June 20, 2020
Justice and social justice take on different meanings depending on the context. For this reason, it is important to develop a biblical understanding of what justice is. There are many different nuances, approaches, and applications of the term “justice”, from both non-Christians and Christians alike. A helpful primer to biblical justice can be found here (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/faqs-christians-know-social-justice/). Here are some key excerpts.
What exactly is social justice?
Because of the fluid nature of the English language, words take on meaning not only through their primary or literal meaning (denotation) but also through their emotional association (connotation). The connotation of “social justice” has often overwhelmed the denotation, making it difficult to understand how the term is being used. As the political journalist Jonah Goldberg has said, social justice has become code for “’good things’ no one needs to argue for and no one dare be against.”
What is biblical justice?
The biblical conception of justice is primarily captured in two Hebrew words—mishpat and tzadeqah. As Tim Keller explains, The Hebrew word for “justice,” mishpat, occurs in its various forms more than 200 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably. It means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status. Anyone who does the same wrong should be given the same penalty.
But mishpat means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means giving people their rights. Deuteronomy 18 directs that the priests of the tabernacle should be supported by a certain percentage of the people’s income. This support is described as “the priests’ mishpat,” which means their due or their right. Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.
But to understand the biblical idea of justice, Keller says, we must also consider tzadeqah: We get more insight when we consider a second Hebrew word that can be translated as “being just,” though it usually translated as “being righteous.” The word is tzadeqah, and it refers to a life of right relationships.
When most modern people see the word “righteousness” in the Bible, they tend to think of it in terms of private morality, such as sexual chastity or diligence in prayer and Bible study. But in the Bible, tzadeqah refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity and equity. It is not surprising, then, to discover that tzadeqah and mishpat are brought together scores of times in the Bible. These two words roughly correspond to what some have called “primary” and “rectifying justice.”
Mishpat is rectifying justice. It means punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment. Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else. Therefore, though tzadeqah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social.
The two Hebrew words tzadeqah and mishpat are tied together—as they are more than three dozen times—the English expression that best conveys the meaning is “social justice.” Social justice, then, would be not only a biblical concept, but also a subset of biblical justice.
Claiming that we need only “biblical justice” and not “social justice” is a category error (i.e., a semantic or ontological error in which things belonging to a particular category are presented as if they belong to a different category). Biblical justice includes all forms of God-ordained justice, including the rectifying justice that belongs to the government (what we’d call public or legal justice) as well as justice between individuals (what could be called inter-individual justice) and justice involving organizations and groups (what we’d call social justice).
The Bible teaches that God is a God of justice. In fact, “all his ways are justice” (Deuteronomy 32:4). It flows from his character (Isaiah 30:18), “our God is a God of justice.” Furthermore, the Bible supports the notion of social justice in which concern and care are shown to the plight of the poor and afflicted (Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:17; 27:19). The Bible often refers to the fatherless, the widow and the sojourner – that is, people who were not able to fend for themselves or had no support system.
Jesus mentions caring for the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40), and in James’ epistle he expounds on the nature of “true religion” (James 1:27). So, if by “social justice” we mean that society has a moral obligation to care for those less fortunate, then that is correct. God knows that, due to the fall, there will be widows, fatherless and sojourners in society, and He made provisions in the old and new covenants to care for these outcasts of society. The model of such behavior is Jesus Himself, who reflected God’s sense of justice by bringing the gospel message to even the outcasts of society.1
How does social justice relate to the gospel?
A true understanding of the gospel, though, allows Christians to work for justice in the world in a way that does not undermine the centrality of the gospel. Don Carson states,
The gospel is the good news of what God has done, especially in Christ Jesus, especially in his cross and resurrection; it is not what we do. Because it is news, it is to be proclaimed. But because it is powerful, it not only reconciles us to God, but transforms us, and that necessarily shapes our behavior, priorities, values, relationships with people, and much more. These are not optional extras for the extremely sanctified, but entailments of the gospel. To preach moral duty without the underlying power of the gospel is moralism that is both pathetic and powerless; to preach a watered-down gospel as that which tips us into the kingdom, to be followed by discipleship and deeds of mercy, is an anemic shadow of the robust gospel of the Bible; to preach the gospel and social justice as equivalent demands is to misunderstand how the Bible hangs together.