A Biblical Theology of Justice
Like it or not, our present lives cannot escape what is trending. Whether it is a kitten on a piano or a drone strike in Iraq, our smartphones bombard us with trends. Many of these last as long as a snowflake on a warm windshield, tickling us briefly only to melt away. One of these trends, however, has thrived into its teenage years: justice. Not only does the topic of justice top the Twitter lists every week, but justice has grown to embrace issues from plastic straws to the Arab Spring. Everyone cares about justice, and every aspect of life must be just.
Yet, as we consume the blogs and podcasts, one cannot help but ask (to spin off of Pilate’s question), “What is justice?” What is universally loved is widely debated. For ease of discussion, what the Left calls “just,” the Right calls “unjust” and vice versa—and the divisions within our country are also well entrenched in the church. Among evangelical Christians, who profess loyalty to Scripture, little agreement over what justice is seems to exist. It is good, therefore, to ask what the Bible says about justice. How does Scripture define justice? More precisely for our purposes, we will outline a biblical theology of justice; and as we will see, it’s not an easy task.
As it is with many biblical themes, it is helpful to begin with the end: to gaze on the glory of heaven and mark how the Lord brings us into his never-ending bliss. Indeed, several features grab us from the closing pages of Revelation with respect to justice. First, final and perfect justice is ushered in only by the “final day” and the “age to come.” In his wisdom, the Lord overlooks a plethora of injustices and wickedness in this age, but his patience ends on the day of eternity. This justice includes the perpetual fires of hell and the avenging of all wrongs for Christ’s people. According to Scripture, all justice sought and performed in this age is imperfect and remedial. For example, the only just restitution for murder is resurrection, which we anticipate when Christ returns.
Second, the performance of this ultimate justice can be executed only by the all-wise and glorified Christ. The wisdom of the Lamb alone can perform final justice. The saints may share in this with Christ, but the justice is all Christ’s.
Third, one aspect of this final justice has already taken place in history in the atonement of Christ. The cross is where Christ satisfied justice for his own, so that believers are saved from the justice they deserve. This is the gospel gem of justice in Scripture, when sinners are delivered from justice and mercy triumphs over justice for us in Christ. In this, the gospel is set over against and contrasted with justice. By justice, we are all condemned; but in Christ, we are justified by grace alone.
Yet, as we trace the trajectory of justice from Genesis to Revelation, three preliminary caution signs need to be posted. The first is that within our biblical discussions about justice, we tend to fall into the chronic error of anachronisms. Without factual evidence, our surmises about biblical characters or ideas are at best guesses, but more often are merely arrogant self-impositions. These self-imposed anachronisms pervasively affect the issues of fairness, rights, and the ideal, which are all part of justice. With patient work, we must humbly chasten ourselves to distinguish between what Scripture actually means and what we as moderns assume it to mean.
The second caution lies in the selective proof-texting that is another trend in our current writings on justice. That is, we pick the Bible verses we like, and we ignore the passages that do not fit nicely into our viewpoint. Many theories of justice resemble more their author’s opinion or agenda than the Bible. Two mercies must handle this problem. One, as sinners, our self-orientation constantly steers us toward this error, and none of us are immune. Two, the Bible is a wildly diverse document; therefore, trying to harmonize all the data of Scripture on justice is an extremely difficult endeavor—if not impossible on this side of glory. This is why our approach to justice is biblically theological, with quite modest goals.
The third danger in dealing with the issues of justice and Scripture is our modern expectations. We often want Scripture to answer our pressing problems completely and in the manner of our preferences. Similarly, our current discussions on justice are juiced up with polemical steroids. In the heat of debate, we demand Scripture to fully endorse our positions and explicitly condemn our opponents’ positions. Our present discussions reveal a penchant for simplistic sound bites and talking points. Yet more often than not, the data of Scripture do not easily support either side of the partisan divide, and the Bible is unapologetically complex about justice. Without wisdom, there is no justice, and wisdom is a most elusive virtue for humans. As the discipline of Proverbs so well impresses upon us, there is no learning without first saying, “I do not know.” So, we begin our brief time together admitting that we do not really know what justice is.
With these three dangers spotlighted, we are now better equipped to study honestly what the sacred pages of God’s word say about justice. We can humbly hold at bay our personal agendas and expectations; and we can be more aware of how different our modern presuppositions are from the ancient world of the Bible, so that we do not impose anachronistic standards on Holy Writ.
