I live in a fairly progressive city. “Social justice” is precious cultural currency. Where you fall on any number of social issues can brand you a hero, a warrior, a victim, or a villain. And this isn’t the case only in my city.
Our culture as a whole is knee-deep in the mud pit fighting over the greased pig of “Justice”: racial discrimination, abortion, welfare, healthcare, the environment, immigration, the definition of marriage, foreign policy, poverty rates, economic issues — what are your thoughts on . . . all of them? Where do you fall? Facebook feeds and Twitter streams have become a social war zone with articles, op-eds, think pieces, and news updates as the ammunition fired between various ideologies.
We love the idea of social justice, of being on “the right side of history.” For every race, class, political affiliation, religion, for both men and women, the question is: “Whose ‘justice’ is right?”
Whose Social Justice Stands?
To all this, Christians must make a striking profession:
Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely. (Proverbs 28:5)
How does that land on you? Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand justice . . . completely.
Does that feel right to you? That thing that Solomon, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Hobbes, Hume, Locke, Burke, and thousands of the deepest thinkers since the beginning of time have all tried to nail down — you’ve got it figured out, right? Solomon says you do. And on the other hand, the proverb is saying that every friend of yours interested in social justice who doesn’t know Jesus is like a blind man demanding that the walls be painted his favorite color.
It’s no use trying to swap out “piety,” or “morality,” or “reason” with Solomon’s “Lord.” This “Lord” is the triune God of the Bible who stands forth fully in the person of Jesus Christ, the only exact imprint of the nature of the Lord (Hebrews 1:3). In other words, what we’re saying is, “Those who seek Jesus understand justice completely. Everyone else doesn’t know what they’re about.”
This is a heavy, sobering claim. How can it be true? It seems the only thing I know for certain is just how unable I am to know perfect justice in every circumstance. What’s more, even when I know what true justice requires, I feel vividly how my heart tends to ricochet off justice toward comfort, or self-protection, or indifference.
So, in what sense can Christians claim that they understand justice completely?
Three Aspects of God-Centered Justice
The Bible does not say that we who seek Jesus understand justice because we’re the smartest, or holiest, or wisest, or most educated people. As with all things related to the gospel, it is “not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us” (2 Corinthians 3:5). Rather, we understand justice completely because we’re tethered by faith to the one who is justice, because we seek the one who defines and loves justice, the one who calls us to justice.
Justice belongs to God (Isaiah 30:18), and so when we seek and find God, we seek and find justice. By seeking Christ, our perspective of justice changes from our own personal perspectives to God’s perspective. And a God-centered understanding of justice understands three things:
First, we understand what sin is — we understand what our sin is. We know that in a world full of sinners, the fundamental axiom of justice is Ezekiel 18:20, “The soul who sins shall die.” So, how do you know if you have a Christ-centered understanding of justice? A true understanding of justice is not measured by how much you can accomplish for this issue or that. A true, Christ-centered understanding of justice begins in dust and ashes, when we confess with hands over our mouths, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Job 40:4; Romans 3:10).
Justice begins in repentance because we can’t ask God to uphold just part of his justice on earth: Just bring justice to the unborn, or to refugees of genocide, or to the evil men and women who would profit by killing children in the womb. Or just bring justice to the men who traffic women into prostitution, or just to those afflicted by racial discrimination or hatred.
This is what “evil men” are asking for when they claim they’re seeking justice. They think that justice is piecemeal, that we can separate the sins “out there” in the world from the evil that lives inside every single one of us. But this is not the case. When we ask God for justice, we are asking, ultimately, that God’s glory be vindicated against every sinner who defiles that glory — ourselves included.
2. Jesus satisfied God’s justice.
But more importantly than our understanding of sin, we understand justice because we know the one who satisfied God’s justice against sin, completely. We look at the cross of Jesus and see the clearest display of God’s justice on sin.
And we know this justice completely because it has become our justice: “[God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is justification. The most definitive justice that any society has yet witnessed was when Jesus suffered the full justice of God’s judgment for the sins of the elect.
3. We are free to seek real justice.
Because we understand that “justice” is God upholding his glory against sin, and that our sins were judged in Christ, we come to social justice, the kind of justice we usually think of when we hear the word.
Social justice is not the gospel. Social justice is not even the main aim of the gospel — it’s not why Christ died and rose again. But at the same time, true social justice is impossible for any but those who have believed the gospel message.
Those who have been justified by faith should be the most passionate about God’s justice because we can ask for it with our eyes wide open. Only the justified can ask for God’s justice to fall on the abortion industry, and racial inequality, and domestic abusers, and those who grow rich through deceit — only the justified can ask for God to show justice “out there” — without the hypocrisy of hoping that he won’t see my impatience, my lust, my hidden prejudice, my love of comfort. “[These] he set aside, nailing [them] to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).
Only justified Christians can seek true social justice without contorting it to keep themselves safe from judgment on their own sin. When we aim at social justice, we’re not squinting to shut out the sin that reaches up from our own hearts. Instead, we’re safe in the gospel of Jesus Christ to pursue true justice without calling down that justice on our own selves.
And if this causes you to swell with pride, you haven’t fully understood the gospel yet. Without Christ, all of your social justice is filthy rags. In Christ, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Any good that you do is the sovereign work of God in you (Philippians 2:12–13) — let him who boasts boast only in this: “he understands and knows me [God]” (Jeremiah 9:24).
He Will Bring Justice to the Nations
The church of Christ is not blown back and forth by every cultural wave demanding we support this cause or oppose that one. We’re not tossed about by every wind of secular social justice doctrine. When we seek justice, we know what it is that we’re asking for: we’re asking for the real justice of the real God who really hates sin.
And we seek this justice with unflinching hope. The risen Christ now reigns, and “he will bring forth justice to the nations. . . . He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law” (Isaiah 42:1, 4). We seek Jesus, and therefore we understand and seek true justice. May God be gracious so that we may obtain it.