Category Archives: Justice

The Gospel and Social Justice: Tim Keller


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

Love Has No Need to Justify Itself

Here’s a well known quote from the late John Stott (1921-2011):

We are sent into the world, like Jesus, to serve. For this is the natural expression of our love for our neighbors. We love. We go. We serve…we have (or should have) no ulterior  motive. True, the gospel lacks visibility if we merely preach it, and lacks credibility if we who preach it are interested only in souls and have no concern about the welfare of people’s bodies, situations and communities. Yet the reason for our acceptance of social responsibility is not primarily in order to give the gospel either a visibility or a credibility it will otherwise lack, but rather simple uncomplicated compassion. Love has no need to justify itself. It merely expresses itself in service whenever it sees need.


Social Justice and the Social Gospel: A Rejoinder

About a year ago I commented on Glenn Beck’s dismissal of the usage of the term “social justice” by Christians. Recently, a commenter replied with these words:

It is incorrect of the writer of this posting to say Glen Beck and Mr. Liliback are the irresponsible ones.  Although the term “Social Justice” was first coined by a conservative priest in the 1800’s, all that needs understanding is who is using the term today.  There are primarily two groups of supporters of the term.  The first, knowingly believes in the control of the individual by the government in all things. The other, i.e many in the Catholic Church, innocently believe that this government control is Christ like which ultimately, it is not.  The writter of this postingis making an excuse for semantics to avoid the obvious.

First I’d like to thank the commenter for taking the time to share their thoughts. As the author, I thought that perhaps a response to his thoughts would clarify where I’m coming from.

I believe that the issue is, as was stated, not merely to look at how the term was coined, but rather to see how the term is employed today. There we agree. I also agree with the categorization of the 2 groups who use “social justice” language, 1) statists, and 2) religious statists. Again, the commenter is correct on both counts.

My contention with the comments listed above lies in the fact that they overlook another crucial group that finds itself comfortable with “social justice” language, yet in the strongest terms eschews “social gospel” language. (There’s also another group that hasn’t been taken into consideration: Protestant statists such as Jim Wallis. Not all religious statists are Roman Catholic) As noted in my blog entry, the latter is the agenda of a Christ-less form of Christianity, while the former is seen (by the group under discussion) as a foretaste of God’s coming kingdom on earth, a demonstration of the power of God to transform hearts through the gospel of the cross-work of Christ. A good example of this group would be Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC. Keller is not a statist and promotes free-market enterprise and the entrepreneurial spirit. He does not promote the idea that the church as an institution should start soup kitchens, etc. yet he does encourage Christians as individuals and as non-profit organizations to work not only for the benefit of their local church but also for the flourishing of their community. This third category is a fast-expanding group and should not be left out of this discussion.

In conclusion, my point is that we should be wary of superimposing one definition of “social justice” (statism) on all those who use the term. Instead we should listen carefully to how the term is employed, lest we denounce people on the basis of another group’s error.

Social Justice vs. Social Gospel

The following is taken from the Glenn Beck show on the Fox News Channel. Herein Beck is interviewing Peter Lillback, president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. This selection of the interview is on the supposed roots of “social justice.”

What concerns me in this clip is the confusing of subjects. Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism is a critique of theological, not political, liberalism. Lillback is absolutely correct to say that Machen’s book is a devastating critique of theological liberalism noting the “language barrier” that one must scale to understand both historical Christianity and theological liberalism. The two truly are different religions. Historic Christianity teaches Christ crucified. Liberalism, as H. Richard Niebuhr defined it,  teaches that “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.” The differences are infinite. That being said, we should acknowledge that Machen was not speaking about political liberalism. But nothing on the program addresses the problems with theological liberalism. It simply wasn’t the topic of discussion. Without a doubt Lillback knows this (it would border on insulting the man to think he didn’t) and not making that distinction in this clip runs the very obvious risk of confusing the viewer to think that Machen was writing against high-tax, big government liberalism.

But theological liberalism and political liberalism aren’t the only concepts spoken of as if they were the same thing. Notice that at the 3:42 mark Beck conflates “social gospel” and social justice” as if they were they same thing. For the next minute, Lillback helfully gives and overview of the social gospel movement, and his comments are spot on.