Justice and Law
While it may sound overly simplistic, the first defining ingredient in justice is the law. When we question what is just, it is the law that defines this in Scripture. On second glance, this only creates more problems for us today. What about unjust laws? We can all point to modern legislation that would not pass the justice smell test. Moreover, laws are in flux from country to country, from past to present; even within the Bible specific laws change.
Scripture is clear that justice is defined by God’s law and that the core of this law is the Lord’s unchanging moral law, which is summarily comprehended in the two laws of love: Love God and love your neighbor (WSC 41–42; Mark 12:29–31; Rom. 13:9). The love-laws form the stable foundation of justice. Yet, in a fallen world, the love-laws cover only part of justice—what is called “primary justice.” This is the positive treatment of your neighbors in which you proactively render to them the respect they are due. It covers both the active “performing good” and “doing no harm.” The Golden Rule (loving your neighbor), however, is only one side of the justice coin.
The other side is rectifying justice, which is the imposition of remedies for the violations of justice. Closely related to rectifying justice is retributive justice: the infliction of punishment for a wrongful or criminal act. In Scripture, rectifying and retributive justice are condensed in the lex talionis—eye for an eye, life for a life (Exod. 21:23–25). The lex talionis stipulates that justice requires remedies and punishments on lawbreakers and that these penalties should be proportional. Yet, the lex talionis is an interesting mix of the literal and the metaphorical. For murder, capital punishment was a literal application. Bodily injuries, however, were not generally repaid with matching injuries under Moses; instead, financial restitution could be employed (Exod. 21:18–19). Furthermore, the lex talionis imagery forms the background for much of God’s poetic justice administered in the history of the Old Testament. The takeaway is that applying the lex talionis to any particular crime is not always easily done, and ancient applications tend to rub our modern sensibilities the wrong way. In fact, we are at a loss in places to figure out precisely how Mosaic legislation and judges carried out the lex talionis.
Nevertheless, in terms of law, the Golden Rule and the lex talionis are part of the DNA of justice in Scripture. This two-sided coin, however, does not exhaust the concept of justice. Human rights and the ideal of a righteous society (peace) are key elements in the broader scope of biblical justice.
The law as the basis for justice must be taken deeper. The moral law is comprehended in the two laws of love. Our current debates about justice often act as if there is only one—love your neighbor. This is understandable as the conversation focuses on a Christian’s role in a pluralistic society. Yet in Scripture, the crowning justice is love for God. What is the most heinous felony perpetrated in history? It is humanity’s idolatrous bigotry against the one holy and infinite Triune God. Sure, the two love-laws cannot be separated, but Scripture gives the priority to God. Modern arguments against hell transgress at this very point. They will say God cannot be just if he inflicts an everlasting punishment. But it is precisely for justice that the punishment must be eternal, for it was against the Everlasting One—lex talionis.
The final preliminary point about justice as defined by the law is that the moral love-laws do not make a functional judicial system for any government or society. Love needs more laws to define what it means to love; hence, the Decalogue specifies what proper love looks like: not stealing, not committing adultery, and so on. And yet, more information is necessary for a just society. Strictly speaking, the form of the Decalogue is not judicially functional for the court, because no sanctions are attached for disobedience. The whole Mosaic legislation applies the Decalogue for a just society in Israel. But how do we love our neighbor? As we examine the various laws of Scripture, we see diversity reflected in them. The laws change across the history of the Bible; and at many points, the laws of Scripture are difficult to understand and far from exhaustive. Moving from the laws of Scripture to a modern system of justice, however, is a sticky endeavor.
Justice and Righteousness
The biblical theology of justice—its place and definition—is observed in the Lord’s redemptive story from Eden to Zion. We will map justice using two factors. First, covenant theology is the natural way God has structured Scripture and his plan. In fact, as covenant is the constitution of God’s unfolding kingdom, so covenant is the jurisdictional context within which to understand justice. The Lord administers his justice through covenant.
