There’s a popular slogan these days, “No Justice, No Peace.” Surely, we should want to positively affirm this simple statement. It is theologically true that there is no peace without justice. But in context, this slogan has been used as a threat. In short, “if we do not get justice, we will burn this city down.” So much turns on the meaning of justice.
In Sunday’s sermon, “The Things that Are Caesar’s,” we considered the role of governing authorities in our lives and in God’s world. Though there may be extensive disagreement between two people in the precise scope of the government’s proper authority—whether it belongs in education, if and how it should intervene with markets, foreign policy, etc.—everyone agrees that the government is in the business of doing justice. According to the Bible’s own basic job description, it’s half of government’s job. Governing authorities are sent “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1Pet. 2:14). Paul puts it even more starkly: “For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4).
In the conclusion of this sermon, I offered three comments about justice by way of application for better thinking on this topic. You might be having some conversations about injustices in our day, and you should. You don’t need my help on all the important minutiae. But we all need some help from the Bible to think in biblical categories and biblical ways about a topic dear to our Lord’s heart, that is, justice and the role of governing authorities.
The purpose of this post is not to argue that God cares for people and what that means in practical and personal terms; I expect that will emerge in the regular course of preaching and teaching. Rather, the purpose of this post is to explore a neglected and nuanced subject of the proper role of government—in its role as a minister of God’s justice—in mediating God’s care for people.
Justice is a big topic, and so is government. Here are three big thoughts for thinking about them.
First, Justice Is More Than Government
This point will seem both obvious and problematic. When Peter writes that it is the governing authority’s job to “punish those who do evil,” this assumes that evil means something. It assumes a standard of evil that is not determined by the state, a standard that is true not because an individual or society determined that it is true, but because it is. Both evil and justice, then, transcend any one time and place and state.
That should seem obvious to us. But whose justice is true justice? This is where Christianity presents us with a second absolute claim. The first is that there is such a thing as evil. The second is that God’s view of these things is the right one.
Governing authorities are “instituted by God,” they are “God’s servant,” even “ministers of God” (Rom. 3:1, 4–6). That’s the same word we use for “deacon.” Paul is pressing on us the lofty and even sacred responsibility that we have as citizens to submit to our governing authorities. But this also highlights the truth that justice is God’s business and the state is God’s servant, whether it wants to admit as much or not. God is a God of justice and humans should be treated a certain way because they are made in his image. Jesus was not arguing for a theocratic state in this age. We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Mk. 12:17). His kingdom is not of this world and, as such, it does not advance by means of the state. But human government is still God’s government. There is no such thing as a neutral public square. Laws against murder or theft assume a certain understanding of what humans are and what humans are owed.
Here’s one thing this means: government can be wrong. It means we can and should speak and work for justice in our systems of government. Abraham Lincoln was right to do so in his day, as was Martin Luther King Jr. in his. When human government uses its sword for evil, its legal systems become injustice multipliers. The riots at the Capitol were an atrocity, roundly and universally condemned, and rightly so. Greater still are some of the bills passed on that floor. My point is that the government and the news will hold out some things as evil and other things as good, but they are not and cannot be our litmus test of right and wrong; they are not a reliable gauge.
One reason that authoritarian governments suppress Christianity and the church is this: they will not accept a standard of judgment by which they may be found guilty. When a state stops being accountable to its own people, it won’t be long before it stops accounting to the people’s voice on justice. Christians have been famously resilient under state pressure. We are gracious and happy to live quiet and peaceful lives. But we are not—and we must not be—easily coerced. We know better because we know God.
Justice is more than government. We give to God what is God’s.
Second, Justice Requires More Than Good Intentions
I showed up to Southern Seminary in 2005 as a 25 year old to grow in handling God’s Word for God’s people. I came to that place because of several professors, including Ronald Nash. I didn’t get to take a class with Nash, as he died a year later in 2006. He was a rare and needed combination of theological, philosophical, economic, and historical scholarship. Rarer still, he wrote with a love and concern for the church. Lately, I’ve been growing in my appreciation of Nash all the more for his ability to see under the surface of things. Here’s how he opened his book, Social Justice and the Christian Church, some thirty years ago:
One of the two sides of Christian social concern is the Christian’s clear obligation to care and to be concerned about the poor and oppressed and to do what he can on their behalf. But the other dimension of Christian social concern adds the stipulation that if a Christian wishes to make pronouncements on complex social, economic, and political issues, he also has a duty to become informed about those issues. … There is no question about the fact that [Christians] care. But their compassion is often wedded to a political and economic ideology that is long on heart and short on wisdom.
