This piece marks the first 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.
The matter of justice is pressing. Inequality, corruption, lies, poverty, racism, abuse, and environmental destruction are common features dominating news headlines, Twitter timelines, and parliamentary agendas.
In recent years, prominent movements - Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter respectively - have successfully brought matters of environmental destruction and racial inequality to the fore of the Western conscience.
Justice matters. It concerns us. But what is it?
Writers such as Tim Keller have helpfully identified our society’s confusion around this issue; ‘seldom do those issuing the calls [for justice] acknowledge that currently there are competing visions of justice, often at sharp variance, and that none of them have achieved anything like a cultural consensus’.
In part, this confusion is due to the liberal myth of a neutral public square which rests in no small part on the work of John Rawls who argues for a ‘veil of ignorance’ when approaching matters of politics. Such a foundation attempts to present politics as a neutral business in which all views and positions can be accommodated as long as private views and matters of religion are left at the door.
The West has largely pursued this project with apparent success. Yet, if the past few years have shown us anything, it is that we do not all agree on what justice is. In many ways, the votes for Trump and Brexit have been a backlash against a state and society that has not listened to the concerns of all its citizens, who have made ‘neutral’ decisions without acknowledging the differing beliefs of the vast swathes of the country who are not well reflected in the public square. For instance, Darren McGarvey argues ‘Brexit Britain is a snapshot of how things sound when people who are rarely heard decided to grab the microphone and start telling everybody how it is.’
In fact, one could go even further and ‘argue that any and every position a person might adopt in the political sphere relies upon a certain conception of human beings, their rights and their obligations toward one another, creation and God.’ We do not enter politics neutrally, nor can we.
As works such as David Koyzis’ ‘Political Vision and Illusions’ have demonstrated, each political ideology is a ‘modern manifestation… of that ancient phenomenon called idolatry, complete with their own stories of sin and redemption… every ideology is based on taking something out of creation’s totality, raising it above that creation, and making the latter revolve around and serve it.’
Such narrow totality is explicitly visible in the present-day pursuit of justice in that justice itself is no longer an ideal to be aspired to but a necessity for the here and now. Consequently, movements for justice are revolutionary, totalitarian, and increasingly violent and religious. The various conceptions of justice, therefore, go on to define the manifestation of such trends… is justice equality? Is it freedom? Is it fairness? Is it redistributive?
As Christians, we should shun the naïve belief that justice is a neutral concept on which we are all agreed. We must instead ask the painful question: ‘what is it?’ Likewise, we cannot affirm a doctrine of justice which manifests in idolatry and totality when God alone is to be our end and defines our world.
How are we to understand justice?
We must begin with the character of God. As we read through the Old Testament, God is revealed as one who is just. In Psalm 9, for example, God is depicted as ‘sitting enthroned as the righteous judge’. Only a few verses later, David writes ‘the LORD reigns for ever; he has established his throne for judgement. He rules the world in righteousness and judges the peoples with equity.’ We are told ‘the LORD is known by his acts of justice’.
God is utterly just. His rule is right and true. To speak of justice is to speak of the One who is just. Whilst abstract theorising may touch upon something of the truths of justice, one cannot understand what justice is without first understanding the One who is just.
Justice is therefore profoundly relational, as God is a relational God. The first instance of Jewish law, the Ten Commandments, demonstrates that what God deems just is right relating to Him, and right relating to others. The first few concern rightly relating to God: You shall have no other gods before me.’ ‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything… You shall not bow down to them or worship them’. ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God’. ‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.’
The latter commandments - Remember the Sabbath; Honour you father and mother; You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not give false testimony; You shall not covet - all concern relating rightly to other people.
When Jesus is challenged in Mark 12 to declare which of the commandments is the most important, he responds: “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
In other words, relate rightly to God and relate rightly to others. This is the whole summary of the law. This is the definition of Biblical justice.
It is important to note, however, that our vertical relationship to God impacts our horizontal relationship with others. Time and time again God rebukes Israel for their failure to act justly and deems their worship false and worthless as a result.
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.
