The following lecture was given at the The Other Journal fundraising dinner on April 6th, 2006 in Seattle, WA.

Introduction: The Problem of Justice

I have been asked to speak tonight to what I take to be a significant part of The Other Journal’s (TOJ) mission: the Christian commitment to seeking justice for our neighbors. More specifically, I will address the issue of justice in the context of the commonplace query, “Shouldn’t the primary concern of Christians be spreading personal salvation? Shouldn’t our first and primary concern be fulfilsupling the Great Commission?”

I am tempted to answer the question by simply citing a multitude of Bible verses. There are many we could use, including:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isa. 58:6)

“Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness?. . . He judged the cause of the poor and needy . . . Is not this to know me? says the LORD.” (Jer 22:15-16)

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matt 23:23)

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

“He has told you, O mortal, 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? (Micah 6:8)

“Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s justice….” (Matt 6:33)

The problem with such an approach to answering the question is that this approach would not solve anything. It would not likely persuade someone who raised such a question that the work of The Other Journal was both worthwhile and faithful. Why not?

Because, no doubt, the questioner is already familiar with those verses. This is to say, the questioner, like most Christians, knows that justice is important. After all, the church has always taught and believed that works of justice are important. Few serious Christians would seriously debate that. No one is for injustice. No one would say that injustice is perfectly compatible with being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, no defense of the pursuit of justice will be adequate that starts from the premise that the source of the skepticism is sheer ignorance of Christianity’s commitment to justice. Confronting skepticism regarding the pursuit of justice requires another approach, one that addresses a problem other than that of some supposed ignorance of the importance of justice in the Christian life.

What, then, is the problem? What is the source of the skepticism regarding the appropriateness of The Other Journal’s bold and uncompromising commitment to justice? The problem is one of priorities. The problem lies in the way that the church has believed and taught that works of justice are distinct from works of piety (summarized in terms of the “Great Commission,” belief, conversion, fostering a personal relation with Jesus, etc.). The problem lies in the division that runs through much of the contemporary church between two parties with different priorities. On the one hand, there are those who give priority to confession over social action. These are the folks who think that while the work of justice is important, it nevertheless takes a back seat to the most important thing, which is piety, belief, “personal holiness.” On the other hand, there are those who give priority to social action over confession. These are the folks who think that the work of justice is more important than fostering piety and belief.

At this point it is important to be very clear. Having briefly sketched this division in the church, I am not going to suggest that the problem lies on one side or the other of this divide. I will not be arguing that one side is right and the other wrong, that justice should take priority over piety or that piety has priority but should include justice.

No, the problem is not one side or the other. The problem is the division itself. We could put it this way: Both parties are wrong insofar as they put justice or piety second and both parties are right insofar as they put justice or piety first. Allow me to explain.

The explanation that follows revolves around this fundamental point: Jesus is the Justice of God.

This means there can be no division between confessing Jesus and doing justice. We cannot pick Jesus or justice; we cannot give priority to one over the other. This is the case because Jesus and justice finally are not two things, only one. Jesus is our Justice. Therefore, Christians can only do justice rightly by proclaiming Jesus and we can only proclaim Jesus faithfully by doing justice. To proclaim the good news of Jesus is to do justice; to do justice is to proclaim Jesus. To do anything less is neither to confess Jesus nor do justice rightly.

Accordingly, the “priority of confession over justice” crowd errs in their understanding of why we do justice. They think that doing justice is a separate and secondary (if still necessary) act from knowing Jesus. They fail to appreciate that the very heart of the Christian gospel is a huge act of justice. Justice is not secondary to or separate from the heart of the gospel. The good news is what? We are justified in Christ. Which means what? We are made just. To be in Christ is to be just. Hence, when one confesses Christ one cannot help but do justice. Conversely, if one is not justified, not made just, if one does not do justice, then one may know who Christ Jesus is but one is not in Christ Jesus.[1]

We could put it this way: Salvation is a matter of justification, and justification entails not only being declared just – in the forensic or legal sense that the tradition has called “imputed righteousness” – but also being made just – in the therapeutic sense of sanctification, which the tradition has called “imparted righteousness.”

