God is a God of justice. He is just. Because all humans are made in the image of God we have inherited a type of moral compass. When we watch the news and learn of tragic events in which people are senselessly murdered, something in us recognizes that as wrong. Something in us wants to make things right; in other words we want justice. As a young child, if another student stole your pencil or your lunch, you knew it was unjust. Perhaps you watched a student steal from another and you recognized that as unjust and desired that justice take place. Because we are in marred world by sin, our image is marred but not completely obliterated. Therefore, we too can perform acts of justice on earth but we cannot be as fully just as God is. He is perfect and we are far from perfect. As born-again believers, there is an element of justice that the Bible commands us to desire and act out. God himself wants his people to carry out justice in this world. Tim Keller preached a short message at the Gospel Coalition Conference in April of 2011 titled “Public Justice” and stated a problem with Christians today when trying to do acts of justice: He states that there are Christians who want to do justice but want nothing to do with justification by grace through faith. The other side of the coin is Christians who want to show justification by grace through faith but want nothing to do with acts of justice.
Justification by faith, Keller argues, needs to go hand in hand with acts of justice. The doctrine of justification teaches at the moment that a person has placed their trust in the work of Christ during his life and his death on the cross; there is an exchange that occurs. In an instantaneous moment, our sin is placed on the sinless man, Christ Jesus, and his righteousness is placed on us, sinful man. With Jesus’ righteousness being ours, we are seen by God as righteous – in other words, in God’s eyes, his children have not sinned and have lived the perfect life that Jesus lived. Our sin went to Christ and God crushed him (Isaiah 53:10), paying the penalty for our sin. Here are some verses in the Bible where we see the doctrine of justification by faith:
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Romans 5:1
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” – Romans 3:28
“Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” – Galatians 2:16
Justification by faith is a foreign concept to this world and its religions. In fact, Tim Keller points out that all religions teach you to live as you ought and God will accept and bless you. Christianity, however, teaches the opposite – receive God’s acceptance and blessing through the atonement of Jesus and then, and only then, will you live as you ought. There are people in this world who do not know Jesus and are active in humanitarian efforts worldwide who when asked if they believe they are going to heaven, they say yes, pointing to all the good things they have done in this world. This is wrong and it is works based salvation, not salvation by faith alone.
With Christians, there are some who mean well and are doing acts of justice (as they should) in their communities and throughout the globe but are missing the justification by faith component and there are some who teach justification by faith (as they should) and are missing acts of justice. Neither of these scenarios is optimal. We must marry both justification by faith and justice in order to have a complete understanding of God’s justice and law, but we must start with justification by faith first. Our justification in Christ gives us a new slate, a new status – WE ARE FREE!
As free people, we must understand that justice is not the basis but it is a sign that you have been justified. Let’s look at some verses in the Bible that speak about acts of justice:
“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” – Isaiah 1:17
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” – Zechariah 7:9-10
“…Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you…Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” – Amos 5:14-15
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” – James 2:14-17
God in his word has commanded us to carry out justice. To whom? The widow, the orphan, the poor, the foreigner, the one who is being oppressed, and the one who is in need. James says something that sometimes shocks Christians. He says, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Is this a contradiction to the doctrine of justification by faith alone? Not at all. James is not replacing this doctrine, rather he is complementing it with another truth. Justice and good works is not the basis of our salvation as stated earlier, but is a sign that one has been justified. One can do acts of justice their entire life and not be justified. But there can be no one who is justified that does not do acts of justice and good works for his neighbor. In fact, if we don’t look out after our neighbors, the Bible indicates our hearts are not right with God.
Justification by faith must come first, otherwise our best deeds are as filthy rags. The justified are clothed in the righteousness of Christ and now are loved by the Father and we can please him because we are his sons and daughters. As Christians, we must elevate the doctrine of justification by faith in order to acts of justice. Having a high view of justification is knowing that God is so holy and we are so sinful. Our only way to be saved is through the death of Jesus on the cross paying the penalty of our sins. Therefore, God did not disregard his law and justice when he saved us. He carried out his judgment on his son Jesus. Understanding how God extended justice to me without deserving it will move me to extend justice to those around me.
Before Christ, we were the poor, the orphan, the widow and the foreigner.We were poor because of our moral bankruptcy against a holy God. We were orphans because we had no heavenly Father. We were widows because Jesus was not our bridegroom. We were foreigners because we did not belong to the Kingdom of God. But God extended justice and punished Jesus in our place and now we are rich because we have Jesus’ righteousness. We are sons and daughters of God. Jesus is our bridegroom. We are now part of God’s Kingdom.
Tim Keller explains that we must hold a high view of justification by faith, in order to correctly administer acts of justice. One of the ways we can do this is by looking at James 1:9-10.
“Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.”
Here is what Keller think James is saying, and I agree. The lowly brother, the one who does not have much possessions and money – he is not to dwell in his poverty but rather they are to boast in their high status in Christ Jesus. He is redeemed, blessed, accepted, loved, comforted and encouraged by God. He is a coheir with Christ. He has a place in heaven for himself and his joy is found in God. The brother who is rich, however is not to dwell in his riches and possessions because they are temporary “because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.” He is to boast in his humiliation – realizing that this world is temporary and identifying with the poor. The rich man is not in constant need of more money but constant need of the gospel and grace on a daily basis. The rich man is dependent on the work of Christ to save him and not in his accomplishments in this life. The rich man knows that apart from the work of Christ he is doomed. All Christians must be poor in spirit knowing we are lost without Christ and the cross and not have a middle class mentality – that somehow our good deeds will save us. That somehow God is nice enough and will accept us apart from the righteousness we have received in Christ.
Some Christians criticize other Christians for doing acts of justice, while those doing acts of justice criticize those preaching the good news. What good is it, asks one, that we feed the hungry, and they go to hell with a full belly because the gospel was not preached? What good is it, asks the other, that we share the good news and leave someone to die of starvation? BOTH have a point! It’s not either/or but rather both/and. We need justified Christians doing acts of justice. But we have to get the order right. Enlarging our view of justification by faith is the best way to grow in justice. We give because God gave. We feed because God fed us. We take care of orphans because God adopted us when we were orphans. We protect the widows because Jesus Christ protects his church. We welcome the immigrant because God welcomed us into his home. Our justification will lead us to justice and when the world sees our justice, they will see a justice that introduces them to justification by faith. Our salvation by faith will inevitably bring good works for all to see and those acts of justice will testify to the inward justification that has taken place in the heart of a person who was once poor, orphaned, widowed and foreign.