What Does ‘Justice’ Mean?

12_generous_book_JNBy Chris Travis

Generous Justice
Timothy Keller

New York: Riverhead, 2010

In Generous Justice, Tim Keller leads us through a straightforward, well-reasoned, and brief but comprehensive survey of what the Bible says about justice. It’s eye-opening to see how much emphasis God puts on justice in Scripture.

This is a particularly relevant book in the wake of socially volatile situations like this summer’s shooting of Michael Brown and ensuing protests in Ferguson, Missouri. There is so much impassioned public discourse about what’s right and wrong, and not nearly enough deep contemplation about what the Bible actually says about justice. Generous Justice expounds from the whole counsel of Scripture—from the prophets to the words of Jesus to the Epistles—all it means to “do justice,” why we should, and how, both as individuals and in the public square.


Biblical Concept

Most of us gravitate to a particular aspect of justice, but as Keller demonstrates, the biblical concept is rich. It confounds our agendas. When it comes to justice, many people think primarily about retributive justice (punishment for wrongdoing) and would consider private generosity to the poor to be something different, an act of mercy or charity. But Scripture includes radical generosity to the poor as an aspect of justice. 

Others gravitate more toward social justice and systemic reform. But the biblical concept of justice also emphasizes personal accountability. 

Political conservatives and liberals alike find support in the Bible for the aspects of justice they emphasize. But their agendas fall short of the generous justice Scripture prescribes, the justice inspired by grace.

We are sometimes tempted to think we must choose between doctrinal integrity and the pursuit of justice in the world; between word and deed. Keller shows, through well-reasoned lines of thinking and real-world examples, how traditional Christian doctrines actually fuel our engagement with the poor and marginalized. The doctrine of justification by faith, for example—that we are all spiritually poor (bankrupt!)—is the foundation for compassion toward those who are materially poor. Any deep contemplation of the grace we’ve received inspires us to graciously love and serve others.

Keller also acknowledges, though, the many good reasons Christians have to be cautious about focusing on social justice. The pursuit of social justice is not to be confused with the gospel. That said, any true understanding and practice of the gospel will inspire and compel us toward a pursuit of biblical justice. “We must neither confuse evangelism with doing justice,” Keller writes, “nor separate them from one another.” The ministry of the Word inspires the ministry of deed, which proves and sets the stage for the ministry of the Word.


For Any Christian

This is an important book for any Christian. “If you are a Christian, and you refrain from committing adultery or using profanity or missing church, but you don’t do the hard work of thinking through how to do justice in every area of life—you are failing to live justly and righteously,” writes Keller. 

The fact that people who are evidently Christian often show so little concern for the poor, Keller explains, can stem from leaders’ misguided attempts to develop a social conscience in the same way the world does, through guilt. Instead, he recommends we connect justice for the poor, as the Bible does, to grace. In that way, justice becomes something even better than fairness. It becomes Generous Justice.


Chris Travis serves as pastor with Everyday Christian Church in New York, New York.

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1 Comment

  1. Patricia
    November 11, 2014 at 8:18 pm

    I look forward to reading ‘Generous Justice’ over the Christmas break. Thank you for your well written book review. You did it justice 🙂

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