Book Review: Generous Justice, by Tim Keller
Two months ago I was asked to write a Sunday School class introducing the entire book of Isaiah. I felt somewhat competent with the book and its message since Isaiah has long been one of my favorites. So I accepted the assignment.
The Bible, in response, was unwilling to be regarded so lightly; and it decided to remind me, as it often does, that my professions of competence over it are those of a small yipping dog. Reading through Isaiah, sure enough, I discovered an entire theme I had not really noticed before; you might even call it a major theme in the book: justice.
The word shows up five times in just the first chapter: Israel is commanded to “seek justice” and “bring justice to the fatherless” and “widow” (1:17). Its people are condemned because, though they were once “full of justice,” no longer do they “bring justice” (1:21, 23). And we’re told that Zion will be redeemed “by justice” (1:27). On and on the book goes, mentioning the word 24 more times.
One more example: I’ve often meditated on those wonderful words about the servant—“a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (42:3). Yet somehow I had never paid attention to the fact that justice is mentioned three times in those same verses: the servant will “bring forth justice,” “faithfully bring forth justice,” and “establish justice” (42:1, 3, 4). Interpret any one text how you will, the book of Isaiah seems to say that justice is a pretty big deal with God.
The experience of reading Timothy Keller’s latest offering, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, felt very similar. Keller does not manipulate the emotions with heart-rending stories or melodramatic rhetoric. He does not offer slanted and reductionistic readings of redemptive history in order to reinforce his political ideology. He just points to a bunch of biblical texts. It’s a grownup’s book, not a young zealot’s or an ideologue’s. The first five of eight chapters, in fact, are chock-full of Bible. A good pastor, Keller knows that all those texts, faithfully interpreted, will do their own work of pressing into a believer’s heart. Again, say what you will about any one text, you look at the whole pile and think, “There sure are a lot of them.”
Generous Justice contains two basic ideas, and you can see these in the title and subtitle. First, God’s work of graciously justifying a person will inevitably result in the believer’s desire to be just and to do justice. Justice follows justification. God’s grace makes us just, as the subtitle puts it. If you are a Christian, you should have a growing desire to see justice done, both in this life and the next. And that desire should increasingly evidence itself in your actions and life-decisions.
Second, the idea of justice is not simply about just deserts or equitable punishment before the law. It’s also about giving people their due as beings made in the image of God. For the convicted criminal, yes, this means punishment. But for the person stuck in poverty, the command to “do justice” (Micah 6:8) might call us to relief work, development work, or the work of social reform. Typically, Christians think of such activities as “charity.” But if a person’s poverty results at least in part from larger structural problems beyond his or her control, then we must address those larger issues in order to be just—in order to give the person his or her due and establish right relationships. In other words, being just in these circumstances means being generous, like the book’s title suggests. Justice is not just a responsive activity warranted by transgressions of the law, it’s an initiating and forward-leaning activity. It involves going “to places where the fabric of shalom has broken down, where the weaker members of societies are falling through the fabric, and to repair it” (177). As many others have done, Keller calls this larger concept of justice which combines both just deserts and social righteousness social justice.
Ever the evangelist and apologist, Keller writes not just for the Christian, but for the skeptical non-Christian who is convinced that Christianity is one of history’s greatest sources of injustice. Biblical Christianity, Keller argues, leads to just the opposite. Again, social justice follows justification, and social justice is generous.
The topic of justice or social justice, in my opinion, is more complex than Christians may at first realize. It’s difficult hermeneutically and theologically: it’s connected, like a blackberry deep in the bramble, to a host of other thorny questions about the nature of the gospel, good deeds, the church institutional and organic, canonical continuity, eschatology, church and state, and more. The topic is difficult emotionally: stories of poverty, ethnic discrimination, and other forms of injustice hit us in the gut, making sound judgment a little bit harder. And it’s difficult spiritually: our hearts are small and reluctant to make sacrifices for others, but they are also susceptible to legalistic and misplaced guilt. Countless are the writers and preachers who have tried to navigate these treacherous waters only to crash their vessels into one of the rocks—this writer included. But Keller, I believe, manages to sail us successfully betwixt the crags and through the froth.
THE INSTITUTIONAL AND ORGANIC CHURCH
For instance, many writers and preachers today smother the distinction between a local church’s primary obligations and a Christian’s. Drawing from Abraham Kuyper’s idea of “sphere sovereignty,” however, Keller patiently explains the difference between the institutional church (the congregation meeting together with its leaders to hear God’s Word and celebrate the ordinances) and the organic church (individual Christians scattered throughout the world). Then he argues that we should not assume that both are called to do exactly the same thing:
The church should help believers shape every area of their lives with the gospel….But that doesn’t mean that the church as an institution is itself to do everything it equips its members to do. For example, while the church should disciple its members who are filmmakers so that their cinematic art will be profoundly influenced by the gospel, that does not mean that the church should establish a company that produces feature films. (144)
The institutional and organic church bears a similar division of labor when it comes to doing justice. The institutional church “is to evangelize and nurture believers in Christian community,” which in turn “produces individuals who change society” even though “the local congregation should not itself engage in these enterprises” (145). Keller sees some room for churches institutionally conceived to carry out ministries of relief, but he encourages them to refrain from the more complex and involved work of social reform.
