Biblical Foundations for Seeking God's Justice in a Sinful World

The Gospel Coalition’s 2015 National Conference | Orlando

D.A. Carson: Let me remind you of the names of these brothers that are with me on the panel. You can find their full bios in the conference program. I need not repeat such things here. On my far left — or maybe it’s your far right, I’m not sure what the significance of the directions are here — is Tim Keller. Now if you do that for every one of them, there’s going to be competition. And then Voddie Bauchum, Thabiti Anyabwile, and then let’s have absolute silence for John Piper, and Miguel Nuñez.

Now, unless you were living utterly cut off from all new sources in the digital world, you have to be aware of the very significant discussion that has taken place in the wake, especially of Ferguson and New York City and more recent events as well. It is important that we talk about these things, not least when we disagree on our perceptions of some of them. Merely throwing brickbats and yelling at each other is not going to help. And as Christians, then we want to talk about these things with minds profoundly submitted to Scripture and eager to be reformed by the word of God, not least when our emotions are so heavily involved. And so TGC (The Gospel Coalition) has been involved with sponsoring and co-sponsoring a number of public discussions, airing these issues in a variety of cities.

These continue. And in this conference there are some forms and workshops, which I’m sure you have noted in the program, that deal specifically with racial issues and justice issues. And we’ve tried to bring people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives together, including policemen and those involved in the judicial system. But in this panel, we want to do something a bit different. We want to paint on a broader canvas, that is to say, we want to think about how Christians should think about justice issues, not just racial issues. There are a lot of other justice issues too: poverty, consumerism, the white slave trade, and many other things that could be mentioned like corruption in politics and any number of justice issues that really need a foundational way of thinking.

So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to try to talk about some of these things at a biblical-theological level with clear implications and applications to some of the issues that we have been talking about. We won’t agree on everything, but our aim is to submit things to Scripture as best we can with love for one another and a deep, deep desire to bow to the Lordship of Christ.

I need to say as well that this is not Don Carson asking a specific question to Thabiti or to John or whatever. This is one where the questions need to be batted back and forth. Anybody can chip in and contribute, contradict, advise, or revise. This needs to be a discussion, not a Q&A. But the first question is, what are the biblical texts, biblical themes, and theological themes that should most control our thinking about justice and righteousness issues in our lives, in the church, and in the time and place in the world where God has placed us?

Tim Keller: I’m just jumping right in. It’s intriguing that in Genesis 9, because all human beings are made in the image of God, God even holds animals responsible for killing a human being. Because humans are made in the image of God, he says, “I will require their blood even of animals.” And it’s also intriguing in James that he says, “You shouldn’t speak abusively. You shouldn’t curse people, people who are made in the image of God.” So James can even talk about speaking harshly towards someone who is in the image of God. So the Imago Dei is foundational, I think, for talking about how you treat people, if even cursing somebody is wrong because they’re made in the image of God or if even animals are held responsible in some way. I haven’t quite figured out how God does that, by the way.

Here’s the only other thing I’ll mention. It doesn’t surprise me that in the beginning of Amos 1–2, God holds the pagan nations around Israel responsible for genocide, for imperialism, and for oppression and cruelty. These are pagan nations. They do not have the law of God and they don’t have the Bible. But it is very clear that God still holds them responsible for justice, for treating human beings with justice as beings in the image of God. So you can see the basis of what we would consider caring about people’s rights, giving people what they deserve, treating all human beings as having infinite dignity in texts like that. That’s just to get the ball rolling.

Voddie Baucham: And I would say that for me, when I think about that and try to put a finer point on it from a philosophical perspective, that gives us that roots and grounds us in our understanding of why it is that people should be treated a certain way. But then I go to the second table of the law to understand how that’s manifested, which is what I think Paul does in Romans 13:8 with his statement “owe no one anything but love.” And then what does he do? He sort of enumerates the second table of the law.

So I think that we do need to have this philosophical overarching understanding of people having inherent dignity and value because they’re made in the image of God. But then when we put feet on it and talk specifically about what would be right and what would be wrong in terms of the treatment of those people, we have to come to the moral law. We have to come to that transcendent moral code that God has given us and to which we’re all held accountable.

Thabiti Anyabwile: I like where these brothers have started in the beginning. Just prior to the Imago Dei in creation, we’re told that God wants us to fill the earth to multiply. And in part that’s to bring forth his glory. Malachi 2:15 tells us why he established marriage, so that he might have an offspring that would bring him glory. Questions of justice are connected with questions of worship too. Our proper relationship to God and our filling of the earth with his glory has something to do with human flourishing and how we treat other image bearers who themselves have been created to reflect the glory of God. So I’m with these brothers in the beginning because I think there’s such a foundation laid for us and thinking about justice and its outworkings there.

