Preaching Justice

[1] Harper’s Bible Dictionary defines justice as “the standard by which the benefits and penalties of living in society are distributed … [and] is founded on the being of God, for whom it is a chief attribute” (519). Forensic understandings of justice and righteousness may be indebted to our Greco-Roman tradition, which conceived of justice and righteousness as ideal, absolute standards of measurement (Dunn, Romans, 1.40). However, legal and moral concepts limit our understanding and practice of Christian justice and righteousness and may even promote legalism. Instead, these concepts are better situated within wider Jewish thought, which emphasizes the maintaining of proper relationships. Justice is primarily a relational concept involving God’s commitment to make relationships right. It is grounded in God’s character as a good God who made a good world (Gen 1; Ps 97:2; 99:1–4). God’s goodness demands that he restore a world that has fallen (Rom 8) and his justice is a means by which God promotes his goodness (Rom 1–3; Westerholm, Understanding Paul, 36). When preaching about justice, we can avoid traps of legalism and anthropocentric thinking by grounding our message in the good God who seeks to make relationships right, not by giving external rules but through incarnational grace.

Preaching Justice by Carl N. Toney

Justice (krisis/krima and mishpat)
[2] There are certainly passages in Scripture that support notions of justice as righteous judgment (Rom 2:16; 3:6) — both as punishment and reward or deliverance (Ps 71:2; Zech 7:9). After all, the Hebrew mishpat and the Greek equivalents of krisis/krima mean both “justice” and “judgment.” There are places like Gen 16:5 where God is called to make a righteous judgment based on a legal principle. However, we would be mistaken simply to conceive of justice in some forensic sense of promoting adherence to an abstract standard and punishing/dissuading deviance (TDNT, 3.935).

[3] With further investigation, we discover that the Jewish concept of “justice/judgment” is a social concept as found in the Old Testament and these ideas are inherited by New Testament writers like Paul. The Jewish concept of justice involves God entering into a covenantal relationship with Israel as ruler and judge (e.g., Lev 18:4–5; Ex 6–8; Jer 7:23). With this covenant, God promises to watch over the social relationships within Israel as well as between Israel and other nations. Justice means that God will keep his promise to make relationships right for his covenantal people. Thus, Gen 16:5 involves not simply a legal decision, but rather is about restoring the relationship between Sarai and Abram that has been disrupted. Elsewhere we discover justice is about restoring situations that promote shalom (“peace”); hence, God brings judgment against the nations in order to beat their weapons of destruction into weapons of peace (Isa 2:4; Micah 4:3). Thus, justice is not “… a legal principle or an absolute and abstract norm of morality which will control judicial decisions on earth. The OT view of mishpat has to be differentiated from the Roman concept of law and also from the abstract notion of an ethos or idea of virtue or law … [justice] regulates the relationships in a specific society” (TDNT, 3.935).

[4] Justice, at times, is ethically oriented, being linked with discerning good from evil (e.g., 1 Ki 3:9; Micah 3:1–2; Isa 1:17). At other times, justice is also religiously oriented (e.g., Jer 5:1; Hos 6:5–6; Micah 6:8). Justice is independent of economic or social status (Ex 23:6; Lev 19:15). Justice involves taking care of orphans and widows (Deut 10:18) who are even called “righteous” (Amos 5:12), which the prophets bring great emphasis (Isa 1:17; 10:2; Amos 5:11, 15; 8:4; Jer 5:28; 21:12; 22:15; Ezek 22:29), and all the oppressed (Pss 103:6; 140:12). This justice is not grounded in the sphere of human relationships, but in the divine covenantal relationship in which God took on as obligation to his people.

[5] In Romans, Paul understands God’s justice as God’s ability to provide proper judgment, especially by contrasting the improper, self-serving judgments of humans. Paul challenges his audiences’ perception of judgment in Rom 2:1–11. He creates a caricature of the improper human judge who will judge others as a means of self-promotion while the proper stance is to stand under the good judgment of God. Human judgment creates a caricature of others as “evil” following a common set of assumptions of vices (Rom 1:18–32). However, God as judge is not vindictive, rather, he is patient and kind and his judgment is intended to lead to repentance and restored relationships (Rom 2:2–4). In Romans, an initial step in promoting justice in the world is to rely upon the good judgment of God, rather than using human judgment (Rom 2:1–11). Our preaching can encourage people to rely upon God’s good judgment, possibly transforming people’s understanding from a vindictive God to a God who uses judgment as a tool of grace.

God’s righteousness (dikaiosynē/dikaioō and tzedakah)
[6] In several places in the Hebrew Bible, God’s “justice” (mishpat/krima) and “righteousness” (tzedakah/dikaiosynē) are linked together (Gen 18:19; Isa 28:17; Amos 5:21–24; Micah 6:6–8). It is because God is righteous that the psalmists can praises God’s justice as fair (Pss 7:11; 9:8; 119:137; 145:17). Because human judges reflected God’s justice, they were expected to judge fairly (Deut 1:16–17; Ex 18:21–23). In fact, God’s justice is ultimately grounded in God’s righteousness.

[7] Paul also will ground his understanding of justice in God’s righteousness. He does this by introducing the “righteousness of God” (Rom 1:16–17) as the foundation for the proper judgment of God which leads to the equitable condemnation (Rom 1:18–3:20) and salvation (Rom 3:21–31) of all humanity.