Second, the biblical idiom “justice and righteousness” charts the motif of justice within the great plan of salvation. This idiom actually echoed across the ancient Near East. Throughout Mesopotamia, it was generally held that the deity elected the king to administer justice and righteousness for the ideal well-being of the land and its citizens. Similarly in Israel, justice and righteousness imply the sublime, divine ideal. The Lord loves justice and righteousness (Ps. 33:5), and his throne is established with the same (Ps. 99:4). This ideal embraced all of social justice in Israel, including deliverance to the oppressed and the punishment of the wicked.1 The ultimate fruit of this righteousness and justice is peace. Of course, the Lord administered his kingdom through mediators; so by imaging God, the mediators of the covenant were called to do righteousness and justice.
Adam and Eve: In the Beginning
“It was very good.” This was God’s judgment on his fashioning the first couple after his image, which consisted in true righteousness, holiness, and knowledge (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). Psalm 8 further describes Adam and Eve as adorned with royal glory and majesty (Ps. 8:6). Queen Eve and King Adam were God’s vice-regents to execute justice and righteousness, but what did this justice look like? What laws did their righteousness perform? Several essential principles are enshrined in the original covenant of creation.
First, the value and equality of humans stands tall. All humans, male and female, are equally made in God’s image. Justice prohibits an inferior gender. Likewise, as all humanity hails from Eve and Adam, there are no inferior or master races. Justice outlaws the foul smells of racism. Moreover, by God’s creation, he granted the human right to life. Yet, it is helpful to apply this to both genders. By modern standards, such equality demands sameness in function and order. The Lord, though, does not work out the equality in this manner, as Adam is the federal head of the covenant (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22) and Eve was fashioned as Adam’s helpmeet (Gen. 2:18). The current idea that equality must remove any hierarchical order does not fit with what God did. On the other side, Eve is an equal party in the ruling and subduing in Genesis 1:28, which excludes the passage from being a proof-text for Victorian gender roles. Indeed, besides a basic headship and helpmeet, Genesis imparts very little detail on what a Christian marriage should look like.
Second, Genesis establishes the marriage relationship and purity. In their fruitfulness, man and woman are to cling together to become one, which is the creational foundation for the prohibition of adultery. Yet, in terms of a more full-orbed system of justice, nothing here explicitly addresses remarriage, divorce, or consanguinity. We need more laws to clarify.
Finally, Adam and Eve were called to rule and subdue. The question is, what should this ruling and subduing look like? Surely, the holy couple knew, but the inspired text does not explain it for us—and this is the danger. Our tendency is to color such ruling with our own opinions. Thus you can find libertarian free-market and socialist environmental positions claiming Genesis 1:28 as their own proof-text. Is one correct? Or are they both modern impositions on an ancient text?
Although more details about justice can be assessed from the covenant of creation, these are a sufficient starting point. As God’s vassals, Adam and Eve were to perform justice and righteousness. Yet this justice consists of a few skeletal laws and principles. Our duty to do justice needs more meat. So let’s see what flesh Scripture adds to these bones.
Noah: The Righteous Rainbow
The next covenant is the Noahic or the “common grace” covenant (Gen. 8:20–9:17). With sin now covering the globe, the rectifying side of justice gets a leading role. The flood itself was God’s retributive justice for human apostasy and depravity, expressed particularly in bloody violence and polygamy (Gen. 4:23–24; 6:1–4). Therefore, the lex talionis gets pride of place with the Noahic covenant (Gen. 9:6), and the use of the lex talionis grabs our attention on several levels.
To begin with, the lex talionis is linked to the image by a motive clause: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6). It is best to apply the motive clause (“for . . . ”) to the whole preceding law. The image contains value, and its right to life (when taken) requires capital punishment; the image imparts to man judicial authority to administer execution. This proportional justice affirms the human right to life and the authority for humans to carry out rectifying justice.
Nonetheless, as helpful as this law and principle are, they are quite limited. There is no hint about different degrees of murder. What about accidental killings or manslaughter? It is this very specification that is set forth under Moses in Numbers 35, but nothing is explicitly mentioned here. Next, this law covers only murder; no legislation is given that touches on property, perjury, or taxes. While the idea of the fruitfulness of marriage continues from Genesis 1–2, the command to rule and subdue is missing from 9:1. Finally, the covenant overtly grants life to apostates (8:21), which is not tolerated in Eden or in heaven. “Common grace” highlights God’s grace to allow sinners, unbelievers, and believers alike the right to life. Rightfully, we find the foundation of religious pluralism in this covenant (WCF 23:3). Yet in terms of developing a theory of justice, honesty demands that filling out the principles here requires care, so that we do not construct a mansion of human opinion on a square foot of biblical text.