John Piper: I would just go up a level. I don’t know where you want to start. You said foundation. The person in the universe who has rights is God. He has rights. Justice is acting in a way so that God gets his rights. That is the most fundamental meaning of justice. God acts in accordance with his rights. And if you say, “Well, what are God’s rights?” It’s any behavior that accords with the infinite value of God is a right behavior. So ultimate rightness is behavior, thoughts, and feelings that are conformed to the infinite value of God. He has rights to those things.

I think if we start with man, even with the Imago Dei, without saying that first we probably will go skewed eventually in a manward direction, a man-centered world. I want to start this way, and I know Tim who started the way he did, will be the one who most effectively relates the gospel to this issue by saying the gospel deals with making sure God gets his rights in punishing those who have offended him on the cross so that there can be mercy like this. But the gospel will make no sense eventually if we haven’t started with the righteousness of God being God’s right to punish those who don’t act in accordance with his infinite value. `

D.A. Carson: Do you agree with him on that?

Tim Keller: Yes. He is correct.

John Piper: A more interesting question would be why didn’t you start there? I think I know the answer. It’s one of the reasons I like you.

Tim Keller: I wanted to leave you some room.

D.A. Carson: Miguel, do you want to correct these brothers?

Miguel Nuñez: No, I just want to add a couple of different things. The way I see it, I see the character of God, of the God who is just and righteous, who gave us a law that is also just, and that law was violated. So the image of God got corrupted when the law of God was violated. And anything else that we see that is imperfect and unjust today is the result of that fall. And what God is doing with us today is redeeming his image in mankind.

But also I would think about loving God with all your heart, mind, and strength. If you love God, you should be loving everything that he loves. And we know from the Bible that God loves justice. That’s part of what he is. And secondly, the Bible calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves and to treat that neighbor the way we would like us to be treated. So I think any degree of injustice is the result of that violation of that law and the corruption of that image. I think all of those texts that deal with all of those aspects are foundational to these issues.

D.A. Carson: Well, let’s pursue that one a bit farther before we come into the next range of questions. How many of these fundamental issues are really well understood in our churches, preached in our churches, taught in our churches? By our churches, you expand that as far out as you like — in your respective denominations, in TGC related churches, in your own local church. I mean, has there been a failure to get across some of these, lifting up the centrality of God and its entailments?

Voddie Baucham: I would say yes, there’s been a massive failure in this regard. Man-centeredness is the order of the day. One of the reasons that there are so many people who are so attracted to what’s happening at things like The Gospel Coalition is this revival of God-centered thinking and the rightness of God-centered thinking, and the Lord’s sheep know his voice. And when people hear God being magnified and glorified, and God at the center, and the gospel of God at the center, people are attracted to that. And one of the reasons that it’s so attractive is because, for the most part, people are being starved of it.

D.A. Carson: Let me come to a second question. It’s a tier down in some ways, but what are some of the reasons why devout Christians who believe the Bible and really think that they are bowing to Christ’s lordship can nevertheless disagree on an array of justice and social issues as strongly as they do? What are the reasons? They can be of many sorts.

Tim Keller: One reason is different experiences, first of all. If you’re white or if you’re black, you’re going to have a different daily experience. And I think it’s normal for us to tend to universalize. The way we see things is the way it is. Certainly that’s an easy one. I mean, that’s not the only answer to your question, but certainly different experiences play a role. Some people have had more privileged experiences, and some people have had less privileged experiences. That’s one of the reasons.

Voddie Baucham: Our theology also goes into this because there’s a reason that, for example, Tim is wrong on baptism and I’m not. No, but in seriousness, I use that as an illustration to how people can very much love one another and can very much be eye to eye on so many things, but because of different theological presuppositions and different things that we sort of bring to our understanding of the text of Scripture, they lead us in different directions. I think one of the problems that we have is that we don’t allow for that in these discussions.

Because if we’re talking about issues like baptism, we see someone over here who’s going in this direction on baptism, someone over here who’s going in this direction on baptism, and it’s a distinction, it’s a theological divergence. We don’t say that one of them is a good person and the other one deserves to be beaten or whatever. But on a particular issue that’s so visceral and things that strike us in a certain way, we can see the same divergence that can be explained in the exact same way because of theological starting points and presuppositions, and all of a sudden now we say one person is unjust and another is just when we’re seeing a manifestation of the same truth.

Thabiti Anyabwile: In some ways your last question is connected with the previous question. So you’re trying to get us to mix it up a little bit here and that’s good. We might comply or we might not. No, I agree with these brothers. And I guess what I would want to say is certainly along with what they have said, I think it’s true that when it comes to thinking through what the Bible says about justice, from God all the way down to the ethic to love — I’m going to risk over-generalizing — I don’t think most Christians have ever been discipled in this area.

I mean, what these brothers just did when you asked your first question and just sort of reaching into the Scripture and bringing out the second table of the law, or reaching into the Scripture and reflecting on Imago Dei, or reaching up a level higher and thinking about the rights that God has and bringing it down to justice, if we were to poll the room, my guess is that the majority of persons in here would say, “Nobody has ever taught me to do that, to work through that so deeply and so quickly that on a panel I can recall that and work that through.” Or more importantly, if it would be in the face of an actual conflict that rushes to the fore and shapes what I’m thinking and doing in that moment.

I don’t think the American church is very well discipled to think through justice writ large, or justice in particular situations. And most of our discipleship has come through whatever political influences we have had or whatever personal influences we have had. So we are not in the first instance reflecting deeply on the Scripture. And I think if we were, we’d still have different starting points sometimes in different places where we’d go different ways, but we’d at least be having the same conversation about what the Book says. And often we’re not having the same conversation.

Tim Keller: Yeah, I just want to build on what Thabiti just said. There is no doubt that we are listening to political voices and not thinking theologically about. So for example, right now I would say the basic, politically liberal understanding of justice is that the individual needs to be protected from society. The individual has to be free to live any way he or she wants to live no matter what society or family or religion says. The conservative understanding of justice is actually that the individual has to be protected from the state, from the government, from regulation, from law.

They’re very different and they’re both too thin, biblically speaking. They both resonate to certain aspects of biblical understanding of justice. But if all you do is read the liberal websites or the conservative websites and you’re just completely immersed in that, and then suddenly as a Christian you come to the Ferguson issue and all that stuff, and immediately, instead of really thinking it out in a very proactively biblical way, you are really just following your particular political crowd and not thinking very theologically.

So I totally agree with that. It’s one of the reasons you can definitely see it in the comments section on the website, on the stories that we put up there and the articles we put up there. You can just see in the comments section where the people got their ideas. They didn’t usually come from the scripture, I don’t think.

Miguel Nuñez: The more people I get to know, the more I realize how important worldviews are. I think part of the problem is that worldviews are not just related to knowledge. We could get a lot of knowledge from the Bible, but worldviews are related to emotions, experiences in life, and family upbringing. In dealing with people and in counseling, and even the people in my own congregation, I realize that after hearing the truth and knowing the truth, the knowledge and the intellectual aspect of it, people are still behaving in a different way than what you have been preaching to them.

So I think one of the things we need to do is to be aware of worldviews in our audience and try to preach the truth of the Bible addressing the worldviews of the audience that you have in front of you. And that’s why I think having a clear vision of who you are ministering to is important among other things. Because the way Latin Americans look at life is not necessarily the same way North Americans will look at life. Even when they are believers and even when they might be equally sanctified. And speaking of sanctification, I think that sometimes it’s just the degree of sanctification that makes a difference between one person and the other.

D.A. Carson: Why don’t you just take a couple of minutes and tell us some ways that Latin Americans — who can generalize about Latin Americans? — look at the world differently from North Americans. It’s good for us to hear that.

Miguel Nuñez: Sure. I’ll just use some very simple everyday experiences. Latin Americans, in general, are not on time. We’re not on time. We’re always late. And from the North American point of view, that’s very selfish.

D.A. Carson: We started the National Spanish Conference, which began as the pre-conference for this conference. We began five minutes late. Hey, talk about flexibility. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Miguel Nuñez: Thank you for your love. So we’re always late, but we don’t see that as anything selfish because it’s part of the culture where you need to teach your people that there are other people who are on time who you need to consider them and be less selfish. It’s a selfishness problem.

My wife is from New York and in many different ways she taught me that. Because she would call me for dinner and I would be 10 or 15 minutes late. And I didn’t think that was a big deal. But for her who had cooked and had put the dinner on the table and it was warm, it was kind of selfish on my part not to go when she would call me to tell me that dinner was ready. That’s just one aspect of it. I could go on and on and on and give you so many of them, but certainly life is very different.

We are not as organized as the Anglo mind is. And again, that doesn’t become a problem for most of us. Traffic is chaotic in many of our cities and we don’t see anything wrong with it. And yet you go there and you go crazy with the lack of organization, and yet you see the Latin Americans are very at peace with one another and even joking around those issues. When you grow up there, for you that’s normal. And you could take that to racism, level of income, education, and on and on and on it goes.

I think worldviews are one of the hardest things to destroy in people’s minds. So preaching with that in mind and trying to create a biblical worldview, not just based on knowledge but how you should act with your knowledge, the application of that truth, is paramount. I think that’s where the application may vary from culture to culture. The truth that you are exposing is the same no matter where you are, but the application may have different colors. So I think that’s important.

D.A. Carson: As I recall the passage in James 1, it says, “Let the rich man learn that he’s like a flower in the field that dies and goes away. Whereas, the poor man, let him learn instead that he’s anchored in God, he’s a child of God, he has an eternal bearing.” And this is the same gospel, but it’s applied in very different ways depending on the people that you’re addressing.

That means that the pastors, likewise, have to be sensitive to the particular blind spots of different persons in the congregation, especially when it’s a really diverse congregation. It becomes very challenging. So what are some of the things then you collectively think that we’re not discerning poorly, or we’re not thinking through carefully, in terms of how to apply the word of God to the way people think and act on a broad front of justice issues?

John Piper: Whether this is answering your question, I wanted to follow up on the previous question, which was, “Why are there differences?” And then it came around to the fact that we haven’t been well discipled. And I’m thinking if that’s true, if these folks have either been not well discipled, or the pastors haven’t done it well, why have we done it well? My encouragement would be I’m hindered from tackling some things because I don’t have the answers at the street level. It’s relatively easy for me to talk about theory. And I say, “Well, now what about this and this? I’m not sure what I think, and therefore I’m not even inclined to go to the theoretical level. Let’s just talk about something I know.” So my guess is one of the reasons pastors don’t take up justice issues is because they’re not sure what to say at a certain level.

My encouragement would be to take it as far as you can take it. A lot of the Bible is clear on this. You could preach a whole message on Tim’s first point on the Imago Dei from Genesis 9 and James, where you don’t curse people created in the image and you don’t kill them. That’s important to hear. And you don’t even need to apply it, saying, “Well, there’s some killing that’s right, like war and capital punishment.” So my suggestion is don’t fail to disciple your people at the levels that you can. That’s one.

The other piece is cowardice. We haven’t done it because we’re afraid to do it. There are going to be people in our church who don’t like what we say, and therefore, we are scared to say it. We should not be cowards. So those are two motives for why, maybe, what you said is true, namely that we haven’t done as good a job as we could and that we’re not sure what to say at certain levels. And my advice is go to the level you can that you see in the Bible. And second, we’re cowards afraid to talk about what needs to be talked about. And we have good reasons in the Bible not to be cowards. But I don’t know whether that’s for this question.

D.A. Carson: That’s all right. It’s related.

John Piper: What was this question again?

D.A. Carson: Voddie is already going to answer it.

John Piper: He remembers it.

Voddie Baucham: I do. But I think also what I would add to that is there is also this sense, going back to the worldview issue, in which we’ve bought into the idea that experience trumps all, and therefore if I don’t have the experience, I can’t even speak the truth I know because the truth of the Scripture is not as powerful as people’s experiences. And because we’ve sort of bought into that false way of thinking, I think there are a lot of people who are afraid of this idea that we’ll speak something that’s true scripturally but somebody will feel like we’ve been insensitive to their circumstance and experience, which trumps anything that we could possibly have said, because after all, God’s knowledge is not nearly as significant as the knowledge of the person who is experiencing something on the ground. So we just sort of step back in that fear, and I think we need to deal with that first in ourselves.

But secondly, I think we need to help people understand that your experience doesn’t trump anything. Your experience has to be brought into subjection. Take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, every thought. I think we’re doing ourselves and we’re doing our people a disservice when we assume that because I haven’t had their experience, I don’t have anything to contribute on this particular issue. So I totally agree that we don’t want to be arrogant and act like that doesn’t matter at all, but we also don’t want to commit the opposite error, which is acting like it’s the only thing that matters.

D.A. Carson: Totally.

Tim Keller: I think the question was, what are some of the issues that we are ignoring? In other words, what are some of the biblical justice issues that we’re not talking about, perhaps, or teaching about? You notice this is what happens when you get older, you remember the beginning and you remember the end, but you don’t remember the middle.