ASYMMETRICAL AND INSEPARABLE
It’s also common these days to insist on the “both/and” of word ministry and deed ministry. It’s said that the Bible calls for words and deeds, and so our ministries should be marked by the same. They’re like the two-wings of a bird, and we should do both for their own sake. Some would even say that doing justice is evangelism.
Well, yes and no, says Keller. Yes, we need something of a both/and, but don’t confuse one for the other or even say they are equally important. “Evangelism [speaking words] is the most basic and radical ministry possible to a human being. This is not true because the spiritual is more important than the physical, but because the eternal is more important than the temporal” (139).
Keller helpfully captures the relationship between evangelism and social justice, or words and deeds, by saying that they “exist in an asymmetrical, inseparable relationship” (ibid). You need both; they are inseparable. But one is more important than the other; they are asymmetrical—unlike the two wings of a bird. Here’s one helpful summary of his view:
I urge my readers to discern the balance I am seeking to strike. If we confuse evangelism and social justice we lose what is the single most unique service that Christians can offer the world. Others, alongside believers, can feed the hungry. But Christians have the gospel of Jesus by which men and women can be born again into the certain hope of eternal life. No one else can make such an invitation. However, many Christians who care intensely about evangelism see the work of doing justice as a distraction for Christians that detracts from the mission of evangelism. That is also a grave error. (141)
I believe Keller is exactly right (I’ve previously used the less elegant language of “both/and with distinctions”) so long as I can provide three qualifications. First, “inseparable” must be understood normatively (what we should do), not absolutely. People can be evangelized and converted without good deeds, whereas they cannot be evangelized and converted without words (e.g., radio ministries or Phil. 1:15-18). Obviously, this is part of the asymmetry. Second, we should take care not to privilege social justice over other areas of gospel obedience. Many evangelicals do seem to privilege it since it’s one area of the church’s life that just might win praise from outsiders, unlike, say, sexual fidelity. But privileging it risks turning social justice into another form of legalism. Third, along the same lines, we should make sure that our overall ministries as pastors, elders, and churches reflect this asymmetry. I assume Keller would agree with these qualifications.
To a large extent, Keller avoids “entering into debates over the nature of [Christ’s inaugurated] kingdom and other matters of ‘eschatalogy’” since he believes that “an extremely strong case for doing justice and caring for the poor can be made” without doing so (203, n. 61.). And I think he’s right—a strong case is made. But this means he tries to avoid siding, at least in this book, with the so-called transformationalists, who say that our work of social justice actually redeems culture and ushers in the kingdom of the new heavens and the new earth; or siding with the two-kingdoms advocates, who would say that our work of social justice does not redeem culture or usher in the final kingdom, per se, but it signifies our citizenship before Christ the King as we seek to ensure that his redemptive rule extends into every area of our lives, physical and spiritual, secular and sacred. (I’m working with David VanDrunen’s more careful, less caricatured conception of the two-kingdoms. See reviews of VanDrunen’s books here and here.)
What that means is, Keller writes in a way that should basically satisfy the two kingdoms minimum. He doesn’t pack “eschatological freight,” to use VanDrunen’s phrase, onto our works of social justice. He doesn’t say they are ushering in end-time realities. He doesn’t say we can redeem culture.
Now, while reading the final chapter I did wonder if he does carry a small handbag of such freight. He begins the chapter by observing that the whole world stopped “working right” when we lost our relationship with God. So far, so good. But then he tells an extended story about an entire community which learned sign language as an example of sacrificing themselves for the less advantaged and so “doing justice.” He doesn’t quite say that this community restored God’s creation shalom, but the story’s placement will leave all but the most careful reader assuming that’s exactly what he means. And the problem with that assumption, of course, is that it contradicts the earlier point about a broken relationship with God being the source of injustice and brokenness in the world. Self-sacrifice and sign language, by themselves, don’t fix this basic problem between us and God and so restore creation shalom. At most, they can signify what a fixed relationship will look like.
Then again, I’d like to say that that’s all Keller means for the sign language story to teach, because a little later in the chapter he observes that even the Nazis enjoyed the beauty of Mozart while slaughtering Jews. He recognizes that peace, beauty, and even justice in this world will not ultimately redeem people. Only Christ redeems.
