Why Justice Divides Us
So what word should we use? That is a question for translators, and not an easy one. We do not have an exact English equivalent for dikaiosyne, or for mispat. In my judgment, it is best to rehabilitate the word “justice”—but call it “God’s justice.”
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“God’s justice” is the end of a story told throughout the prophets and elaborated in Jesus’ teachings, in the New Testament letters, and in the book of Revelation. God will return to rule on earth. The nations and tribes of the world will be united into a single choir, praising God. The land and its creatures will flourish. Peace will reign. Evil will be punished and dismissed for all time. The tyrants of the earth will be destroyed.
God will bring this about, and he calls his people to join in the process of making it so—surely a call to both evangelism and social action. A proper vision of our call cannot prioritize one side or the other, any more than a photographer can choose which to use, black or white.
This means that activists must raise their sights. Justice is not just about politics and reform. Jesus’ kingdom is not to set the Roman Empire right—that is too small—but to set right all the powers of heaven and hell, all the nations, all the rulers and potentates and spiritual powers. It is to bring the whole world into the joyful worship of God. That is why Jesus’ disciples do not take up the sword for his kingdom, and why Paul does not instruct his congregations in how to be politically influential. The game is bigger than politics, and much bigger than reform.
By the same token, evangelists must raise their sights. The gospel is not just about personal transformation. The good news is that God is setting right everything: individuals and society, nations and nature. If the gospel is strictly about sin and atonement in the individual’s heart, “your God is too small.”
The unity of the body of Christ demands a return to the story of God’s justice told in the Bible. It has a beginning—the creation—which tells what God loves. It has an end—the Day of the Lord—which projects God’s victory in setting right all that ails what he loves. And we are in the middle of the story of God’s justice, living and preaching his victory, which begins at the cross.
Caught up in God’s triumph, we will speak and live as God’s redeemed people. It will seem ridiculous to privilege either words or deeds, one over the other, just as it would seem silly for a parent to privilege words or deeds in raising children, or for a married person to privilege words or deeds in loving his spouse. Both are indispensable. Both are indivisible. And so are we.
Tim Stafford is the general editor of God’s Justice: The Holy Bible (Zondervan).