How God's grace makes us just
Level playing field
How God’s grace makes us just
By Tim Keller
Hodder & Stoughton. 256 pages. £12.99
Specifically, the justice of God which compassionately rights wrongs is inescapably for all believers to live out — that is the theme of Tim Keller’s recent book, Generous Justice.
This is not a difficult book to read, and you will want to finish it. Keller writes clearly and accessibly about what God’s justice is and how he wants us to practice it individually and as communities of believers. The style suits the readership he is writing for: young people with faith and a desire to help those in need, trying to discover how to connect the two. He provides regular references so the reader can weigh up his interpretive work, and intersperses his prose with quotations which allow the Bible itself to speak. Church leaders and others considering the impact of the social justice movement and whether their own congregations are in line with biblical teaching on this topic would be well advised to read Generous Justice.
According to Keller, biblical justice is giving people their rights and preventing them being wronged as much as punishing wrongdoing. It is part of living a right life, part of loving God and being loved by him, and part of loving our neighbour, as ourselves. He suggests that conservatives and liberals alike have insufficient explanation for why injustice occurs and how to combat it. Liberals blame societal factors and conservatives blame personal moral failure. The reality, argues Keller, is as the Bible describes it — the cause is a matrix of social oppression, calamity and personal moral failure. It should be noted that not much space is devoted to understanding the liberal or conservative positions, and they are set up as fairly simple antithetical positions.
Keller argues that we should try to influence systems, not just help individuals, and his argument throughout is compelling, though not political. We should not ignore the fact that common grace means good can be found in most secular/religious positions, though without the Bible’s perspective each is incomplete. For Keller, ‘virtue, human rights, and the common good are all crucial aspects of justice’. He goes on to make some helpful suggestions as to how Christians can deal with current competing concepts of justice, and that we should practically assist through direct relief, development initiatives and social reform. In sum, we should ask what the needs in our community are, and then help.
Keller is subject to the normal restriction of word limits, and self-imposed constraints in the form of his own objectives in writing. However, one could ask whether he might have considered how justice tends not to be applied uniformly to the rich and powerful in many countries and how crucial integrity is to justice, as well as how injustice is disproportionately distributed among the poor. This theme might not be so popular in Christian circles at present, but would seem equally a part of biblical teaching on justice (cf. 2 Chronicles 19.7, Exodus 23.8, Deuteronomy 16.19, Psalm 15, Amos 5.12, Micah 7.3, James 2.5-7).
This book is clearly a project born of Keller’s PhD thesis, which focussed on the role of deacons in the early church as pastors of the poor. It would seem that Keller sees us all, through the lens of the Bible, as deacons with a lower case ‘d’. For those involved in the social justice movement, Generous Justice helps root a desire to fix society in gospel soil. It reminds all of us that we cannot claim to love and proclaim Jesus without being generously just. The challenge is sounded: not to be middle-class in spirit. Keller urges us to see God’s justice as inextricably linked with God’s heart, as a matter of righting social wrong and not merely punishing criminal wrong, and as the joyful job of every believer. He must be right, and his book must be recommended.
Johan de Jong,
Chertsey Street Baptist Church, Guildford