At around the 2:57 point, Dr. Lillback notes the the phrase “social justice” is used to encourage class warfare, pitting the rights of groups over against the rights of individuals. Has the term “social justice” been used by political liberals for their purposes? Sure, without a doubt. But do people who believe in the gospel of Christ and are generally politically conservative also use the term (without any connotations of big-government interventionism)? Yes. Beck and Lillback provide no categories for their viewers for such people. Lillback goes too far at the 4:57 mark was he says “social justice thinking is liberalism in the cloak of Christianity.” Thereafter Beck continues to speak of “progressives” (i.e. political liberals). But Machen was speaking of people who affirmed “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross” (Protestant theological liberals). This blurring or confusing the distinction between the two is irresponsibly misleading.

My hope is that we can move beyond word-level criticism. Simply because some people use the term “social justice” as a platform for political liberalism doesn’t entail that all churches and that emphasis justice ministry do the same thing. Such broad-brush thinking is unhelpful.

Anthony Bradley on The Elements of Social Justice

Anthony Bradley has written insightfully on 8 elements that undergird  and sustain a practical Christian view of justice. The article is very short, so I recommend that all interested would take 5-7 minutes to read it.  You’ll surely benefit.

Here are his 8 points (with some quotations):

  • Love: “Love…must be the presupposition of social justice so that our conception of justice is in harmony with the will of the Triune God. (Matthew 22:36-40)”
  • Human Dignity: “The truly disadvantaged should be directed toward realizing the freedom and responsibility, the spirituality, the excellence of character and holiness, the expected contribution to the social good, and the application of creativity and rationality in the arts and culture that are necessary consequences of bearing the image of the Triune God.”
  • Solidarity: “…solidarity highlights in a particular way the intrinsic social nature of humans made in the image of the Trinity.”
  • Flourishing Social Spheres: “…it is a violation of human solidarity and human dignity for higher orders of society to undermine and violate the functions of lower orders, as well as for spheres to extend beyond their expertise, competence, or design into other spheres.”
  • Desert: “If we love people and seek their good, what people deserve are opportunities live out their vocations as human beings—having freedom to do the things that humans were created to do.”
  • Reciprocity: Quoting David Schmidtz, “When people reciprocate, they teach people around them to cooperate. In the process, they not only respect justice, but also foster it. Specifically, they foster a form of justice that enables people to live together in mutually respectful peace.”
  • Equality: Bradley asks the tough questions, “What does ‘equality’ mean? Do we want a society that considers equality on the basis of treatment in accordance with human dignity? Or do we want a society that orients equality materialistically in terms of how much “stuff” some people have versus others?”
  • Need: “What the truly disadvantaged need is a context where they are free to be truly human and virtuous in accordance with love, human dignity, solidarity, and our social and economic interdependence—that is, economic empowerment.”

A Conversation about Social Justice

Recently I threw this conversation starter out on Facebook to see what my friends would say:

All Christians believe in social justice, they just disagree on the best means of implementation.

Fortunately, some of my brightest friends (actual, real friends, not mere Facebook “friends”) replied and I thought the conversation would be beneficial. Those who replied are part of the Kingdomview team. I’ll color code the replied so as to distinguish them from each other.

Ike: Do you consider the “God’s gonna cut you down” opinion of some Christians to be social justice?

Joe: Well, for clarification, let’s agree that Fred Phelps’ “God hates fags” group, snake handlers, etc. are cults and do not represent historic Christianity. That being said, even fundamentalist, Christian-Right type folks believe that through gov’t policies righteousness and justice will flourish in the land.

Brent: I don’t think all Christians believe in social justice. I think all Christians should believe and work for social justice. It depends on how the term “Social justice” is used. If by social justice you me redistributing wealth, raising taxes, and creating a disincentive to work, then no,Christians do not and should not support social justice. BUT if by “social justice” you mean equality of opportunity, showing mercy to the poor, caring for the widows and orphans in their distress, and radically (and voluntarily) disadvantaging ourselves to extend kingdom values to our neighbor, then yes, we should believe in, work for, and petition for social justice. So, how do/should we “do justice” (Micah 6:8; Isaiah 1:17; Matthew 22:37-39)?

