Tim Keller Defines Biblical Justice

A major point of Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice is defining what the Bible says about justice and what that practically looks like in the life of a Christian. Here’s how Keller teases out the concept:

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….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.”

But in the Bible tzadeqah [righteousness] refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity, and equity….the righteous [tzaddiq] . . . are willing to disadvantage themselves to advantage the community; the wicked are willing to disadvantage the community to advantage themselves… Bible scholar Alec Motyer defines “righteous” as those “right with God and therefore committed to putting right all other relationships in life.”…In the Scripture, gifts to the poor are called “acts of righteousness,” as in Matthew 6:1-2. Not giving generously, then, is not stinginess, but unrighteousness, a violation of God’s law.

When these two words, tzadeqah and mishpat, are tied together, as they are over three dozen times, the English expression that best conveys the meaning is “social justice.”…Biblical righteousness is inevitably “social,” because it is about relationships.

And here’s how he brings together the larger picture:

We do justice when we give all human beings their due as creations of God. Doing justice includes not only the righting of wrongs, but generosity and social concern, especially toward the poor and vulnerable. This kind of life reflects the character of God. It consists of a broad range of activities, from simple fair and honest dealings with people in daily life, to regular, radically generous giving of your time and resources, to activism that seeks to end particular forms of injustice, violence, and oppression.

-Timothy J. Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just

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Posted on October 22, 2012, in Justice, Tim Keller, Tim Keller Stuff and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I recently listened to an interview with Jonathan Haidt on the Gospel Coalition podcast. He was raised Jewish and is now an atheist. He talks in the interview about how a vengeful, just God is a requirement to keep people in line. The interviewer asks him about the place of grace, and he makes the blanket statement that he doesn’t get grace. That was apparent in his characterization of religion, even though he is kinder and more open than your average atheist. His understanding is all justice, no generosity.

    • That’s really sad. As Keller (along with OT scholars Bruce Waltke and Chris Wright) have shown, the biblical concepts of justice and righteousness are richly diverse. And the Scriptural portrait of grace is incredibly rich, as it brings together justice and righteousness in a way that compromises neither.

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