Every Monday morning Ed Stetzer (president of Lifeway Research) puts out a question for missional bloggers. This Monday his question was on the role of justice in salvation and the phrase “God is working outside the church.”
Yesterday I tried to answer the “God is working outside the church” part. Today, I’m going to wrestle with the “can practicing justice save you?…and if not, what is the place of justice in salvation?” side of the question.
Stetzer specifically spoke about “social justice” which he defined as the expansion of justice through political and economic reforms.
So…I’m going to cheat. I’m not going to stick to social justice. It is to limiting in discussing the role of justice in salvation.
Instead, here is my plan of attack. First we will glance at “the world’s justice.” Then we look at God’s understanding of justice in the Old Testament through examining two strategic passages. Next we will look at how OT justice translated into the Gospels; and then, finally, we will look at justice’s role in salvation.
Justice is a topic I have struggled with since I was a child. My father devoted his life to medical missions work in Africa and brining health care to the urban poor, so the questions of suffering and justice were always before us. It is something I have wrestled with and still do. What follows is my answer for today…it may be a little different tomorrow. My thoughts are still a work in progress.
The World’s Justice
There is another definition of justice, separate but similar to God’s justice. It is not bad justice, or the devil’s justice; it’s simply different from the justice of God’s Kingdom. We will call it “the world’s justice.”
The world’s justice is the glue we (broken sinners) use to hold together society in this broken world. The world’s justice says that when someone does something wrong they must be punished, that the playing field must be made level so no one is treated unfairly, and that the innocent must be protected. The world’s justice demands that we (messed up, imperfect, sinners) sit in the judge’s seat and constantly debate which behaviors in our society are acceptable and which are not.
The justice of God’s Kingdom (or Kingdom justice from here on out) is very different. It doesn’t simply make things fair; it lifts up the oppressed and seeks to protect the easily victimized. And it is not punishment and penance laid upon the sinning oppressor; but rather the chance for repentance and the gift of forgiveness.
The world’s justice is necessary. Without it everything in this broken mess would unravel. And it looks a little like Kingdom justice. If we held Kingdom justice in front of a slowly moving body of water, the world’s justice would be the shaky reflection we see.
Defining Justice Through the Old Testament
Kingdom justice plays a major role in the Old Testament narrative. There are literally hundreds of passages that speak to it. In this post (so that it stays less than a 1000 pages long) we will only look at two key ones.
The first significant mention of Kingdom justice comes in Genesis 18. Abraham and Sarah had dinner with God (who showed up in the form of three people because he messes with us like that). After dinner God and Abe went on a walk. As they strolled along God began to debate with Himself (because remember…He is there as three people…or one guy and two angels…or some strange combination). Finally God agrees amongst Himself to tell Abraham what He’s getting ready to do. Concluding the debate God said to Himself,
“Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him by doing what is right and just so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what is promised.”
From this dialogue we learn that Kingdom justice is a defining mark of God’s kids. His followers will be defined by their practice of righteousness and Kingdom justice. This understanding of Kingdom justice’s place in a follower’s life is reinforced in Deuteronomy. In chapter 16 Moses proclaimed,
Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live in and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.
So we know it is important. But what is it?
To answer that question we need Solomon.
In 1st Kings 3 we get a fantastic definition of Kingdom Justice. Solomon had just taken the throne. Feeling overwhelmed by the responsiblity of leadership, Solomon prayed and ask for…
“an understanding heart to judge Your people to discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of yours?”
God then replied,
“Because you have asked this thing and have not asked for yourself long life, nor have you asked riches for yourself, nor have you asked for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself discernment to understand justice, behold I have done according to your words…”
Looking at the request and the answer we see that:
discernment between good and evil = discernment to understand justice.
Kingdom justice therefore is knowing the difference between good and evil, and choosing good for others.
This is reinforced by Psalms 38:27-28.
Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever. For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones.
Kingdom Justice in the Gospels
Now we encounter a problem. If Kingdom justice is a foundational characteristic of His followers, why does Jesus rarely (almost never) use the word?
While He may not say the word justice, He talks about how to live it out. As Jesus followers, with each person we encounter we are to discern (with the guidance of the Holy Spirit) what is good and what is evil for that person, and then do whatever it takes to bring about their good.
Kingdom justice = sacrificial love for others = love your neighbor as yourself.
How do we practice justice? We visit those in prison. We feed the hungry. Fight for the oppressed. Heal the sick. Stand up for the outcast. This is love for our neighbor. Day after day we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and imitate His love for God and others.
Social Justice – the attempt to reform political and economic systems as an act of love to bring the best for our oppressed neighbors – is the practice of Kingdom justice on a large scale. It is working to love the forest as opposed to individual trees.
Is the Practice of Kingdom Justice Salvific?
Asking which comes first, love for God or the practice of Kingdom justice (the sacrificial seeking of the best for our neighbor) is equivalent to asking the classic chicken or the egg question. We are saved by grace through faith…but faith without works (the sacrificial loving of our neighbors) is dead.
Is Kingdom justice salvific?
It is necessary for salvation. In salvation we restore our broken relationships with God and join Him on His mission to the world. This joining must be in more than words only. We must join Him in loving the world. His mission is one of Kingdom justice. He is constantly seeking the best, the good vs. the evil, for every individual (and the greatest good for every person is, but not limited to, a restored relationship with Him); and we must join Him in that.
Is loving people enough? Can we simply love people and be saved?
No. This would be the equivalent of going on a mission like Jesus’ without Him. “Yeah look Jesus. I’m doing it too! All by myself!” The practice of Kingdom justice alone will not save. The “grace through faith” can’t just be pushed aside.
- Practicing God’s justice is being able to discern the good for each person and lovingly sacrificing to bring it about.
- The practice of justice is to be a defining mark of Jesus’ followers. Loving the world is His mission and we, the sent ones, have joined Him in it.
- While the practice of justice is necessary for salvation – it is not sufficient.