Pastors’ Blog


Categories: Biblical Justice

Why this Series?

Justice is a subject that has been under much discussion lately. Unfortunately, it has also been a subject about which people sometimes do more arguing than acting. One of the difficulties we face is the fact that different people have different ideas about what is just. They also have different ideas about what is unjust. We would expect different ideas about justice to exist between Christians and non-Christians. However, it seems that even conservative, Bible believing Christians cannot agree on what justice is, and how it should characterize our lives.

Everyone generally agrees that injustice is real on a personal level. If I steal your money, for instance, that is unjust. Most also agree that some laws are unjust, though there is little agreement about which ones. In the last few years, some new terms have entered the discussion. Terms which have caused great division among evangelicals. Such terms appear, for example, in the popular phrases “social justice” and “systemic racism.” Some evangelicals believe these phrases are perfectly legitimate ways to describe real phenomena that Bible believing Christians should care deeply about. Other evangelicals have branded these evangelicals as heretics for using these terms at all. The terms, they say, are rooted in Marxism, so any use of them is ultimately rooted in Marxism. This latter viewpoint seems to imply that justice cannot be discussed under subcategories and that racism never operates in systems. For instance, I have seen several friends on social media promote the phrase “justice needs no adjective.”[1] The phrase is obviously directed at the use of the phrase “social justice,” but implies that we should not talk about criminal justice,[2] economic justice,[3] bioethical justice,[4] or even as the title of this blog series has it, biblical justice. All of these phrases add an adjective to the word justice. This would seem to further imply that we cannot talk about the specific application of justice to different areas of life, because this would require us to distinguish one form of justice from another, and thus use an adjective. Thus, this approach would seem to relegate justice to a somewhat nebulous esoteric category that is difficult to apply in real contexts. I realize that this is probably not what people who use the above-mentioned statement really believe, but perhaps they would do well to consider what the statement is really implying.

In a similar way, those who believe the phrase “systemic racism” is an illegitimate way of speaking would seem to imply that racism cannot function in systems. This would require us to say, on the one hand, that slavery and Jim Crow laws were not systems, or on the other hand, to say that those systems had nothing to do with racism. Of course, the question of how systemic racism functions today is another discussion, but the point here is to illustrate that racism does operate using systems.

While I have read (and disagreed with) Karl Marx, I am by no means an expert on Marxism. My concern is that by associating Marxism uncritically with some other justice concepts, we can do great damage to the ministry of the church of Christ. I think a good way to bypass the extremes is to take a careful look specifically at what the Bible says about justice. My own training and dual profession as a pastor and Bible professor make this a safe approach for me to help Christians navigate this water. Does the Bible teach that injustice can operate in systems? Does the Bible teach that that sometimes the powerful prey on the powerless? Does the Bible recognize that, sometimes, there are classes or categories of people that are more or less powerful than others? Does the Bible teach that we must limit ourselves to preaching the gospel and not worry about standing up for the helpless and oppressed? These are some of the questions this series will seek to answer. This will be done primarily through biblical exegesis. We will study some key Old and New Testament passages to see what they say about justice. Using this information, we will place justice in the context of classic Christian theology. And at times, we will discuss how this information relates to some discussions and debates among contemporary evangelicals.

The Biblical Words for Justice

We will begin by looking at some of the biblical words that are translated using the English word “justice.” In the Old Testament, there are three main words that are used in this way. While there is a lot of overlap in the meanings of these words, they emphasize different aspects of justice. The first is Yashar. This word is an adjective with the primary meaning of “straight” or “right.” In addition to “just,” it is often translated “upright.”[5] This word emphasizes the quality of moral character that does what is right, especially before God. It describes moral character in general, thus it is not limited to justice, but often has this emphasis. A major Old Testament metaphor for moral living is the “strait path,” which means a life lived in doing things God’s way (e.g., Prov 3:5-6).

The second word is Tsadiq. It is usually translatedjust” or “righteous.” Much like yashar, this word emphasizes conduct and character.[6] Tsadiq emphasizes doing what is righteous and is often used in the context of what is fair and equitable.

Perhaps the most important Hebrew word for the purposes of this blog series is Mishpot.[7] This is the technical word for justice. Depending on context, it can refer to a court of justice, the judicial process in the court, the seat of judgment (i.e., the judge’s seat), or the verdict of judgment. Sometimes it also refers to the judicial system as a whole.[8] The Old Testament, in particular, is full of indictments of those who pervert various aspects of the legal system, especially in Israel.