God cares about people and that’s why people care about people. We’re like him. But, as Nash suggests, good intentions need to be paired with good ideas. Good intentions paired with bad ideas about government can lead to profound injustice.
This leads us to the topic of social justice. This is an idea in need of definition. Justice and people are too important. Unfortunately, social justice is a term that suffers from semantic overload. Ten people can mean ten different things, some of them contradictory. Some of us might hear “social justice” and think about justice expressed in human relationships, perhaps with an accent on active care for the poor and oppressed. Others might think of justice in the administration of human government so that every human is rendered his or her due. Those are profoundly biblical concerns. They also align with how the term was used when it was first employed. In what may be its original usage in the 1840’s, Jesuit philosopher and conservative Catholic Luigi Taparelli taught that inequality was not an injustice but a byproduct of justice in rightly ordered constitutional arrangements. But that is the opposite of how the term is often used today. Since the mid-point of the last century social justice has been a stand-in for policies that treat people unevenly in order to achieve even outcomes. Those are two different meanings. If you carefully define what you’re talking about the terminology can still work, but that’s a lot of work. I’m happy to leave such freighted terminology like this behind. However we decide to speak, we should be careful to discern how our biblical intentions intersect with more or less biblical political ideologies.
At this point, we could explore the claims and consequences of Marxism, statism, and socialism. You can pick up a copy of Nash’s book for that. Or check out this interview with James Lindsay by Albert Mohler for a more realtime take on what’s happening around us.
For our purposes, I want to stay closer to the ground of the biblical text. It’s fine for us to use terminology that is not in Scripture such as “social justice.” However, a set of more biblically precise categories will help us not only understand one another, but match our good intentions to the very best ideas about justice and human government.
With that in mind, here are four types of justice with reflections on the role of the state.
This is what we usually think of as personal righteousness. Often in the Scriptures the language of justice is paired with righteousness. A just or righteous person is a godly person, a person with integrity. This is someone who does what is right and does right by others. We might even include here the voluntary generosity in helping the poor (Lk. 12:33). Noah was “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Gen. 6:9). When the Bible mentions justice, this is what it is usually talking about.
The state has an obvious interest in this. Unless we’re going to be a police state, then most people will have to be mostly good most of the time. Or, as Colson’s Law states, “the only alternatives to conscience are cops or chaos. If the inner shield of a community is lowered, the outer shield must be raised to stave off chaos. Therefore, a community, especially a free democracy, that loses its conscience will necessarily become a police state.” Hence, an important function of human government is not only to promote good behavior but to “praise” and “approve” those who do good (1Pet. 2:14; Rom. 13:3).
Commercial justice is justice in the marketplace. The Lord is for this. “A just balance and scales are the LORD’s; all the weights in the bag are his work” (Prov. 16:11). “You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:36). The poor or less savvy should not be taken advantage of. We should pursue just practices in our businesses and welcome the state’s regulation of the marketplace to ensure just transactions.
Here the state fulfills an important function. One of the evils that the state is assigned to punish is theft. The state should protect private property and act as a recognized authority to adjudicate disputes in the marketplace as they arise.
This is justice before the law, specifically in instances of remediation, when the state is addressing some kind of harm. Five qualities are crucial for this kind of justice in order to not add injustice to injustice. This kind of justice is truthful in that it is based in the truth. False reports are condemned, and multiple witnesses are required (Ex. 23:1–3; Deut. 19:15). It is impartial, showing favoritism neither to the poor nor the rich (Lev. 19:15; cf. Acts 10:34; Js. 2:8, 9). The poor receive special attention in Scripture, in part, because of their vulnerability in legal settings (Ex. 23:3, 6; Ps. 72:1–4). It is proportional. In our interpersonal dealings we should turn the other cheek, but governing authorities are instituted to punish evil. When they punish evil they should do so with proportion, an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, foot for foot (Deut. 19:21). This kind of justice is also personal, not based on our association with a group but on our own deeds. And it is procedural, involving due process in order to clarify facts, discern intent, and settle on a just resolution (Num. 35:9–34).
