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Starting the Conversation

Recently, my kindergarten-aged son came home from school with a packet of papers about Martin Luther King, Jr. He and his classmates had learned a few things about Dr. King, and my six-year-old (who absolutely loves anything having to do with history) excitedly relayed to me as much as he could remember about King's life and speeches.

I noticed the word "Justice" on one of the papers, and saw an opportunity to engage my son about the meaning of justice, how it related to civil rights during King's life, and how important a proper understanding of justice is today. I see such engagement as critical in helping my three young children develop a proper understanding of Biblical justice, so I was genuinely excited to be given this obvious opportunity for discussion.

I gestured to one of the papers and asked, "What big thing did Martin Luther King want for people?"

"Umm...I don't know. Lots of things," responded my son.

What Is Equality?

It's not an easy discussion for a six-year-old to jump into, so I offered a hint. I pointed to one of the words printed in big, bold letters on the paper: EQUALITY. 

"What's this word?" I asked.

"Equality," my son read.

"Good! So Martin Luther King wanted everybody to be equal?" I followed up.

"Yeah, I think so," offered my son, a bit hesitantly.

"Did he want everybody to be the same height? Or for everybody to be just as good at sports as everybody else? Or every single person in the world to have the same type of house or job?" I asked, a bit playfully.

"No," my son said with a big grin. "Not equal like that."

"But," I pressed, "that would make everybody equal, right? If everybody had the same amount of money, and the same amount of school, and healthiness, and everything else, then we would all be equal, right? Isn't that what Martin Luther King meant when talking about equality?"

My son remained firm, despite my attempt. "I don't think so," he said.

"Then equal how?" I asked again. My son didn't know. But then again, he's six years old, so he has a logical reason for not knowing. He needs to be taught. In truth, many grown-ups also have a hard time defining ideas like "equality" and "justice." They are words whose meanings have become very skewed lately.

So I honed in a little more. I asked my son, "Have you ever heard of political equality?" He shrugged his shoulders, his eyes perking up a bit, as they always do when he encounters a new word or idea, feeding his insatiably curious appetite. I went on. "Political equality is equality under the law. It means we don't have different laws for different people. Everybody has to follow the same rules. And those rules actually aren't made up by people, they're based on the rules God gives to us."

Driving Home the Point

I always like to give examples that my kids can understand. "What if we were out driving and there was a stop sign. And I blow right through it without stopping. That's called breaking the law. So a police officer pulls me over. But instead of giving me a ticket, he lets me go because he likes the way I look. Would that be right?"

My six year old was moderately indignant. "No!" he declared.

"Why not? Why can't the policeman just ignore me breaking the law, if he likes me?"

Thinking. Thinking. I can see the wheels turning in my son's head. I push on. "Do police officers have to follow the law too?" I ask him.

"Yeah, they do!"

"Good!" I encourage him. "True equality, the kind of equality Martin Luther King was talking about, means the rules apply equally to everybody. So if I break the law by blowing through a stop sign, I deserve to get a ticket, right?"

"Yup," concludes my son, confidently.

Now we've arrived at what has been my goal all along: helping him understand what Justice is.

"When we get what we deserve, that's called 'Justice'," I explain. Lest he think justice is only one-sided, negative results, I continued with my driving example. "Now, what if instead of blowing through the stop sign, we followed all the rules. We stopped when we were supposed to, and we drove the speed limit. Do we deserve to get a ticket from the police then?"

"No," he says with a big smile, as if I've said something so ridiculous that it's funny.

"You're right.  Of course we don't deserve a ticket if we follow the rules. Instead, we would deserve to get where we're going quickly and safely, without any tickets. That's justice too.  Really, justice is getting what you deserve, whether good or bad. If you break the rules, bad things happen, and that's justice. And if you follow the rules, good things happen, and that's justice too." At that point, my six year old was on to some other bit of news from his day at school. That was fine; I had planted the seed.

Justice = Whatever We Want It To Be?

I share this story with you because, over the last few years, the term "Justice" has become far to ill-defined and confused with other virtues and ideas. Words mean things, and if we play fast and loose with their meanings, we inhibit our ability to communicate, diagnose problems, and identify the best solutions.