[8] Paul’s conception of “righteousness” is notoriously debatable. The “go-to” text is Rom 1:16–17, in which Paul describes his gospel as revealing the “righteousness of God” (dikaiosynē theou). First off, our concept of the term “righteous” (dikiaosynē) is complicated because English language creates an artificial divide in the concept by using two different words — “righteous” for the noun/adjective and “to justify” for the verb. In order to bring greater conceptual harmony, translators will sometimes use clumsy variants of “justification” for the noun/adjective or “to make right(eous) for the verb. A further problem is that “righteousness” can point towards moral goodness while “to justify” can point toward a legal understanding of acquittal (Fitzmyer, Romans, 258).

[9] A second problem is that the English preposition “of” hides the complex link between “God” and “righteousness.” Scholars favor two routes. One side argues that righteousness is an external object that God possesses (“God’s righteousness”) and gives to humans. The other side argues that righteousness is a quality (“God is righteous”) and/or action of God (“God acts justly”), which humans are often measured against. To further complicate the matter, Protestants have traditionally argued that God’s righteousness is imputed (a sinner gains a new status) while Catholics have favored righteousness as imparted (a sinner gains a new nature) (Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 827).

[10] The solution to these syntactical and theological impasses came with Hermann Cremer’s observations that in Hebrew thought, “righteousness” (tzedakah), like “justice,” is a relational concept (Die paulinische Rechtfertigungslehre, 34–38). “The righteousness of God” means that it is because God is righteous that he makes relationships right. Dunn argues that God is righteous when he fulfills the obligations of the relationships he has entered into (i.e., his covenants). Douglas Moo defines God’s righteousness “as the act by which God brings people into right relationship with himself” (Romans, 74). Ernst Käsemann, in noting Paul’s apocalyptic worldview, resists individualistic readings so that the righteousness of God “speaks of the God who brings back the fallen world into the sphere of his legitimate claim” (Romans, 29). God’s righteousness changes the sphere under which believers stand by placing people in right relationship with God. Stephen Westerholm grounds God’s righteousness in God’s character as the creator who is good and made a good world (Gen 1; Ps 97:2; 99:1–4). God’s goodness demands that he restore a world that has fallen (Rom 8) and his righteousness is a means by which God promotes his goodness (Understanding Paul, 25–36).

[11] God’s righteousness is ultimately an expression of his faithfulness. Returning again to Rom 1:16–17, Paul has linked God’s righteousness with God’s faithfulness using the curious expression “from faith to faith” (ek pisteōs eis pistin). This phrase has been traditionally understood as a hendiadys to say “all faith, everywhere.” However, looking at the quote from Hab 2:4 that Paul draws upon indicates that this expression is best rendered “from [God’s] faithfulness to [promote our] faith.” Paul explicitly takes up the issue of God’s faithfulness to keep his promises in Rom 4 when he highlights Abraham’s faith in believing God’s promises as well as Rom 9–11 where he discusses the salvation of Israel. The ability of God to keep his promises is particularly important for Gentile Christians (who Paul is addressing in Romans) because if God cannot keep his original promises to Israel, then Gentiles have no guarantee that God will remain faithful to his new promises to them. God’s righteousness is about his faithfulness to keep his promises and to promote in people faith that restores relationships. Sermons need to continually recount the promises of God and ways in which God works in this world to fulfill these promises so as to encourage people that God is faithful in making relationships right.

[12] By grounding the twin concepts of justice and righteousness in relationships mediated by God, we move away from the danger of limiting our concept of Christian justice to a forensic standard. Justice is not just about moral determination of right and wrong, but is rather concerned about making relationships right. As a relational term, justice is not something that one can do on one’s own. There must be at least two parties involved. Justice seeks out relationships in order to make them right. Surprisingly, Rom 1:18–32 describes the wrath of God, not as hurling thunderbolts, but rather as the removal of his presence — God leaves people to their own devices. In other words, God pulls himself out of relationship with sinners. The grace of God involves the incarnation by which God enters into relationship with humanity.

[13] However, justice is not founded upon human relationships or simply the restoration with “the other.” Rather, justice first restores the relationship with “The Other.” Christians promote justice by helping others get in right relationship with God whose gravitational pull aligns our relationships with others. We are God’s hands and feet when we feed the hungry and oppressed because their needs are part of that broken relationship. We help God build bridges into people’s lives through our actions giving people the opportunity to walk across.

[14] Preaching righteousness does not mean we are preaching some sort of legalism. Preaching justice involves a calling of people to enter into and grow in relationships with others. The primary relationship is with God, which aligns all of our secondary relationships with other people. A grace-oriented gospel orients people upon the good God, not some external set of rules. By keeping God at the center of our universe, like the sun, all other planets maintain their proper alignment/relationship with the sun and with each other. Christian justice seeks to answer the question of how do we make our relationships right. Preaching justice encourages people to ask this question in their own lives and helping people to make relationships right, not through their own power but through the power of God.

Select Bibliography
Achtemeier, Paul. Harper’s Bible Dictionary. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.
Cremer, Hermann. Die paulinische Rechtfertigungslehre im Zusammenhänge ihrer geschichtlichen Vorausetzungen. 2nd ed. Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1900.
Dunn, J. D. G. Word Biblical Commentary: Romans. 2 vols. WBC. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002.
Fitzmyer, Joseph A. Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. AB. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Freedman, David Noel. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
Hawthorne, Gerald F., Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Käsemann, Ernst. Commentary on Romans. Trans. G. W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.
Kittel, Gerhard and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–c1976.
Moo, Douglas. The Epistle to the Romans. NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.
Westerholm, Stephen. Understanding Paul. 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004.

Carl N. Toney

Carl N. Toney is adjunct faculty at Fuller Seminary and Azusa Pacific University. He is the author of Paul's Inclusive Ethic and coauthored a commentary on 2 Corinthians in the Cornerstone commentary series with Ralph Martin.