Joe: Yes, Brent, you’re right. It’s largely a definitional matter. I also think the way you’ve defined justice hits the nail on the head.

Ike: Getting back to what Joe said, I agree that the “God Hates Fags” group is a cult. It seems that, in ‘Christendom,’ a line has been drawn between those who go out with the gospel as the only means of social justice and those who go out with ‘relief’ only as the means of social justice, and you must pick one side or the other. I’ve never quite understood why you must pick sides; why not both? All lost people need to hear the gospel.

TheARP has had a missions presence in Sahiwal, Pakistan for over 100 years. We’ve done it by providing a hospital where people would rather pay for care than get free care from the state hospital because we provide better quality care. And the Muslim not only gets quality care, he/she also gets bombarded by the gospel for their entire stay, whether 1 hour or several days. And they don’t mind hearing the gospel ’cause the Christian doctors and nurses truly care about them and treat them well. Does the hospital do this perfectly? No, but they do contextualize the gospel message within that community through medical care.

Now, are there contexts where we have to lead with the Gospel? Absolutely. We, as the church, must be aware enough of the situation where we are ministering that we have to know what is the best method of communicating the Gospel to those around us. Sometimes it means leading with the Gospel, and other times it means leading with alleviation of physical conditions. We must exegete our community enough to know how to best present the love of Jesus to that community, whether it be Sahiwal, Pakistan, Lewisburg, WV, NYC, Philadelphia, PA, Orlando, FL, or wherever.

Joe: Ike, thanks. You’re right about the both/and approach here. I think the problem that caused this rift (shown so clearly during the fundamentalist/modernist controversy) was a lack of a biblical theology of the Kingdom of God. Just as in the ministry of Jesus the Kingdom was inaugurated by both word (kingdom proclaimation) and deed (the sacraments, miracles, and ultimately his atoning death and glorious resurrection) so during the period of kingdom expansion the church should herald the coming consumation of the kingdon in both word and deed.

NickIt’s been stated already but I’ll second that if any Christian is confronted with a “proper definition” of social justice, he or she can’t but believe in it. It would be strikingly unChristian not to.

And Ike touched on something that I read in Screwtape the other night (you know, the Lewis book that was published 68 years ago?) Listen to this, and bear in mind that this is a senior demon writing to his nephew demon instructing him in how to tempt a Christian. The perspectives will therefore be completely switched. Things referred to in the negative should be regarded as “bad for hell,” and therefore good for the kingdom. And the “Enemy” is, of course, God:

About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is more delicate. Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilizations”. You see the little rift? ‘Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.’ That’s the game.

This is not entirely in the vein of the previous comments, but I still think it fitting in a discussion about social justice.

The “Social Justice” Controversy

Recently, a thunderstorm of controversy was sparked by a couple of comments made by political pundit Glenn Beck. In short, Beck encouraged Christians to leave their churches if it showed interest in “social justice.” “Social justice” for Beck is a “code word” for socialism.

Here are some valuable resources that are helpful for thinking through this issue in a responsible and biblical manner:

1) Kevin DeYoung- A Modest Proposal
2) Kevin DeYoung- Seven Passages on Social Justice:  part 1, part 2, part 3
3) Jay Richards- Beck, Wallis, and “Social Justice”
4) Jay Richards- What is “social Justice”? part1, part 2
5) Tim Keller- The Gospel and the Poor

I share many, if not most, of the views reflected in these articles. With Keller, I believe that our financial generosity and a concern for justice should flow from our grasp of the gospel. With DeYoung, I agree that the term “social justice” is slippery and that as Christians we must be very careful how we handle it, because some (such as Beck) hear it not as a biblical concern, but as a vale for a failed political and economic agenda. Others hear “social justice” and equate it with the cross-less “social gospel” of theological liberalism. Richards also clarifies on some of the dangers of qualifying the biblical teaching on justice by the term “social ” and shares some thoughts on the current controversy with Beck.