For example, I've heard justice defined subjectively and nebulously as "making things right." What things? Right according to whom? Making them how? Or the barely better "systemic change to align with God's design for creation." God's original design does not include sin; yet justice in our world today must deal with a sinful reality. Where do the consequences of our choices fit into that definition? Can systems really be unjust, or is it the people acting within the system that make it just or unjust?

Subjective definitions such as these might as well be "Justice is whatever I personally think is good, and injustice is whatever I personally think is bad."

I challenge you to honestly ponder a better definition, presented here: "Justice is people getting what they deserve, whether good or bad, and whether we personally like the outcome or not." Because without an honest definition of justice, we won't achieve it.


What a delightful and constructive article Dan.  Thanks for taking the time to write it.

Far too often, often we (adults) give insufficient thought to the words we throw around glibly, without taking the time to thoughtfully work through the meaning of the word (and/or what the word should mean).  And "justice" is certainly one of those words -- especially these days.  Indeed, the attempt to morph the meaning of the word (and concept) of justice is probably the primary cause of the intense political division we are seeing in the society around us today.

The classic definition of justice is "rendering to each his due."

That's a good start, but invites lots of questions:  Due to whom?  What things?  Due on what basis?  Etc.

N. Wolterstorff has two recent books on justice, if you want to pursue it in depth. 

I've read Nick Wolterstorff's books (three of them actually) on the topic of justice and found them unhelpful, at least for discerning the meaning of the word "justice."   

Wolterstorff would like to define the word "shalom" instead of the word "justice," or said another way, to conflate the two.  Of course, that's all part of the "social justice" movement, which I'd suggest Wolterstorff very much appreciates, while I don't too much.

Certainly, it is the case that the definition of "rendering to each his due" needs a lot of flesh put on the bones, but I think this article does a good job of beginning to do just that by distinguishing between the words "justice" and "equality."   Indeed, that distinction does get to the essence of our current society's real and large disagreement.

I would recommend trying some Bible study to hear more about how peace and justice really are conflated. Psalm 85 for example celebrates the day when peace and justice kiss. (Is kiss stronger language than conflate? idk, probably)

Would you put your theology of justice in sort of a dualistic camp with justice in secular column of activity and individual relationship with God in the sacred column? That wouldn't be an uncommon theology. Or, asked another way would you put the cross in one column of interest and justice in a separate column? My theology puts justice and the cross together but when other theologies don't make that connection I can understand how they would also not appreciate social justice.  



I'm not sure who's comment you are referring to Kris, but of course "justice isn't the earthly achievement of shalom" -- I'm not sure who has or would say otherwise?

Is "justice ... a condition for shalom"?  Certainly, but there are more conditions for shalom than only a state of justice.  And the word "justice" does not denote all the elements that are required for shalom, which is one of the reasons we should not conflate the words "justice" and "shalom," nor transfer the definitional content of the word "mercy" into "justice."

Kris, it's good to hear from you again.

Things can kiss without conflating. In this case, you are actually conflating the words "kiss" and "conflate."

8 - )

Obviously there are other values and virtues that make justice better. Peace would be one them. Also grace, mercy, charity, and love. But you are tossing all of those virtues into a big pot and calling it "justice" stew. Every time you add one more virtue to "justice," you diminish both justice and the thing you have conflated with it.

Ice cream and root beer go great together. But root beer is not ice cream. They are 2 distinct things.

I agree with this statement.  I think that we can both recognize distinct definitions of different theological terms and their necessary interrelatedness.  I cannot imagine the concept of peace without the presence of justice.  Injustice does break shalom, as I understand it.  That does not mean at all that justice can be flattened out to be essentially the pursuit of shalom.  Both terms are more complex and distinct than that, even as they are inextricably linked.

Thanks for this good article. I love 6-year-old logic also! He sounds like a thinker. Also thank you for noting that the word justice or its opposite, injustice seems ill defined lately. I have even read articles in the Banner that fail to fully define what the author(s) mean by the term. Sometimes it seems that people mean an eye for an eye and other times it seems they mean a type of socialism--it's unjust for me to have more than my neighbor. I hope we can be open about what it really means to have a just, yet merciful heavenly Father.

Is "justice" something that can be defined? The same nit-picking used in the earlier "Whatever..." section can be applied to the preferred definition: "deserve"? what standard is that? what order? who sets the terms, etc. Or for that matter, how do we determine "good or bad"? The moment I push the concept it goes all squishy.