In short, a Christian’s work of social justice makes the world a better place. It demonstrates a Christ-like love for sinners. It points to a world to come, whether that world is a replacement or a transformed version of our present world. But such work does not “redeem” the world. I’m fairly confident Keller would affirm all this. Still, it has to be said, he keeps his kingdom and eschatology cards close to his chest. And once or twice he feels a smidgeon too optimistic for me, but his overall exhortation to justice and caring for the poor certainly does not require one to hold a transformationalist position, which I do not. If Keller’s habit of always planting himself in a “third way” is any indication, he probably sees both sides of the debate!
Keller wonderfully concludes the chapter and the book by pointing readers squarely toward the one thing that will make them just: beholding God’s work of becoming man, identifying himself with sinners, and receiving the condemnation that we deserved.
SO WHAT IS JUSTICE?
If I had to guess, the most contentious issue will be Keller’s more expansive understanding of social justice, which I described above. He makes a biblical case for it (e.g. Deut. 10:7-8, 18-19; Job 29:12-17; 31:13-38; Ps. 146:7-9; Is. 58:6-7; Jer. 22:3; Ezek 18:5,7-8a; Zech. 7:10-11; Matt. 6:1-2), but he also insinuates that it’s a systematic theology concept, combining both the biblical concepts of justice and righteousness (10ff).
Personally, I’m convinced he’s right, although I might nuance the comparison between the narrow definition (“equitable treatment before the law”) and Keller’s broader definition (“giving people their due”) a little differently. As far as I can discern, these two definitions are saying the same thing, but the narrow definition has been situated in the context of the courtroom. Treating people equitably before the law is giving them their due—in court. When we turn to asking what justice requires in another domain, such as in the economic domain, it’s the broad definition not the narrow definition that will prove more workable. This sensitivity to context is one of the basic and helpful insights of Michael Walzer’s classic Spheres of Justice (which, interestingly, overlaps somewhat with Kuyper’s ideas of sphere sovereignty). Different spheres of life require us to slightly reformulate how we explain the basic ideas of justice, however one might conceive of those basic ideas in the first place.
For my part, I think Keller’s “giving people their due” is a helpful way of explaining the basic idea of justice, at least in theological terms, since it implicitly contains both God’s eternal principles of right and wrong as well as the “intrinsic” value he has imparted to every individual created in his image.
Suppose, for instance, that a rich man and poor man are situated differently beneath an unjust law; the law unfairly advantages the rich man and disadvantages the poor man. What does true justice (giving people their due) look like in this circumstance? It might require someone to simultaneously enforce the law on both men while also acting apart from the law to redress those deeper injustices through acts of “charity” or efforts to change the law. In other words, justice might require one thing in the legal sphere, another thing in the political sphere, and still another thing in the sphere of personal relationships. It might even require someone, in Keller’s language, to go “to places where the fabric of shalom has broken down, where the weaker members of societies are falling through the fabric, and to repair it.”
As such, the laws in a truly just society will account for various kinds of imbalances in other spheres, such as the sphere of economic exchange. Keller helpfully observes that the laws which God gave Israel didn’t simply call for equal punishment before the law in accordance with one’s crimes; God also established laws that would address the various kinds of disadvantages which people experience, laws for instance that would help the poor receive their due as people created in God’s image. Gleaning laws or property reapportionment laws are clear examples.
A HEART CORRECTION
Now, I don’t expect my brief defense of Keller’s more expansive view of justice will convince everyone, but I don’t think it needs to. Whether or not we call acts of self-sacrifice and generosity “justice” or “love” or “compassion,” Keller’s parade of texts still stands, calling us to oppose injustice and care for the needy, and these Scriptures should weigh in on the Christian’s heart, just like all the texts I discovered in Isaiah.
And this is right where I want to give Generous Justice my highest praise. God cares deeply about justice, a concept which is generally coupled with caring for the needy in Scripture if it’s not the same thing as caring for the needy. Some people on the transformationalist side of the spectrum should read Generous Justice to have their theology corrected, particularly on the points I highlighted above. For myself, I needed (at least) a heart correction. For that reason, I plan to read it again with my wife, and I would strongly encourage other pastors to read it.
Yes, the book just might create some messy pastoral questions like “How much should we encourage our people to do justice?” And it will certainly provoke objections like, “There’s no conceivable limit to “doing justice” more actively. You’ll become obligated to help every poor person on the planet!” Well, yes, there are limits—the same limits you might place on doing evangelism, such as the need to faithfully steward other areas of your life. But more to the point, I think we have to make such practical questions secondary, so that pragmatic considerations don’t override theological ones. Our principal work must be to see that our own hearts and the hearts of our congregations are growing with the love and justice of God. How do we do that? By preaching to our congregations week after week, not just about doing justice, but about justification. We must center our sermons where Keller ended his book—on the gospel.
 Admittedly, Walzer, a committed communitarian, would be a little squishy and relativistic about whether or not such a basic universal idea actually exists.