So what is justice?

Paul Louis Metzger, in Leadership, writes about “biblical justice” and defines it like this:

Biblical justice involves making individuals, communities, and the cosmos whole, by upholding both goodness and impartiality. It stands at the center of true religion, according to James, who says that the kind of “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). Earlier Scripture says, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Prov. 29:7).

I have a thing for this term justice so let me give a brief on the term:

First, there is a secular meaning to this term. In this case, justice means conditions and laws and behaviors that conform to the laws of the land. The term “justice” sometimes is used in this sense when someone is “brought to justice.” Too many Christians today are talking about biblical “justice” when they mean Western American ideals for society. Biblical justice overlaps with this secular sense but it is profoundly rooted in another source.

In this sense, law is secular — established by principles independent of faith and revelation — and justice are those behaviors and conditions that conform to such law.

Pay attention to how people use “justice” or “social justice”. What standard are they using? What do they mean when they are using these terms?

Second, there is a Torah-shaped meaning of this term. Let’s call this the “Old Testament” sense. Here the Hebrew word “justice” (tsedeq, etc) refers to behaviors and conditions that conform to the Torah, to the revelation of God in Old Testament Law and Prophets. Fundamentally, justice means something that embodies what the Torah teaches.

Third, there is a Jesus-shaped meaning of this term: Things change with Jesus because the Torah shifts or is completed. Now a Jesus-shaped justice means behaviors and conditions that conform to the will of God as taught, embodied and enacted by Jesus. In other words, true justice is to love God and to love others as ourselves, or it is to live out the Sermon on the Mount, or it is to follow Jesus, or it is to abide in Jesus. The earliest Christians reshaped this teaching by connecting it to the Holy Spirit: so that justice means living in the Spirit, and one thinks here of the fruit of the Spirit.

Then Paul radically re-emphasizes something: we can only be truly just, we can only truly to conform to the will of God as taught by Jesus … well, we can’t. Only Jesus did this, so we are to trust in him and to be joined to him and to live out his life in our lives.

And in the Israel and Jesus forms of justice, the community in mind is the People of God — Israel and the Church.

Behind all three of them is that justice is relational: it describes one’s relationship to a standard. It all depends on the standard. The word justice assumes a standard by which justice can be measured.

For a Christian, there is only one standard: Jesus. The US Constitution, one of the more common standards in our culture, is a pale reflection of Jesus’ manifesto for righteousness/justice, and we would do well to remind ourselves of this often.

One of the most important corollaries: as followers of Jesus we can never succumb to letting the laws of the land determine what justice means.

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  • A useful distinction. It would calm many debates, if the US constitution was understood to be a form of secular justice.

    What you describe as the Jesus-shaped justice sounds more like what the NT calls the Kingdom of God. I wonder is that is not too heavy a load for the word justice to carry.

    My worry is this. Under the first two forms of justice, state power can be used to enforce the standards of justice. The problem with politicisation of evangelicalism (that you wrote of on Saturday) tends to emerge when the church attempts to use state power to enforce what you call Jesus-shaped justice.

  • Another document that can act almost like an alternative ‘sacred text’ of secular justice is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I’m no expert on its development but it seems likely that it is based on the biblical idea of humanity made in the image of God and thus all people being equal in dignity and worth.

    What I hear you saying Scot is that let’s not confuse ‘thinned out’ notions of justice that have permeated our wider culture (even if they may well have themselves developed from biblical categories) with the deeper more radical sense of justice within the Scriptures.

    And, as an aside, let’s also not fool ourselves that just because our Christian concepts still have some remaining currency within our culture, then it is possible and desirable to ‘reclaim’ the culture for Christ.

  • Yes, on that last sentence, because like you say, justice for us is rooted in Jesus and God’s revelation completed in him.

    I think many are concerned to not lose what is good about America, and are afraid of what the alternatives might be, and indeed they could be frightening.

    Therefore their appeal to justice in terms of the US Constitution, and their fight over that. And add to that, their fear that any push toward another justice, might push us away from the “liberty and justice for all” in this land. And add yet to that that opposing voices who even are Christian push a justice as an alternative which is not well rooted in God’s revelation in Jesus, but in a kind of justice with other influences.

    Good post and thoughts here, Scot.

  • scotmcknight


    I agree with you. Sometimes the politicization of evangelicalism leads many to fight for laws, rulings, amendments that have to be fought on the grounds of constitutional law — where a “win” is seen in too glorious terms. Christians are to follow Jesus whether the Constitution supports such or not. Nor are right in saying “In the public I believe this, but privately I believe something else.”


    Yes, “secular” justice is a thin theological ethic designed for a larger (non-Church) context. On reclaiming our culture … you would know that as well as we, perhaps more.