Rather than speak abstractly of "justice" why not biblically? Justice takes place in the presence of a wrong, thus the psalmist cries out for justice for the poor. Justice is about the ordering of our relationships so the reflect and participate in God's interaction with us. The very care God has for the poor and weak leaves us exposed:we are sinners. This brings to the other sense of justice, that God acts to restore a relationship with us, unilaterally. That decision is profoundly displayed in the crucifixion, and vindicated on Easter morn.

Thus, I find the biblical narrative on justice a better way to start. To start there allows for the articulation of justice in our neighborhood, in our embedded lives, in our differences.



Thanks for the feedback, Bill.

I contend that determining whether or not we deserve something is a fairly objective proposition, and should always be done following Biblical standards, as you rightly suggest.

Let's look at your example of the psalmist crying out for justice for the poor.  I contend that he was crying out for...well..justice for the poor.  Exactly what he said.  He wanted the poor to be treated fairly (as they deserve) by those in power.  Not taken advantage of (which would be something the poor do not deserve).  Not denied proper legal justice (also something they do not deserve).  That their private property rights would be respected (something they deserve).  But not that the poor get to steal other people's private property simply because they are poor (because that would be something they do not deserve).  That's how this definition of "Justice" works.

The Bible also encourages CHARITY for the poor.  But that does not mean that charity and justice are the same thing...they are not.  They are 2 separate values.

The problem is that "Justice" has become a subjective, nebulous, catch-all word that basically means "whatever I personally think is good."  That, most certainly, is not the Scriptural idea of justice.

Before I get to some further "discussion" I would agree basically with the last two paragraphs, particularly the dangers when our rhetoric gets vague. In those instances, the generally positive term like justice or liberty become the cover for not ony a subjective frame, but often something malicious. This is the territory which George Orwell so sharply explored in "Politics and the English Language." 

So in the interest of not being vague, let's consider the idea that "deserve a fairly objective proposition." This seems to point to a social understanding, that is that "objective" is a stand-in for "commonly held". could what we consider as "fairly objective"  be mistaken? That's not to point to doubt, but rather that the standards we use finally cannot be propositional, but given to us: we see our social obligations through the lens of scripture. (And here I also wonder whether this is a difference between the Reformed understanding of the Scots/English tradition and that of the continental, or in my case Barthian one.)

Be that as it may, how about this term "deserve": to my ears that sounds as if the standards are on the human side, as somehow my "right", as something intrinsic to me as an individual. This understanding seems to come to a dead end with the NT notions of servanthood, particularly that of Phil. 2 ("who did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped..."). Further, as anyone who has been around kids knows, "deserves" creates winners and losers -- again, is that where Scripture proposes to lead us? I think not.

So what is it? i take scripture to be more relational in its focus. There are less intrinsic "rights" than there are (covenantal) relationships. The poor cry out for "justice" in the face of a wrong: it is the wrong that cries for remedy, of restraining the perpetrator and of restoring the poor back to their social / covenantal position. And while I would love to talk about property rights, that seems to be a different discussion -- the thrust of Scripture appears to be more on the teaching of property as a gift than as a possession found in  the justice/property rights discussion.

Last as a practical matter: I find that approaching our politics through a more biblical framework actually helps us to craft more humane solutions, as well as a deeper respect for the other actors in the political arena. 

By "objective" I don't mean commonly-held. And I certainly don't base it on human standards. I totally agree with you that our standards are found in Scripture and God's law.

By "objective" I mean clear & definitive. 

We can objectively know what we deserve by examining God's law and assessing cause & resulting effect. Choices & resulting consequences. Actions & resulting outcomes.

The modern definition of "justice" ignores these things, making "justice" completely subjective. 

Is this not a question of epistemology? That is, how does one know objectively? 

My knowledge of God's Law, of God's intent for us is always something provisional, contained as it is, within this wineskin of my own life. That's why we need others on our walk, and why I would think that even our best concepts inescapably possess a social, or common framework. Practically, that means that even our best understandings of justice, let alone our application of the same in our affairs will always have the twist of self-serving. We know this spiritually. Even at the Cross, like Peter, we want to cut our deals. (And this is why Proverbs marks righteousness as the capacity to "swear to our own hurt", cf. Prov. 15.4).

Practically, then, even our best rendering of justice is something incomplete, never a resolved state but a pointing to, a witness of God's character. We cannot speak of justice without also coming into the presence of Mercy. This means our pursuit brings a humility, and may God grant us, a vision: that we can see past justice to reconciliation and redemption of the Other. I take this to be a fairly hard work on our side; it's the stuff of the crucifixion and the answer of Easter. Personally, it's what I find when I come to the Table.





"...that means that even our best understandings of justice, let alone our application of the same in our affairs will always have the twist of self-serving."

All the more reason our denominational employees should use caution when declaring that they KNOW that climate change is happening, and that it is an issue of "justice," and that they furthermore KNOW the correct course of action to take, eh?

Or that they KNOW that a thousand page tax & budget bill is also an "injustice," because they KNOW it will have a detrimental effect on the poor?

Not only are they using the wrong definition of "justice," they are claiming certainty where they clearly cannot have it.

I've always disagreed with that pithy description of justice, Terry.

In my mind, "doing justice" (public or otherwise) does not give the appearance of, nor is it, "love."

Your pithy definition describes respect, fairness, strict obedience perhaps, but not love.

Micah 6:8 tells us to DO JUSTICE and also to LOVE MERCY.  I don't think we see love unless both are done.  Merely doing the former (justice) is like "doing good to your friends -- so what, do not the heathen do as much?"

To exhibit love, one must also do mercy, because one loves mercy.

And this is where some of the harmful conflation has happened, including in the Christian community.  We've stopped talking about mercy (charity) and have pushed the definitional content of the word mercy into justice. 

Result: we increasingly live in a society where mercy is demanded (since it is now justice and justice should be required) and where mercy cannot be given out of love (since one must give it out of obligation).  Of course, this change has manifested itself politically more than in other ways, but in other ways as well.

Doug, when you write, "In my mind, "doing justice" (public or otherwise) does not give the appearance of, nor is it, "love."" you seem to be distinguishing justice from love, which implies that one can engage in actions that are just but unloving. I can understand that some just actions might not appear loving, but if one is behaving justly, according to the biblical perspective of justice, isn't one also acting in love. One simple example of this would be disciplining a child. The child will not perceive the discipline as love, but if the parent is not acting justly toward his child out of love, then the discipline is only revenge. 

I'm actually just distinguishing between justice and mercy Mark.  Doing justice is our obligation.  We aren't given a choice.  Its a demand.  Do justice.  On the other hand, we are required only to love (not do) mercy.  Certainly, if we love mercy we will do it , even if not always (no one is omniscient), but one must do justice even if one is not inclined to do it.  One doesn't exhibit love mercy by obeying a requirement (even if disobeying it may exhibit hate).

I suppose I come from my own life's experience, as an attorney for about 39 years now.  When the court (or government generally) is acting, it rightfully demands, obligates, it citizenry to do justice and if a citizen doesn't, government calls into account (or should).  And although a citizen doing as required is certainly not unloving, it isn't necessarily loving.  Love is, mercy is, when we give of ourselves without obligation, absent duty.  The greatest of these is love, not justice.   And we have an example to look at for that of course. 

If all of mercy becomes justice, it won't be mercy anymore.  It won't be giving but mere obedience to a requirement.  

I wouldn't be so quick to say that mercy is simply giving without obligation because scripture's use of that word goes way deeper than that--beyond a world of obligations and transactional relationships. The word translated as "mercy" here is a word for covenantal loving kindness that can't be measured in terms of who owes who what. When we see mercy or covenantal-loving-kindness happen in the world its a reflection of a relationship finding a cosmically deeper level and a vision of the creators intent for creation. Mercy/covenantal-loving-kindness is a deeper ethic that our creator has infused into every inch of creation.

Are individuals and/or governments "obliged to do mercy"? I would say that question misses the point of what mercy is b/c, obligations aside, it's something everyone longs for. It's a value that God created into our very being and that we long to see renewed everywhere.

Luke 18:1-8 is an example of justice without love.

When we conflate, confuse, and ignore the actual meaning of things, we are exalting ourselves to a position of authority that no human should occupy.  We end up with a concept of "justice" that is essentially "justice is whatever I personally favor."

I won't offer on characterizing God's justice, but human judges of any particular court are often merely motivated by the obligation of doing their job when they render decisions (justice) in any particular case before them.  Certainly, Christians ought to connect their faith (which requires loving God and neighbor) to their job.  Thus, a judge who is Christian may well be "motivated by love" when applying the law (and hopefully thereby rendering justice) in cases where they render decisions.

I wouldn't say that judges who do justice out of the motivation of "doing their job" are seeking "revenge," even if they may not be acting out of love, but I'm not sure I'm understanding your post Mark.

Doug, I'm replying both to your and Dan's separation of justice from love. I don't see how justice can be so sharply separated from love. Focusing only on retributive justice, if one says that truly just laws reflect the just nature of our God, then those laws ultimately reflect the love of God. If those laws are applied impartially by law enforcement and courts, then the enforcement of those laws once again reflect the loving character of God. On the flip side, if an officer's and judge's motivation is not the good of society (which would be a reflection of God's love), then it becomes less and less likely those public officials will act justly, and more likely that they will use the criminal justice system to carry out their own prejudices.

Mark, aren't you leaping from "love and justice SHOULD go together" to "love and justice MUST go together."

I intentionally spoke of defining in my article because it seems that people are getting very good at mashing concepts together, but not so good at defining them.

"Love" is something distinct, is it not?  Likewise, "Justice" is something distinct, is it not?

It seems very obvious to me WHY so many people want to expand "justice" into an all-encompassing mish-mash of good vibes.   Because if they can accomplish this, they can slap the label "justice" or "injustice" on anything they want to.  Then they can compel their neighbors to support their "just" cause.

Dan and Doug, I understand justice to be an aspect of love. So yes, love and justice must go together because justice is one of the ways that God's love is manifested. For example, these verses that conclude Psalm 62 guide that understanding of the relationship of justice to love for me:

One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard:
that you, O God, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving.
Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done. 

Mark: I agree that if one loves, one will do justice (as you say, "I understand justice to be an aspect of love"), but that doesn't mean that if one does not love, one cannot (or at least sometimes will not) do justice.  People in the real world often do justice without loving.  But yes, people who in fact love do justice.  Indeed, they also do mercy (because they "love mercy").

This is a good discussion.  Thanks to Dan for introducing this topic and providing an insightful anecdote/lesson.  I also think that Dan’s offer of a definition of justice is about as good a short definition as you will get, given that certain facts are acknowledged.   As Dan further explained, we of course judge the “people getting what they deserve” according to the standard provided in God’s Word.  This much should be self-evident for the Christian.  There are also two categories of justice: Justice before God and justice before the civil authority appointed by God.  In both arenas, the concept of reaping what you sow is prevalent.  Proverbs 22:8 tells us: “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of his fury will fail.”  In contrast, Hosea 10:12 instructs us to: “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love.”  Galations 6:7 tells us: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”  Hosea 8:7 contains the idea that who we sow will not just be returned, but will be multiplied: “For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”

The biblical idea of justice must contain the idea of just deserts or punishment, of reaping what you sow.  Any concept of justice without this fails to account for the character of God and revealed in the Bible.  In Romans 3 Paul wrestles with the idea of sin and judgement, or the meting out of justice.  In verses 5-6 he says: But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world?”  So we see that God is righteous in meting out justice, or consequences, or just deserts.  And the passage goes on to reveal that in the cross, we see God executing perfect justice in requiring payment for sin and also being the one who is the merciful justifier.  He both provided the punishment and the payment.  Romans 3:24b-26: “…Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”  God shows that he is just by punishing sin.  You can’t find much more of a convergence of justice and the cross than that, but it is inescapable that the cross represents punishment. 

Despite attempts to conflate justice with shalom, we know better in our everyday language.  What is the highest law enforcement office in the land? The Department of Justice.  They require an answer for disobedience to the laws of the civil magistrate and they exact justice/punishment for disobedience.  Rachel DenHollander recently was quoted in an interview regarding her abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar.  Question: “Your impact statement ended with you asking how much a little girl is worth. How would you answer that question?”  Answer “From a Christian worldview, she’s made in the image of God. She has eternal and immeasurable value. That is why justice here on earth is always going to be incomplete: because there’s no way to bring full justice here on earth. That being said, God has instituted civil government for the purpose of reflecting his judgment, the best justice, to the best of our ability here on earth. And I think we saw that in the courtroom this week.”  Rachel called for and received justice.  Larry also received justice, or we could say he got what he deserved.  He sowed and he reaped.  Who, then, would describe Larry’s receipt of justice as shalom?

Eric, thank you for providing a deep Scriptural context to this discussion.

I have used this example to explain the difference between a good and bad definition of justice.  Imagine that you go on a sky-diving trip.  At 20,000 feet, you decide that the laws of physics don't apply to you, and you jump out without a parachute.  Naturally, you plummet to your death.  Has justice been done?  Using the bad definitions of justice such as "Achieving shalom" or "Restoring creation to God's intended purpose" or "Making things right," you would have to say that a grave INJUSTICE has been done.  You're dead!  Your wife is now a widow.  Your children will grow up without their father.  Your friends have lost a loved one.  Nothing good came of you falling to your death.  Certainly nothing was "made right" or "restored" to the way God originally wanted it.  There is no shalom.  Just the opposite.

But...using a good definition of justice (one where we actually attempt to impart a useful meaning to the word), we would say that justice HAS been done.  You got what you deserve.  The laws of nature and of nature's God dictate that if a 180 pound human jumps out of a plane at 20,000 feet without a parachute, that person is going to die.  Choice = consequence.  Behavior = result.  That is justice.

By the way, the person using a bad definition of justice would probably say there was a systemic injustice present, and would call for greater regulation of the sky-diving industry.

If we think justice is misunderstood or rare, what of faith?  

"And will not God give justice to His elect, who cry to Him day and night?  Will He delay long over them?  I tell you, He will give justice to them speedily.  Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?" Luke 18:7-8

The most important thing that the Church can do is broadly sew the gospel, trusting that God will effectually call His elect in it's hearing, granting them faith.  A spiritual commitment of the heart is the only place from which right behavior ensues.  The classic text in Micah 6 is oft quoted without the terseness of it's contextual response to the preceeding rhetoric, showing how justice has long been confused.  Spiritual blindness has always been the cause.

If the Lord tarries with His coming justice, what is that to us?  He will not delay longer than is perfect, in the meantime we must circumcise our own hearts, cry out to Him, and plead with other sinners to meet Christ in His mercy now availed, so that they may be justified in Him and may be spared when meeting His swift justice.

To say that justice is merely getting what you deserve whether we like the outcome or not is not the highest or fullest definition of justice. In fact, I don't see how you can make a Biblical argument for such a passive definition of justice, or for a definition that considers justice outside of mercy and righteousness. These things are woven intimately together though the Bible, creating the image of a world defined by shalom. In Micah 6:8, there is not a hierarchical ranking of justice, mercy and righteousness, we are called to practice all three. Christ's healing ministry is a modeling of these three in practice: his actions are righteous (healing those who are suffering is the right thing to do), his actions are merciful (those suffering have done nothing to earn their healing), and his actions are just (the healing restores them to the community). Similarly, Christ's calling of Zacchaeus is righteous (he calls out the abusive tax practices), merciful (he dines with Zacchaeus anyway), and just (Zaccheaus ceases his abusive behavior and is restored to the community through restitution). Or Christ's treatment of the woman caught in adultery: he calls out her sinful behavior (righteous), declares her worthy of forgiveness (merciful), and commands her to end her adulterous life (justice by the restoration to right relationship). To remove righteousness and mercy from a conversation about justice leaves the definition of justice lacking.

Justice is the restoration of right relationship, through acts of mercy and righteousness, between ourselves, others, God and Creation.

But are those things woven intimately together because they are the same thing? Can we use "mercy", "justice", and "righteousness" interchangeably? Are we egalitarian linguists now?

Or is it true that each of these have  distinct meanings,  even if they are complementary of one another?

