Skip to content

The Biblical Call for Justice

The following is the beginning of an article by Pastor Barry Henning of New City Fellowship, St. Louis.  Please Click Here for a PDF of the entire article.

The Biblical Call for Justice

 The Fulfillment of the Kingdom of God

The word “justice’ can evoke all kinds of meanings for the evangelical church today.  In some sense, we have lost a Biblical understanding of the term and have replaced it with a variety of cultural understandings.  For many the word is often negatively associated with social or religious liberals and is tied to the idea of “social justice” in a way that undermines a genuine focus on the gospel. If the term “justice” is used in a positive way among evangelicals, the dominant sense of the word has simply come to mean “divine retribution” or “punishment for sins.”  A common statement from the lips of many well-intentioned Christians sounds something like this: “We really want mercy and grace from God- not justice.  If we received justice we would be greatly disappointed.”  The popular television series “Law and Order” and justice as the punishment of criminals, or Dostoyevsky’s classic “Crime and Punishment” are the categories that come to mind for many with the term “justice.” Consequently, whenever the word “justice” occurs in a biblical text, it is assumed it must have some reference to divine judgment of evil.  The perception is fed by a logic something like this:  God’s “justice” requires the punishment of sin; God would not be truly “holy” or “just” if he failed to deal with the guilt of sin; the gift of God was to send his Son to take the punishment for sin upon himself, in our place; the good news is, “Christ became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).  The underlying conclusion:  whenever the word “justice” appears in the Bible, it must be addressing these ultimate issues of God’s commitment to punish sin and the wonderful answer for us is the message of God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

It needs to be plainly stated that the theology surrounding and tied to this second use of the term “justice” is absolutely true and nothing about the Christian life or the work of the kingdom can ever be separated from the Person of Christ and his atonement.  However, the fundamental problem is that all this great theology is not actually tied to the term “justice” in most of Scripture.  When God urges us as his people to “seek justice” (Isaiah 1:17), he is not telling us to go into the world and make sure people know they are going to be punished for evil (although confronting people with the reality of sin and the need for repentance is central to Gospel proclamation).  When Amos calls us to “let justice roll down as waters” (Amos 5:24), he is not calling for punishment to flow.  While there are many biblical passages that declare God will punish sin, the most common Hebrew term to express this action of God’s judgment against the rebellious is not the Hebrew word for “justice”, which is “mishpat,” but the word “paqad,” which we translate “punish”.  The word for “justice” in most instances is not predominately linked to or used in connection with this action of punishing sinners.

What is the predominate, Scriptural use of the term “justice”?  The verb form of “justice” / “mishpat” is the Hebrew word “shafat”, and means “to judge” or “to rule.”   To reaffirm, God’s role as Judge clearly does include the idea of punishing or pronouncing sentence against someone.  But it also has the positive meaning of ruling or judging “on behalf of someone”, in a positive sense of “governing for, or establishing righteousness”for them. It is this second meaning of  “justice-mishpat” that is the focus of most Old Testament passages describing the “justice of God”, i.e. describing God’s commitment to establish righteousness on behalf of his people; his promise to take up their cause for good.  It is also this more pro-active, positive use of justice that the Old Testament highlights as the character of God’s people who are called to be a people of “justice” in the world; a people who work for the establishment of what is good and right for those in need.  It is also carried over into the New Testament in Romans 3 (and elsewhere) when Paul describes God’s action of “justifying” sinners (Rom 3:23-26). God not only forgives sins through the substitutionary work of Christ, he also “establishes righteousness in his people” as a gift; that is, he “justifies” us.

A brief look at the relevant Scriptures reveal this positive use of the word “justice”/  “mishpat” has been translated as “justice” and “just” some one hundred fifty-one (151) times in the New International Version of the Old Testament (not including the negative forms of “injustice” or “unjust”). There are scattered uses of the term “justice” / “mishpat” in special circumstances – four (4) times in reference to God’s discipline of his children (Jeremiah 10:24, 30:11, 46:28), one (1) time in 2 Chronicles 12:6, thirteen (13) times in the book of Job, twenty-four (24) times used as a legal term, either concerning court procedures or bribery (Ex 23:2, Lev 19:15)- but the vast majority of the time, in one hundred eight (108) references, the Scriptures describe God’s “justice” as “governing for righteousness” and not “judgment against evil.”