Biblical justice is God’s plan to restore broken peace and prosperity in the world by punishing oppressors and protecting the oppressed. God calls for his people to both avoid participating in any injustice, and to devote themselves to friendship, service, respect, and advocacy for the poor and vulnerable.
God’s Justice – Retribution or Restoration?
NT Wright writes about both sides of God’s justice in “Evil and the Justice of God“:
“God’s justice is not simply a blind disposing of rewards for the virtuous and punishments for the wicked, though plenty of those are to be found on the way.
God’s justice is a saving, healing, restorative justice, because the God to whom justice belongs is the creator God who has yet to complete his original plan for creation, and whose justice is not simply designed to restore a balance to a world out of kilter but to bring to glorious completion and fruition the creation, teeming with life and possibility, that he made in the first place.”
Hebrew and Greek Words for “Justice”
In the book “Christian Faith and Social Justice: Five Views” the editor Vic McCracken points out that the word “justice” and its common pairing, “righteousness” appears often in the Old Testament:
“The Hebrew words mishpat and tsedeqah, frequently translated as “righteousness” or “justice” in English bibles, occur 419 and 157 times respectively in the Hebrew Bible.”
And the New Testament also has plenty to say:
“In the New Testament, justice is no less a concern. The Koiné Greek word dikaiosune occurs 91 times and krisis 47 times and variously refer to God’s own righteousness/justice”
That part about “dikaiosune” being translated as “righteousness” or “justice” is important, Jessica Nichols argues in “God Loves Justice“:
“At the time the New Testament was written, however, dikaiosune was not just used to mean “righteousness.” In fact, translators of classical Greek literature usually did the opposite when translating dikaiosune into English, opting for “justice” instead of “righteousness.” In classical Greek, dikaiosune meant “well-ordering,” and it was an important word for understanding justice and government at the time.”
This translation issue has a major impact on how we read key New Testament passages, like the “Sermon on the Mount”, or the “Letter to the Romans”. For the sake of comparison, Nicholas lists popular verses that use dikaiosune with both translations:
“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness/justice [dikaiosune].” (Matthew 6:33a NASB)
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness/justice [dikaiosune].” (Matthew 6:33a NASB)
“But even if you should suffer for righteousness/justice’ [dikaiosune] sake, you are blessed.” (1 Peter 3:14a NASB)
Justice Flows Through the Entire Biblical Narrative
Apart from word usage, examples of justice and injustice are present throughout the Bible. Jessica Nichols goes on:
In the Bible, justice and righteousness are everywhere. They come first from the character of God and are an integral part of everything He does and how He rules. Justice and righteousness are the foundation of life for God’s chosen nation, and how God’s people follow His ways. Jesus brings justice to victory and executes righteousness. The kingdom of God is established and upheld with justice and righteousness, and they can have a lasting, permanent expression in every aspect of life on this planet.
In “Generous Justice“, Tim Keller points out that to fully grasp what the Bible says about justice, you need to understand the goal of justice, which is peace or “shalom”:
“Shalom” is usually translated “peace” in English Bibles, but it means far more than what our English word conveys. It means complete reconciliation, a state of the fullest flourishing in every dimension—physical, emotional, social, and spiritual—because all relationships are right, perfect, and filled with joy.
Disagreements About Justice
After understanding how God sees justice, Christians have a second challenge – agreeing on what to do about it. Vic McCracken writes:
Christians agree that being advocates for justice is critical to the Christian witness, but once we have agreed about the importance of justice, it quickly becomes apparent that Christians vary widely in their beliefs about what this commitment entails.
Scarcity, diversity, and conflicting norms are challenges that confront all theories of justice. For Christians, however, the Christian tradition itself poses another set of challenges to understanding social justice…
McCracken goes on to list those uniquely Christian concerns:
“1. How does Jesus Christ’s call that his disciples love God, their neighbors, and their enemies inform Christian visions of social justice?
2. In Christian justice conversations, is the principle locus of concern the Christian community, as some argue, and if so what manner of life would constitute a just Christian community?
3. What does the Christian faith entail for how Christians engage life outside of the church—in the political sphere, for example?
4. And what are Christians to do about the theological disagreements that give rise to divergent Christian accounts of social justice?”
(List formatting added by me)
McCracken’s book invites Christian scholars with different views of justice to write essays affirming their beliefs and to write rebuttals to each other’s essays.
Doing Justice as a Christian
Tim Keller in Generous Justice urges Christians to not be deterred by disagreements about how to do justice, but rather lean in:
“Doing justice, then, requires constant, sustained reflection and circumspection. If you are a Christian, and you refrain from committing adultery or using profanity or missing church, but you don’t do the hard work of thinking through how to do justice in every area of life—you are failing to live justly and righteously.”
And Jessica Nichols argues that justice work is not for the gifted few, but should the work of all Christians, as a unified church:
Justice and righteousness are not restricted to a short list of careers or hobbies, as social justice too often becomes in our world. They are a current, tangible part of the lives of all of God’s people. We all get to be a unique expression of justice and righteousness in Christ’s diverse body.
NT Wright highlights that God wants to use people to work out his justice:
“And he remains implacably determined to complete this project through his image-bearing human creatures and, more specifically, through the family of Abraham.”
Meditate on Justice in the Bible for a Year
As you can see, biblical justice cannot be defined by a single word or parable, and doing justice requires commitment and humility. That why I created Justice Year, a year-long Bible study on justice. My hope is that by reading through the entire Bible with an eye toward justice, you will be able to answer God’s call to do justice as part of your Christian walk.