  • Pat

    “Behind all three of them is that justice is relational…”

    This is why, in my opinion, that we cannot and should not be content with locking people up and throwing away the key. People are not helped by that. If jail is to be restorative in the sense that people “pay” for their crime but also are rehabilitated, we have to do more than lock them up and wash our hands of them. Unfortunately, some Christians fall into that mindset and yet that is not what God had in mind for justice. It’s about making things and people right. We’ve somehow forgotten that and stop at thinking things have been made right once someone is put behind bars.

  • This is why I cringe every time I hear the political machine of this country and even evangelicals and others within that political machine say “We need to do because social justice demands it.” While seemingly motivated by good intentions, there is still a taint in that perspective that I find not quite right. “We need to give to the poor, the hungry, the needy in this country. There are a bunch of people who have more than they need. In the name of social justice, we’ll take from those people who have too much and give it to those who don’t have enough. That’s justice.”

    To a point, I agree with this. There is a sense in social justice in that the people who have plenty should help the people who don’t have enough. But is it Jesus Creed style of justice to take and give? Is it Jesus Creed style of justice, to mandate that by law? I’m not convinced it is so.

  • Anthony

    Based on your definitions of justice, which I agree with, do you think it is a legitimate manifestation of a person’s Christian faith to push for changes in policies and systems enacted by the government so that politically and economically, biblical justice can be made present? Examples of this are pushes for better distributed funds for public education, universal healthcare, and more open immigration laws. Or is pushing for these things by voting/lobbying/protesting a fruitless act and contrary to the true definition of justice as defined by you?

  • This, of course, goes back to Glen Beck’s advice to run from a church that talks about “social justice.” In one sense, Beck was right to be critical. Too much of what passes for social justice in Mainline denominations and with many activist evangelicals is a peculiar wedding of Marxian analysis with biblical imagery. Of course, Beck’s notion of justice is a wedding of American mythology with biblical imagery. Neither is really about biblical justice.

    (Let me be clear that “Marxian analysis” is descriptive, not a pejorative. It refers to a school of thought in the social sciences (sometimes “Conflict Theory”) and economics where the focal point is the struggle for power between dominant and minority groups and equality of outcomes is taken as justice … unequal outcomes are seen as the consequence of inordinate power.)

  • Chris Zoephel

    Good post Scot.

  • scotmcknight


    We are to support what is good and just and peaceful and oppose what is not, but how we do such things matters and how much stock we put in successful campaigns are critical factors.

  • scotmcknight


    And the focal point of justice for the follower of Jesus begins at home and in the church, not in federal government.

  • @Scot #11 – FINALLY, someone in the “main stream” of published Christian thought has stated that point clearly. This does not preclude the government from being involved in the process, but our focus should not be on the government, but within the Christian community.

    Something I mentioned to someone the other day: It’s all well and good for the church to call the government to a better sense of justice, but such a call will fall flat on its face if the church is, itself, not living up to the same call.

  • Kyle J

    @ Robert Martin

    I understand the point you’re making–and Christians certainly shouldn’t put an excessive amount of focus/faith in the ability of government to bring about justice–but I think you oversimplify when you describe taxation and simply “taking.” (The inverse characterization would be “rendering,” right?)

    You rarely hear that kind of description, for instance, when people are talking about the taxation needed for defense spending.

    The two other large components of federal government spending, Medicare and Social Security, are programs into which almost everyone pays something in and gets something out. So that’s not really “taking.”

    Government, like any other human institution, is imperfect, but the Bible does establish a legitimate role for it. That would include playing a role in providing economic justice of the Jesus-shaped variety IMO–more specifically, smoothing out the large disparity in economic outcomes that result from a modern capitalist economy (a disparity that has grown over the last several decades).

  • Kyle J

    Note: I was responding to comment #6.

    I don’t disagree at all with comment #12. Our personal call to promote justice comes first. I just wouldn’t delegitimize the role the government should/does play in the larger picture. And I don’t think Robert is; the “taking” verbiage just hit me wrong.

  • @Kyle #13 @ 14- I am a Mennonite and I do have a large problem with the amount of money spent in so-called “defense” spending. I think that the US military arm has become less of a program of national defense and more of a system of US imperialism. Time to wake up and rethink what we’re doing there.

    The “taking” verbiage comes from much of the rhetoric of the rich needing to “pay their fair share” and so on. Agreed, I pay into SS and Medicare and, potentially, I could benefit from it. Practically speaking: SS is bankrupt, pure and simple. Add to that the disparity between the number of people paying in and the number of paying with drawing and the AMOUNT being withdrawn in contrast to what’s being paid in and it is unsustainable. Needs fixed. Medicare has much the same kind of problem. And the solution that is presented by many people who call out in the name of social justice is “let’s make the rich pay more” hence my reference to “taking”.

    I agree with you: government should play some role. In a book I’m reading by Soong-Cha Rah called “The Next Evangelicalism” he points out that the secondary culture of the Roman government that provided roads, security, and other structures was helpful in the movement of the church into the far corners of the world. However, the primary culture of the local communities and families was what truly did the work of spreading the gospel of Christ. Extrapolated, we could say the same, potentially, for the role of government when it comes to providing social justice: provide the infrastructure and security to make it possible, but allow the local communities and such to actually do the necessary work.

  • T


    A big thank you for this post. Kind of related to your post on hell, the only biblical “justice” I knew as a child, and I knew it too well, was that God was going to punish all sin and sinners for eternity, and that he had poured that contempt and judgment for sin on Christ so that people could be saved from that justice. I sincerely heard and knew nothing of “God’s justice” other than that.

    So it is with great delight and even a measure of disbelief that I started to learn of the the 3rd “justice” you mention, or even the “law” of jubilee and similar such “mandated mercies” for the poor and otherwise.

    I wonder how many Christians really think about the Jesus Creed as the ultimate justice of God: the highest law of God–the thing that most marks his own actions and his will for all.

  • Anthony

    Scot will you unpack the boundaries of “how we do such things and how much stock we put in successful campaigns.”

  • Thank you for the corrective. We hear justice so much in our world that when we go to the text our presuppositions can override how the text is using the word.

    I also appreciate you connecting Justice with a standard. Sometimes I think “justice” is a word that is used to refer to any cause that we deem important. I think we need to limit the use of the word to certain activities, attitudes, and actions. These activities, attitudes, and actions should be those which Jesus would classify as justice issues, which we find through a study of Scripture and Him in Scripture.

  • DRT

    Reading through this I tend to think of justice for the disadvantaged first. But in the KoG, the disadvantaged are those that have money and a confusing set of choices that inhibit understanding the reality we need to face. There is, no doubt, injustice in not allowing people the freedom to be unjust. If people are legislated to give and make people equal then they will never be able to mature on their own. Some, many, need that time to mature (I did).

    Scot, you said “or it is to live out the Sermon on the Mount”. I heard Rob Bell teaching on the Sermon on the Mount and he made the pitch to not view it as a list of things that we should do, because then it would just be another set of rules or laws to follow and that is not what the KoG is about. Is your view in line with that?

  • T

    I’ll add, too, that going into law as a profession really highlighted the question of what God’s idea of “justice” is for me. Punishment of wrongdoing, or, alternatively, forgiving wrongdoing even through self-sacrifice, really does create an idea of God and of the world that is off.

    As with most things, we have to give due weight to Jesus’ Messiah-ship here. If we do so, “justice means behaviors and conditions that conform to the will of God as taught, embodied and enacted by Jesus.”

    On the “how much can gov’t do” debate, I do think it’s right to realize how little gov’t or laws really can produce towards this central kind of justice. But neither is it a non-factor. For instance, I think it is a good thing that we have bankruptcy laws (which are at least partially formed/inspired by anti-mutual-enslavement rules in the Jewish law). It is an institutional form of mercy. It limits how severely one citizen can become dominated by another by debts owed. And there are many other examples where we keep the natural tendencies of domination and oppression of others w/in limits, or try to. I think we do well to look at God’s goals/direction/values as taught and modeled by Jesus and ask what gov’t can and can’t do towards those ends.

  • scotmcknight


    I’d have to hear what Rob said. Instead of responding to this, though, let me say this: the Sermon on the Mount is an evangelistic sermon.

  • I do think there is a major challenge in applying biblical teaching to modern governments/economies. There are the micro face-to-face communities and then there is macro commercial society. Most biblical injunctions have in mind the former. Macro level forces and dynamics were, understood, at best, only at the most rudimentary level in the ancient world.

    While within a family or a small commune the members may know each other well enough to distribute goods based on personal qualities and need, and to have personal accountability, you can’t live that way at a societal level. Society can’t function as a family writ large. We find very little direct guidance about what constitutes “justice” with large macro institutions and unfortunately there is a tendency to apply ethics as though society is a family writ large.

  • @Michael #22 – “We find very little direct guidance about what constitutes “justice” with large macro institutions and unfortunately there is a tendency to apply ethics as though society is a family writ large”

    I think this statement of yours really gives a strong warning to attempting to apply the concepts of justice, even from a Jesus perspective, on a macro level. I think that there is some level, though, of understanding that when the micro communities live out the Biblical Jesus-Creed concept of justice that it will have a transformative effect on the macro.

  • T

    Wesley (18), I don’t know if we can be that selective, or, to put it another way, given how relatively little we have of Jesus’ teachings and actions, I think we need it all to inform our thoughts about God’s idea of justice.

    I’ve heard someone give the technical biblical definition of justice as “right dealings with God and others under God’s covenant and leadership.” There’s very little in the gospels, if anything, that doesn’t help flesh that out for us in one way or another.

  • RobS

    Finally a good discussion on this topic, very encouraging!

    My concern with government providing “justice” is that the government is making a decision in their own eyes and not often around Biblical principle. Also, the government lacks love in their administration of justice. They become a clanging gong, and noisy cymbal… and often their method to disperse “justice” is more about political pandering than truly about assisting those that need it.

    A good example — I have seen the government make errors and ‘overpay’ a Medicare/Social Security receipient. And then, true to form, the government takes this money back from that peson (who is below the poverty line). A church or non-profit would not likely make that error, or demand back any gift that’s given out of love. The government does do those things.

    Unfortunately, the church has largely abdicated the role of helping the poor and needy (James 1:27 was good!) and therefore, the secular humanists have made a project out of those people through government channels.

    I’ll stop now, someone can add their opinions on waste, fraud and abuse through government at a future time! Again, awesome post!

  • T


    I know and used to make the argument that the Church “ought” to be doing basic care for the poor, and it is and should. That doesn’t mean that the government ought to coordinate none of this. Further, if the implied “solution” is for government to slowly (or quickly) withdraw from providing those services so that the Church can step up to the plate, I have zero confidence in that plan. If we just read the numbers for the dollars involved in those gov’t programs and compare them to the numbers for church budgets, both in terms of gross receipts and allocations for the poor, the realism of the idea starts to vanish. In my county, something less than 10 percent of the population even attends church. That’s not people who give, mind you, that’s people who attend. The givers are a subset of that. That group of people cannot come close to paying for the nursing homes, the food stamps, the low-income housing, etc. for my county. The question then becomes whether the leadership of our county should or should not arrange for these things and how. The issue is whether our local society will be more “just” if the government stops doing these kinds of things. I find it hard to argue that the government shouldn’t do them so that local Christians can, when I know they won’t/can’t.

  • DRT

    RobS 25,

    I am not sure about anyone else, but I would never advocate for the government to be the executor and decision maker for justice to all people.

    Having said that, I think it is worth looking at highly complex situations such as this using scenario analysis instead of arguing from first principals. But even before that we need to agree on the goal. It seems to me that people have not even agreed on the goal and they are then arguing the method for implementation.

    If the goal is that everyone has healthcare and is in a position to try to crawl out of poverty then I think the conversation can move forward. However, it seems that people are not agreed as to whether that goal is a just goal or not. If they would agree to that being a just goal, then we just need to look at scenarios.

    Scenario 1 – The gov’t does nothing. Then this is where we are now, right?
    Scenario 2 – People change the way private giving is done. We would have to lay that out in some way that people would be convinced that it could be done.
    Scenario 3 – The gov’t does something through taxation. Then you can argue it is inefficient, but inefficiency itself is no reason to not help people, imo.

    So the first step is for the people to decide what is just. To the best of my knowledge people have not even done that. They say that it is just to have people exist in the poor state that they are in today. We have large numbers of laws concerning how people split profits in companies and how they must account to each other, but not many that stand up for someone who is trying to get out of the trap of poverty.

    [Note: I am not going to bash conservative repubs today]

  • #23 Robert

    I agree. While living justly at the micro level is paramount it won’t address all issues. In highly integrated economies and societies like ours, we could not function without macro structures and policies.

  • DRT


    Rob preached the beatitudes quite a bit last year, but if you have access to the Mars Hill podcast for 10/25/2009 – Blessed are the peacemakers – He goes into this idea of these not being rules. This starts about 10 minutes into the audio. I transcribed a bit as follows:

    “If they are teachings about what you are supposed to do, then what Jesus has done is given us a new list of people who are blessed because they got it right. But you and I already know that. That wouldn’t be any new news. All the morally upright people are blessed. Well, OK. But that all creates the same thing that we have been living with for an endless period of time. There is a subtle, brilliant flow….”

    He then continues to refer to the first 4 as conditions we are in, the second 4 as how you interact with others (relations). The first four are how god meets us, second 4 how we meet others.

    I thought it was fascinating. Because up until I listened to this I thought I should try to be meek etc. But what I took away from this is that in those times where I am not the strong one getting my way, and I am meek, god meets me there and this is describing that new way of relating to god.

    I liked it a lot.

  • Great post. I love that doing justice needs and has to come from the heart of Jesus, this is key I believe.