Generous Justice

A good friend of mine from seminary who has been a pastor for about 15 years recently shared a book with me. It is by the conservative pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, Timothy Keller. Keller is probably the most popular Reformed preacher in America today, and the book, his thirteenth, is Generous Justice.

My friend sent me the book on the heels of my praise on Facebook of our alma mater, Princeton Seminary, reversing a decision to award Keller the distinguished Kuyper Prize, the seminary’s annual award for “Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness.” The reason Princeton Seminary reversed its decision was based on the fact that Keller’s conservative views on LGBTQ rights and women clashed with Princeton Seminary’s and the Presbyterian Church of the USA’s stance. Keller is a part of the conservative branch of the Presbyterian Church – the Presbyterian Church of America.

My position was that revoking the prize was not censorship or a limit on academic freedom. Instead, it was in keeping with institutional priorities and values – the school should not celebrate a person who directly conflicts with the views of the students, faculty, and the church it represents. The seminary decided not to award anyone the prize in 2017 and still had Keller to campus to speak.

My friend disagreed and thought that even if I thought Keller’s views on gays and women in the church were wrongheaded, I should investigate his other views on matters such as social justice. So, he sent me Generous Justice. I am reading it now and am taking a lot from it, while reserving my personal ire for Keller and the PCA’s stance, and I am doing this to find common ground with someone with whom I vehemently disagree. So, in an effort to help others do the same, I am going to encourage you to read this passage from the book my friend sent me. What do you think of it? Can you find common ground with someone with whom you have profound differences?

Justice is Right Relationships

“We must have a strong concern for the poor, but there is more to the Biblical idea of justice than that. We get more insight when we consider a second Hebrew word that can be translated as ‘being just,’ though it is usually translated as ‘being righteous.’ The word is tzadeqah, and it refers to a life of relationships. Bible scholar Alec Motyer defines ‘righteous’ as those ‘right with God and therefore committed to putting right all other relationships in life.’

This means, then, that Biblical righteousness is inevitably ‘social,’ because it is about relationships. When most modern people see the word ‘righteousness’ in the Bible, they tend to think of it in terms of private morality, such as sexual chastity or diligence in prayer and Bible and Bible study. But in the Bible tzadeqah refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity, and equity. It is not surprising then, to discover that tzadeqah and mishpat (Hebrew for ‘justice’) are brought together scores of times in the Bible.

These two words roughly correspond to what some have called ‘primary’ and rectifying justice.’ Rectifying justice is mishpat. It means punishing wrong-doers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment. Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevelant in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else. Therefore, though tzadeqah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social. A passage in the book of Job illustrates what this kind of righteous or just-living person looks like:

I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist him. The man who was dying blessed me; I made the widow’s heart sing. I put on righteousness [tzadeqah] as my clothing; justice [mishpat] was my robe and turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the immigrant. I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth. 

Job 29:12-17

If I have denied justice [mishpat] to my menservants and maidservants when the had a grievance against me, what will I do when God confronts me? …If I have denied the desires of the poor or let the eyes of the widow grow weary, if I have kept my bread to myself, not sharing it with the fatherless–but from my youth I reared him as would a father, and from my birth I guided the widow–if I have seen anyone perishing for lack of clothing, or a needy man without a garment, and his heart did not bless me for warming him with the fleece from my sheep, if I have raised my hand against the fatherless, knowing that I had influence in court, then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let it be broken off at the joint. …these also would be sins to be judged, for I would have been unfaithful to God on high.

Job 31:13-28

Francis I. Anderson points out in his commentary on Job that this is one of the most important texts in the Scripture for the study of Israelite ethics. It is a complete picture of how a righteous Israelite was supposed to live, “and to [Job], right conduct is almost entirely social. …In Job’s conscience…to omit to do good to any fellow human being, of whatever rank or class, would be a grievous offence to God.””


I will end my quote from the book there although Keller goes on throughout the book to make the case that justice for the poor, downtrodden, widows, orphans, and the like is highlighted throughout scripture. “Doing justice” is a keystone of the Christian faith, and I could not agree more. Now if only Keller would extend that line of thinking to LGBTQ and women, we’d be on to something big!


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