The New Testament concept of justice uses one primary root, on which the noun, adjective and verb forms for justice are built. Dikaios – is an adjective emphasizing the quality of being just or righteous.[9] Dikaiosune refers to justice as judicial responsibility with a focus on fairness. In other contexts, “upright, behavior, righteousness.[10] Justice and righteousness in the New Testament are related concepts. “Righteousness” focuses more broadly on moral character in general, whereas justice focuses on fairness and equity. Many evangelical readers will be familiar with these words, and their corresponding verb dikaioo, which means “to justify” (or declare righteous). When talking about the doctrine of salvation, especially in Romans and Galatians, these words speak of the fact that none are righteous before God, and thus, to be saved, a person most have the very righteousness of Christ credited to them and counted for them before God. This can only happen through faith (see especially, Rom 3:21-26).

We must beware, however, of limiting the subject of justice in the New Testament to the doctrine of justification. The imputed righteousness of Christ not only secures our place in heaven but becomes an active force in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit.[11] Like the Old Testament, the New Testament is full of exhortations that relate to treating people with justice. We must also realize that the concept of justice is often addressed in the Old and New Testaments when these specific words are not used.

Justice as an Attribute of God

Justice as an attribute of God means that God is fully just and righteous in all that he does. Charles Ryrie explains the significance of this attribute in this way “There is no action that he takes that violates any code of morality or Justice.”[12] God is not unjust in any of His actions. When He is accused of injustice by His creation, this is because God is being held to a human standard rather than humans accepting the divine standard. We must understand that God’s justice is a part of His moral character, and God’s moral character is the standard to which He holds human beings. It is on this basis that the unsaved are judged eternally. For those of us who have experienced God’s salvation, this is an important aspect of the righteousness He works in us through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Using this basic information, we are now ready to embark on our study of biblical justice. Defining the meaning of words and discussing justice as an attribute of God is not sufficient to give us the full picture of biblical justice. I believe with all my heart that the Bible is the Word of God. In the 66 books of scripture, God gives us a lot of material to show us what justice really means to Him and how it plays out in real time. My hope is that those who read the upcoming blogs will be encouraged to put personal and/or political biases aside and allow God’s Word to wash over them and give them a zeal for His justice.

[1] This statement was widely shared on Facebook in the form of a meme which attributed the quote to Dr. John MacArthur. I have not been able to find out if or where Dr. MacArthur actually said this, but he has been one of the more vocal conservative evangelicals against the “social justice movement” (e.g., his blog “The Injustice of Social Justice” ). Dr. MacArthur’s concern seems to be that if we legitimize the use of the phrase “social justice,” we are implicitly giving support to everything that culture claims is a social justice issue. He writes “Today, critical race theory, feminism, intersectional theory, LGBT advocacy, progressive immigration policies, animal rights, and other left-wing political causes are all actively vying for evangelical acceptance under the rubric of ‘social justice.’” With respect to Dr. MacArthur, I think this polarizing approach is used by many evangelicals to dodge the need to engage some real issues of injustice. If we could get rid of the adjective “social,” to which I personally have no attachment, then the progressive thinkers with whom Dr. MacArthur is concerned would simply say that all the things he mentions are issues of “Justice.” At that point, following the anti-social justice logic, we would need to start opposing “justice” and the “justice movement.” Dr. MacArthur does say that there is only “true justice” and “God’s justice” (note the use of two adjectives to describe justice). This is certainly true, however, this does not mean that God’s justice cannot be discussed in sub-categories. We could also say the only true ethics are “God’s ethics,” but does that mean we cannot distinguish sexual ethics from war ethics, etc.?

[2] I.e., the function of justice in a court and prison system.

[3] I.e., justice related to taxes, fair wages, etc.

[4] I.e., justice related to issues like abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, etc.

[5] Brown, Francis, Edward Robinson, S. R Driver, Charles A Briggs, and Wilhelm Gesenius. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament: With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic : Based on the Lexicon of William Gesenius As Translated by Edward Robinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 449, יָשָׁר.

[6] Ibid., 843, צַדִּיק.

[7] I remember the meaning of this word because it sounds like “mush pot.” In the game “Duck Duck Goose” the just consequence for getting caught is being thrown in the mush pot. I hope that is an aide in your Hebrew studies.

[8] Ibid, 1048, מִשְׁפָּט

[9] Bauer, Walter, F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, eds. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature,3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 246, δίκαιος.

[10] Ibid., 247, δικαιοσύνη.

[11] See the previous blog “From Faith to Faith: The Righteousness of Christ in Action.

[12] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1990), 48.

Author: Pete Vik