God is angry with His people for their failure to treat each other justly. They oppress the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow and yet think they can come and worship the Lord. This passage stands as a stark reminder of their need to reform their behaviour.
Likewise, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for their injustice. He condemns their outward affections for the law of God and yet their absent care for their neighbour.
Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shrivelled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shrivelled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
The relational nature of justice requires not simply a notion of what is just and right, but an action. Koyzis, puts it like this: ‘The classic definition of justice is to render to each person her due. This means that justice requires action of some sort.’ Here, a look at the linguistics of justice in Hebrew is helpful in further pinning down a Biblical conception of justice.
The Hebrew word for justice (mishpat) can be translated as ‘just judgement’. The Hebrew word for righteousness (tsedaqah) can be translated as ‘just action’. Biblically justice is a case of doing. It is not simply something to discover and adhere to but a call on our lives to act and relate rightly to others. In so doing we seek peace (shalom) and the wellbeing of our society.
In our culture, justice is primarily conceived of as something that comes down through the law courts. We want just judgements, just fines, penalties, prison sentences. A judge discerns justice and then hands down a judgement deemed appropriate for the crime at hand. Their task is to figure out what is just according to precedent, the law of the land, the circumstances of the crime, and the guilt of the accused. This stands in the mishpat tradition.
However, justice also concerns the actions of individuals, communities, and systems towards one another. The increased presence of social justice campaigns has put the spotlight on whether different aspects of our society act justly. Does big business and capitalism act justly in their treatment of workers, communities and the environment? Does the education and judicial system act justly in its treatment of ethnic minorities? Does my tax report constitute a just act towards the nation and community in which I reside? This stands in the tsedaqah tradition.
The Bible has a much bigger view of justice than we do.
Justice is not merely ensuring freedom, equality, or fairness. Justice cannot de diluted and made the sole responsibility of individuals, or communities, or systems. Justice is a way of being that honours our creator and fellow creatures.
Jesus’ teaching at the Sermon on the Mount shows the expansive nature of Biblical justice and righteousness (just judgement and just action). As Jesus begins to teach on the Old Testament law, we see the command ‘you shall not murder’ extend beyond literal murder to anger and hatred towards fellow humanity. We see the command ‘you shall not commit adultery’ extend beyond physical adultery to the realm of lust within hearts.
Such a holistic understanding of justice is devastating. Injustice goes from something ‘out there’ to be fought against, whether that be systems or other people, to something we find in each and every one of us, ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.
The Lord looks down from heaven
on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.
All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
The Bible makes it clear that we fail to relate rightly to God and we fail to relate rightly to others. Injustice is something we are all guilty of. So, when we call for justice, when we demand that the world be put to rights, we are calling for our own time in the dock, as ‘the wages of sin is death’.
This helps us understand why our search for justice is so elusive. Why, after so many systems of government, so many charitable efforts, so many protests, our society remains racked with crime, poverty, violence, abuse, and inequality.
Changing a system, changing a government, changing the public narrative all fails to address the root of inequality because it fails to recognise that the root of injustice comes out of our own hearts. It fails to recognise that as we reject God, we inevitably reject the people He created as we seek our own cause.
Jesus’ comments on the food laws of Israel prove particularly apt here: ‘the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person’.
It is not our society or our country that is the source of injustice. It is not the circumstances of our lives or the behaviour of other people. These things play a part, but Jesus is clear: injustice (note the breaking of the Ten Commandments in those verses) comes from the heart. Our hearts need to change if we are to see justice done.
Biblical justice is of an overwhelmingly high standard and it makes no apologies for being so. However, neither does it leave us crushed and devastated at the state of our world and the state of our hearts.
Biblical justice is hopeful.
Throughout Scripture, God promises to send one who is just, someone who will establish justice on the earth:
‘“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations…
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.”’
As God condemns His own people for their failure to relate rightly to Him and to one another, in His justice, He promises one who will restore the world and make things as they should be. When Jesus stands up in the synagogue and ‘proclaims the year of the Lord’s favour’, He claims to be this promised servant.