Abraham: A Pilgrim People
With the Abrahamic covenant, the skeleton of justice begins to gain some weight. Here the idiom of “justice and righteousness” makes its first appearance, as the Lord declares that Abraham will command his posterity “to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19). What the justice and righteousness of Adam failed to do will be fulfilled through the line of Abraham.
Yet, the justice of Abraham is strange. His marriage to his half-sister is outlawed by Leviticus 18:9. Jacob’s union to two sisters is also forbidden by Leviticus 18:18. Jacob and Esau practice polygamy (Gen. 26:34; 29:21). Abraham sleeps with the handmaiden Hagar, and Jacob with Bilhah and Zilpah, which qualify as adultery. Abraham’s faith is criticized for going to Hagar, but the text does not judge his sexual purity. Not only that but all the patriarchs and their wives hold slaves. Jacob is a polygamist and a slave owner, who fathers children by his maids. These are deeply offensive to our modern sense of justice and rightly so. But the Lord compliments Abraham by saying, “He kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws” (Gen. 26:5).
The “justice” of Abraham, then, elucidates how building a theology of justice is no easy task. Abraham also demonstrates how the Lord’s administration of justice is not utopian but provisional, relative, and patient. The Lord mercifully accommodated the broader culture of Abraham in allowing him such marriages and servants. Before our heads swell with self-righteousness, what widespread sins of our world does the Lord overlook?
Moses: Ideal Justice?
If justice under Abraham was partial and not ideal, then surely the Mosaic covenant will paint the utopian colors of justice, which is why our modern discussions regularly reach to the Mosaic theocracy for its exegetical foundation. Terms such as “liberation,” “equality,” and “preferential option for the poor” are heralded as the biblical ideal of a just society. Although these words are found in Moses, we need to reflect on their definitions. Today, “liberation” connotes no slavery and equal pay. “Equality” implies sameness in wealth and class, a classless society. “Preference for the poor” defines poverty as inherently oppressive and the poor as more virtuous or authentic. I am not being critical of these ideas; as a product of modernity, I lean toward such ideas. The issue here, however, is whether these ideas are necessarily biblical.
The Lord did redeem Israel from slavery and grant them relief from oppression. The result of this freedom, though, was that Israel became the slaves of the Lord (Lev. 25:55). Slavery of fellow Israelites was forbidden, but the Israelites could buy, sell, and pass on foreigners as slaves to their children (Exod. 21:2–6; Lev. 25:45–36); and Israel was allowed to take women in battle as plunder and as wives (Deut. 20:14). While we today deem such practices as racist, God did not under Moses.
In the land allotment, every Israelite male became a landowner, but sojourners were forbidden from permanently owning property. Citizenship was granted only to Israelites, and sojourners were second-class. Kings, priests, elders, and laity were consistent classes in Israel. As Raymond Westbrook states, “Social justice was regarded in the ancient Near East as the preservation of the status quo” of the hierarchal society, and it was not different in Israel.2 The poor were highlighted as special objects of justice. But the Old Testament evaluates poverty as arising out of many sources: oppression, laziness, divine punishment, and bad luck. The poor were under God’s protection (Prov. 19:17), but poverty was not an infrequent curse of the covenant.
Despite these strange forms of justice, the Lord insists over and over again that his grand plan for justice and righteousness will come through the Mosaic covenant. As it says, the nations will marvel at the righteous judgments and laws of Israel (Deut. 4:8). The historical high point comes with David, about whom it is written, “David performed justice and righteousness for all his people” (2 Sam. 8:15). Here, David is painted in idyllic colors—he is the true king. The Mosaic Law embodies perfect righteousness, and David is the king performing this justice and righteousness. Yet two essential concepts need to be highlighted at this point.
The first is clearly seen with Solomon. When God granted Solomon a wish, he praised Solomon for asking for an understanding mind to do justice. When Solomon asked for wisdom to do justice and righteousness, he put his finger on an essential biblical principle: the law is not enough for justice—wisdom is required. The Lord mandates wisdom to apply the law to the endless diversity of moral situations in life. This is what we have seen from Adam, Noah, and Abraham. The skeletal principles and laws demand wisdom from us to apply. It was the same even with the most extensive legislation of Moses.
