Straight From the Word: What is Biblical Justice?

Justice is a hotly debated topic these days. As Christians, we ought to define justice along biblical lines rather than espouse the culturally acceptable definitions. Justice is used in both the Old and New Testaments to refer to God’s standard of righteousness applied to any given situation.

Justice does not always refer to civil law as it plays out between government and citizens, although it can be used that way, especially in the Old Testament. In Colossians, Paul writes, “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven (Col. 4:1),” and in Luke Jesus says, “But woe to you Pharisees! For you pay tithe of mint and rue and every kind of garden herb, and yet disregard justice and the love of God; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others (Lk. 11:42).”

In either instance, different Greek terms are used for the one English word justice. In the Colossians instance the word dikaios is used and in Luke, krisis (where we get our word crisis from). In Colossians, Paul uses dikaios (an adjective) in order to refer to the application of God’s law to the situation. It is as if Paul is saying to the servant masters in Colossae, “give (or show) the righteousness of God to your slaves.” To know the righteousness of God, we need not look further than His moral prescripts.

In the latter sense, Luke records Jesus using krisis (a noun) to stir our hearts in a more harrowing, yet complementary direction. This term refers to damnation or utter separation from the grace of God. Jesus is drawing a contrast between judgment or damnation and grace in love. In the context, Pharisees were concerned much more with their own rules and regulations than they were the truth revealed to them in the Scriptures.

These two extremes, krisis-judgement and God’s love, while the two are related yet not the same, summarize the gospel as it had been revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures. One is either reconciled to God or they are totally estranged from Him being only in relationship to Him through judgment, there is no in-between. There is a people who will live in the light, and there are people who will die in the darkness. The Old Covenant sub-served the New Covenant in pointing out man’s unrighteousness in order to lead them to the righteousness of God in Christ. As in every interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees, it is evident that the Jews missed the primary purpose of the Old Testament, which was Christ Himself.

In the New Testament, justice never implies the need for political activism on the side of the church. Rather, justice almost always refers to God’s righteous dealings with the world or it is used in reference to man’s responsibility toward one another. In the case of the latter, we must think in terms of God’s moral law as it may be applied to governmental, corporate, and personal relationships. This application cannot go beyond what has been revealed and so our point of reference in defining this kind of justice is the Decalogue (Ex. 20; Deut. 5) and Jesus’ commands to His church (Matt 5). While God’s law may be applied in different ways around the world and throughout history, we must remember that the laws themselves are the same, and there is never a need to add to or take away from God’s righteous standard. We must be careful that our consequential application of God’s

When it comes to this kind of justice or righteousness we have to understand the distinction between how it is applied within the church, and how it is applied without the church.

In the world, God’s righteousness is seldom applied correctly, but nowhere in the New Testament is the church sent on a mission to correct the civil miscarriage of justice. In fact, Paul, to use only one example, never once makes an ecclesial appeal to campaign for political change at the senate level in the Roman empire, even though such a thing was technically possible for Roman citizens. Furthermore, it must be noted that the concept of reparations, in contradistinction to restitution, is a totally alien concept to the Scriptures altogether. Nowhere are we commanded to distribute our wages, but we are to care for the poor and the orphans as a church, not as wealthy individuals. Local churches, therefore, are to help the poor and the orphan in their midst; and this is not a matter of civil law, but of ecclesiastical charity flowing from the heart of Christ as it beats through His church.

Conclusion

Governmental justice, the primal example being God’s economy of justice over His creation and a lesser example being political lawmakers, is not ecclesial justice and ought never to be confused with such. Rather, it is the church’s job to operate in accordance with the righteous standard of God, applying it correctly to itself, not to the world. To the world, we are to preach the gospel which is said to be the power of God revealed for salvation; and this we do in hopes God would turn the culture. We do not utilize earthly means to achieve heavenly goals, but trust wholly in the efficacy of the Word preached as the Spirit works to fulfill the will of God through that medium.

Leave a Reply