Doing Justice and the Gospel, Part 3: Principles to Guide Our Practice of Justice

[This is the third of a four-part series on doing justice and how it relates to the gospel. See the first and second parts here and here.]

church diversity 2

Principles for doing justice and the gospel:

  1. Hermeneutically, we must make distinctions between the combined political/religious institution of OT Israel and the Church today as a counter-cultural entity in a secular nation. The church is given to make disciples, which includes personal transformation leading to social transformation, but the church has not been given the task of cultural transformation apart from the gospel.
  2. Social justice, as the world proclaims it, can divide us from one another by setting types of people against one another, destroying our unity in Adam as fallen, and our unity in Christ as redeemed, where there are to be no more distinctions. In the church, masters stood next to slaves, Jews next to Barbarians, men next to women. At this foundational level, hatred and separation were transformed by their unity in Christ. Identity politics will necessarily continue to fragment until there is no shared experience at all. Feminist v Womanist thought. Feminist v. Transgenders
  3. The gospel frees us from false guilt, such as “You are guilty because you are white, or male, or middle-class, or educated, or tall.” It also frees us from false gospels, which say that you can never escape your guilt, or that you must denounce yourself and make unspecified reparations to make atonement. The gospel does not call us to conviction about who we are or how God made us, but for words, thoughts, and deeds that are clear and specific violations of his commands. The gospel says I am guilty because I have sinned against God and I can be forgiven because Jesus, the just one, was punished on my behalf. If God convicts you of a specific act of injustice, then repent and God will graciously forgive you.
  4. The implication of the gospel is that in my personal life I should be the Good Samaritan who sacrifices significantly and materiallyto help others in need when my life intersects theirs. I should seek out those in need around the world and do what I can individually and as part of the community of the church to do justice and love mercy. This will look somewhat different for each person and church. Exodus 23:4–5 reminds us of our responsibility to love our neighbor: “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates youlying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.
  5. Addressing matters of injustice is a powerful means to demonstrate the love of Christ and open doors for the gospel. Churches in America that ignore injustice cut themselves off from reaching their communities! Doing good is mentioned 12 times in 1 Peter as a way to deal with suffering in a hostile culture. One way wealthy, suburban churches can do justice is to support churches in the inner city who are faithfully reaching their communities.
  6. The goal of doing justice is to glorify God by bringing Shalom to people’s lives. As a former pastor in an urban church, I witnessed firsthand the way the gospel transformed, individuals, then families, and even neighborhoods. When God transforms hearts and changes families, communities are blessed as a result. The church is supposed to be a foretaste of the justice, mercy, love, compassion, truth, and care we will experience when Christ returns.
  7. When justice cannot be obtained, Christians must have a robust theology of suffering to be able to live triumphantly (1 Peter). We are called to follow the example of Jesus who suffered the greatest injustice, and yet did not revile his persecutors. If justice cannot be obtained, there is the reassurance that God will eventually bring justice (2 Thess. 1:5-7; Rom. 12:19). We are called to dojustice, but not to bringjustice—only God can do that. Our hope should not be in fixing the world, but in the return of Christ, who will restore all things. God will justly judge every person at the end of time. To do away with Hell, for example is to remove the reassurance of final judgment on the wicked.
  8. Social Justice, as is practiced by those who reject Christ, is almost completely devoid of New Testament Christianity, and has the power to distort the gospel from a deliverance from the guilt of sin through repentance in Christ, to a deliverance from guilt for mere existence through activism. It reduces Christianity to an ethic of ambiguous love, where Jesus is merely incidental. American Christianity walked this path 100 years ago, and it proved impotent and disastrous.

In the final post of this series, I will make some specific statements about injustice in our country and our world today.

Doing Justice and the Gospel, Part 2: Justice According to Leviticus 19

exploitation

[This is the second of a four-part series on doing justice and how it relates to the gospel. See the first part here .]

The laws that God lays down in Leviticus contribute to the overall picture of justice in the Bible. Let’s take a look at one passage that is rich in instruction about doing justice. There are many passages in the Bible that address justice, but Leviticus 19 touches on a number of concepts related to justice that are especially pertinent to doing justice in our world today.

One thing to notice about Leviticus 19 is that it is set in the context of commands forbidding Israel from walking in the customs of Canaan or do as the Canaanites do (18:3, 30 and 20:23). In other words, Israel was not to take its cues regarding justice from the surrounding culture. So, while we may be made aware of social ills and injustices by unbelievers, we will not be able to agree fully on the interpretation, causes, and solution for the problems. The unbeliever’s solution will not contain the gospel, and so will be only partial at best and destructive at worst.

The commands for justice and mercy in this passage are also set in the context of the repeated phrase, “I am the LORD.” Sixteen times this phrase is included to remind readers that the ultimate authority in matters of justice is God. Justice is done by God’s people for Him and according to his revealed directions. Justice is an act of worship to God, just as injustice is an act of rebellion and rejection of God’s authority.

I will focus on five principles of justice in this text, even though there are others. First, justice includes material concern for the indigent (v. 9-10). The poor referenced here were landless people and so had no means of survival apart from the mercy of others. They were not people who refused to work and just wanted a check in the mail. When we talk about issues of justice related to poverty, we must define who are the vulnerable poor.