In contrast to Psalm 14 - where the Lord looks down from heaven to see that ‘there is no one who does good, not even one’ - God looks upon Him and says ‘you are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ This is one who relates rightly to God and to others. He is one who comes not to abolish the law but to fulfil it. In other words, He came to do what could not be done and live exhibiting perfect justice.
Elsewhere, we see that Paul declares Jesus to be ‘our righteousness, holiness and redemption.’ Just as we explored the Hebrew earlier, a brief look at the Greek here proves helpful. The Greek word for ‘righteousness’ is dikaiosunē, defined as righteousness or justice. This presents a challenge to Bible translators, however, as these two terms are generally divided in the English language. But in Greek, one word encompasses both. Jesus is the One who relates rightly. Or to return to the terms mishpat and tsedaqah, Jesus embodies just judgement and just action.
Here is the glory of the gospel: ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ The One who was just died the death of the unjust that we, the unjust, might become the righteousness (justice) of God. Is that not a wonder?
‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’. As such, God ‘demonstrates his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.’
Justice comes from Jesus, through His death and resurrection. In Him is punished all the injustice of those who have faith. The question is, do you have faith?
Justice cannot be found aside from the One who relates rightly to God and rightly to fellow humanity. Justice cannot be found in ourselves, in new systems, in different governments, in radical campaigns. Justice is found in the Son of God. The One who lived a life of justice and yet died the death of those unjust that we might be counted as just in His place.
And now we strive for justice as we wait – doing everything Jesus commanded. We await His second coming, the true fulfilment of the ‘year of the Lord’s favour’. We await the time in which He comes to judge the earth in perfect justice. We await the age when there will no longer be the curse of death brought about by our injustice. We await the day of His just and glorious kingdom.
 Timothy Keller, ‘A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory’, https://quarterly.gospelinlife.com/a-biblical-critique-of-secular-justice-and-critical-theory/.
 John Rawls, ‘A Theory of Justice’ (1971).
 Whilst this is my own hypothesis, works such as Paul Embery’s ‘Despised: Why the modern left loathes the working class’ (2021) provide evidence of such sentiment, within the UK at least.
 Darren McGarvey, ‘Poverty Safari’ (2018).
 Jonathan Leeman, ‘Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule’ (2016), p.81.
 David Koyzis, ‘Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies’, Second Edition (2019), p.3.
 Psalm 9:4 (NIV 2011).
 Ibid. Verses 7-8.
 Ibid. Verse 16. See also Psalm 145 for another account of God’s just and righteous rule. Verse 17 declares ‘the LORD is righteous in all his ways and faithful in all he does.’
 Exodus 20:3-11 (NIV 2011).
 Exodus 20:8-17 (NIV 2011).
 Mark 12:28-34 (NIV 2011).
 Jeremiah 7:3-8 (NIV 2011). See also Isaiah 10:1-4 as God expresses His anger at the Israelites for their failure to love Him and their failure to act justly.
 Mark 3:1-6 (NIV 2011). See also Mark 12:38-40 for further condemnation of the unjust ways of the teachers of the law.
 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.
 Matthew 5-7 (NIV 2011).
 Matthew 5:21-22 (NIV 2011).
 Matthew 5:27-28 (NIV 2011).
 Romans 3:23 (NIV 2011).
 Psalm 14:2-3 (NIV 2011).
 Psalm 130:3 (NIV 2011).
 Romans 6:23 (NIV 2011).
 Matthew 15:18-20a (NIV 2011).
 Isaiah 42:1 & 4a (NIV 2011).
 Isaiah 61:1-11 (NIV 2011).
 Luke 4:16-21 (NIV 2021).
 Romans 14:2-3 and Mark 1:11 (NIV 2011).
 Matthew 5:17 (NIV 2011).
 1 Corinthians 1:30 (NIV 2011).
 2 Corinthians 5:21 (NIV 2011).
 Romans 8:1 (NIV 2011).
 Romans 3:25b-26 (NIV 2011).
 Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV 2011).
 Referencing Jesus’ claims to fulfill the promise of Isaiah 61 in Luke 4:18-19.
 Revelation 19:11 (NIV 2011).
 Revelation 22:3 (NIV 2011).