What is Social Justice?
Social justice has become a convoluted term meaning different things to different people. People often use it as a catchphrase for illegitimate forms of government that promote the redistribution of wealth as well as the collectivistic expansion of civil government, which wrongly infringes on the jurisdictions of God’s other covenantal institutions (family and church). Such a view of social justice both contradicts and denies biblical justice since biblical justice seeks to protect individual liberty while promoting personal responsibility.
When addressing areas of justice, I prefer to use the term biblical justice rather than social justice, because biblical justice provides society with a divine frame of reference from which to operate. Biblical justice is the equitable and impartial application of the rule of God’s moral law in society. Whether exercised through economic, political, social, or criminal justice, the one constant within all four realms is the understanding and application of God’s moral law within the social realm.
Increasingly, concerted efforts are being made to address the ethical issues of our day by the body of Christ; however, a lack of continual and holistically applied biblical justice is the underpinning for the continuation of societal and familial breakdowns as well as class and racial disparities. Biblical justice, when carried out correctly, naturally leads to the restoration of race, gender, and class divisions.
God's Heart for Justice
The Book of Isaiah a glance into God’s heart on this issue of justice. We read in chapter 58 that the Israelites sought God’s help and assistance—what we could call His blessings. In fact it says, “Yet they seek me day by day and delight to know My ways” (v. 2).Not only did the Israelites seek God, but they also fasted (v. 3) out of a desire to experience the nearness of God (v. 2).Basically they assembled, read their Bibles, prayed, sang, humbled themselves, and attended their small group studies. Yet despite all of that, God did not respond to their pleas to bless them, nor did He respond to their requests for Him to execute “just decisions”(v. 2)on their behalf. Starting in verse 5, we read His reason why: “Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? . . . Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD? Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (vv. 5–7).
Essentially what God told the Israelites, in my Tony Evans translation, is that seeking Him, meeting together, having regular prayer meetings and the like was not enough. Because in spite of all of that and more, their relational actions revealed a contradictory reality, which showed that they were fasting as a means of argument while pursuing their own desires (v. 4).
A Disconnect Between Theology and Application
The problem occurred in that their theology never affected their sociology. The thing they offered an “amen” to on Sunday never got carried out on Monday. They would “come to church” and sing about love, but return to the world and withhold that love. They would proclaim unity and equality in the house of God, but fail to practice that unity in the “global body of Christ.” Thus, the missing component of their ethical relational outworking within their theology nullified their religious activity.
The interesting thing about this passage was that the thing the Israelites sought from God (“just decisions”) was the very thing that He said they withheld from others. Simply stated, the principle is: Whatever you want God to do for you personally, you must be willing for Him to do through you to others. God is not looking for cul-de-sac Christians. He is looking for Christians who are willing to be a conduit of His blessing and justice to those in need.
We cannot say, “Lord, deliver me,” yet refuse to be the deliverance for another person in need. That is contradictory Christianity. What we have often done in the area of biblical justice is relegate it to others while at the same time complaining to God that He is not responding to our needs. We have neglected to see that the two are inextricably linked.
Injustice as Omission
Also, while many of us do not directly carry out overtly unjust actions against others on a regular basis, the importance of biblical justice has become diminished in our minds. But the critical aspect to note concerning biblical justice is the biblical definition of sin. A sin is not only a wrong action that is done, but a sin is also a right action that remains undone (Jas. 4:17). The question of biblical justice is not simply, “Have I done anything wrong?” The question is, “Have I done anything right?” It is good that you do not hate your brother or sister in need, but what are you doing to show that you love him or her? Isaiah 58 reminds us that the foundation for biblical justice exists in the principle that our horizontal relationships must accurately reflect our vertical beliefs about God, or we will limit God’s response to our needs as well.
James clearly tells us that “pure” religion is to “visit orphans and widows in their distress” (1:27).Orphans and widows represent the helpless and marginalized in society, those who cannot defend or empower themselves. This prescription isn’t about what we do against the needy and the poor, it concerns what we do for them.
God says that He will do for us in response to what we do for others. Biblical justice is not a passive awareness of human needs, but rather an action taken to execute God’s justice in the midst of an unjust society. The church has been uniquely positioned to defend and protect the helpless in society, and until we function according to our calling, we will continue to seek God’s intervention in our own lives only to hear His reply, “What have you done for others in My name?”
Justice – to prescribe the right way
- God is just (Deut. 32:4).
- God is the ultimate lawgiver (Jas. 4:12).
- God’s laws and judgments are just and righteous (Psa. 19:7–9; 111:7–8).
- God’s statutes are to be applied without partiality (Deut. 1:17; Leviticus 19:15; Num. 15:16).
- God has a standard by which He measures human conduct (Isa. 26:7).
- Government is to be God’s instrument of divine justice by impartially establishing, reflecting, and applying His divine standards of justice in society (Psa. 72:1–2, 4; 2 Sam. 8:15; Deut. 4:7–8).