Let me illustrate and apply this briefly. If an unarmed man is killed in the street by a police officer, justice requires an investigation to uncover facts and a verdict based on that evidence. If it is proven a murder, then it should be called a murder and the murderer should receive a just sentence. If evidence shows that it was manslaughter, then he should be treated accordingly. Neither the victim nor the defendant’s ethnicity, connections in the community, or economic status should be in play as it concerns the outcome. Related, if it is true that evidence does not support the claim that racist police officers kill unarmed black people at a disproportionate rate (evidence which I find convincing and, if true, encouraging), then it is an injustice to make this claim. At our very best we all want to respond in a just way to injustice. An injustice will draw a crowd. Maybe it should. But in our own responses, let’s respond to God rather than a mob lest we add injustice to an already heartbreaking situation.
So far, we have explored three types of justice. Each of these could be rightly called “social justice” in the sense that they involve justice in human relationships in people are given what they are due as those made in God’s image.
A fourth type of justice is where we meet the rub between what the Bible requires of us in human government and what we might call ideological social justice.
This form of justice is concerned with the distribution of the nation’s burdens and resources. Every nation will do some of this. We pay different amounts in taxes but share the same roads and military. In the United States, things like public eduction and Social Security are examples of the government distributing burdens and benefits.
The question at hand is this: as an agent of God’s justice, what is the state’s responsibility as it concerns the coercive distribution of burdens and resources? What is God’s intention through the state? What is our due as human beings?
We have Bible verses that regulated Israel’s national life with respect to the poor with laws that allowed the poor to glean from the fields (Ex. 23:10; Deut. 24:19–22). One could argue from those texts to social safety nets of one kind or another. But today’s cries for social justice are not just stronger appeals to help the destitute, but something altogether different.
As a subset of distributive justice, social justice proponents appeal for the distribution of resources with the goal of equal outcomes—usually economic outcomes. It sees unevenness between groups of as a problem rooted in injustice in society, a result of oppression by oppressors. Eradication of these differences, proponents insist, is a fundamental human and therefore governmental responsibility. Not every person who adopts this vocabulary embraces this whole program of thought. Nevertheless, this is the philosophical and academic foundation that undergirds social policy that flies under the banner of social justice today.
How can we boil down the problem with so-called “social justice”? Here’s one way. Social justice proponents are correct that the world is fraught with injustice, but they locate the human problem in the wrong place. Christians know that the problem with humanity is inside us and it flows from inside out. It is no surprise for us to find problems everywhere humans are found. But social justice ideology insists that where humans err they do so because of the society around them and because of inadequate institutions. The answer, then, is to destroy institutions and rebuild society in order to perfect humanity.
If we locate the problem outside ourselves, we will have an unrealistically high expectation of what government can achieve, or more precisely what a few people at the top can achieve in destroying society and remaking it. Naturally, having identified the problem wrongly, they seek a solution that can only bring harm, a cost that some proponents openly embrace. There’s a discernible echo here of biblical eschatology that sees a judgment and new creation on the horizon, just without God.
The social justice movement in this expression sees the state as the means to this transformation, as the state is the only vehicle for forcing the reallocation of resources and wealth. Liberation theologians (a driver for social justice thinking among Christians) embrace a different gospel. They see God’s plan of salvation summed up in the liberation of oppressed peoples from bondage in this age by means of the state. The centrality of the state to this vision of justice is why you may feel like affirming justice requires the endorsement of certain policy proposals. That’s why the language of “social justice” is dangerous. It allows some who use it to enlist the support of well-intentioned but undiscerning voters. This is not a post about race, but it is impossible to untangle the topic of race from social justice because the social justice movement has identified race, along with gender and so-called “gender identity,” as the fault lines that divide oppressed groups in need of liberation from oppressive society. This binary and inflammatory claim explains so much of the heat in our newsfeeds in the last decade.
