02.05.19

What Do We Mean When We Talk about “Justice”?

Introduction

In the first post of this series, I attempted to suggest that we have everything we need in the Bible in order to understand and practice justice. The Bible is not only the inerrant and infallible word of our living God; it is also the authoritative and sufficient deposit of wisdom we need.

However, it’s easier to forget the Bible’s authority and sufficiency than we might think. A person can be drawn away after worldly philosophies that seduce and enslave (). Or, like the Pharisees, a person can back away from the Bible’s authority and sufficiency by “making void the word of God” with our traditions () while aiming to defend it. There are cliffs on both sides. The way to avoid both errors is to dig freshly into the Book and grasp more and more of the whole counsel of God.

We should begin with a heart check and then offering a definition of “justice.”

Heart Check

Perhaps it’s good to start our discussion with an admission: There’s more in the Bible on any one subject than any one of us completely understands.

If we cannot admit that, then we’re likely to approach the Bible with a “been there, done that” attitude that dulls the heart and prevents discovery. The word is alive and inexhaustible! We should expect the Lord to teach us more (even if this blog post doesn’t!).

If we think for a moment, chances are we’ve never had any systematic teaching on biblical justice at any point in our Christian lives. We’ve heard sermons here or there. Perhaps we’ve read a book and that got us closer. So it’s possible we’ve taken for granted that our political positions (and that of our church leaders) is approximately “just.” Or we’ve bumped into skirmishes on social media that exposed us to a “side” or two. But slow systematic instruction from the whole Bible on the theme of justice has not been the experience of most Bible-believing Christians.

So, we have to have a bit of a heart check. We have to admit to the Lord and to ourselves that we’re not well taught in this regard. If that’s true of us, then we’re in the majority in Christian circles. It’s a sad majority because it omits an important aspect of God’s word; but you’re not weird. Nor do we have to pretend we “have it all together” when, in fact, we don’t. Praise our gracious God who never expected us to have it all together. That’s why He calls us to a life of following Jesus so that in the school of Christ we might learn and grow.

And learn and grow we can!

Defining “Justice”

So what, then, is “justice”? How does the Bible define it?

Our English word “justice” translates two Hebrew words, tsedeq and mishpat. Tsedeq has as its basic definition what is right, righteousness, or rightness in business, government, a cause, speech, and ethics. Mishpat carries the notion of judgment, rectitude, and right decisions and processes according to law. We might generalize the ideas to something like “being and deciding what is right.”

But in the Bible “justice” has a lot of related terms as well. Ken Wytsma likens these terms to a mosaic—you can see the individual pieces but they link together to form a richer whole. According to Wytsma, “justice” is the broadest term for describing “what ought to be” but it ought not be torn apart from love, mercy, service, charity, ethics, equity, fairness, truth, integrity, laws, and righteousness. These all help form the mosaic.[1] Wytsma writes, “Justice has many facets, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that justice itself is never peripheral. Rather, it is integral to the way we think, pray, act, hope, believe, work, spend, live, and love.”[2] To sum it up, Wytsma writes, “Justice describes both our rights—what we are owed—and our responsibilities that we owe others and God.”[3]

If Wytsma’s summary of the biblical idea of “justice” is correct, then it follows that biblical justice is not an ancillary topic some Christians may choose to “get into.” Biblical justice would be an essential way of understanding what God is like, how He acts in the world, and what He expects of His people.

Turning the Diamond

But can we say more about justice? Does the Bible provide us more than a lexicon?

I think it does. To summarize, here’s how I would define “justice” from the Bible:

Doing the right thing to the right extent for the right people in the right way at the right time according to a right interpretation of God’s word.

This definition includes at least four aspects of biblical justice:

  • Retributive justice—rewarding those who do good or punishing those who do wrong;
  • Restorative justice—making “whole” the victims of injustice and reconciling offenders and victims where possible;
  • Distributive justice—giving to each according to what is right; and,
  • Procedural justice—following processes and policies that themselves are fair, equitable and right.

A focus on any one of these to the exclusion of the others cripples the biblical understanding of justice. In its most robust form, biblical justice calls us to do right by everyone in the right way according to God’s word rightly understood.

Where do we see this in the Bible?

Since Jesus went to the Law for a weightier understanding of justice (), in the next two posts I hope to start with the Law for foundational understanding. For each aspect of justice, I hope to briefly give us the teaching from the Law that undergirds that aspect along with an illustration from the Bible. Thanks for reading this far!


[1] See Ken Wytsma, Redeeming Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things (Nashville, TN: W Publishing, 2013), pp. 4-6.

[2] Ibid, p. 9.

[3] Ibid.

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23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (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

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