It’s been talked about by philosophers for centuries. It’s been defined, re-defined, then defined again. It’s spoken of in movies by rogue vigilantes who claim to take the law into their own hands and by protesters on the street corner calling out for change.
Today, it takes on many forms–economic justice, reproductive justice, social justice. But what is justice, really? Is there a reality behind all this chatter?
Justice is a key concept in the Bible. A simple read through the text makes it clear that God cares about this concept. As Christians, it is one we should also take care to understand.
Look to the Bible: How does God define justice?
The most important thing to remember is that justice is grounded in God’s very character (Deuteronomy 32:4). God is just. Justice is determined by God. You cannot separate those two things.
There are two main Hebrew words used for justice in the Old Testament, mishpat and tsedeq.
Mishpat refers to making proper judgements, usually within the context of a legal framework, and giving each their due showing partiality due to bribes or favoritism.
Tsedeq means righteousness, God’s standard of what is good, right, and true. It’s often relational, honoring God and having right relationships with other people, living in an “upright” manner.
Mishpat and Tsedeq are often found together in the same area of text. In this way, justice and righteousness are intertwined, both requiring you to walk in God’s ways. Tsedeq is like the foundation for mishpat. You can live justly only when you are righteous.
Looking at the places these words are used, we can determine a few things.
Justice is fair.
Reading through the laws–“If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.“(Exodus 22:1), “When one man’s ox butts another’s, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and share its price, and the dead beast also they shall share.” (Exodus 21:35)– there is a clear principle that the punishment should be proportional to the offense.
Justice is based in truth.
“You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice,” (Exodus 23:1-2)
Justice is impartial.
“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:15)
Justice is direct.
“The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” (Ezekiel 18:20)
We also see many different circumstances where justice is used. Sometimes it is vengeance or judgement on an evil or oppressive people, (which we should note, people should not attempt to execute themselves). Sometimes it is punishment for a direct offense, as in a court of law. Sometimes it is restoring, designed to help people learn to live in a righteous way–pointing towards our future where sin is no more and we are reconciled to God and others.
There’s also a distinction between being a just person and a just society. A just person walks in God’s ways, a just society enacts legal codes that conform to God’s law and allow each individual equal standing under that law. The expectations of each are a little different. As one example, individuals do not take personal revenge, applying the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” meant for public policy to our relationships with others (Matthew 5:38-42).
Contrast with culture: How does the world define justice?
When looking at the culture’s definition of anything, we have to understand that the world is operating in an entirely different framework than we do as Christians (1 John 5:19). We have our eyes on eternity, them only what is happening right now. As the Pharisees did in Jesus’ time, and as Israel was repeatedly rebuked for, they neglect God’s standards in favor of their own.
We also need to realize that apart from God, none are righteous, and none can achieve justice (Romans 3:10-12). That’s why we need faith in Christ (Romans 3:22). Any attempt to produce our own justice is going to get ugly, skewed by our own desires and prejudices, marred by dishonesty and sin, and ruled by inverted priorities.
Many false ideas of justice simply isolate elements of biblical justice and reject others, cherry-picking the parts that sound pleasing instead of taking them altogether. They may ignore legitimate needs for punishment, reject the idea of true moral guilt, and deny personal responsibility in favor of blaming the circumstances–or swing on the opposite end, neglecting mercy and the ultimate goal of restoring relationships and peace.
How should we “do justice”?
Micah 6:8 says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
The phrase “do justice” shows up repeatedly throughout the Bible as a command to individuals. What does it mean? We shouldn’t get confused and think that to “do justice” we must follow the cultural definition.
Justice, mishpat in this verse, is simply to do God’s law and commands. Doing justice means to walk in obedience and relationship with God, to love our neighbor and treat each rightly, to not ignore the way justice is tied to other attributes–like mercy, forgiveness, love, and grace.
We are to mirror God’s character, not take his role as the ultimate arbiter of justice. Practically, that means we lovingly point to Christ in everything, recognizing struggles of the flesh and alleviating them where possible, while not neglecting spiritual needs.
Material circumstances matter, but they aren’t the end all be all. Our concern for alleviating suffering and correcting injustice should stem out of God’s love, not instituting utopia or a human-run heaven on Earth.
We should never distort justice to exclude certain people or exclude other aspects of God’s character. We should never displace the gospel, as that is our ultimate solution, need, and source of unity.We cannot achieve justice without a new heart. Click To Tweet
Ultimately, we cannot achieve justice without a new heart. Good works come from faith. If our number one goal is not to conform to Christ, our efforts are misplaced.
The answer of the cross: where justice and mercy meet
It is sad to see people trade the beauty and grace of the cross for worldly solutions that cannot fill the need, attempting to bear their own burdens. The demands of the world’s version of justice–that you must post the right things, that you must support the right causes, that you must express outrage at all the right things–are suffocating. But Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
In a fallen world, justice will be complicated. We can be encouraged that one day Christ will return and execute final justice–all that is wrong is set right, all that is evil is gone forever. We can be grateful that though we are sinners who deserved death under the judgment of a righteous God, we have been shown grace, and we can extend that same grace toward others.One day Christ will return and execute final justice--all that is wrong is set right, all that is evil is gone forever. Click To Tweet