Justification and justice are joined at the hip
From a talk by Tim Keller at QIdeas
In Sept 2017, Tim Keller, Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York and previously a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, spoke on 'The Both/And of the Gospel'.
There can be polarisation between those Christians who culturally engaged, missionary minded and socially involved and those who emphasize the preservation and preaching of orthodox doctrine and evangelism. The former accuse the latter of truncating the story of God's purposes in the world. The latter believe that in reaching for cultural relevance the former are letting go of Biblical truth. Tim talks about this apparent choice. Here are some highlights:
"There is a kind of polarisation happening in the Christian community between what I'm going to call justification people and justice people. Justification by faith alone is a doctrine that the Reformers recovered during the Reformation. The gospel of justification by faith alone says, 'You can receive God's acceptance and blessing right now as a free gift because of what Jesus has done, and then, and only then, can you and will you live as you ought.'
"Justification by faith alone is the traditional evangelical gospel. It goes like this, 'All human beings are under the wrath of God, but Jesus Christ has come and died on the cross, substitutionary sacrifice, and he bore the punishment, the wrath that we deserve. So that when you believe in him, even though you in yourself are still a sinner, your guilt, the guilt and shame of your record is imputed to him and the rights and privileges of his perfect record are imputed to you, and though even though you in yourself are a sinner you are accepted and loved right now.' That's the traditional gospel, period, that's the end, that's the gospel.
"Now what's been happening I think over the last few years is the people who really guard the doctrine of justification by faith believe that the implications of that is that we're mainly here in the world to do evangelism. The idea of doing justice, deeds of justice and compassion for the poor as a major priority of Christians - people in the justification party feel like, 'No, no, no, that's distracting us from the main thing we do. In fact, isn't the doctrine of justification by faith alone really about grace, not about going out and righting wrongs in this world?'
"But on the other hand Christians that are very intrigued and passionate for justice and for cultural engagement have started I think to kind of walk away from that traditional gospel. At the very least they're not using the terms, they're not talking justification language anymore. They're not talking about the death of Jesus Christ as bearing the wrath of God. Instead, they'd rather talk about it being the defeat of the powers of greed and violence. And when they talk about the purpose of salvation, they wouldn't talk so much about pardon and individual justification, as the purpose of salvation is a new heavens, new earth, a new world of justice. They don't want to talk about the act of becoming a Christian, so much as receiving pardon, as identifying now with a new community that does justice in the world.
"I'm here to say justification and justice are joined at the hip. They’re almost a seamless cloth. Justice people who are walking away from that old traditional gospel, are walking away from an enormous resource for doing justice. Justification people who don't realise that the two things go together, just need to go back to the scripture. Justification by faith leads to justice. Justice leads to more people getting justified by faith. There's a reason why those two things go together. Let me give you three points:
1. Justification by faith leads to justice. Look, go back to the prophets, Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah. Isaiah Chapter 29 where it says, 'These people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.' What kind of people are those? It's people who don't care about the poor. Isaiah 58. The beginning of Isaiah 58 God is talking about the fact that on Yom Kippur the day of atonement when your sins are atoned for by grace, the Israelites would fast. But God says, 'You're trying to show that you know you're a sinner saved by grace and you fast, and yet while you fast you exploit your workers. This is the fast I choose - share your food with the hungry, provide the homeless foreigner with shelter, when you see the naked to clothe him.' In other words, Isaiah is saying, 'If you say you believe you're sinners saved by grace but you don't care about the poor, you haven't really encountered God's grace. You're not really right with God.' This continues in the New Testament - take Matt 25 - Jesus knowing the difference on Judgement Day between the people who say they're saved and the people who really are saved - your concern for the poor will show whether you were saved, whether you've experienced the grace of God. The Bible says, yes, you're saved by grace, you're saved by faith, you're not saved by your good works. But if you really experience the grace of God you will have certain works. It's the inevitable sign that you're saved by faith. What are those works? Caring for the poor. Passion for justice. Over and over and over again the Bible says here's how you know whether you're really justified by faith. You care about justice. I mean it's almost like everywhere. If you're justified by faith the inevitable sign of it is a life poured out in deeds of justice and service to the poor.
2. The doctrine of justification by faith alone gives you a new attitude toward the poor. When Jesus says, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit' what's that mean? Most commentators say what that means is to be a Christian. To admit that you need grace salvation is to be spiritually bankrupt. It means you've got to admit that you have this enormous debt to God that you could never pay it, that the only reason you're alive spiritually at all is because of the generosity of God. If you know that and understand that and believe that, you're poor in spirit. That means that when you the spiritual poor meet the materially poor you'll never be condescending again, never. You cannot look at the materially poor and say, 'Well, I'll help those people if they're the deserving poor. I'm not going to help the undeserving poor.' If Jesus looked over the rim of heaven and said, 'I think I'll come down and give my blood to the deserving poor', he could have saved himself a trip because there are no spiritually deserving poor. Anybody who really understands the doctrine of justification by faith alone, you're looking in a mirror when you look at a poor person.
3. The doctrine of justification by faith alone not only changes attitudes toward the poor, it changes the attitude of the poor. Imagine that you have no job, no money, you live cut off from the rest of society in a world ruled by poverty and violence, your skin is the wrong colour, and you have no hope that any of this will change. Around you is a society governed by the iron law of achievement and, in a thousand ways, society tells you every day that you’re worthless because you have no achievement. Your dignity is shattered, your soul is enveloped in the darkness of despair. But the gospel of justification by grace alone tells you that you are not defined by outside forces. It tells you that you count; even more that you are loved unconditionally and infinitely, irrespective of anything you have achieved or failed to achieve. Imagine now this gospel not simply proclaimed but embodied in a Christian community that declares just those ones that the world has called unjust by its implacable law of achievement. Imagine, furthermore, this Christian community determined to infuse the wider culture, along with its political and economic institutions, with the message that it seeks to embody and proclaim. This is justification by grace, proclaimed and practised, breaking the cycle of poverty. A dead doctrine? No way.
"You know when we practise justice that it will lead to more justification by faith because people are going to say, 'Who are these people, giving their lives to the poor like this?' See justification by faith automatically leads to doing justice. It should if we think about it. Then of course all the justice will lead to more people becoming Christians because they listen to the gospel."
See research on Church Social Action and Growth here
Retweet about this article: