The word “justice” gets bandied about a lot. We talk about justice, injustice, social justice, doing justice, and whether or not justice has been served. It seems many of us are using different definitions of justice. What seems “just” to one person seems “unjust” to another. As Christians, how should we think about justice? What is the biblical definition of justice?
Justice and Righteousness
Both in Hebrew and Greek, the words we translate as justice and righteousness have so much connection and overlap, they are synonymous or nearly synonymous. When studying the Bible, we must recognize the connection between words like:
When Scripture says God is righteous, it is saying God is just. In Romans, for instance, Paul has much to say about the “righteousness of God” (Romans 3:21-22). It could be said that Paul is describing God’s administration of justice.
As it relates to humans, righteousness is not just about our relationship with God, but also our relationship with our neighbors. For example, Jesus said when you “give to the needy,” you are “practicing your righteousness” (Matthew 6:1-2). We could read that as, doing justice.
Of course, all of us are guilty of injustice (Romans 3:10-23). We have all fallen short of what God’s justice demands. But what does God’s justice demand? I would like to suggest four aspects that are included in biblical justice:
1. Biblical Justice Means Personal Accountability
For many modern people, justice has only one aspect, personal accountability. This aspect is certainly part of the biblical definition of justice.
When a person does something wrong, a person in authority (judge, king, God, etc.) assigns a commensurate penalty for that crime. In other words, justice is served when the guilty individual repairs the damage they caused or suffers the same sort of damage themselves.
The guilty individual may have been negatively influenced by others, but the blame cannot be shifted; he must be held personally accountable for his own wrongdoing. In the context of teaching Israel about justice, it was written in the Law of Moses:
“Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.”Deuteronomy 24:16
Biblical justice requires that individuals be held accountable for their own wrongdoing. And when we are the wrongdoer, justice demands acknowledging our culpability, accepting the consequences, and attempting to correct the damage.
2. Biblical Justice Means Fairness
Another key feature of biblical justice is fairness. Doing justice means not giving an unfair advantage to some people over others.
Because ancient Israel was an agrarian society, the Bible often uses terms relating to measurements, balances, and weights to express the fairness aspect of justice. People traded with goods like grain and oil. There was a natural temptation for merchants to give a slightly better exchange rate to certain people over others. After all, who would notice?
God noticed. He noticed every time people used an unequal weight or measurement (Proverbs 11:1; 16:10-11; 20:23). He noticed every time someone withheld fair wages from a laborer (Leviticus 19:13). God commanded his people:
“You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin.”Leviticus 19:34-36
This sort of injustice still happens. For instance, “There is a wealth of research and evidence that suggests that people with more ‘ethnic-sounding’ names experience bias during the hiring process and are less likely to be called back for roles they are qualified for compared to their counterparts” (source: forbes.com). Consider how this single example of unfairness/injustice could contribute to disparities in salary, housing, education, and more.
Justice is not only a matter of the courtroom but also the marketplace. It is not just police officers, judges, and lawyers who should be concerned about justice, but every person who interacts with others. Justice demands we ask the question, “Is this fair?”
3. Biblical Justice Means Collective Responsibility
An aspect of biblical justice that many modern people struggle to understand is collective responsibility. We tend to create a false dichotomy between collective responsibility and personal accountability. Many think it must be one or the other, but it is actually both.
Human beings are more than individuals. We’re part of communities, social groups, and nations. We influence one another. Our choices both benefit and harm others. So, injustice is often a tangled social web we weave and it touches nearly everyone in society.
This is why God has always held whole families, cities, nations, and empires responsible for their collective injustice. When God instructed his people about justice, he told them to take responsibility for one another’s well-being:
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”Isaiah 1:16-17
Justice demands that we take responsibility for our community. It means we speak up against unfairness and mistreatment. It also means we attempt to repair what others (including previous generations) have broken.
4. Biblical Justice Means Merciful Generosity
The biblical concept of justice doesn’t pit mercy against justice but ties it all together. Biblical justice is loving, merciful, gracious, generous, and restorative.
As mentioned earlier, Jesus considered charity an act of doing justice or practicing righteousness (Matthew 6:1-2). When we provide food, clothing, and shelter to those in need, we are doing justice or act righteously. The justice laws in Israel included commandments like these:
“When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”Deuteronomy 24:19
In the book of Ruth, when Boaz provided food for Ruth and Naomi, he was caring for the sojourner, fatherless, and widow. And when Boaz found out Ruth and Naomi were his relatives, he did justice by redeeming them. Boaz did not do these things because he had a “crush” on Ruth. He did them because this is what justice looks like.
Conclusion: The Gospel and Justice
The bad news is, we’ve all participated in injustice. We’ve been selfish, shirked our personal and collective responsibilities, treated people unfairly, and withheld good from people when it was within our power to do it. God’s justice demands humanity be held accountable for these injustices, but it also demands mercy be extended.
That is why, in love, Jesus has become the human representative we so desperately need. Though he was personally innocent, he took responsibility for all of humanity’s sins. He offered himself as the atoning sacrifice, so that humanity could be held accountable and also have mercy extended to them (see Romans 3:21-26).
In order to receive this mercy, we must stop being self-righteous. We must stop proudly declaring ourselves to be just. None of us are just. We must humbly repent of our personal and collective injustice, mourn and weep, hunger and thirst for God’s justice, and adopt a posture of meekness (Matthew 5:1-12).
Until Jesus comes to establish ultimate justice, defeating all those who oppose God’s justice, we must continue to, “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with [our] God” (Micah 6:8). Followers of Jesus are to show mercy to those in need, treat people fairly, repent of wrongdoing, and work in the power of the Spirit to repair what has been broken by sin and injustice.
However, take note that when we adopt the biblical perspective on justice, we can NEVER self-righteously stand in condemnation of others (not even our enemies). Instead, we bow in humble repentance, asking, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Only those who adopt a humble posture of repentance and faith will be “justified” in the sight of God (Luke 18:9-14).
I love you and God loves you,
P.S. If you’re interested in hearing more about how biblical justice compares with secular ideas about justice, I would recommend listening to the two-part conversation I recorded with my friend Steven Cuffle.