drained the swamp.’
In an age where we are palpably aware of the failings of our leaders and those in power, both historically and currently, we rage against this calamity. Those meant to establish justice and protect the vulnerable often fail in this task. Even worse than that, sometimes they actively disobey this task and exploit the very people they were created to care for.
It can be right to challenge the authorities as the Hebrew midwives do when commanded to murder all the Israelite boys, or as Daniel does when asked to worship false gods in Babylon, or as Peter and John do when they continue to preach the gospel in defiance of the authorities. Yet, God’s people are also called to submit to authorities, and to submit even to abusive governments like the Romans and Babylonians at that. We cannot, therefore, buy into the zeitgeist that claims all power is to be subverted and destroyed. Power is not an inherently bad thing, nor are those in power automatically bad. We worship an all-powerful God who uses power for good and commands that those with power do the same.
Sin affects us all. To change who is in power or the structural systems of our societies is not to remove brokenness and evil, but simply to swap one set of leaders/systems with flaws and blind spots for another. We must respectfully submit and challenge, whilst trusting that the Judge of the earth will ‘repay them for their sins and destroy them for their wickedness; the LORD our God will destroy them.’
To walk humbly with the Lord is to avoid the temptation to flirt with anarchical or subversive forces, recognising both God’s good design for those in authority and His ultimate judgement on their performance.
Hopeful and repentant
To walk humbly with our God in the pursuit of justice is to recognise the cry of the Psalmist: ‘If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?’ We all fall short of God’s standards for justice, and this should profoundly impact our understanding of injustice. It should lead to us to temper our anger against others, recognising that we too are capable of injustice and would be condemned should we stand in God’s law court.
Many social justice movements do recognise this. Concepts such as ‘white privilege’ and ‘toxic masculinity’ call for a somewhat universal understanding of sin and injustice. However, whatever we may think about these indictments, and their limited scope (restricted only to those who are white and male in this case), as Christians we should have no qualms in affirming the accurate analysis that sin is universal.
All groups, individuals, societies, companies, and leaders are culpable. This should move us to repentance, especially given the fact that God has shown us what is good: ‘To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ We should be moved to repentance at the injustice we perpetrate and repentance for the injustice we fail to correct. A society that sees this is rife with gospel opportunities.
Furthermore, society calls for condemnation and penance, but it has no solution beyond that. It proclaims our guilt but offers little in the way of redemption. The Bible, however, tells us that the gospel ‘is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes’. Although ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.’
In an age wracked by guilt and fear, shame and sin, we have the hope of the gospel that offers redemption to all who believe in Christ. More than that, we have the hope that not only are we personally redeemed from the injustice of our own doing, but that all things might be reconciled to God ‘whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.’
To pursue justice is to humbly recognise our own guilt and hold out the hope of the gospel to a world lost in rightful self-condemnation, knowing that Christ alone can provide the redemption our broken lives cry out for. And so we say with the Psalmist: ‘Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.’
 Micah 6:8 (NIV 2011).
 Micah 1:2 (NIV 2011).
 Jonathan Leeman, ‘Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule’ (2016), p.22, Zachary McCartney and Ben Patterson, ‘The Church as Polis: Towards an Ecclesiocentric Christian Politics’, https://breakingground.us/the-church-as-polis/ and Tish Harrison Warren, ‘The early Church saw itself as a political body. We can too’, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/october-web-only/election-politics-president-trump-early-church-model.html.
 David Koyzis, ‘Government’s call to do justice: How a society can seek justice when there are so many ways to define it’, Faith Today(September/October 2020) p.47.
 Genesis 9:6 (NIV 2011).
 Leviticus 24:17-22 (NIV 2011).
 2 Corinthians 5:21 (NIV 2011).
 Genesis 3:16-19 (NIV 2011).
 Genesis 3:21 (NIV 2011).
 Genesis 3:15 (NIV 2011).
 Isaiah 60:20, Jeremiah 30:10b, and Ezekiel 30:27 (NIV 2011) respectively.
 Genesis 3:12-13 (NIV 2011).
 Ecclesiastes 7:20 (NIV 2011).
 1 Kings 21:20b-22 (NIV 2011).
 For example read Ezekiel 30 to see an account of God’s judgement on Egypt and Egypt’s Pharaoh.
 Acts 2:23 (NIV 2011).
 Timothy Keller, ‘Justice in the Bible’, https://quarterly.gospelinlife.com/justice-in-the-bible/.
 It is worth mentioning here that whilst the Bible does challenge our typical understanding of responsibility for injustice, there are limits too. Tim Keller helpfully explores this idea further in his piece ‘Justice in the Bible’ which can be accessed at https://quarterly.gospelinlife.com/justice-in-the-bible/.
 Genesis 1:31a (NIV 2011).
 Genesis 1:26-30 (NIV 2011).
 Genesis 4:10-12 (NIV 2011).
 Psalm 139-13-16 (NIV 2011).
 Psalm 140:12 (NIV 2011).
 Proverbs 14:31 (NIV 2011).
 Deuteronomy 10:17-18 (NIV 2011).
 Isaiah 1:16-17 (NIV 2011).
 Tim Clemens in Tony Payne and Geoff Robson, ‘The Generosity Project’ (2020), p.60.
 Dan Wu, Ibid., p.61.
 Leviticus 23:22 (NIV 2011).
 Luke 14:12-14 (NIV 2011).
 Luke 21:1-4 (NIV 2011).
 G. K. Chesterton, ‘Christendom in Dublin’ (1932).
 Brad Littlejohn, ‘Justice in a Time Out of Joint’, https://breakingground.us/justice-in-a-time-out-of-joint/.
 Romans 13:4a (NIV 2011).
 Romans 8:13a (NIV 2011).
 Revelation 21:4b (NIV 2011).
 Brad Littlejohn, ‘Justice in a Time Out of Joint’, https://breakingground.us/justice-in-a-time-out-of-joint/.
 Exodus 1:15-22, Daniel 6:6-13, and Acts 4:18-20 (NIV 2011) respectively.
 Romans 13:1-7 and Jeremiah 27 (NIV 2011).
 Psalm 94:23 (NIV 2011).
 Psalm 130:3 (NIV 2011).
 Micah 6:8 (NIV 2011).
 Colin Hansen and Thaddeus Williams on Gospelbound ‘Social Justice: Heresy or Necessary?’, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/gospelbound/social-justice-heresy-or-necessary/.
 Romans 1:16 (NIV 2011).
 Romans 3:23-24 (NIV 2011).
 Colossians 1:20 (NIV 2011).
 Psalm 130:7-8 (NIV 2011).