In a similar manner, the “priority of justice over confession” crowd errs in their understanding of what justice is. They think that confessing Jesus is a separate and secondary act from doing justice, that one can do justice without confessing Jesus. They fail to appreciate that Jesus is not merely a source of motivation or encouragement to do justice, but is himself the justice of God. Thinking that Jesus prompts us to go do (secular) justice, they fail to see how the gospel transforms what justice is to the point that doing justice is indistinguishable from confessing Jesus and so very different from what secular justice looks like.

Jesus the Justice of God

In what follows I will briefly unpack the claim that Jesus is the justice of God, answering both “why justice?” and “what is justice?” in a manner that overcomes the division between confession and justice that currently afflicts the church.[2]

Anselm and Atonement

Traditionally, the center of Christ’s work of atonement has been identified with Christ’s death on the cross. Furthermore, at least in the west, it is Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) who provides what is perhaps the most influential account of the atonement – especially in evangelical circles – what is called the satisfaction or substitutionary theory. (And we think we read this in Paul too, especially in Romans, more on this in a minute)

According to the standard reading of Anselm, the atonement works like this: In the face of human sin, which is an offense against God’s honor, God, as one who must uphold justice, cannot simply forgive sin but must enforce a strict rendering of what is due. Because sinful humanity cannot fulfill its debt, the God-man, Christ, steps forward and fulfills justice, renders what is due, through his substitutionary death on the cross. In this way, redemption is a result of the payment of a debt incurred through sin by means of a compensatory death that satisfies divine justice.

What does this reading tell us about justice? First, it tells us that justice is what pagan and secular thinkers have long said justice is – it is a strict rendering of what is due. Second, it suggests that nothing Jesus does changes that standard definition of justice. All Jesus does is submit to it.3

This standard reading, however, in spite of its popularity in the church and academy, is dead wrong. It is a terrible misreading of Jesus as the justice of God.

When read rightly, Anselm’s account of the atonement reveals that Jesus’ death on the cross was not a matter of juridical reckoning and the strict exacting of what was due sin but rather was first and foremost a matter of theosis, deification. What is this? The taking up of humanity into the communion of love that is life of the blessed Trinity (2 Pet. 1:4).

In other words, according to Anselm, God became human not in order to meet the demands of an merciless justice before which even God must bow but so that humanity might be restored to the place of honor that God from the beginning intended for humanity, namely, participation in the divine life. In this regard, the injury to God’s honor that is effected by sin is a matter of the absence of humanity from full communion with its creator. In other words, Christ comes not because God wants vengeance, but because God wants [more] company, friends!

Accordingly, the atonement displays the plenitude, the superabundance of divine charity, of God’s giving and giving again. God has always given to humanity in the form of love, and when humanity rejected that gift, God gave again in the form of love incarnate, which is the Son. Christ’s work is that of giving again, of communicating God’s love and grace to humanity again (and again). The work of atonement is God in Christ bearing human rejection and extending the offer of grace again, thereby opening a path for humanity to recover communion. In this sense, Christ’s faithfulness even to the point of death on the cross marks not a divine demand for retribution, but a divine refusal to hold our rebellion against us. Jesus is the justice of God, not because he receives what is due sin but precisely because in Christ God refuses to render unto humanity what is due sin, bearing offense without exacting compensation, instead continuing to extend the offer of communion.4

Jesus and Justice in Scripture

But what about Scripture? What does Scripture tell us about Jesus and justice? From start to finish, Scripture presents Jesus and justice as a matter of reconciliation, of the restoration of right relations. This is to say, biblically speaking both Jesus’ work and God’s justice are a matter of effecting communion.

In the Old Testament, this is expressed in the word pair, mispat and sedaqah, usually translated, “justice and righteousness.” The linking of justice with righteousness is not accidental. For in the Old Testament justice is about the establishment of right relations between peoples in God. Justice is first and foremost about the deliverance, vindication, or liberation of humanity from a situation of broken communion, of oppression and destitution. We can see this most clearly perhaps in the divine partisanship on behalf of the widow, the orphan, and the poor. But God’s preference for the poor and oppressed is but an extension of God’s desire to restore and renew the communion of all humanity in God. Thus, justice in the Old Testament redeems or saves and for this reason it is closely associated with the awaited Messiah.

