The word “justice” is the language of rights. As DeYoung explained, “Justice, as a biblical category, is not synonymous with anything and everything we feel would be good for the world,” though our culture is beginning to use it that way. Rather, it refers to receiving what you’re owed by right and not taking from others what is theirs by right.
Our ability to explain the gospel to people in our culture depends on our culture’s ability to understand the concept of justice. Because of this, over the years I’ve become concerned about a drift in the meaning of the word “justice”—even in Christian circles (see here for a recent example), among respected friends I usually agree with—as the term “social justice” is increasingly embraced and used.
I appreciated Kevin DeYoung’s words on this topic last week:
I have my concerns with the term “social justice” and with all that it connotes. But what if we press for a less culturally controlled and more biblically defined understanding? Several years ago, I worked my way through the major justice passages in the Bible: Leviticus 19, Leviticus 25,Isaiah 1, Isaiah 58, Jeremiah 22, Amos 5, Micah 6:8, Matthew 25:31-46,and Luke 4. My less-than-exciting conclusion was that we should not oversell or undersell what the Bible says about justice. On the one hand, there is a lot in the Bible about God’s care for the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. There are also plenty of warnings against treating the helpless with cruelty and disrespect. On the other hand, justice, as a biblical category, is not synonymous with anything and everything we feel would be good for the world. Doing justice means following the rule of law, showing impartiality, paying what you promised, not stealing, not swindling, not taking bribes, and not taking advantage of the weak because they are too uninformed or unconnected to stop you.
I agree with DeYoung’s description of justice in the Bible. The word “justice” is the language of rights. As DeYoung explained, “Justice, as a biblical category, is not synonymous with anything and everything we feel would be good for the world,” though our culture is beginning to use it that way. Rather, it refers to receiving what you’re owed by right and not taking from others what is theirs by right. My concern with the term “social justice” is this: It muddies the true meaning of justice by smuggling in the concept of rights where that concept shouldn’t apply, turning charity into what is owed, and this has implications for the gospel (more on this in a moment).
Giving Is Not a Matter of Justice
Giving your money to the poor is not justice; it’s mercy. Taking other people’smoney by force (whether through the government or any other means) and giving it to the poor is neither justice nor mercy; it’s injustice—it’s taking what someone else has earned, against his will, for either yourself or others. Does this mean giving to the poor is wrong? Of course not! Should the rich man give to the poor? Absolutely! A good man does what is good. A good man shows compassion. A good man sacrifices his comfort willingly for the sake of others. (Just look at Jesus, who is our ultimate model of this kind of love and grace.) A bad man hoards his wealth and has no compassion on the needy. Not giving to others is wrong. But the fact that it’s wrong doesn’t make giving a matter of justice. This is because “justice” refers to a particular good thing, not every good thing, and giving is simply in a separate category from justice.
Justice is receiving what you have earned or what you are owed by right—whether good or bad. Receiving the money you have earned is justice. Taking money that someone else has earned is injustice. Giving is something different altogether. When you give, you are not giving a person what he has earned; you are graciously showing mercy out of love. To say that giving is a matter of justice is to create a false sense in our culture that one is entitled to another person’s grace—that rich people who earned their money lawfully owe money to the poor, i.e., that it’s a matter of justice. There are some categories of political ideas that do argue that wealth equality is a matter of justice (i.e., that the poor are owed the money of the rich for various reasons), but I don’t think there’s any biblical basis for this.