This article (which first appeared in Changing London) is a compilation of extracts from Timothy Keller’s book, Generous Justice. Used with kind permission.
Many become concerned when they hear Christians talk about ‘doing justice.‘Often that term is just a slogan being used to recruit listeners to jump on some political bandwagon. Nevertheless, if you are trying to live a life in accordance with the Bible, the concept and call to justice are inescapable.
We do justice when we give all human beings their due as creations of God. Doing justice includes not only the righting of wrongs, but generosity and social concern, especially toward the poor and vulnerable. This kind of life reflects the character of God. It consists of a broad range of activities, from simple fair and honest dealings with people in daily life, to regular, radically generous giving of your time and resources, to activism that seeks to end particular forms of injustice, violence, and oppression.
What Does God Say About Justice?
In chapter 31, Job details a righteous or just life. He fulfills ‘the desires of the poor ‘(v16). Job is not just giving handouts, but rather has become deeply involved in the life of the poor, the orphaned, and the handicapped. His goal for the poor is a life of delight, and his goal for the widow is that her eyes would ‘no longer be weary.’ He calls every failure to help the poor a sin, offensive to God’s splendour (v23) and deserving of judgment and punishment (v28). Remarkably, Job is asserting that it would be a sin against God to think of his goods as belonging to himself alone. In the Scripture, gifts to the poor are called ‘acts of righteousness,’ as in Matthew 6:1–2. Not giving generously, then, is not stinginess, but unrighteousness, a violation of God’s law.
In Jesus’ life, we see the same care for the vulnerable that characterises the heart of God. While clearly Jesus was preaching the good news to all, he showed throughout his ministry a particular interest in the poor and the downtrodden. He lived with, ate with, and associated with the socially ostracized. In Luke 14, he challenged people to routinely open their homes and purses to the poor, the blind, and the maimed. His true sheep, he insisted, have a heart for ‘the least of these my brethren,’ which Jesus defined as the hungry, the stranger, the ‘naked,’ the sick, and the imprisoned (verses 35-36). If we assume that Jesus was using the term ‘brethren’ in his usual way, to refer to believers, then he was teaching that genuine disciples of Christ will create a new community that does not exclude the poor, the members of other races, or the powerless, and does deal with their needs sacrificially and practically. Believers should be opening their homes and purses to each other, drawing even the poorest and most foreign into their homes and community, giving financial aid, medical treatment, shelter, advocacy, active love, support, and friendship. He tells the sheep, ‘When you embraced the poor, you embraced me,’ and to the goats he says, ‘When you ignored the poor, you ignored me.’ No heart that loves Christ can be cold to the vulnerable and the needy. Anyone who has truly been touched by the grace of God will be vigorous in helping the poor.
Why Should We Do Justice?
Before you can give this love, you need to receive it. Only if you see that you have been saved graciously by someone who owes you the opposite will you go out into the world looking to help absolutely anyone in need. Once we receive this ultimate, radical love through Jesus, we can start to be the neighbours that the Bible calls us to be. To the degree that the gospel shapes your self-image, you will identify with those in need. You will see their tattered clothes and think: ‘All my righteousness is a filthy rag, but in Christ we can be clothed in his robes of righteousness.’ When you come upon those who are economically poor, you cannot say to them, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!‘ because you certainly did not do that spiritually. Jesus intervened for you. And you cannot say, ‘I won’t help you because you got yourself into this mess,’ since God came to earth, moved into your spiritually poor neighbourhood, as it were, and helped you even though your spiritual problems were your own fault. In other words, when Christians who understand the gospel see a poor person, they realize they are looking into a mirror. Their hearts must go out to him or her without an ounce of superiority or indifference.
How Should We Do Justice?
So, what is the relationship between the call to help the needy and the biblical command to evangelize?
Many believe that the job of the church is not to do justice at all, but to preach the Word, to evangelize and build up believers. And some have argued that Christians should only do justice as a means to the end of evangelism. This does not seem to fit in with Jesus’s Good Samaritan parable and his charge not to give to needy people in order to get something in return (Luke 6:32-35). If we only help people who are responding to the gospel, we will be perceived as only helping others in order to help ourselves, namely, to increase our own numbers.