Dan, I appreciate your article.  Equality and justice.  We come across living these words and living them out daily. In having lived now on the Navajo Nation (reservation.....this word in and of itself smacks of 'injustice')  we experience injustice coming our way as non-Native people. We've addressed the issue of equality but it is not easy for people to live this when they've been dealt way too often in terms of you worth just a little less than other people in the U.S.   At this time of year we see various businesses helping people filing their taxes and then propose making a generous loan to them with very generous fees that go into the pockets of such businesses.   So we speak up about that and encourage the congregation to speak up about such matters to their 'brothers and sisters' by tribe and clan.       To be dealt with on equal terms then is to treat everyone the same, regardless of skin color and social background. Just like you pointed out in your article.  Justice.  As Scripture points out, "righteousness and justice are the foundations of your throne' (Ps. 89) which is characterized by a steadfast love, faithfulness, and righteousness.  Perhaps when we try to clothe ourselves with these attributes of God can we begin to live out, no matter where we live our lives in Christ, with equality and justice for all.



Good going, Dan.  You obviously hit on a topic that has drawn a lot of responses, and obviously some diversity as to the meaning of justice.  I’ve been away from my computer for a while and just picked up on your interesting article.  It spurred my thinking, like it has many others.  I liked the analogy of using your children to make your point.

Your definition (short definition) of justice is: “Justice is people getting what they deserve, whether good or bad, and whether we personally like the outcome or not.”  To bring that home to your six year old son, you used the example of the policeman who stopped a person who broke the “stop sign” law.  Obviously guilty of wrong doing but the policeman let it go for his own reasons (liked his looks).  Your son said, and you agreed, that such action would be wrong.  It’s not just.

But that is exactly what God does.  He gives a set of laws that everyone must meet. All have failed to meet the standard of God’s justice.  And yet he chooses (elects) to forgive some but not others.  It’s like the policeman giving a break to some but not to others.  And it definitely doesn’t fit the definition that you have given of justice.  As God’s image bearers, is that the pattern you and I should follow in dealing with people, act justly toward some but not all?

Here's the difference you left out, Roger: God did indeed punish the law breaking, but in the person of his Son.  Thus he is just and the justifier.  Remember, we are now seen as being perfectly righteous, as if we had never broken the law.  The police officer in the example was not just, because he simply excused the offense.  God does no such thing.

Eric is correct. To tie it to the example, the police officer would pay the penalty of the driving violation himself, on behalf of the guilty motorist. Thus fulfilling the just requirements of the law, and extending MERCY that the motorist does not DESERVE.

So we can plainly see that "justice" and "mercy" are two distinct things. Justice being something we deserve; mercy being something we do not deserve.

I think you miss the point.  You said, Dan, “justice is people getting what they deserve...”  The point I’m making is that the elect don’t get what they deserve.  They escape justice.  Your definition fails.  Because someone else pays a debt doesn’t mean justice is served.  If Joe Bloe says I’ll pay the debt for Adolf Hitler’s crimes, justice is not met.  Adolf Hitler has to pay for his own crimes.  Otherwise justice is not met. 

To Erik, the police officer could say to the offender, “I’ll forgive your crime. Go and try not to do this again.  Forgiveness does not require a payment, whether by an offender or someone else in his place.  Another thing, Erik, you said, “God did indeed punish the law breaking, but in the person of his Son.”  He may have punished the “law breaking” but he didn’t punish the law breaker. Therefore justice was not met.

I did not miss your point, Roger.  It's just that you and I have a completely different understanding of Scripture.  I read Scripture and see that justice WAS met in the divine sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  Not justice from my perspective (God knows I do not want Him to render justice to ME...for I do not want to get what I deserve from God).  But rather, justice from His perspective was done.

Thus this definition of "justice" SUCCEEDS: "People getting what they deserve, whether good or bad."  Thank God I do not receive justice from Him, but rather mercy.

So then, Dan, you want your son to understand justice, equality, forgiveness and mercy from God’s perspective in a way that makes sense to him.

Here’s a simple story that a child should be able to understand.  A father takes his four sons fishing.  They are close in age (two sets of twins - 5 and 6 years old).  He tells them to be careful, not to rock the boat, as that could be dangerous to their safety.  After an hour the boys get bored and start to horse around and start rocking the boat.  Lo and behold the boat tips over and all end up in the water.  The water is not that deep but is still over the heads of the boys.  Its an easy task for the father to rescue all four boys.  He’s an excellent swimmer and has life saving experience.  But he decides to save only one and leave the others to drown.  Afterward when confronted he says, the boys all misbehaved and received the due consequence of their misbehavior.  That he saved one shows his kindness.

