What Does the Bible Say About Social Justice? (With Audio)

Audio of “What Does the Bible say About Social Justice?” (1.5 hours)
Venn Diagram of "social justice" versus "Biblical righteous/justice"

2 Cautions

  1. The phrase, “social justice,” is used 0 times in the Bible. No doubt some of the concepts people mean by “social justice,” are biblical, but there are many today who have attached very harmful and unbiblical meaning behind the words, “social justice,” as well. Christians should use caution in using this term, defining it very clearly if you need to use it.
  2. The gospel is the foundation of Christianity. It tells of a God who was unjustly treated by humans so that He could justly pay the penalty we deserved in his crucifixion–giving us grace and mercy instead of mere justice. This gospel must be our starting point, which tells us “justice” alone is insufficient, and even injustice can be used by the Lord for amazing things.

God’s Justice

“The righteousness of God has been manifested…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 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. 3:21-26)

In this powerful paragraph, we see 7 references to the concept of “righteousness” / “justice”. In God’s economy, these words are joined together and even used interchangeably. In truth, many different Hebrew and Greek words are all translated as “justice”, “just”, “righteous”: tsaddiq (Hebrew), shaphat (Hebrew), din (Hebrew), yashar (Hebrew), dike (Greek), krino (Greek). And these don’t include the derivative words that also share the same root that points to “justice” / “righteous” by God’s definition.

This makes it difficult to give a concise definition of biblical justice. C.S. Lewis relates it to “fairness,” (Mere Christainity, 1952, p. 79), while the Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary (2013) sees it as, “an embodiment of two contemporary concepts: righteousness and justice,” (see “Justice” entry), and Calvin Beisner recognizes that true justice must, “accord with the righteous standard of God’s moral law,” (“Social Justice vs. Biblical Justice, 2nd Ed.,” 2020).

However it is defined, the emphasis is clear that the standard of justice/righteousness must be God and His Word:

  • “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just” (Gen. 18:25)
  • “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice…just and upright is He.” (Deut. 32:4)
  • “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it completely.” (Prov. 28:5)
  • “It is from the LORD that a man gets justice.” (Prov. 29:26)

And while the concept of, “justice,” is part of the “weightier” matters of God’s law (Matt. 23:23), this must always be held in tandem with attributes like mercy and grace (Micah 6:8; Matt. 23:23). In fact, we might consider that God tells us to, “do justice,” and, “love mercy,” showing that He wants us to especially cherish mercy, even while we need to uphold justice and righteousness. This matches his own character wherein, “mercy triumphs over judgment,” (James 2:13). 

And thus we return to the gospel where God:

  1. Had to act justly (even at the cost of His precious Son).
  2. Paid a higher cost to extend grace and mercy to all of us who are undeserving.

What Justice Isn’t

Recognizing that God’s justice (a) must be biblically defined, and (b) is reflected in the gospel, we can now consider what God’s justice isn’t.

Namely, God’s justice isn’t:

  • driven by emotion or anger (Prov. 6:30-31; Jer. 10:24)
  • determined by how “well-meaning” someone is (John 16:2)
  • self-seeking (2 Sam. 15:4; Luke 12:13-21)
  • seeking equal outcomes (Matt. 20:1-16; 25:14-30–even equal pay)
  • concerned with externals as much as intentions (Deut. 19:1-13)
  • determined privately or hastily (Deut. 19:15-21; 1 Tim. 5:19)
  • meant to be isolated from God’s mercy and love (Micah 6:8; Matt. 23:23; Rom. 3:21-26)
  • executed outside God’s authority (Lev. 19:18; Rom. 12:19-13:7–including delegated authorities)
    • Note: God’s authority includes Kings (1 Pet. 2:13-14–and other government leaders, over citizens), Shepherds (Heb. 13:7; 1 Pet. 5:5–i.e. church leaders over saints), Fathers & Mothers (Eph. 6:1-4–over children), Husbands (Eph. 5:22–over wives), Masters (Eph. 6:5–e.g. employers, over servants). But consider that God Himself is the “King of Kings, (1 Tim. 6:15), “Chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4), “Father” (Eph. 3:14), “Husband” (Eph. 5:23-24), and “Lord of Lords” / “Master” (Deut. 10:17; 1 Tim. 6:15). In other words, relative, delegated authority is always a pale comparison to God’s absolute authority (and should never be followed where they contradict God’s clear instructions).
  • hurting or killing the unborn (Exod. 21:22-25)
  • attainable outside of Christ’s Final Judgment (Ecc. 3:16-17; 5:8; Matt. 5:39; Rev. 6:9-11)
  • anything in conflict with His word and character