This understanding of justice and its association with the Messiah is further articulated in the New Testament, where it is made clear that Jesus is the justice of God. The gospels present Jesus as the justice of God as he delivers people from sin (again, prominently displayed in a preferential concern for the downtrodden and oppressed) and restores human relations/communion. Central to this justice is the mercy or forgiveness that in the name of reconciliation foregoes retribution and retaliation.

It is Paul, however, who most directly addresses the issue of the justice of God when he explicates the meaning of justification, especially in Romans. Although it has been subject to the same sorts of misreadings and distortions that have plagued Anselm, Paul’s understanding of Jesus as the justice of God is not a vision of penal substitution in accord with a strict accounting of what is due. Rather, in harmony with his Jewish heritage, Paul displays the divine redemptive solidarity that has as its end the restoration and renewal of communion of all in God. Jesus is the justice of God, according to Paul, precisely as the incarnation of God’s fidelity to the promise of redemption made long ago to Abraham.

In contrast with the classical notion of justice, the justice of God in Christ entails the endurance of offense and the offer of forgiveness for the sake of justifying the unjust, so that the unjust may be gathered back into communion through participation in death and resurrection of Christ.

Why Justice? What Justice?

What conclusions can we draw from this brief treatment of Jesus’s work, regarding the why and what of justice?

First, Jesus completely transforms what justice is. If you think about it, according to the world’s definition of justice – rendering what is due – God in Christ was patently unjust. After all, God in Christ does not exact what is due. Instead, God in Christ forgives us, refusing to hold our sin against us.

Thus justice for Christians is not a strict rendering of what is due. Justice for Christians is that which restores and renews communion / community. Thus, justice, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation are not separate and distinct but intertwined.
Second, there is no true justice apart from Christ. If justice is that which restores and renews communion, then its name is Jesus. After all, the whole point of the atonement is what? We cannot justify ourselves. We cannot do justice on our own. We cannot be reconciled either to God or one another on our own. We are stuck in our sin. And the good news is that Jesus is the justice of God; Jesus reconciles. Jesus restores and renews communion. Therefore our doing justice, if it is true justice, must confess Jesus. If it does not confess Jesus, then it is either not justice or it is incomplete justice.6

Third, in Christ one cannot help but do justice. To be in Christ means to be justified. To be justified is to be made just and to be just is to seek justice. Which means that to be in Christ means to share in his work of justice-making, which is the work of reconciliation, the renewal of communion. You cannot be just, without doing justice. You cannot be joined to Jesus without living your life in Jesus. You cannot be joined to the justice of God without living the justice of God. (To be in Christ and not do justice makes about as much sense as being a pilot but not knowing how to fly a plane.)

Conclusion: The Great Commission and TOJ

To conclude, I want to return to the question put to The Other Journal with regard to the Great Commission. To suggest that TOJ’s pursuit of justice is not of a piece with fulfilling the Great Commission is to fail to understand both the work of TOJ and the calling that is the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20). Rightly understood, TOJ’s labors on behalf of justice reflect a deep commitment to the Great Commission in its best evangelical sense.

Specifically, TOJ reflects a commitment to justice that defies the commonplace division that afflicts the church and thus weakens its witness. The justice that TOJ announces and advocates is neither merely an addition to piety nor takes precedence over piety. Rather, TOJ is unashamedly and boldly committed to Jesus the justice of God.

Thus, their commitment to justice embodies the very essence of the Great Commission, at least as that commission was elaborated upon by St Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21, when he wrote:

“God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ. . .has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself . . . and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

The Great Commission is none other than making disciples by offering Jesus, which means the Great Commission can be nothing less than offering the justice of God who breaks down the dividing walls of injustice, renews communion, and reconcile peoples (cf. Eph. 2:11ff).

In their efforts to remind the church of the justice who is its very heart, in their efforts to see that justice spread, in their efforts to extend the ministry of reconciliation, the folks at TOJ are offering Jesus. And that – and nothing less than that – is exactly what we were commissioned to do.

[1] Granted many challenge this account, but the challenges leave intact the basic understanding of justice as a strict rendering what is due. The objection is either that Anselm misconstrues what is due (e.g., the killing of an innocent is hardly “what is due”), that Jesus’ relation to what is due is misunderstood (e.g., he effects what is due not with a compensatory death but by his moral example) or that Jesus is about mercy and not justice.

[2] See Christopher Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2001) and Richard Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans. 2002).