Christians have always been a people who believe in and work for justice.
What does our God require of us? Our sacred text tells us: “To act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, emphasis mine). Justice is not ancillary to who we are and what we do; it is essential to the calling of God’s people, because it belongs to the nature of God.
Tim Keller makes this point with eloquence: “Biblical justice is not first of all a set of bullet points or a set of rules and guidelines. It is rooted in the very character of God and it is the outworking of that character, which is never less than just.”¹
God is just. He cannot not be just. As His “dearly loved children,” we are called to imitate Him—to bear the family image (Ephesians 5:1). That means being just and caring about justice.
In response to much recent injustice in our country and around the world, many Christians have taken up this call. Whether through organizations like the International Justice Mission, seeking at the institutional and legal levels to combat the ongoing ills of human slavery; the annual Washington D.C. March for Life, calling attention to the atrocities of abortion in the United States; or—most obvious in the recent past—individuals and groups responding to racial injustice; many have heard and heeded God’s call to be a justice-oriented people. Praise God.
As we do so, we must remember that if justice belongs to the nature of God, then true justice is consistent with all that belongs to God’s nature. In Him, there is no mixing or co-mingling of disparate impulses as there is in humans. His justice is merciful, His mercy is just; in His love He is wrathful against sin, and in His wrath against sin He is loving; He is perfectly and infinitely righteous, holy, true, compassionate, and gracious. And in Him, these qualities do not compete for space or attention.
What does this mean for our pursuit of justice? It means that not only is the pursuit biblical, but the justice needs to be biblical as well. In other words, yes, Christians must pursue justice—and yes, that justice needs to be defined by the Bible and consistent with God’s character. In other words, it would be just as bad for Christians to pursue justice on the world’s terms as it would be for Christians not to pursue justice at all.
In our current passion to pursue justice, I’m afraid many Christians are at risk of imbibing a means of pursuing justice that is patterned not after the Word, but after the world. I’m afraid we’re on the verge of abandoning Scripture’s definition of justice and of adopting a new version of works righteousness in its place.
“Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution”
This works-based gospel can be seen in a message that is proliferated these days, especially on social media. It goes something like this: “If you don’t respond to _____ by doing _____, you are part of the problem!”
Messages like this make us nervous. We skip right past the faulty assumption that every person in the world is either part of the problem or part of the solution, and begin to ask ourselves, How am I responding to _____? Am I doing _____? If not, we start to feel anxious, guilty, ashamed, embarrassed. We shy away from conversations about the issue at hand, afraid to be exposed, possibly cancelled, by our families, friends, or our social media “community.”
At this point, we mostly respond in one of three ways: we add another crushing item to our to-do list, we retreat from the conversation in shame, or we get self-defensive and sour on the original call to action, which ends up having the opposite of its intended effect.
I don’t want to imply that we should never self-examine or that good cannot come from this type of introspection. After all, depending on what fills in the blanks above, the statement could be accurate! As I’ve already stated, the Bible makes no exceptions: Christians are to care about and pursue justice. But this messaging can creep into unhelpful territory when it’s not tempered by two other equally important principles of Christianity: first, the call to humility, and second, the gospel truth of justification by faith.
Humility and Justification by Faith
An appropriate emphasis on the biblical mandate of humility, coupled with the biblical doctrine of justification by faith, should inform our response to injustice. This emphasis will help us dismantle the common message that everyone who doesn’t (1) see the world’s problems exactly as I do, (2) believe in the exact same solutions as I do, and (3) spend the exact same amount of energy doing the exact same things to work for those solutions as I do is complicit and evil.
First, an appropriate emphasis on humility undermines the preachers of this message. To preach this new gospel of works, I have to assume three very un-humble things: (1) that I have an inerrant read on the social ills of my day, (2) that I know perfectly and thoroughly how to respond, and (3) that everyone else should thus respond in precisely the same manner.
