What is Justice?

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Is this justice?

Conformity to God’s moral standard as revealed in the Ten Commandments and the Royal Law: “love your neighbor as yourself.” Justice involves giving people their due as image-bearers of God. It also involves the work of God, and God-ordained authorities (including parents in the home, elders in the church, teachers in the school, and civil authorities in the state) impartially rendering judgment, righting wrongs, and meting out punishment for lawbreaking.

How about this?

Deconstructing traditional systems and structures deemed to be oppressive, and redistributing power and resources from oppressors to their victims in the pursuit of equality of outcome.

Given these radically different definitions, what does the word “justice” actually mean?

Which definition is correct?

As our friend John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, is fond of saying, “It’s no good having the same vocabulary if we’re using different dictionaries.”

Words matter. They shape our ideas and form our belief systems. These belief systems, in turn, drive our culture, which shapes how we think and behave, for good or bad.

Most people take words for granted. We use them but rarely take time to think about them, unaware of their incredible power. All cultural change, however, begins with language change.

Look again at the two definitions above. The first is rooted in the Scripture and historic Western thought and tradition. It assumes the reality of God and objective moral law. From this definition derives such bedrock principles as the rule of law, due process, and equality under the law.

The second is rooted in atheistic philosophies that emerged in Europe in the 1700s. It traces its lineage back to famous philosophers and activists such as Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, and Michel Foucault. It assumes no God or transcendent moral law. Rather, it sees a world divided between evil oppressors and innocent victims in a never-ending, zero-sum power struggle.

Today, in Western cultures, the second definition of justice is ascendant. It is taught to our youth in public schools and universities. It is reinforced in the corporate world, the media, in arts and entertainment, and government.

The second definition typically adds the modifier “social,” as in “social justice.” Because it is sourced in atheistic philosophy we are not surprised when non-Christians like Robin DiAngelo, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Ibram X. Kendi promote this definition.

It is sobering and alarming, however, to see many Bible-believing evangelicals championing the second definition, or sowing confusion by conflating the two definitions. Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition does so by stating, “Biblical justice includes all forms of God-ordained justice, including … social justice.”

God raised the church to advance His kingdom of goodness, light, and beauty into this fallen world. One of the most important ways we do this is by communicating and embodying the powerful, life-giving words of God in Scripture—words such as freedom, love, compassion, and justice.

True biblical definitions give rise to distinctively Christian cultures. In the words of theologian Robert Lewis Wilken, “culture lives by language, and the sentiments, thoughts, and feelings of a Christian culture are formed and carried by the language of the Scriptures.” 

So when the evangelical church intentionally or unintentionally exchanges the biblical definition of a word–especially a word as important as justice–with a counterfeit, it is no small matter. If the evangelical church continues to confuse or conflate biblical justice with social justice, it will be rapidly syncretized into a profoundly destructive and unbiblical ideology that will do incalculable harm to its mission and witness in this world.

Justice is one of the most important words in the Bible. It is one of the most important concepts in any culture. If the Bible-believing church abandons genuine justice in favor of a destructive cultural counterfeit, who will be left to uphold and defend the truth? The stakes are very high.

On September 15, my newest book, Why Social Justice Is Not Biblical Justice: An Urgent Appeal to Fellow Christians in a Time of Social Crisis will be released. I encourage you to visit our website to learn more about it and sign up for news and updates related to its release. 

My fervent prayer is that this book will remind evangelical brothers and sisters what true justice is, and why it matters so much to our mission to disciple the nations. I pray it will help the church recognize and reject the counterfeit, and hold fast to the genuine article, no matter how unpopular or countercultural it may be.

Each generation of Christians must uphold and defend the truth and pass it on to future generations, including the truth about justice. This book represents my small and imperfect attempt to do so.

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