For a fantastic DVD series that applies the gospel to these issues, see:

See also,

Christians: Don’t Use the Term “Social Justice” Without Explanation

From the blog of Kevin DeYoung:

I’d like to make a modest proposal for Christians of all theological and political persuasions: don’t use the term “social justice” without explanation.

The term is unassailable to some and arouses suspicion in others. For many Christians, social justice encompasses everything good we should be doing in the world, from hunger relief to serving the poor to combating sex trafficking. But the phrase is also used to support more debatable matters like specific health care legislation, minimum wage increases, or reducing carbon emissions. If something can be included as a “social justice” issue then no one can oppose said issue, because who in their right mind favors social injustice?

But what are we actually talking about when we advocate social justice?

John Goldingay, in his book on Old Testament ethics, highlights the problem:

The notion of social justice is a hazy one. It resembles words such as community, intimacy, and relational, warm words whose meaning may seem self-evident and which we assume are obviously biblical categories, when actually they are rather undefined and culture relative.

After discussing the origin of the phrase “social justice” in nineteenth century Roman Catholic thought, Goldingay explains how the phrase came to be used subsequently.

“Social justice” then implies the idea of a “just society,” one in which different individuals and groups in society get a “fair share” of its benefits. But Christians disagree about what constitutes a just society and how we achieve it (for instance, how far by governmental intervention to effect income redistribution and how far by market forces and the encouragement of philanthropy)…The meaning of the phrase social justice has become opaque over the years as it has become a buzz expression (Israel’s Life, 500).

In A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell explains the difference between the constrained and unconstrained view of justice. In the unconstrained view justice is a result so that wherever people don’t get “their fair share” or don’t have as much as others there is injustice. If Goldingay is correct, most people assume this unconstrained view when they speak of social justice. For example, the RCA (my denomination) in one of its official study materials includes a glossary which defines justice as “The fair, moral, and impartial treatment of all persons, especially in law. Includes concepts of right relationships and equitable distribution of resources.” By this definition the inequality of opportunities, income, or outcomes is considered an injustice, a situation that in and of itself is sinful, implicates all (or most) of us in society, and demands immediate redress. In the unconstrained vision, the society has a lump of resources and if they are not shared roughly equally, then we do not have social justice.

In the constrained vision, by contrast, justice is a process where people are treated fairly (the first half of the RCA definition). The goal here is not forced redistribution; no one distributed the resources in the first place and no one is wise enough to allocate them for the good of everyone. Justice, in this vision, is upheld through the rule of law, a fair court system, and equitable treatment of all persons regardless of natural diversity. This doesn’t mean that in the constrained vision we shouldn’t care for the poor or that we simply shrug our shoulders and say “oh well” when we see people struggling through life with far fewer opportunities and resources than the rest of us. The Christian must be generous and should care about suffering and the disadvantaged. But in the constrained vision, this care is a matter of compassion, charity, and love, not automatically an issue of justice.

I happen to think the constrained view of justice fits the biblical definition better. But arguing one way or the other is not the point of this post. This is only a “modest proposal” after all. I simply want Christians to be more careful and more precise with their language. We don’t all mean the same thing by social justice. So when we use the term we should explain it and take pains to demonstrate why our conception of social justice is supported by Scripture. However we use the phrase “social justice” we should be slow to insist that any Christian who disagrees with our policy solution is obviously a spiritual miscreant.

“Social justice” in common parlance is often  ill-defined warm fuzzy. Careful exegesis is needed if we are to unfold what the Bible means by justice instead of assuming a definition that we may or may not all agree on. And that means more than an appeal to broad themes like “God cares for the poor.” Yes, we all see that. But who is responsible to care for the poor? And how? And does it matter where they are or how they got there? I don’t mean those as rhetorical questions. They are real questions that evangelicals need to consider more carefully. At the very least it would be good to recognize that using an ambiguous phrase like “social justice” to rally for our cause or defend our side without helping each side know what the other is really talking about is not terribly helpful.

Jay Richard also has some helpful thoughts on the subject here.

For more see: