Saturday Afternoon Book Review: Tim Keller

Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010)

Reviewed by Wes Vander Lugt

“When people see the beauty of God’s grace in Christ, it leads them powerfully toward justice.” As this summary statement indicates, Keller’s latest book demonstrates the necessary relationship between grace and justice through biblical commentary, compelling stories, and practical suggestions, all infused with his forthright style and passion for the church.

Keller begins by explaining how justice is much more comprehensive than a cold, courtroom-oriented concept. Justice is about right relationships and occupies the center of what the Bible refers to as righteousness. Although we need to be careful about applying the Old Testament to our situation today, we can glean principles such as the priority of God’s people caring for the most vulnerable. We also observe that poverty has a matrix of causes, whether oppression, calamity, or personal moral failure. Keller asserts that when we turn to the New Testament, we see a similar concern for the poor and vulnerable, with Jesus identifying injustice as the essence of ungodliness. Having received God’s grace through Christ, the early church was a community of radical generosity.

After this brief biblical overview, Keller turns to consider the ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ of justice in our contemporary context. Justice is not only a command, but is rooted in divine ownership of all things (everything is gift!) and the ultimate gift of “real, true, justifying, gospel-faith.” Having received this faith, Christians who are poor in spirit share God’s special concern for the poor and vulnerable. It is impossible to have real, saving faith and to remain unconcerned for the poor and doing justice.

While the rationale for doing justice is inarguably clear, the way to do justice is often hotly contested. Keller wisely commits to taking politics out of the equation, focusing on various ways Christians can respond to God’s grace by doing justice. He mentions several levels of just action—relief, development, and social reform—and draws from John Perkins’ model of holistic development through relocation, redistribution, and reconciliation. Keller bluntly asserts that focusing merely on evangelism is naïve, failing to see how the church is a healing community and the healer and organizer of communities. The way forward is to discern particular needs through focused attention to local contexts, trying to answer the practical and difficult questions about doing justice. According to Keller, doing justice never trumps the primary responsibility of evangelism and sharing the gospel, but word and deed should always be seamlessly integrated.

When Christians fight for justice in their communities, remarks Keller, it requires “humble cooperation” with others combined with “respectful provocation.” All concern for justice is based on religious and moral commitments, so neither Christians nor anyone else needs to be fearful or prohibited from making these commitments known. In short, Keller claims that all justice is “inescapably judgmental,” and while some common ground can be found with non-Christians, different visions of justice will inevitably clash. As a result, Christians must be all the more committed to exhibiting justice in their own lives and communities and unashamed to share the gospel of grace that motivates our pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty in all aspects of life.

Overall, Generous Justice is a compelling introduction to the core of Christian faith and life: the generous and just gospel that results in generous and just lifestyles. The primary example Keller highlights throughout the book is New Song Community Church in Baltimore, a church committed to both the gospel of grace and a lifestyle of radical justice. But Keller also draws from a wide range biblical scholars (e.g. Craig Blomberg and Christopher Wright), theologians (e.g. Jonathan Edwards and Abraham Kuyper), and other scholars both Christian and secular to bolster his case and explain the connection between grace and justice. The result is a well-reasoned, persuasive, and timely call for Christians never to separate what God has joined together: the gospel of grace and a commitment to justice.

Even though there is little to criticize in this book, I was surprised by several omissions that would have made Keller’s case even stronger. First, given Keller’s position on the relationship between evangelism and social action, I was surprised to see that he does not reference or interact with the Lausanne Covenant, a landmark statement of the global church regarding this very issue. In addition, it would have been appropriate for Keller to interact with When Helping Hurts by Fikkert and Corbett, especially since Keller shares the same denominational identify as these authors.

Given that this was a slim volume, it would also have been helpful to provide a recommended reading list at the end so that readers could study various topics in more depth. If I were making this list, I would include at the top the recent volume by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Borger, also reviewed on Jesus Creed, entitled God So Loved, He Gave: Entering the Movement of Divine Generosity. Kapic and Borger show in a more extensive way the inseparable relationship between grace and generous justice.

Second, some will find Keller’s approach to biblical application—extracting principles and applying them to our contemporary context—unsatisfying and easily paired with biblical proof texting. Kevin Vanhoozer provides another and perhaps more promising approach (the “drama of redemption approach”) in Zondervan’s Four Views of Moving Beyond the Bible, which can be easily contrasted with Walter Kaiser’s “principlizing approach.”

Third, if grasping grace inevitably leads to doing justice, one wonders why so many Christians, especially those who champion the “doctrines of grace,” have failed to do justice. Part of Keller’s answer to this conundrum is no doubt provided in his earlier book, Counterfeit Gods, showing that money, sex, and power easily become idols obliterating a generous response to grace. But it would have been helpful for Keller to address this problem directly in this volume. Perhaps another reason is because Christians have not engaged in what Keller refers to as the “sustained reflection and circumspection” that leads to wise and just living, or maybe because it is so easy (and sadly so common) to have intellectual faith in God’s grace that fails to grip our hearts and lives.

This is particularly true in reference to the doctrine of justification. It is tragedy that Christian traditions committed to justification by grace through faith have often failed to exhibit equal passion for justice. In fact, part of the impetus the new perspective on Paul is to emphasize the transformative power of justification as reflected in Scripture: justifying faith is always a just-doing faith. In other words, justification is not just the eternal salvation of individuals by virtue of receiving Christ’s righteousness, but the gracious act of God bringing individuals into a new community of people committed and empowered to pursue righteousness and justice. As such, Keller’s treatment of justification in relationship to justice would have been strengthened by interacting with some ‘new perspective’ insights, even though he may not align with this perspective at all points.

Despite these occasional omissions, Generous Justice is an important and refreshing contribution to the conversation on justice often plagued by political agendas. Instead, Keller shows how our response to God’s transforming grace transcends a party spirit, condemns a middle-class spirit, and creates a poor-spirited, generous commitment to justice.

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  • Susan N.

    In reading through Patrick Mitchel’s excellent blog series on Keller’s ‘Generous Justice’ over at the FaithinIreland blog, I am interested to read this book in its entirety. I appreciate these expanded thoughts and additional book rec’s on the topic of justice from a Christian perspective. I feel pretty convicted about what is *not* right, but also aware that there is much for me to learn about better ways of thinking and doing.

  • I went to his church when i lived in NYC. Pretty much anything he writes is amazing!

  • Just today I was reading in Genesis 18 where Abraham appeals to these very aspects of God’s character – His justice and righteousness. It’s interesting that this discourse between God and Abraham comes at a very important time in the redemption narrative where the birth of Isaac has just been promised. It would certainly seem that justice and righteousness are integral parts of God’s plan. I look forward to reading the book!

  • Ron

    You write that Keller’s point is: “Keller bluntly asserts that focusing merely on evangelism is naïve, failing to see how the church is a healing community and the healer and organizer of communities.” Christians and especially their pastors as community organizers! Wow! I have been stoned by the religious right for doing this in every church I served — and am still being stoned. I don’t think Palin will be buying this book – although she should! To have a leader of Tim Keller’s evangelical, orthodox theological credentials saying this is Good News for the evangelical church in America!

  • Susan N.

    Ron @ #4 — I read this article around Advent time that captured my imagination and inspired me to dream big(ger) on the healing ‘social’ aspect of being the Church; community as restorative and redemptive. From “Garbage City” to “Garden City”. Beautiful, real-live metaphor of how our individual transformation to Christ-likeness can look in a whole community. Ubuntu, indeed!

  • Susan N.

    Oops, I forgot the link to article referenced in #5:

    It’s worth reading.