What we are experiencing is not a new phenomenon. Historian Victor Davis Hansen had this to say about revolutionary societies: “In revolutionary societies the most dangerous cycle is not from poverty to equality. The most dangerous cycle is from equality to parity.” What’s happening here socially, he says, is not so much unlike what happened in Russia in 1917 at the start of the Russian Revolution. When a people in a population who have largely achieved equality of treatment begin to see that parity is within reach, the demands of the general population go up, the demands on the state go up, the promises of the state go up, and the violence goes up. But since it can never be ultimately achieved, the society risks a descent into greater division and violence, which in turn triggers the growth of the state to address the chaos.
Friends, we should be optimistic about the good of the state, cooperative, and thankful. But we should also be pessimistic because we know who humans are as sinners. Government is supposed to be limited, but without constant vigilance, as history has taught us, governments will not only reflect the best but the worst of human nature. Government is an instrument of God’s justice, but as John teaches us in his apocalypse, the state can become a beast, an instrument of Satan’s blasphemous evil purposes (Rev. 13).
What causes the state to grow beyond its divinely ordered limits? Governments grow because of human pride, as leaders find ways to arrest more power. They grow because of faulty human philosophy that locates human hope in the state. They grow because of various problems—health crises, natural disasters, threats from without, and chaos from within—as they expand their powers to solve problems but then do not give those powers back. The state grows when the people value personal affluence and pleasure more than their proper freedoms as human beings, ceding more power to the state on the promise that they can keep their comforts. And the state grows as it multiplies promises in exchange for the people’s support. At every step we hear appeals for justice and promises of a more just world.
If you want to search out this topic of social justice a bit further, Tim Challies has several helpful posts exploring some Scriptures and recent attempts to make distinctions. For a masterful book on the relevant and familiar passages, pick up a volume we have our interns read, What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. Neil Shenvi has also done some good work on this front in his post, “Christianity and Social Justice,” and in his series, “Social Justice, Critical Theory, and Christianity: Are They Compatible?,” and in a follow-up piece, “Social Justice, Critical Theory, and Consistency.” For an economist’s interaction on these themes, read two essays by Thomas Sowell, “The Quest for Cosmic Justice,” and “Race, Culture, and Equality.”
Third, Justice Is Nothing Less Than the Foundation of God’s Throne
Why were our streets filled with men and women crying out for justice this past summer? Why did so many storm the Capitol at the start of this year? Without getting into any of the details, we can say this: people long for justice because they were made by a just God, and they are having a hard time finding it down here. We too long for justice.
For all of us, here’s some good news:
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
steadfast love and faithfulness go before you. —Psalm 89:14
We experiment in human government, but our God does not experiment in his government of the universe. His execution of his justice and his plan is perfect. In the end, any injustice in this world will be settled.
That truth on its own is unsettling. In the garden we were in a just relationship with God and one another. When Adam sinned, he committed an injustice against the sovereign of the universe. Since then, we humans have been busy thinking up and carrying out every kind of injustice against one another and, by extension, against the God whose image we bear (Gen. 6:5; 9:6). When we cry out for justice, we’re often on to something. Human governments, as we’ve said, can commit injustice too. But just as often we are covering for injustices we’d rather not talk about or admit as individuals and as a society. The God whose throne is founded on justice sees it all. In fact, so many of our problems in this world are God’s judgment already. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18).
In an age of bad news headlines, we herald and hold fast to this good news, that the God whose throne is founded on justice is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). In the cross we meet the God of justice who is also the God of steadfast love and faithfulness. On the cross he accomplished both justice and peace (Col. 1:20). Even better, he makes us just people and he forms a just community, the church with outposts in every place where people are at peace with God and one another. Today he is building little cities within the cities of this world where people treat each other as they ought, old and young, rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Greek.
Nations come and go, but as a friend recently put it, the church is the only institution which Jesus promised to build, defend, and preserve. A knowledge of God’s justice is one way he does that. It is faith in this God of perfect justice that grounded Christians in the first century. They faced many injustices. But even as Rome declined over the second and third centuries, the church emerged intact. She was not supported by a pantheon of pretend gods who could give her no true meaning or hope. She was sustained by the God whose throne is founded in justice, who judges and who justifies.
Slogans will come and go. People will mean all sorts of things by them. The church’s message remains. It is no threat. It is not ambiguous. It is an open statement of the truth and it’s a standing offer to all: know justice and know peace.