Thinking Biblically and Theologically about Justice

Thinking Biblically and Theologically about Justice

The standard of justice is God himself, and we know what is just due to his revelation of himself in creation and specifically Scripture. In all of God’s external works, he acts justly and righteously, consistent with his own will and nature. As the just one, God requires moral conformity of his creatures to his moral demand. God is the Lord, indeed the “Judge of the whole earth” who always does what is right (Gen. 18:25).

Our world is consumed with talk about “justice” and specifically “social justice.” Yet similar to how our world has redefined the word “love,” most discussions of “justice” lack definition and any sense of a standard of what justice actually is. In fact, just as we are told it’s “loving” for a mother to take the life of her unborn child for her own psychological health, or it’s “loving” to end a marriage so that couples can pursue their own self-actualization (which is another word for selfishness), we are also told that it is “just” to do many unjust and lawless acts.

For example, it’s “just” to steal from hard-working people to redistribute their wealth to those who do not work (although they are fully capable of doing so). Or, it’s “just” to allow men who identify as women to compete in women’s sports even though it’s completely unjust for the actual women who compete against them. Or, as we were lectured in 2020 during the Black Lives Matter riots held throughout the country, it was “just” to allow rioters to destroy private and public property and even to harm people because they were “righteously” opposing perceived racial injustices. Such actions were deemed “just” although they were lawless acts. Indeed, as with the word love, “justice” has now become a meaningless concept in much of our current discourse.

The consequences of such a situation, however, are significant. Although for many today the concept of “justice” and “social justice” has lost its meaning, the truth is that these concepts have simply been redefined. The crucial question is: According to whose definition and by what standard is “justice” redefined? That is the question this essay will answer.

A Few Preliminaries: History, Epistemology, and Method

In Western society, due to the influence of Christianity, there has been a fairly clear sense of what “justice” is because it was basically defined by biblical standards. But as the West has thrown off the Bible’s influence and moved steadily away from a Christian view of the world, one of the defining marks of our secularized, pluralistic society is a rejection of the God of the Bible as the source and standard of truth and morality. In the place of God and his word-revelation, we have substituted the idol of self and along with it a “constructivist” view of truth and morality, which at its core is naturalistic, relative, and incoherent.

What has been the result of such a substitution? Certainly not human flourishing, freedom, love, and true justice; rather, the opposite has occurred.

By rejecting the influence of Christianity on our concepts of truth and morality, we have undermined the warrant for an objective standard of truth and morality. In its place, we are left with only the finite, subjective, and fallen human “identity” constructions of various groups vying for raw political power. In fact, this “new” view of truth and morality is more indebted to naturalistic, postmodern, and Marxist categories, so that reality is now viewed solely through the lens of race, gender, and intersectionality, and people are simplistically categorized as either an “oppressor” or the “oppressed.”

In this thoroughly non-Christian view of the true, good, and the beautiful, the goal is to destroy the “traditional structures and systems deemed to be oppressive, and [redistribute] power and resources from oppressors to victims in pursuit of equality of outcome.”[1] Today, this is what our society means by “social justice.” But what is disturbing about this redefined view of justice is that the epistemological ground on which the system stands is quicksand. Even the determination of who the “oppressor” and “oppressed” is, is relative, and without an objective basis to discern truth from error and good from evil, such a view ends in totalitarianism, statism, and the destruction of human life—as history reminds us.

All of this has brought our nation and Western society to the crossroads where the future of the West is now in jeopardy. Why? For this simple reason: if nations are not grounded in an objective, universal standard of justice—which is ultimately grounded in God himself—then our future is bleak indeed. No society can flourish built upon a relative standard of truth and morality. History has taught us that either anarchy will result, or more commonly, totalitarianism will rear its ugly head. But note: this is a totalitarianism that is completely arbitrary and capricious, since it too is grounded in a philosophical and moral relativism.

For this reason, Christians must think carefully about what “justice” is, and to do so requires sound biblical and theological thinking. Unfortunately even some within our evangelical churches have confused our culture’s desire for “social” justice (which is more informed by secular-postmodern categories) with true biblical justice. But if Christians are to make headway in this discussion, we must first ask what justice is in relation to God before we speak about what justice is in the world. If we do not ground “justice” in an objective, universal standard—namely God himself—then the concept of “justice” becomes only relative, which inevitably results in a disastrous application of so-called “justice” in the world.

In this article, I want to discuss the warrant for a universal, objective basis for justice by establishing it in God himself. Any talk of “justice” must first be grounded in God and his revealed word. I will do so in three steps. First, to speak of justice in relation to God, I must say something about God’s attributes and how justice is essential to him. Second, I will describe a biblical view of justice by first unpacking what God’s justice is within himself, then in relation to his exercise of justice in the world, and I will note that we can know what justice is due to God’s word-revelation. Third, I will conclude with a final reflection.

God is Just: Thinking Rightly about God’s Attributes

God is just means that justice is one of God’s moral attributes and that it is essential to him. Let us unpack this statement by making three points.

First, an attribute is not something we “attribute” to God as if it is a “part” of God. Why? Because God is not divisible into parts; his divine nature is singular and simple meaning that his attributes are coexistent with who he is. In other words, God’s attributes are what God is, in his entire being and perfection as the one true God. Attributes are not abstract qualities that exist independently of him; God is not dependent on anything outside of himself. God is his attributes, and each attribute is identical to God’s nature. For this reason, God does not merely possess love, holiness, and justice; he is love, holy, and just. This does not mean that we cannot make distinctions between God’s attributes, but in doing so we must never think that God’s attributes are distinct parts of his nature. God is his attributes, totally self-sufficient and perfect.

Second, all of God’s attributes are essential to him, meaning that they are all necessary for God to be God, unlike creatures who are composed of essential and accidental attributes. The latter term refers to attributes that can be lost while a thing still remains what it is. For example, we could lose a leg in a car crash, or our mental abilities due to a debilitating disease, but we would still remain essentially human. But this is not true of God. God cannot “lose” or “gain” any attributes and still be God; God is who he is in the fullness of his being and life. God’s attributes are essential to him, and thus necessary to his being. This is why we must also distinguish between what God is in himself apart from the world and the exercise of his attributes in relation to the world. This is especially important as we think about God’s relation to a fallen world that he judges and to a people that he redeems by grace. God is love, holy, and just apart from the world. But in relation to the world, especially a fallen world, God displays his wrath and judgment against human sin, but wrath is not an essential attribute of God; it is the expression of God’s holiness and justice towards a fallen world. In other words, God within himself is essentially holy, love, and just; he is not wrath.

Third, divine justice is best understood as a moral attribute of God, along with holiness and goodness. These attributes remind us that God is not only the absolute standard of objective moral norms but also the one who upholds his own glory in the redemption of his people and in his judgment of all sin and evil. We may distinguish God’s moral attributes, but given divine simplicity these attributes are all aspects of one another.

For example, think of the relation between God’s holiness and justice. Holiness speaks of “consecration” or “devotion to,” which then carries over to the moral realm. To be holy unto God is to honor and love what he loves, which demands specific moral entailments. Within God himself, holiness is a way of describing God’s holy love.

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