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Tim Stafford

Why Justice Divides Us

And how it can unite us.

Forty years after the historic Lausanne Covenant, American evangelicals remain muddled and divided on the question of evangelism and good works. The word “justice” acts as a catalyst, either attracting or repelling. It divides us.

For the past three years I have been involved in a writing project bringing together 55 scholars and activists from the global church, the majority from non-Western countries. The aim was a study Bible with notes on the theme of justice—introductions and verse-by-verse notes for every book in the Bible, aiming to show how each part of the Bible contributes to the historical story of God’s justice. God’s Justice: The Holy Bible was an idea born in India over concerns about caste and gender mistreatment, and it expanded into a global endeavor under the direction of Biblica, the international Bible translation and distribution agency.

Working with this global team, reflecting deeply on the whole Bible (and not just selected texts), I reached the conclusion that justice should not divide evangelicals. Rather, it should unite us—but only if we learn to think of justice in the way the Bible writers think of it. The Bible’s “justice”—God’s justice—means something quite different from what we usually think.

What do people in 21st-century America hear when we say “justice?” In many conversations, I have seen that people think of it in a legal or judicial sense. The dictionary offers broad definitions based on fairness, morality, and honesty. But in ordinary conversation, justice is usually punitive: catch the evildoers and give them what they have coming. Justice stands opposed to mercy. It is not a word filled with grace, but with law. If you do good, justice will reward you. (But who is good?) If you do evil, justice will bring you the punishment you deserve.

This is a venerable interpretation. The islanders who met Paul after a shipwreck—and saw a snake bite him—concluded “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live” (Acts 28:4). They believed in justice, but not the kind of justice that Paul’s gospel proclaimed. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is a brilliant meditation on the opposition of justice and mercy, with justice demanding its “pound of flesh.” Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables contrasts the inexorable demands of grim justice—Javert—with the grace and mercy of Jean Valjean.

Many read the Bible with the same bifurcation in mind. The Old Testament stands for law and justice—those gloomy prophets—while the New Testament speaks of grace and mercy. By this reading, we are no longer held accountable to justice since the coming of Jesus; his death absorbs it on our behalf. Evangelism offers good news, liberating us from justice. The law is left behind.

This, clearly, is a distortion of the Bible’s message. It would horrify Jesus—who condemned anyone who changed the smallest iota of the Law—to hear that he meant to leave behind law and justice.

Quite the contrary. In explaining Jesus, Matthew’s gospel quotes Isaiah 42:1-4: “I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. . . . A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory.” The New Testament writers saw Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament, not replacing it. In doing so, he brings justice to the whole world—a justice that is Spirit-filled and gentle toward the vulnerable.

The Old Testament word translated “justice”—the Hebrew mispat—is just as often translated “laws” as “justice,” and it frequently speaks to a situation where laws are adjudicated in court. So, superficially, one can easily read mispat as concerned with legal rights and wrongs, vindication or punishment, just as justice is today.

Yet if mispat is closely related to law, we need to grasp that God’s law is worlds away from modern jurisprudence. The laws of Israel begin with the command to worship Yahweh only. They thus open up a whole life of praise and delight. God’s laws include regulations requiring care for orphans and widows, redistribution of the means of production on a systematic and regular basis, and the forgiveness of debt. The law demands generosity toward immigrants and love for neighbor. Laws command and organize worship.

God’s law conjures up a different world from our modern legal environment, where murder, fraud, theft and abuse, property, contract and regulatory mechanisms dominate. When we think of the law, we think of people who have done wrong and must be punished; or to a lesser extent, people who have been victimized, and deserve to receive compensation.

When Israel thinks of the law, by contrast, they think of the kind of people God has called them to be. That explains why the psalms can say, “Oh, how I love your law!” (119:97). Nobody would say that today, not even lawyers or legislators; Israel put it in their hymnal for all to sing.

Justice (mispat) is very frequently paired with righteousness (sedeq), creating a sort of word cloud representing whatever is good in God’s sight. Justice + righteousness is quite far from the kind of legal finding of guilt that modern people associate with justice. Rather, it is a reminder of all that God meant his creation to be and all he longs for us to become.

“Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely,” says Psalm 112:5 in a typical parallelism, “who conduct their affairs with justice.” Isaiah speaks for God in demanding, “Stop doing wrong! Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (1:16-17). One could add many examples where doing justice is synonymous with charity or activism on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.

In the prophets, something surprising and very important is added. Justice becomes a hallmark not just of the law, but of the coming Day of the Lord. “In that day,” Hosea quotes Yahweh, “. . . I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion” (2:18-19).

Isaiah’s classic messianic texts speak of justice. The “Prince of Peace” in chapter 9? He “will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” The shoot from the stump of Jesse (11:1)? “With righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.” The “precious cornerstone” that Yahweh establishes? “I will make justice the measuring line, and righteousness the plumb line.” (28:17)

In speaking of justice as a keystone of the coming triumph of God through his Messiah, justice becomes part of a story. It is not the application of a static body of law, but a foundational component in the great story of God setting right the creation he loves: hearing its cries, banishing its flaws, lavishing care on it, and ultimately ruling over it. Justice and righteousness bind the pieces of the story together: Creation, fall, call, exodus, law, king, exile, restoration, incarnation, cross, resurrection, Day of the Lord.

* * *

If this positive and joyful reading of justice is correct, why are there so few mentions of justice in the New Testament? Why does this justice imperative go dark?

The answer is: it does not. We have already noted Matthew’s citing of Isaiah, with its messianic justice. One can easily incorporate all of Jesus’ ministry into a justice narrative: he heals, setting right the body; he casts out evil, setting right the spirit; he teaches about loving your neighbor, setting right the social realm. Jesus lives out all that God wants his people to become. He is the epitome of justice as the Old Testament describes it.

True, the word “justice” appears only 15 times in the NIV translation. But there is a good reason for that. The word “righteousness” appears 77 times, almost always translating dikaiosyne. As many have noted, the Greek root dik is shared by words translated “just” and “justification.” Some scholars suggest that “justice” is as good a translation for dikaiosyne as righteousness—perhaps even a better choice. (In Spanish, dikaiosyne is usually translated justicia.) Certainly dikaiosyne carries the sense of the Old Testament word-pair “justice and righteousness.” It incorporates all of God’s goodness that he wants his image-bearers to carry.

The trouble with “righteousness” as a translation is that in modern English it carries a sense of personal moral rectitude. It has become, sadly, a rather stuffy word. (What teenager wants to be known for righteousness?) But “righteousness” as the New Testament uses it extends beyond personal morality to social morality. It blends personal righteousness and social justice.

In contemporary English, “justice” has a sharper edge than “righteousness,” but as we have noted, it also has its problems. Justice in modern English is legal and punitive; it can hardly apply to the healing of soul and spirit.

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.”

* * *

“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).

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