On the other hand, there are many who insist that doing justice is spreading the gospel, it is evangelism they say. Doing justice can indeed lead people to give the message of gospel grace a hearing, but to consider deeds of mercy and justice to be identical to gospel proclamation is a fatal confusion. I propose a different way to understand evangelism and social justice. They should exist in an asymmetrical, inseparable relationship.
Evangelism is the most basic and radical ministry possible to a human being. This is true not because the spiritual is more important than the physical, but because the eternal is more important than the temporal. In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 Paul speaks of the importance of strengthening the ‘inner man’ even as the outer, physical nature is aging and decaying. If there is a God, and if life with him for eternity is based on having a saving relationship with him, then the most loving thing anyone can do for one’s neighbour is help him or her to a saving faith in that God. But, as we have seen, doing justice is inseparably connected to preaching grace. This is true in two ways. One way is that the gospel produces a concern for the poor. The other is that deeds of justice gain credibility for the preaching of the gospel. In other words, justification by faith leads to doing justice, and doing justice can make many seek to be justified by faith.
If we confuse evangelism and social justice we lose what is the single most unique service that Christians can offer the world. Others, alongside believers, can feed the hungry. But Christians have the gospel of Jesus by which men and women can be born again into the certain hope of eternal life. No one else can make such an invitation. However, many Christians who care intensely about evangelism see the work of doing justice as a distraction for Christians that detracts from the mission of evangelism. That is also a grave error. When a city perceives a church as existing strictly and only for itself and its own members, the preaching of that church will not resonate with outsiders. But if neighbours see church members loving their city through astonishing, sacrificial deeds of compassion, they will be much more open to the church’s message. Deeds of mercy and justice should be done out of love, not simply as a means to the end of evangelism. And yet there is no better way for Christians to lay a foundation for evangelism than by doing justice.
It is also impossible to separate word and deed ministry from each other in ministry because human beings are integrated wholes – body and soul. As soon as you get involved in the lives of people – in evangelism as well as spiritual nurture – you will come upon people with practical needs. You can’t love people in word only (1 John 3:16-17) and therefore you can’t love people as you are doing evangelism and discipleship without meeting practical and material needs through deeds.
The London City Mission is a nearly two-hundred-year-old evangelical mission that seeks to do evangelism among the urban poor of London. Though evangelism is its central purpose, this is done through relationship, visitation, and friendship. Its mission is: the same person, going to the same people, regularly, to become their friend for Jesus’s sake. Because of this mission, LCM missionaries run neither large-scale evangelism nor social programs. Instead ‘word’ and ‘deed’ are seamlessly integrated in their ministry. Helping their neighbors with their children’s educational needs, or with finding jobs or learning English as a second language, goes hand-in-hand with sharing their faith verbally. On paper, we may ask, ‘Should Christians do evangelism or social justice?’ But in real life, these things go together.
Doing justice necessitates striking a series of balances. It means ministering in both word and deed, through the local church and as individual agents dispersed throughout the world. It means engaging in relief, and development, and reform. We do all this not only because we learn from the Bible that the causes of poverty are complex, but also because the gospel of Christ gives us such an arsenal of different weapons against the forces of injustice and deprivation in the world. But none of the weapons is a literal weapon. That is not the kind of warfare we wage. As the well-known hymn says, ‘’Tis not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums, but deeds of love and mercy, the heav’nly kingdom comes.’
Points to ponder
As soon as a church engages in holistic ministry, it will run up against a number of practical policy issues.
Any church or group of Christians who want to make progress in this work will have to take the time to answer each of the following questions:
• How much should we help?
• Whom should we help?
• Under what conditions does our help proceed or end?
• In what way do we help?
• From where should we help?
Read more of Dr. Keller’s biblical breakdown of doing justice and how it plays out on the three levels of relief (meeting immediate needs – food banks, shelters, etc...), development (holistic support of a person’s growth – reskilling, education, training) and reform (addressing the laws and social issues that cause injustice) by ordering his book from all major book retailers. Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Timothy Keller Hodder & Stoughton | ISBN 9780340995105
Dr. Timothy Keller is an American pastor, theologian and Christian apologist and co-founder of The Gospel Coalition. He is best known as the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, which he led until July 2017. Redeemer also founded Hope for New York, a non-profit organization that sends volunteers and grants to over forty faith-based ministries serving social needs in New York City, the Center for Faith and Work to train professionals in Christian theology, and Redeemer City to City to train and fund pastors in New York and other cities.