But is it not possible that I might see some aspect of the world’s problems unclearly? After all, we live in a big and complicated world. There are more than seven billion humans on earth, representing thousands of different cultures with competing moralities and religions and unique manifestations of sin. All these distinctions are brought to the public square and inform the matrix of problems that we witness (most often not in person, but mediated through the limited perspective of a screen). How arrogant of us to assume we are reading all of these problems without error.
And is it not possible that my preferred solutions might be imperfect or might have unintended consequences? If the problems themselves are hard to nail down without error, how much more the solutions! A diagnosis at least deals with a relatively static reality; a prognosis is a treatment based on predictions about how things will play out in the future. When we make claims about solutions to sociocultural problems, we’re stepping into a world of complexity. If we’re lucky, we can grasp a small slice of that complex reality, but it’s unlikely our suggested solutions will be flawless. Especially when we’re just parroting podcasts and sharing memes. How arrogant to think others—who agree that there are very real problems—either don’t care or are part of the problem simply because they disagree with us about the solution.
Finally, is it not possible that people who aren’t posting about it as much as I am, or aren’t doing the exact same things as I am in response, are still doing what they are able to do in their spheres of influence? People have different relational, emotional, financial, and time commitments. Not everyone has the capacity to respond to the same injustices in the same ways with the same energy and effort—nor is everyone called to respond in the same way. Is the person who spends her life working for racial justice and equity guilty of complicity with abortion because God did not call her, primarily, to respond to that particular social injustice? Is the person who spends his life responding to the injustice of human trafficking complicit in racism because God called him to focus on modern-day slavery instead? Is the stay-at-home mother of four, the youngest with Down Syndrome, guilty because, in between feeding and bathing and clothing and paying bills and finding five minutes for prayer and Scripture meditation, she couldn’t spare the time to post the trending hashtag of the day?
As a friend of mine noted after reading an earlier draft of this article, this is where a healthy theology of the church comes into play. We need an understanding of the body of Christ that allows us to do our part and allows others to do theirs. The hand can’t be the ear, nor can the head be the foot. We each have different callings, for the common good. Rather than condemning the noses of Christ’s body for their failure to write, let’s applaud the nose for smelling and the hand for writing.
Second, justification by faith undermines this common message. If humility speaks to the preacher of the message, this gospel truth speaks to its hearer.
The message that we must respond to Problem X by doing Y is a damning gospel of works righteousness. No biblical doctrine of justification by faith here. No salvation by grace alone. Rather, you must do this, that, and the other—and we don’t care how busy you are at work, at school, or taking care of aging family members!
As I mentioned above, this message is crushing to those who are faithfully responding to their particular calling—a calling that may not score enough points on the virtue-signaling scoreboard of modern American society. The result? Pastors are exhausted, trying to figure out if they should sacrifice prayer and sermon preparation to respond, with sufficient vigor, to every problem, every day. Single parents feel the weight of works righteousness as they mentally beat themselves up over not being able to do enough—even as we know they’re putting in 40-plus hours a week at work and constantly on at home with the kids. College students are swimming in the self-righteous waters of campuses telling them what they can and cannot say, rules which seem to change by the week.
His yoke is easy
Why am I writing this? Because I’m concerned. I’m concerned for the people I just mentioned. Mothers. Pastors. College students. You. Me. People who are doing exactly what God has called them to do and being told by a judgmental world, “You’re not doing enough.”
That judgmental world has crept into the church. Too many believers with good, justice-oriented motivations are in danger of forsaking gospel humility and the gospel of justification by faith. We’re heaping burdens on one another, shaming one another, telling one another, “You’re not doing enough.” Well, that message has done more than enough—enough damage to the consciences of believers and the unity of the body of Christ.
This is not God’s justice, because it is not consistent with the heart of Christ.
This new message of works righteousness is not only different than the Christian message; it is contrary to it. Jesus doesn’t add to our burdens. He tells us to take up His light burden, His easy yoke. Then—from that place of salvation by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ—then we get to work responding to the world’s problems, as best as we can decipher them, with the solutions we think will work, in the manner and to the extent that God has called us. And we trust the Holy Spirit will lead others to do the same.