The second concept appears particularly with the Hebrew word for “vengeance” (nqm). This vengeance was appealed to in the breakdown of justice, when it was humanly impossible for a wronged human to obtain justice. For victims, there was no lawful way to redress their wrongs, and personal retaliation was prohibited (Deut. 32:35), so the individual or nation could pray to God to exact vengeance. Within the limits of laws, in the absence of wisdom, the Lord promised his people that he would execute vengeance on their behalf (Jer. 51:36; Ps. 79:10; 94:1).
We, of course, know the outcome of the Mosaic endeavor: the Davidic kings failed to perform justice and righteousness (Jer. 22:3, 15), and their wisdom fell short. The Lord then promised a new and greater king, using the imagery of justice and righteousness. He will succeed where all failed before him, his name will be called “Yahweh is our righteousness” (Jer. 23:5–6), and he will bring justice to Israel and to the nations (Isa. 42:1). The Lord’s plan for justice and righteousness will reach its zenith in Jesus Christ.
The Righteous One
Adorned with the promises of Isaiah of releasing the captives and proclaiming freedom, Jesus Christ was going to perform justice and righteousness in the new covenant. Yet given the expectations of the Old Testament, we have to admit that Jesus does not quite measure up. In terms of societal justice, Jesus did little to nothing. He healed a few servants, but he did not grant a single one freedom (Matt. 8:13). He did not free anyone from prison; in fact, he left John the Baptist there to die. Jesus did not help anyone get hired for a job or move them up the social ladder. Instead, he called for people to sell their possessions. Jesus and John certainly exhorted the people to be righteous (Luke 3:13–14; 19:8) and to cease exploitation. But consider this contrast: about twenty years before Jesus’ ministry, a revolutionary named Judas proclaimed that Roman taxation was no better than slavery and called on people not to pay (Jos. Ant. 18.4). Jesus, however, simply asserted, “Render to Caesar” (Matt. 22:21). For the Zealots, being a tax collector was an illegitimate vocation, but not for Jesus. Many of our modern ideas of justice, on the Left or on the Right, look a good deal like gentrification. This, Jesus was not.
Moreover, the apostles’ application of Jesus’ ministry to the church does not help us much. Both Paul and Peter called for obedience and for taxes to go to Rome, which facilitated state-funded idolatry. Paul did not demand that Christian slave owners free their slaves; and the positions of church officers were reserved for men alone. Without a doubt, the apostles robustly believed that the gospel changes lives and makes us fruitful in righteousness and justice. But there is little evidence that Paul expected our obedience to revolutionize the Roman status quo.
So what justice did Jesus clearly perform? It was on the cross. Christ’s atonement satisfied justice and paid the penalty for the supreme injustice: our rebellion against God. Paul could not say it more clearly, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). Christ fulfilled justice so that we, the ungodly, might be justified through faith and so become heirs of mercy. Because Christ satisfied wrath, we are not treated according to the law as we deserve, but we graciously receive the salvation that we do not deserve. The gospel is about the Father treating us not by the law but by mercy.
What, then, is the next act of Christ’s justice? Again Paul: God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:31). On the final day, the wrath of the Lamb will come, and his judgment will be just and true. This season of gospel mercy will cease with Christ’s final justice and righteousness. When the New Testament considers justice, its hope has eyes only for the Consummation.
Where does that leave us? As the church, we are commissioned to herald the free gospel of grace—a mercy that triumphs over justice. We proclaim mercy as the opposite of the lex talionis. As individuals, Scripture arms us with the fundamental but skeletal principles of the moral law, and it calls us to wisdom. In wisdom, there is diversity of application within our unity in Christ. Indeed, as we struggle to apply justice and righteousness across our lives and world, we realize just how weak and limited is our wisdom. As our best efforts fall short, as the world hates us for our faith in Christ, grace lifts our eyes away from this ephemeral age to gaze on glory and pray, “Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly.” For then, and only then, will we enjoy the fullness of Christ’s justice and righteousness in the holy peace of heaven.
Zach Keele is pastor of Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church in California and a lecturer in Greek, Hebrew, and English Bible Survey at Westminster Seminary California. He is the author of a commentary on Judges for the Rafiki Foundation (2009) and several articles and book reviews in New Horizons, the denominational magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
- See Moshe Weinfeld, Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 25–44.
- Raymond Westbrook, A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law , vol. 1 (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 160.