Biblical Justice – Not Socialism
“Justice is the handmaiden of truth, and when truth dies, justice is buried with it.” – Ravi Zacharias
Doing justice should be second nature to a disciple of Jesus Christ. But ironically, when it comes to doing justice—real, biblical justice—the American church has been woefully underdiscipled. Justice is a misunderstood term and a misapplied concept to most Americans, especially in the Church. It’s defined and practiced in a very self-absorbed way by some (e.g., “Justice is whatever I think is right”). It’s used as a social and political football by others (e.g., “Justice is whatever fits my political or social bias”). And for too many, justice is about getting revenge (e.g., “Justice demands an overdue payment to me from society”). The Bible defines justice differently.
Justice begins and ends with God because He is a just God.
Declaring that God is just is to affirm He’s fair and impartial. To say that God is just means that He hates unfair treatment of people, who He created. It also means that God hates lying and cheating and stealing—any kind of deception and mistreatment of people. And because God is just, He’s the only one who can judge between right and wrong. God will always do justice according to His standards, not ours.
The Bible teaches that God will judge the world one day (Matt. 25:31–46 NASB; Rev. 19:11–15 NASB). But as the ultimate Judge, His judgments won’t be flawed like so many of the corrupt judges we see in our world today. Even when a human judge’s intentions are good, they can still make mistakes. But God’s perfection assures us that when He acts as a judge, He will dispense justice perfectly because He knows how to discern right from wrong without making a mistake. As my favorite theology professor used to say: “God is too good to hurt you and too big to make a mistake.” And the fact that God is just and judges righteously between right and wrong gives Him the ultimate moral authority in our lives. He has the right to make us accountable for our actions because He knows our hearts.
So what does it mean for you and me? It means that our actions on earth and our attitudes toward God will ultimately be judged by Him. And that’s very serious because we’ve all fallen short of God’s perfect standards and a penalty has to be paid for our sins (Rom. 3:23, 6:23 NASB). We’re all self-righteous—and will remain that way—unless we continually confess our sin and give over control of our lives to God (Prov. 28:13 NASB).
But God is not only just, thankfully. He’s also merciful. In His mercy, He’s made a way for us to be reconciled (made right) with Him and to meet His perfect standards. He’s provided a substitute who willingly paid the penalty for our sins. God did this through the death of His Son, Jesus Christ, who died to cover the penalty we would have to pay for our own sin (Rom. 3:24). Our part is to accept God’s substitution: Jesus Christ. Then God, who’s just and merciful, will forgive and forget our sins. When we accept God’s substitution for our sins, the Bible says that God will treat us like His own children and His heirs, eligible to inherit all that is His.
So the idea of doing biblical justice begins with God doing justice. When God presented His Son Jesus as a substitute to pay the penalty for your and my wrong doing, the Bible says He did it to demonstrate His justice: “… so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26 NIV).
Once we’ve been made right with God and He sees us as one of His children, the fact that God is just means that He wants us to be just and act justly too. The prophet Micah summed this up by saying, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8 NASB). Throughout the entire Bible, God tells us that if we love Him, we’ll treat other people fairly. This applies especially to people who may be in less fortunate situations than us, like widows and orphans, the poor and homeless, and “aliens or strangers” (people who are strangers to us who, by no fault of their own, are in a hard place in life with little or no resources).
The fact that God is just can also give you and me peace when we have to deal with difficulties in our lives or when we observe painful injustice in the world. We can be confident that God’s justice will win out over injustice by decisively dealing with evil in the long run.
Let’s address one more thing. You might be wondering, “But if God is just, why do we see so much unfairness and injustice on earth?” Good question. Here’s my best answer.
When we see injustice on earth, it’s always at the doing of people, knowingly or unknowingly (but almost always willingly) under the influence of evil, not God. We’ve all been given free will by God. The problem is that we can choose to exercise our free will irresponsibly, out of step with the character of God’s justice. And we do. The time will come, however, when God will judge the world and all the people in it. He’s going to get rid of all the evil and injustice in the world and the spiritual forces behind them. He will punish everyone who turns away from Him and His perfect and holy standards. But the good news is that in His wisdom, He’s not doing that yet. He’s waiting because He’s patient and He wants everyone to have an opportunity to accept His Son, Jesus Christ, and His sacrifice rather than pay the spiritual death penalty that justice requires for their sins (2 Pet. 3:9 NASB).
It is God’s kindness and goodness that keeps Him from judging the world yet. That’s because He knows His kindness, goodness, and patience will lead people to come to Him and ask for forgiveness of their sins (Rom. 2:4 NASB). That’s how and why God is just.
Biblical Justice—What is It?
There are many implications of God’s justice for the world we live in. They touch on every justice issue you and I can think of, including poverty, racial bigotry and contention, corruption in politics and governments around the globe, human sex trafficking, genocide, consumerism, and the staggering number of orphans in the world, just to mention a few.