In the very beginning of my ministry, I preached through the book of Amos using Alec Motyer’s little “Bible Speaks Today” book back when it was one of the few “Bible Speaks Today” books.

D.A. Carson: It’s called The Day of the Lion.

Tim Keller: Yes, The Day of the Lion. And it was very striking how the book talked about the fact that basically, in general, people with less means, poor people, have more trouble getting justice. They’re not treated fairly.

I just think that some societies are better than others at this of course. But the simple fact of the matter is that’s the case in our society too. Basically, if you don’t have money, you don’t get equal treatment. Bill Stunz’s has this main burden in his book The Collapse of American Criminal Justice. He was an evangelical who passed away untimely because of cancer. He was a Harvard law professor and was considered the leading legal theorist on criminal justice. I’d say that when I read the book, the main takeaway is that if you don’t have money, you don’t get justice. Race of course is a big problem too, because very often race and economics are tied together. But basically the less money you have, the less likely you are to really get a fair shake by the American criminal justice system.

He makes the case that I think pretty much proves it. And what that means is, well, what do you do about that? It’s massive. But actually I would say that’s a valid application from preaching on the book of Amos because there’s constant discussions about that, about the poor being treated fairly, being given the same hearing in the court as the rich. And to say there’s never been a society like that, and ours isn’t like that either. There’s never been a society that has realized that because of sin. And we ought to realize that the poor in our community, unless they get a lot of help, unless the kids that are born into those poor families get a lot of help, they’re not going to get a fair shake.

They didn’t choose to be born where they were born. Children born into my family versus children born in a poor community in the same town have a 300 times better chance of staying out of jail than anybody who’s born there. So it seems to me that when you’re preaching you can make those kinds of applications without directly saying, “Therefore, vote for this candidate,” or, “This law is wrong,” or anything like that. I do think we’re afraid to even apply the truth at that level in our preaching and we shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t be afraid to do that.

D.A. Carson: That’s good.

Thabiti Anyabwile: You can go ahead and clap for Tim. It’s all right. The things we’re missing in this conversation are the things that are not on the news outlets we’re watching. They’re the things that are not in the timelines on our Twitter feed, if our Twitter feeds are composed mainly of people like us in our camp. They are the things that other people write about that we don’t think about because we are preoccupied with certain sets of issues.

And so in order to not miss things, I think we have to have wider exposure and we have to sort of afford people the same kind of generosity with their differing perspectives that we would want as we engage those kinds of circles. So in a lot of conversation right now, we raise the justice issue. The word justice is almost seated over to the left as a liberal idea.

That’s a good Bible word. The Bible has a lot to say about that. And words like “liberal” and “conservative” become the sort of imprimatur of who’s trustworthy and who’s not. There’s a blow back on the later panel at 6:30 p.m. There’s a blow back about that panel because there’s some experts on that panel who happen to not be Christian. That doesn’t mean they don’t think well about justice issues, and it doesn’t mean they don’t have things to teach us about things that actually we haven’t been thinking about.

So in humility, I think we miss issues, a lot of issues, because either our pastors aren’t preaching about them, or we are not naturally inclined to read about them. Our natural networks become cul-de-sacs in which we sort of huddle up with other people who think more or less like us and we rob ourselves of a richer understanding that could be ours with more liberal reading.

What are some of those issues? Well, we talked here about criminal justice and mass incarceration. We can talk about poverty and issues related to poverty. We can talk about things like education funding and how that gets done and whether education dollars are distributed in ways that are just. We can talk about sex trafficking and it’s a whole range of things. Sometimes it’s like we fail to remember that we live in an unjust world. We’re surrounded by injustice. And what we need is open eyes and open hearts to see more and feel more for the things that we begin to discover as we move out of what’s comfortable for us.

Voddie Baucham: I think one of the issues, in my estimation — and this is something that I’ve just become more and more aware of — is that we have been at war for almost a decade and a half. People made in the image of God have been dying almost every day for the last decade and a half. And we don’t even think about war. It’s not one of the issues that we even raise. Everyday people in the image of God are dying for the last decade and a half and we’re talking about expanding our war efforts and there is no end in sight to our war efforts. I’m not talking about the Vietnam era, hate-the-troops campaigns and all this other stuff. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about just maybe every once in a while going, “Can you tell us when we’re going to end this? Do you have an idea? Can you tell us why we’re doing this? Can you tell us what we’re going to achieve, what we’re going to accomplish? And so I think the fact that we don’t talk about that when people for the last decade and a half have been dying and killing almost every day, to me that’s a deafening silence.

