Our culture is awash in calls for “justice.” The demands for it echo from school board meetings to social media posts to the rancorous debates on nightly cable news programs. The term “social justice warriors” has become an insult or a badge of honor, depending on your political worldview.
However, what exactly is justice? Since entire Christian denominations have been engulfed in controversies over the subject of justice in America, it’s critically important that believers know what the Bible actually says about it.
First, it is important to note that the Bible talks about “justice” a lot. For example, Psalm 89:14 says about God, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; lovingkindness and truth go before You.”
This verse contains a hint about what true biblical justice is because of the word that precedes it - righteousness.
Righteousness and the kingdom of God
In Scripture, the word “righteousness” can be understood in two general ways:
- it refers to being in right standing with God and
- it refers to right conduct that reflects the perfectly good character of God.
The word is also inextricably connected to the concept of the kingdom of God. Hebrews 1:8-9 says,
But of the Son He says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of His kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness above Your companions.”
Under monarchies, a scepter was an ornate staff––short or long––that was a visible expression of the authority of the ruling king. Thus, vs. 8 is saying that righteousness is the expression of the authority of Jesus Christ as King.
How seriously does God take the matter of righteousness? The passage states that the Son of God loves righteousness, and He hates lawlessness, which is an attitude and lifestyle that reject the commandments of God. Jesus Christ is not indifferent to lawlessness. He does not wink at it. He does not tolerate it. He hates it.
These facts about Jesus are linked to His relationship with the Father: Because Jesus Christ loves righteousness and hates lawlessness, “therefore” God the Father has anointed Him as King.
The New Testament makes clear that God through Jesus Christ the King is purging the earth of unrighteousness. Of course, the completion of the task will require the return of Christ, but the task itself reveals the heart of God toward both righteousness and wickedness.
In Matthew 13:41-43, Jesus says He will send forth His angels to remove “all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness.” The result will be that “the righteous will shine forth as the sun.”
A few verses later, Jesus teaches the parable of the dragnet (vv. 47-50). Again, Jesus says the angels will “take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire.”
In other words, there are only two categories of people, “the wicked” and “the righteous,” and they will not co-exist forever. At the end of the age, there will be a final separation of the two lines of humanity, and that separation will be permanent.
This is a terrifying reality. The Apostle Paul in several places warns people who, for example, attend church but remain committed to unrighteousness, are in grave spiritual danger.
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. (See also Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:5.)
Those who have not trusted in Jesus Christ for their righteousness but instead practice lawlessness are facing eternal ruin.
Righteousness and justice
Even many Christians today appear to discount God’s attitude toward righteousness. As a result, they also fail to understand how righteousness is connected biblically to the theme of justice.
In Scripture, the word justice reflects righteousness. In other words, what is “just” is that which is righteous in God’s eyes.
Psalm 33:5 says that God “loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the lovingkindness of the Lord.”
In a verse like this, “righteousness” is God’s standard for human behavior, while “justice” is the expression––the application––of righteousness among the people.
For example, take the issue of wealth in a capitalist society like the U.S. In Luke 16:19-31, we read the story of Lazarus and the rich man. In this passage, Jesus offers no rebuke to the rich man for being rich per se. Instead, the man is damned for being selfish with his wealth and ignoring human suffering when he had the means to alleviate it. Unrighteousness in the inner man gives birth to unjust behavior outwardly.
“It’s not fair!”
Our culture has taken a different perspective on the word “justice.” For many Americans, justice means that which is fair and equal in the eyes of the majority of the people. “It’s not fair!” has become the claim that quite often carries the day in public opinion and even in the court system.
However, when the Bible mentions “justice,” it is not saying that we are called to treat people fairly but rather we are called to treat people rightly in God’s eyes.
True enough, acting righteously might sometimes appear to be doing what’s “fair,” because righteousness, justice, and fairness do intersect on occasion. But what people think is fair, like a woman’s right to abortion, is not necessarily right.
So, whether we are talking about how the poor are treated, whether or not our society is racist, or whether or not homosexuals can marry, the word “justice” can only be said to be used biblically if it reflects God’s viewpoint.
Returning to the example of the rich man in Luke 16, many people today complain that it is unfair for wealthy people to have so much money; therefore, society should take from the rich and give to the less fortunate.
However, biblically-speaking the Christian should put the focus on two other issues:
- Was the wealth gathered in an unrighteous manner, such as by fraud, thievery, bribery, or the like?
- If the wealth was gathered in a righteous manner, such as by creativity or business acumen, was it or was it not used in a manner that is right in God’s eyes? If it was used for purely selfish reasons, it could very well be said to have been used unjustly.
Justice and judgment
Tragically, in Supreme Court rulings on matters like abortion and same-sex marriage, what the nation now views as “just” in America is actually unjust in God’s eyes because unrighteousness is being promoted.
This kind of behavior - a nation acting in complete disregard for the will of God - can lead to another related word: judgment. This is the application of the standard of righteousness with a view to either approving or disapproving of human behavior. While the judgment of God can exonerate a person, most Bible readers are only too familiar with that other result - condemnation and the consequences that follow.
Paul says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).
Unrighteousness and injustice can result in the judgment of God because that judgment is the setting right of all that is not right.
Psalm 72 is written by King Solomon as a prayer for himself, but it is also thought to refer to the Messiah. The Psalm says, “Give the king Your judgments, O God, and Your righteousness to the king’s son. May he judge Your people with righteousness and Your afflicted with justice” (vv. 1-2).
Every Christian should desire, pray for, and work toward what is right in God’s eyes. That will result in a biblical justice that, while it might not please the world, will always please the King of kings.
One could say that the true “social justice warrior,” biblically speaking, is the Christian man or woman who promotes God’s righteousness in society.