What Justice Is

In contrast, biblically-defined justice:

  • Is a “weightier” command (Gen. 18:19; Micah 6:8; Matt. 23:23-24)
  • Honors God, and thereby people (made in His image) (Exod. 20)
  • Accords with loving your neighbor as yourself = sacrificially showing God’s care (which accords with His word and character) to others (Matt. 7:12; Luke 10:25-37; 1 Cor. 5:9-13; Gal. 5:14; Eph. 5:25-30)
    • In the gospel, God’s ultimate love for us upheld his word/justice by sacrificing Christ, while extending forgiveness and blessing to those who repent and believe. For us to likewise love, we, too, should be sacrificial, uphold God’s word, extend God’s forgiveness and blessing–and especially to those willing to repent and believe.
    • Lev. 5:1; 19:11, 17; Eph. 4:25; Heb. 6:18; Rev. 21:8 – speak honestly and forthrightly 
    • Lev. 19:9-10; 1 Tim. 6:18 – be generous with God’s surplus
    • Lev. 19:11-13; Eph. 4:28 – don’t take what doesn’t belong to you
    • Lev. 19:14 – don’t add extra obstacles for the disadvantaged
    • Etc.
  • Comes alongside God’s mercy and love (Micah 6:8; Matt. 23:23; Rom. 3:21-26; James 2:13)
  • Treats claims of injustice as innocent until proven guilty (Deut. 19:15; John 7:51; 1 Cor. 13:7; 1 Tim. 5:19)
  • Is 100% impartial (Lev. 19:15; 24:22; Deut. 1:16-17; 1 Pet. 1:17)
    • Including ensuring the weaker are not unjustly treated (Deut. 10:18-19; 15:1-2, 4-5, 11; Job 31; Psalm 146:7-9; Is. 58:6-7; Ezek. 18)
  • Never seeks more than proportional retribution (Exod. 21:23-25; Matt. 5:38-39)
  • Renders back what people are due (Rom. 2:6-8; 13:2, 7)
  • Should be in the church primarily (Deut. 15; Matt. 25; Acts 2; 4; 1 Cor. 5:9-13; 2 Cor. 8-9; Gal. 6:10; 1 Tim. 2:1-2)
    • Helps the widows and poor (especially believers), but in a way that empowers and benefits them, and doesn’t add too much burden to the church as a whole (Acts 6; 2 Thes. 3; 1 Tim. 5)
  • Needs the gospel, the Holy Spirit, and God’s word to faithfully implement (Isaiah 55:8-11; John 14-16; Titus 3:1-7)

Start with the Gospel

Not only is the gospel the focus and what is “of first importance,” (1 Cor. 15:3) to the Christian, but it also should be the starting point for considering and walking in all matters of the Christian faith (including that of justice).

For instance, notice how it applies to:

  • Luke 10:25-37: You witnessing an injustice. In that story, all barriers are broken as a sworn enemy of a certain group of people decides to show mercy. But consider that the “good Samaritan” saw the man “half dead” and sacrificed some of his money. Whereas Jesus saw us who were sworn rebels of His, fully dead in our trespasses, and yet offered His very life for us. You can’t improve on this gospel starting point for helping others suffering injustice around you.
  • Matt. 18:21-35; 1 Pet. 2:21-25: You suffering unjustly. Here, again, we are beckoned to look to the great debt Christ forgave us of in the gospel, and also follow his example in suffering unjustly on the cross. Turning our attention back to the gospel empowers us to forgive and to entrust God (not seeking personal retribution) when we suffer unjustly.
  • Rom. 3:26; 8:32; 1 Pet. 1:17: You as an authority presiding over alleged injustice. And lastly, if you are in a situation where you are the authority figure presiding over injustice, you do the best to see how God handled a similar situation in the gospel. There He couldn’t tolerate injustice/unrighteousness, even at the cost of His Son. In like manner, judge righteously even at great cost to you or your family. Further, He did look for ways to extend mercy and grace (while upholding justice), which also cost Him severely. May we–by the power of God’s Spirit–do likewise as gospel-people.

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