Thabiti Anyabwile: And that’s a good example of the importance of having folks who are your conversation partners who aren’t in your circle. I’m strongly resonating with what he’s saying and I’m thinking, man, I have a lot of friends who are on the so-called left who’ve been talking about that a lot for a long time, for a decade and a half raising questions about the justice of these wars from the beginning. But he’s absolutely right. If those folks aren’t in your circle, well that’s a huge blind spot, and yet billions and billions of dollars are going to it.

Voddie Baucham: But even those folks are usually not talking about it from the perspective of the image of God. You know what I mean? They may be talking about it from the standpoint of power and imperialism and these sorts of things, but I’m talking about a biblical point of view where people are made in the image of God.

Thabiti Anyabwile: And that’s why we have to have discipleship. That’s why we have to have this sort of basic theological orientation so that even as we’re reading out with people who don’t share our presuppositions, we can have that conversation without losing moorings in the text.

John Piper: Well, just so we don’t sound too dovish up here, I think we ought to take out Boko Haram. It’s overdue. And when I say we, I don’t mean the Christian Church, though it is complicated since I’m one of these Christians.

Voddie Baucham: I was about to posse up and go with you, man. I thought you meant right now. John Piper said, “Let’s go, y’all. Let’s go.”

John Piper: If nobody else will. I’m not into war, I just hate that kind of thing. And when it gets away and over and over and over, I think Romans 13 exists for something and that the police in the country and the military and the national level do not carry the sword in vain. And there’s certain kinds of stuff that ought to just be reacted to with pretty swift violence.

Voddie Baucham: Well, would you then say, since we’re talking about justice, that America is unjust for not going into another country and dealing with an injustice there? Or would you say that those countries there are being unjust because they, as the ones responsible according to Romans 13, within their jurisdiction, have not addressed the issue?

John Piper: This is why I don’t preach on this issue because I’m not sure. It’s a perfect illustration of what I’m talking about. Somebody’s going to come and walk up to you after you say what you say and ask that question. Then you say, “Well, I’m not preaching on that again. I’m not saying war again. I don’t have a clue.” My guess is the answer is both, and the latter more so than the former. The farther you are away from something, probably the less responsible you are. I base that on the parable of the Good Samaritan. I mean, he’s responsible because the guy’s there on the side of the road. If he’s on the other side of the country, he’s not responsible for that guy on the side of the road. He doesn’t know about him. The more we know and the more opportunity we have and the more capability we have, and the more we care, then our responsibility jacks up. So I don’t really know whether America should police the world. I don’t know. That’s why I don’t talk about it.

Thabiti Anyabwile: Well, you’re talking about it now, and brother, to your credit, you’ve been talking about justice issues for pretty much the life of your ministry, and unpopular justice issues with regularity in your churches. So we give God praise for that. Here’s why I think that’s an important question. Here’s why I’m glad he asked it and why you’re saying, “I don’t know,” and we’re having this panel. Because the proximity argument for me is limited as a response to that kind of question, and here’s why.

I think if we fall too easily on proximity, we actually fall into complacency. There are things we ought to know about. There are things we ought to be learning about. There are things we ought to be engaging if we’re going to in fact bear credible witness where we live and in increasingly wider circles. That’s not to argue we have responsibility on an individual level to posse up and go fix Boko Haram, but we do have responsibility on an individual level if we are going to love our neighbors and love our enemies, to know something about them, to know something about the world and have a posture that leans into these sets of issues. I would answer yes to both of your questions.

John Piper: What was the question?

Thabiti Anyabwile: The question was, is it a justice issue and does the United States have some responsibility with regard to Boko Haram? Or is it a matter that inside of a government and a country, it only gets policed there? I want to argue yes, as you said, the latter. The second being more obviously yes, but I want to argue the first one yes as well. This country’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Africa has been atrocious. From the participation in the slave trade all the way down to its silence on apartheid coming all the way forward to how it’s dealt with famine. Now, the one exception of that, ironically enough, is Bush who had a pretty good policy with regard to AIDS and things of that sort in Africa, but otherwise it’s been atrocious.

Meanwhile, a president like Clinton could go and mediate the troubles in Ireland, for example, or we could take some posture with regard to troubles in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This is a justice issue and it’s a parody issue. And it’s a concern if we want to grow more and more to be impartial in our concern about these things, and we need to advocate that in our government. So yeah, I think it is a justice issue for us to face. And then I’m slowing down because I don’t know all the solutions on the ground, but at least at that point I’m going, yes, and it’s a justice issue in Nigeria and its government and its false application of the sword. So it’s within a country as well.