In the United States in 2015 about 6% of the population had an income-to-poverty ratio that put them in the category of extreme poverty, which is a combination of inadequate food, clothing, and shelter, little or no healthcare, and inadequate education for children. Another 7% were moderately poor, with only slightly better conditions. This amounts to around 42 million Americans who live on less than $17.00 per day. When we look globally, approximately one billion people live on $1.00 per day, and another one billion live on $2.00 per day.

God’s heart for the truly poor is evident in his instructions not to harvest all the produce in their fields or vineyards to give the poor an opportunity to survive. But this act of charity was not a do-nothing handout. The indigent had to work to obtain these resources. They had to go to the fields and vineyards and harvest the remaining food. God does not diminish the created order of work for people in need. Because work brings dignity and fulfills the Creation Mandate to cultivate and subdue the earth, it is a positive and productive requirement for the needy to do what they can for themselves when receiving charity. If a poor person does not like the kind of work required to receive charity, he may be motivated to seek greater opportunities to provide a better life for himself. “The appetite of laborers works for them; their hunger drives them on” (Prov. 16:26 NIV).

Second, justice requires complete, absolute honesty in every dealing (v. 11-12). Stealing, cheating, and lying were all forbidden. That means that deception, exaggeration, or misrepresentation should not be tolerated in a just society. This is especially true, because those who are weak (socially, economically, and educationally) are the most hurt by dishonesty, as they often have no recourse. Complete honesty benefits everyone, except the deceptive person. All these sins are rooted in greed—they get a person some benefit in an improper way, often by defrauding them. As a teenager I worked for my father who was a stone mason. I remember the fury I felt when we finished a job that took us months, and the homeowner refused to pay the last half of the bill simply because he knew my father couldn’t afford a lawyer to sue for the money. It was nothing more than theft and fraud, and God warns wealthy employers not to withhold the pay of their employees for any reason (James 5:1-6). Such an action is abhorrent to God, and he will exact justice from the wicked.

Another injustice mentioned here is swearing falsely on God’s name (taking God’s name in vain), God is clear that he will not consider a person who takes his name in vain to be innocent (Exod. 20:7). These laws equally applied to government officials, employers, civic and religious leaders, as well as employees, students, immigrants, and citizens.

Third, justice refuses to take advantage of others (v. 13-14). Exploitation, extortion, bullying, manipulation, oppression, and blackmail of any kind are forbidden. Most of us may not consider ourselves to be in a position to do these things to anyone, but there are applications of this principle that are more common. Tormenting, mocking, belittling, and name-calling reveal a cruel heart that does not fear God, and thinks that no one sees or will help. Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian and later Prime Minister of the Netherlands, promoted a robust view of justice when he defined a just society as one that pursues for others security from drastic imbalances of power in their basic relations. Again this is important because the weak are most often exploited in an unjust society. Proverbs 23:10–11 reminds us, “Do not move an ancient landmark or enter the fields of the fatherless, for their Redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you.”

Fourth, justice includes judging everyone by the same standard (v. 15-16, 35-36). This is true regardless of their economic, ethnic, educational, gender, or national stations in life. We should never let a person’s social or economic position influence a decision, whether in personal dealings, or in the legal system. No favoritism or partiality is allowed. Further, I should see anyone accused of wrongdoing as a neighbor, not as an enemy. Justice is rooted in love for neighbor, even if the just penalty for his wrongdoing is severe.

Finally, justice requires loving your neighbor as yourself (v. 17-18, 33-34). Hatred of anyone because they are male or female, black, white, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, Native American, rich or poor, educated or not, older or younger, American or foreigner, law-keeper or law-breaker, etc. is forbidden. So is ill-treatment of vulnerable people in society.

Embracing and empowering those who are truly in need and truly vulnerable reflects biblical justice and compassion. Defending those who are harmed by those more powerful is a just act to perform. And there is no greater injustice in society than abortion.

In the next post We will look at 8 principles derived from the biblical teaching on doing justice related to life in the 21st century.

We Can Learn a Great Deal about Suffering from the Puritans

spilled milk

It’s not that we shouldn’t talk about our suffering, but we should stop expecting that we won’t have any and should also not dilute the term with our petty inconveniences. Carl Trueman explains:

First, the Puritans lived in a time before the discovery of antibiotics, analgesics and flush toilets.  Disease and pain and filth were thus part of everyday life.  A good day. a really good day, for a seventeenth century person would have involved something akin to a low-level fever which today would involve time off work.  A bad day would be… Well, best not to dwell on that if you want to sleep at night.   Read Samuel Pepys’s account of his bladder stone operation if you are truly curious.

Second, with catastrophically high infant mortality rates, scarcely a family would have been untouched by something that today would be regarded as exceptional and horrific.  John Owen buried all eleven of his children.  Imagine that.  And in all his voluminous writings, he never mentions these tragedies even once…

But did they have a theology of suffering? Well, few of them dwelt on their suffering in their writings so not really, no.  Not explicitly so anyway.  But implicitly even this silence indicated that yes, they did have a theology of suffering.  It was a theology that denied cosmic significance to the pain and injustice which they personally endured.   They simply did not consider themselves or their experiences to be that important.

Read the whole thing here: Did the Puritans Understand Suffering?.