Secular Approaches to Justice

In our last post, we moved from the Law’s teaching on justice to consider the prophets’ preaching of justice to Israel. The people in Jeremiah’s day did not recognize the extent of their corruption. God saw their condition with far more clarity and alarm than they did. That’s why God sent them a prophet to preach to them about their sin.

catalogues Israel’s social injustice. We hear the condemnation but we don’t yet hear the diagnosis. provides the diagnosis. Jeremiah tells us of the people’s misplaced confidence and hope: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches…’.” Israel turned to three things as the source of joy, hope and pride: wisdom, power, and money.

The key word in is the little word “his.” It’s not that wisdom itself is bad. It’s not that power or might is bad. It’s not that money is bad. But all wisdom, power and money become terrible things when they come solely from man rather than from God.

Even today, the world is full of people trying to save themselves and base their lives upon man’s wisdom, man’s power, and man’s wealth. People put their confidence in going to the best schools and getting the best education. People seek strength and power so they can crush their enemies and never have to rely on others. People will do nearly anything for money and determine their personal worth by their net worth. Not much has changed since Jeremiah’s day.

For our purposes, it’s important to see that this same love of man’s wisdom, man’s power, and man’s wealth can influence our notions of justice.

Three Secular Views

Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel in his wonderful book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, breaks the major secular views of justice into three categories:

  • Utilitarian—”The highest principle of morality is to maximize happiness….” (p. 34). If happiness could be monetized, then the just and moral thing to do would be that decision or action that leads to the most happiness for the most people.
  • Libertarian— “People should be free to do whatever they want, provided they do no harm to others” (p. 49). The person belongs to themselves and cannot or should not be forced to give up their earnings, labor or persons.
  • Moral Virtue—The challenge is to do the right thing “to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with right motive, and in the right way” (p. 199).

The differences between these approaches are easy to spot. However, there are at least two things common to each approach. Each approach requires that we (a) define what is “moral” and (b) say something about what makes for “the good life.” That’s really what debates about justice come down to—how are we going to define what is right or wrong (morality) and how are we going to define the ‘good life’ that everyone should honor?

That’s why Christians cannot avoid conversations about justice without doing violence to our faith. Christianity is all about “the good life” and about what is moral or right.

But we should say something else about these three broad approaches. They all leave out God in their formulation. These approaches seek to offer an essentially atheistic vision of the good life. Some of these approaches simply treat God and religion as a matter of individual freedom. Other approaches intentionally rule out any mention or consideration of God and religion. They base it all on man’s wisdom, power and wealth. That’s why no Christian can simply adopt any worldly view without correcting the problem at the starting point—the omission of God and His word. It doesn’t matter if we label the theories “conservative,” “liberal,” or “moderate”—each of those adjectives are themselves secular frameworks rather than biblical orientations.

If a Christian merely says, “I’m a conservative” or “I’m a liberal” or “I’m a libertarian” without taking God into account God and His word, then they’re likely to find their political theory comes into conflict with God and His word. If a disciple of Christ doesn’t keep in mind the very different starting points of their faith and their secular philosophy, then usually that disciple bends their faith to fit their philosophy rather than bending their philosophy to fit their faith. The result is catastrophic for discipleship and Christian witness.

The World’s Wisdom and Power Compared to God’s Wisdom and Power

We must keep in mind . It’s as if Paul writes as an expositional sermon on . Jeremiah warns against boasting in man’s wisdom, power and wealth and Paul explains why:

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

What am I trying to say using Paul’s commentary on ?

Very simply: If our approach to justice leaves out God and starts with man then we’re going to end up foolish and powerless.

As Matthew Henry put it:“In this world of sin and sorrow, ending soon in death and judgment, how foolish for men to glory in their knowledge, health, strength, riches or in any thing which leaves them under the dominion of sin and the wrath of God.”

For anyone seeking a biblical theology of justice, the key question becomes: “Who or what has been your most influential teacher when it comes to justice? Is it God and His word, or is it man?”


We must recognize that God’s people sometimes commit themselves to injustice rather than righteousness. When that happens, the way to justice is not through adoption of worldly wisdom. In such a case, “justice” becomes another name for power plays and coercion. God’s justice requires we test secular philosophies by the word of God. But it also requires we test our hearts to walk by the standard of justice revealed in the word. Ad fontes must be the rallying cry for all those who would join the Lord in doing justice every day ().

Other Posts in This Series:

  1. Prolegomenon: On Authority and Sufficiency
  2. What Do We Mean When We Talk about “Justice”?
  3. Justice in All It’s Parts (part 1 and part 2)
  4. The Gospel Combines All Aspects of Justice
  5. Genuine Social Injustice
ERROR: The IP key is no longer supported. Please use your access key, the testing key ’TEST’
ERROR: The IP key is no longer supported. Please use your access key, the testing key ’TEST’
ERROR: The IP key is no longer supported. Please use your access key, the testing key ’TEST’
ERROR: The IP key is no longer supported. Please use your access key, the testing key ’TEST’
ERROR: The IP key is no longer supported. Please use your access key, the testing key ’TEST’
ERROR: The IP key is no longer supported. Please use your access key, the testing key ’TEST’
ERROR: The IP key is no longer supported. Please use your access key, the testing key ’TEST’

The Lord within her is righteous;
he does no injustice;
every morning he shows forth his justice;
each dawn he does not fail;
but the unjust knows no shame. (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

C’mon Up!