Voddie Baucham: This is one of those areas where there’s just brotherly disagreement. I would argue that as Americans, our government officials have a jurisdiction to which they’re limited, and that jurisdiction is the protection of our country and our borders, and it is not the job of America to go and police the world. And once you start down that road, what you do is a number of things. First, all of a sudden you are disrespecting sovereignty around the world, and we don’t want to disrespect sphere sovereignty.

That’s one of the problems we have in America. The sphere sovereignty of the government is overstepping its bounds into the sphere sovereignty of the family and the sphere sovereignty of the church and so on and so forth. So there’s the question of sphere sovereignty. And the other issue is how do we determine the level at which injustice has to exist somewhere else in the world before we then go in and say, “We are crossing your borders to make you just”? From my perspective, that’s dangerous. And I don’t want to give any government the right to cross another government’s borders to make them just.

Thabiti Anyabwile: Can we go back and forth just a little bit? And I know Tim wants to get in with and correct us both, but not on baptism.

Tim Keller: No, that’s really what I wanted to bring up.

Thabiti Anyabwile: I’m glad for this conversation because it gets to model how friends differ, how we can have so much in common and then begin to attack left or right. And I’m glad for the opportunity to say publicly that Voddie and I are friends. We minister together in the gospel, we’ve served together, we’ve traveled together just in case anyone who has mistaken our different views have mistaken it as how we are somehow feuding. This is my dear brother in the Lord, and I love having these conversations with him because he’s honest.

To your question, I think if we take an isolationist protectionist policy, it’s ultimately going to be self-defeating. I think the history of diplomacy has proven that. So there’s some sense in which, for the public good, the country has to take an interest in international affairs and to engage that.

Voddie Baucham: I never said we didn’t.

Thabiti Anyabwile: That’s right.

Voddie Baucham: I’m a non-interventionist, not an isolationist.

Thabiti Anyabwile: Okay, so there is a difference between us on this question of intervention. You’ve already given one answer to that question in your comments, and that is where the actions of another country infringe upon the welfare and the benefits of American citizens. So we completely agreed there. Well, now I want to add some categories to that.

One category I think we want to add to that is genocide. We’re back then to, as a Christian, thinking about people being made in the image of God, the value of life being incalculable, and that can be taken at such scale that actually the loving thing to do is to intervene. I love the way Dr. King defines justice. He says, in his 1955 Montgomery bus boycott speech, “Justice is love correcting everything that revolts against love.” So the loving thing to do is, in fact, to intervene on behalf of those persons who may have been slaughtered by their own government. It would be unjust to stand aside and watch that happen. And so I would argue that’s grounds for intervention.

Voddie Baucham: But I think there’s a categorical error here. There’s an excluded middle. There’s a fallacy in your argument because the assumption is we either watch it happen or we send the most powerful military in the world across other people’s borders. There are a lot of steps in between there.

Thabiti Anyabwile: I absolutely agree. So I’m not assuming the excluded middle. Absolutely, you’re making explicit something I was assuming.

Voddie Baucham: Yeah, there are a lot of steps in between.

Thabiti Anyabwile: A lot of diplomacy happens.

Voddie Baucham: And helping neighbors to do that as well, right? So when we look at, for example, ISIS and everybody saying, “We have to go get ISIS!” and, “Why aren’t we getting ISIS?” do you know what my question is? Turkey has a half a million man army. Why aren’t they going to get ISIS?

Thabiti Anyabwile: All good questions. The first button you push is not the red one.

Voddie Baucham: Amen. Right.

D.A. Carson: Can I stick my nose in here so we can get one or two others involved in the conversation?

Thabiti Anyabwile: Go ahead, Tim — “Now about baptism . . .”

D.A. Carson: Now for our last few minutes, I want to turn the whole thing in another direction. This has been useful. It’s important to hear Christians who take scripture seriously try to think things through from fundamental principles and get at least some meeting of mind on some of these issues. Confession is good for the soul. I have a son in the military, so I’ve tried to think about these things quite a bit. But matters of just war theory are not easy. They’re not easy. And if the only alternative is pacifism, it seems to me you’re stepping away from a fair bit of Scripture. But that doesn’t mean that any of it is easy.

But I want to turn the whole thing for the last few minutes in another direction. How are such issues of justice — as important as they are and as heated as they are in many of our circles — tied to a rich, thick understanding of the gospel? There are a lot of things that can be said there because it is not just one kind of answer that you can give. How should they be tied to the fundamentals of the gospel at the heart of our preaching, Jesus Christ and him crucified?

