The word justice has been used in the press quite often in recent days. In 2011, huge crowds of protesters gathered in major cities across the United States chanting slogans and holding signs of outrage demanding economic justice during the Occupy Wall Street movement. Also in the same year, a course on justice by Harvard professor Michael Sandel proved to be so popular that PBS did a twelve-series special, which spiraled into a national best-selling book and speaking tours, including a sold-out lecture in South Korea. In case after case, we can see outrage, emotion and debate sparked by tragic grievances in all avenues and scales of society—from corrupt officials, displaced auto workers, wrongly convicted inmates, workplace firings—all clamoring for justice.
The concept of justice is not just for mature adults to comprehend. It is deep within us even as children who fully understand the concept of fairness. If you have two young children and give one child five cookies and the other just one cookie, the child with one cookie will say, “That’s not fair!” Or if you tell one child she can play outside and have the other work on homework, the second one will naturally cry out, “But that’s not fair!” Children have an innate understanding of justice deep within their souls because our God is a God of justice and we are all made in his image. In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis pointed out that all these notions of fairness and right and wrong ultimately point to a moral law and a moral lawgiver—God. Thus, notions of justice won’t go away.
We may have a general understanding of right and wrong from the time we are young, but what is the biblical way to understand justice? That’s what we will explore in this chapter.
God’s Definition of Justice
What is God’s definition of justice? The word for “justice” in Hebrew is mishpat, and it occurs more than two hundred times in the Bible in its various forms. The most basic meaning is “to treat people well,”1 but it also carries the meaning of giving people what is due them, be it protection or punishment.2 And the word for justice in the Greek is dikaiosyne, which is most commonly translated as “righteousness.” So treating people “rightly” or “righteously” is the essence of justice. It is right living in the context of community. Justice and righteousness are closely linked throughout Scripture. They are so essential to God’s kingdom that Psalm 89:14 even tells us that righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne.
Another way to see justice is the right use of power. Gary Haugen, the founder of International Justice Mission, says: “Justice occurs on earth when power and authority between people is exercised in conformity with God’s standards of moral excellence.”3 Simplifying it even further, Tim Keller says that “justice is care for the vulnerable.”4 When people use power and authority to protect, provide, bless and love our neighbor, justice exists within a society. Thus, Scripture often describes justice as caring for the vulnerable in our communities—the poor, the widow, the fatherless and the foreigner.
A primary manifestation of justice is caring for the outcast and oppressed within society. And to care for them means to meet their deepest needs. Are they hungry? Feed them. Are they naked? Clothe them. Are they oppressed? Set them free. Are they fearful? Protect them in such a way as to relieve them of their fears. When we care for the vulnerable in our communities, we are establishing justice in the eyes of God. To God, justice is caring for the poor: “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit” (Exodus 23:6). It is caring for the fatherless, the widow and the sojourner.
Eddie Byun, Justice Awakening: How You and Your Church Can Help End Human Trafficking (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2014).
We have just released a new Bible study on topic of Justice and the Prophets
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