What is Biblical Justice?
Sep 29, 2020 · Courtney Jacob
People call for justice when they experience injustice. Whether you’re watching the nightly news or scrolling social media platforms, you’ve heard about current issues of justice and the extremely strong opinions about what the government should, or should not, do to establish justice. Consequently, talking about justice can feel very political.
But is justice strictly a political topic? Does our Christian faith inform our understanding of justice? Is there really such a thing as biblical justice?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines justice in several ways. One definition is “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.” Another is “the administration of law, especially: the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity.”
But in God’s perspective, these definitions are incomplete. How do we know? Because God reveals his perspective on justice throughout the entire Bible. Woven through the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy), the Psalms, the Old Testament prophets, Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels, and the New Testament Epistles is the consistent message that justice is not only about retribution. In its fullness, God’s justice is about the flourishing of all people.
Understanding God’s Justice
In the Groundwork episode “Justice and Righteousness,” hosts Dave Bast and Scott Hoezee observe that we typically think about justice—particularly in regard to contemporary justice systems—in terms of retributive justice. This aligns with the dictionary definition of justice and is concerned with protecting innocent people and preventing or punishing crime. We see God’s concern for this type of justice in passages like:
- Exodus 3:7-8 “The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…”
- Psalm 82:2-4 “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
But more than his legal concern for retributive justice, we see God’s concern for distributive justice, which Dave Bast defines in “Justice and Righteousness” as “fairness and flourishing for everybody so that everybody has a place at the table and a piece of the pie.” We see this in passages like:
- Leviticus 25:8-55, as God gives instructions for the year of Jubilee
- Psalm 146:7-8, which describes God’s care for the oppressed, the poor, and others who are righteous but in need
- Matthew 5-7, when Jesus teaches his disciples and the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount
- Psalm 33:5, Jeremiah 9:24, Amos 5:24, and more, when justice is repeatedly paired with righteousness
In their book The Justice Calling, Bethany Hanke Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson put it this way: “Even before it became clear that justice would be needed to right the wrongs ushered in by the fall, even before injustice entered the world, God loved justice—the flourishing that results from the right-ordering of power” (p. 40).
Justice and God’s Kingdom
From God’s perspective, justice is more than righting wrongs or getting what’s rightfully ours. That is why Christians find it necessary to specify biblical justice when talking about justice. Biblical justice is distinct; it’s the justice we find described in the Bible, where God established what true justice is, and which often calls us to go above and beyond what our civil law and dictionary definitions require. But if we strive for biblical justice in our everyday life and as we begin to see the fairness and flourishing God intended for his creation, then we’ll be witnesses of God’s kingdom and Christ at work here and now, on earth.