Thabiti Anyabwile: My mind goes pretty quickly to Romans 3:21–26? It may have been Leon Mars who called it the most important paragraph in the Bible, where Paul entertains the fact that God has left some sins unpunished until Christ. And in the gospel, in the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the resurrection, God is just and the justifier of those who trust in him. That means a couple of things.

One, it means that whatever injustices that we talk about in the world, they are a fact accounted for in God’s wrath, either on the unrepentant or accounted for in the punishment of his Son as a substitute for sinners. It also means at least a second thing, that all of these justice issues that we talk about that live far off, well, they come home most pressing in terms of our personal sin and our personal accountability and our personal failure to give to God what is his right.

So the justice issue that we all individually have to be most concerned about is our own sin before God, robbing him of glory and obedience that he’s due. And we will either give an account for that in his judgment, or we will escape in his mercy through our faith in Christ who has given us himself as a sacrifice for sin.

Miguel Nuñez: Well, the gospel is the message that can change the heart and the mind of a person. Unless that takes place, I don’t think anything is going to change. Education doesn’t have that power. Technology doesn’t have that power. We saw that after the First World War. The humanists got together and they thought we learned the hard way, so we would never see this again. And then a few years later, we had the Second World War. So the gospel is the only hope for mankind. I think it’s directly related to the issues of injustice, of any kind of nature, of any level. Without it, there is no hope. And I think that’s why we need to keep preaching the gospel to change people’s minds and hearts.

But we need to challenge those people so that when they go out in society, they will know what it means to be the salt and the light of the world. I think that’s one of the problems. We have taught people what the gospel is and how you get born again, but then we haven’t taught enough about how you would live that gospel as a physician, engineer, plumber, painter, or whatever. So I think there’s a director relation between one and the other.

Tim Keller: The gospel, meaning propitiation through substitution, refuses to pit holiness and judgment against love and mercy. On the cross, both of those brilliantly coincide and shine forth. And I do sense that most political theories, whether it has to do with foreign policy, whether it has to do with criminal justice, tend to either move toward being antinomian or being moralistic and legalistic. And if you really have an understanding of the gospel and say, “We are not going to choose between those things,” then it gets more difficult, frankly.

But what I thought was very instructive about this, was that there’s good theological grounding for what everybody was saying up here. And that’s the reason why you just can’t get dovish or hawkish, I don’t think, as a Christian. You can’t get relativistic and say, “Look, everybody has to be free to live the way they want,” or you become moralistic and you overdo virtue ethics or you overdo individualism. I really do think that the gospel actually forces us to come together as a community and honor all the different aspects of God’s attributes and all the different aspects of theology and not just, I think, reduce and oversimplify. And that’s what I think almost all political parties tend to do right now is they oversimplify.

Voddie Baucham: The gospel explains why it matters. The gospel is the only thing that explains why it matters, the only thing that explains it adequately. Because Christ died for a people. We have the adoption of sons. And so now because of the gospel, I have the ability to look outside of myself and see the Imago Dei in other people, and see the fullness of the reward for which Christ died, and how significant that reward is to him. And that makes those people significant to me.

That’s when I began to think about this from a right perspective. It’s no longer an exercise of power. It’s no longer an exercise of even appeasing my own conscience. It becomes an exercise of me acknowledging the reality of our oneness in Christ and acknowledging the reality that I have a vested interest in you as another member of the body of Christ. Because I desire for the body to be nurtured and treated properly. The gospel is the only thing that gives us that.

John Piper: The gospel unleashes in the world a commitment not to live for justice, but to live for more than justice. Justice is minimalist. A life devoted to treating people as they deserve is not a Christian life. God in the gospel treated us better than we deserve. That is not justice. We don’t get justice in the gospel. God got justice in the gospel. We don’t get justice in the gospel, we get grace. And he unleashes on the world a people, in churches and then spilling over out of churches, who treat each other way beyond justice.

You shouldn’t walk through the day or through your life thinking, “How can I be just? How can I be just? How can I be just?” You should walk through the world, saying, “How can I be gracious? How can I be loving? How can I be kind? How can I love my enemy? How can I go the extra mile when I am forced to one mile? How can I, when I’m sued, give him my cloak as well?” The gospel unleashes something way beyond justice. So Christians shouldn’t be known mainly as the justice people. That’s minimalist. You start there and then you go beyond. Christ will be known in the culture when we treat people better than they deserve, not as they deserve.