Now ask your son what he thought of the father.  Was he just in allowing the three to drown when he could have easily saved all four, was he truly merciful or forgiving in allowing the three to drown?  How do you think the courts of justice would treat such a father?

Of course this is how God chooses out of a sinful humanity the few elect.  Although Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to pay for the sins of the world, the actual payment is limited to only the elect, the chosen,  The majority of humanity never even hear a valid presentation of the gospel and are bound for an eternity in hell as sinners.  Is this the kind of justice and mercy that we should emulate as image bearers of God?  Is this the kind of justice that you are happy to emulate and prescribe to your children?  How do you understand Biblical election differently than what’s explained above, since, as you say, we have completely different understandings of Scripture?

Roger, are you challenging the definition of justice I offered?  Or are you saying that God is not just, because He does not save everyone, even though it would be "easy" for Him to do so?  Or are you offering some sort of universalist theory that in the end, God will save everyone?  I'm not sure where you are going here?

Hey Dan.  The Canons of Dort were written as a response to the Arminian perspective on the involvement of God and humans in the process of salvation.  And, of course, today the Arminian position is the predominate position among those holding a classical view of Christianity.  Arminians of the past and even at present see the Reformed view of predestination as misrepresenting a just or merciful God. It represents God as choosing some undeserving people for salvation while sentencing the rest of humanity to an eternity of damnation.  To most Christians, this represents not just a sovereign God but an unjust God, a picture of a less than good God.  And of course, salvation and damnation are some of the primary roles of God as it relates to humanity. So do you really think your definition of justice fits with the understanding that Reformed people have of God as he metes out salvation to some but not to others?  Such a perspective fits your example of the policeman who gives a pass (and continually gives a pass) to some law breakers and not to others.  So obviously, your premise and example on justice seemed confusing especially seeing we are the image bearers of God.

I found Mark Roberts' devotional Loving the God Who Loves Justice to be helpful in the context of this discussion. The words “justice” and “equity” are frequently found in Scripture in relationship both to God and to those who seek to obey him (cf., Psalm 9:8 and Psalm 99:4).

This is a really helpful article, Dan.  Thanks for sharing it!  It looks like it has been effective to spark a good conversation.

I like your short definition of justice; it seems accurate, and so I think it's helpful to the ongoing conversation.  I also agree with your point that people tend to conflate various terms with each other (justice, mercy, equality, etc), and that such conflation is unhelpful on a number of levels. 

While I don't always agree with everything that you and Erik have to say (in our Facebook group discussions), I do think that you're right on target with this article.  

If I had any comment to offer here, it would be along the lines of how various word-pairs and word-groups relate with each other in the OT (esp. in Hebrew poetry).  Certainly, terms such as "justice" and "righteousness" and "mercy" each have their own distinct definitions or fields of meaning.  And while the OT writers don't conflate their terms, they nevertheless do tend to pair them or tie them to each other.  In these cases, the meaning of the whole can be greater (or more complex/nuanced) than the sum of its parts.  My point here is that I think this feature of Hebrew language helps to account for some of the ambiguity that we have in our conversations about justice; if Scripture makes a habit of tying certain words or concepts to each other, then that will inevitably be reflected in our discussions about those words and concepts.

Now, I don't think that this feature of Hebrew language allows us to conflate these terms for ourselves.  Rather, I'd argue that this feature of OT writing actually calls for more precision from us, not less!  And so in the end, I still strongly agree with you, that we need to develop some real clarity about what these words mean.  I think that the clarity you're advocating here is actually one of the keys to properly interpreting the meaning of these biblical word-pairs and word-groups, and is therefore essential for our ongoing discussion about justice.  

Here is perhaps another way to phrase what I think you're saying:  The deeper our conversations get into any given topic, the more precise our use of words should become.  When we find ourselves in disagreement with fellow believers as we discuss matters of faith and practice, we need to slow down and clarify exactly what we’re meaning (and also what we're not meaning) when we say what we’re saying.  If not, we might as well be speaking different languages, and that didn't work out so well on the plain of Shinar.  :) 

Thanks again for sharing such a helpful article!

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