But before we discuss what the Bible says about justice issues, we need to define some terms. The phrase social justice has become politically supercharged over the years, and it cannot be divorced from its present-day context. Social justice is often used as a rallying cry for many well-meaning people who stand on the more liberal or socialist side of the political spectrum. This excerpt from the “Social Justice” entry on Wikipedia is a good definition of this concept:
[Social justice is] … a concept that some use to describe the movement towards a socially just world. In this context, social justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equality and involves a greater degree of economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation, income redistribution, or even property redistribution. These policies aim to achieve what developmental economists refer to as more equality of opportunity than may currently exist in some societies, and to manufacture equality of outcome in cases where incidental inequalities appear in a procedurally just system. (Source: Wikipedia, “Social Justice”, last edited on October 26, 2019https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_justice)
That’s a mouthful. Let me try and break it down for us. The word egalitarianism coupled with the phrases income redistribution, property redistribution, and equality of outcome tells us a lot about this view of social justice. Egalitarian refers to the idea that all people are equal and deserve equal rights, including political, social, economic, and civil rights. While that is a noble sentiment and one with some truth to it, when the concept of social egalitarianism is pushed to its logical conclusion, it reveals a couple of fatal flaws when applied in a social setting.
There are at least two problems with this view of social justice. First, it assumes that all rich people get wealthy by exploiting the poor. That may be the case some of the time, but certainly not all of the time. The Bible says, “Good planning and hard work lead to prosperity, but hasty shortcuts lead to poverty” (Prov. 21:5 NLT). Second, socialist programs too often create more problems than they solve. People who are encouraged to rely on the government for assistance over a long period of time have a higher probability of becoming permanently dependent on the government rather than being motivated to improve their situation. Every time and place where socialism/communism has been tried on a national scale, it has failed to remove the class distinctions in society. Instead, all it does is replace the nobility/common man distinction with a working class/political class distinction.” (Source: “What Does the Bible Say About Social Justice?”, GotQuestions.org, accessed October 29, 2019, http://www.gotquestions.org/social-justice.html)
So what is the Christian view of biblical justice?
We’ve already seen that the Bible teaches that God is a God of justice. In fact, “all his ways are justice” (Deut. 32:4 NIV). And the Bible supports the idea of biblical justice, caring for the poor and the afflicted (Deut. 10:18, 24:17, 27:19 NASB). The Bible also refers to the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner as people we should care for. In fact, the nation of Israel was commanded by God to care for society’s less fortunate; their eventual failure to do that was part of the reason for His judgment on them and their many years of captivity at the hands of their enemies.
In the New Testament, Jesus and his disciples taught the same thing about biblical justice. Jesus talked often of caring for the “least of these” (Matt. 25:40 NASB). In James’s letter, he writes that the nature of true religion is to care for widows and orphans (James 1:27 NASB). God knows that because of sin in the world, there will be widows, the fatherless, the poor, and the underprivileged. And he made provisions in the Bible to care for the less fortunate. Jesus modeled the ultimate act of God’s justice by bringing the gospel message to everyone, even the outcasts of society.
But the Christian idea of biblical justice is different from the contemporary concept of social justice. The biblical commands to care for the poor are more individual than societal. The Bible teaches that each Christian is to do what he or she can to help the “least of these.” That’s the second of the greatest commandments, to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:39 NASB). But replacing the individual with the government through excessive taxation and other means of redistributing wealth (as social justice demands) does not encourage individuals to give sacrificially of their time, talent, and treasure out of love. It only creates resentment from those who see their hard-earned money or property being taken away.
The Christian view of biblical justice does not view being wealthy as evil. Rather it sees having financial resources as a responsibility to be good managers of those resources. And with that responsibility comes the expectation that people with financial resources will voluntarily share their wealth with those in need, with a tender and compassionate heart. The apostle Paul told Timothy: “Instruct those who are rich in this present world … to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share …” (1 Tim. 6:17–18 NASB). Compassionate and caring believers will be generous to the less fortunate with their resources, especially for the needs and causes that most concern them, like caring for the poor, the homeless, the unborn, orphans, widows, those caught in human trafficking, etc.
Biblical justice is choosing to make individuals and communities whole by focusing on goodness and impartiality. Scripture says, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Prov. 29:7 NIV). Justice flows from God’s heart and character. That’s what motivated God throughout the Old and New Testaments in His judgments on sin and injustice. And that’s why godly disciples of Jesus Christ are willing to work for biblical justice.
We can never establish an economically and socially perfect world on earth through government policies. Only God can create and maintain a perfect world. One day He will by returning to earth and making all injustices right (Rev. 21–22 NASB). But for now, He wants to establish His biblical justice on earth through His people, the Church. God and His biblical justice are about praying and acting to bring His kingdom to earth. And He will do it through people who love Him and his justice and mercy until He returns. When He does return, Christ will restore all things and execute perfect justice. But until then, godly disciples of Jesus Christ will express God’s love and do biblical justice by showing kindness and mercy to those less fortunate out of a compassionate heart.