Justice is the act of providing right consequences to one’s actions. Our first thoughts for how this happens is with a Judge (or Justice) – whose sole job is to hear cases and determine what happened and what the correct level of penalty for any legal infractions should be. No matter how great the mind of the judge and how full the evidence provided to them, injustices still happen. Innocent people still find themselves paying fines, imprisoned, or even on death row (see: The Innocence List).
On the other side of it, there are some crimes where worldly justice never seems to be adequate or equally measured out. Rapists walk away without even a day in jail (see this USA Today article). Murderers walk free. And justice is meted out differently dependent on social status, political power, gender, and race.
Injustice is a very real part of our world, and a very difficult truth to grapple with. The truth is that when innocent people are convicted friends and family abandon them. Even if they’re eventually exonerated they often find that their loved ones have lingering doubts about the whole ordeal. The truth is that when the guilty go free, their victims weep and fear for their safety. The truth is that when the innocent are punished, it hurts us all.
The truth is that justice is rarely just.
Scripture tells us that few people understand justice (Proverbs 28:5), but it’s still so disheartening to see. Living in this world so full of injustice, there are times when we’re tempted to give up on justice and take things into our own hands. As tempting as this is, we must not give in! The world screams of injustices wherever we look, but there is hope for a better way.
Today I want to look at these four kinds of justice that are demonstrated in the Bible and how they can help us interact with our world. By examining these four different justices it will help enrich our understanding how things ought to be and how we can help correct the injustices around us. Each of these types of justice is both distinct and separate from the others and yet they are intricately woven together.
This is the justice God metes out at the white throne (Revelations 20:11-15). This is God’s divine justice on mankind. At the end of days, God will look at each of our lives and determine if we have lived righteously and perfectly or if we have sinned. His Justice will be imparted based on our actions and our thoughts (Matthew 5:21-30 & Romans 2:15-16). All of us guilty of sin, will be sentenced to hell. Only those who have been washed in the blood of Christ will be granted grace and freedom from the just penalty for our cosmic treason against God.
God’s Eternal Justice reigns over all (Psalm 9:7), and in it He declares “vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Deuteronomy 32:35). Because God knows everything (1 John 3:20), only He is perfectly capable of rendering true justice. “He does no injustice; every morning he shows forth his justice; each dawn he does not fail” (Zephaniah 3:5).
I’ve seen some Christians stop here on their definition of Biblical justice. They reason that only God can execute justice perfectly, only His justice is true. There’s some truth to that statement just as only God can love perfectly – however we are still called to love (Matthew 5:44; Ephesians 4:1-3; Colossians 3:14). And just as we are called to love (when only God can truly love), the Bible speaks of justice being done by others even though those others cannot execute it perfectly (Isaiah 1:17, Micah 6:8). As imperfect sinners, we’re still called to obedience to God’s commands (1 John 2:3).
Biblical justice is both eternal and temporary. It is eternal in that God doles it out with consequences that stretch on forever. And it is temporary in that the choices you make in this world will also have consequences. God’s eternal justice should cause us to really reflect on our choices and choose to align ourselves with His mercy.
How does it interact with the others?
All other forms of justice point to God’s justice. All other forms of justice are a mere shadow of eternal, divine justice. These shadows create in us a desire for complete justice. Every attempt to respond rightly to someone’s sins is an attempt to show them that they sinned and have hurt God. All worldly forms of justice are a pale reflection of a pure and perfect God. Divine justice stands apart from the rest by being the perfect response to our sin and injustices.
As C.S. Lewis said: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” Our growing desire for perfect justice causes us to point our eyes toward heaven and long for something more.
Judicial justice is the first kind of temporal justice. It reigns over all kinds of areas: parking violations, domestic violence, and murder. If you kill someone, the government will get involved and seek to punish you. They’ll attempt to weigh out the facts of the crime and assign the proper consequence. Did you premeditate the murder or was it an accidental death? Did you torture them for months on end or was their death painless and quick? The facts of the case may be gruesome, but the more they point at your actions being evil the worse the punishment will become. And the more they point at it being an accident, the more lenient the penalty will be.
This kind of justice is ordained by God for earthly kingdoms to wield (Romans 13:1-7 & 2 Peter 2:13-15). We see this kind of justice referenced in passages like 1 Kings 3:28 when King Solomon takes the throne and in Exodus 23:2 when we’re commanded not to lie and pervert governmental justice. This kind of justice is all over Scripture (2 Samuel 8:15; 2 Chronicles 9:8; Proverbs 29:4; Ecclesiastes 5:8; & Isaiah 1:23).
For the most part, we as Christians today don’t question this kind of justice. Even those that argue that only God can do justice will acknowledge that we should obey our governing authorities. In my estimation, there isn’t much reason to elaborate on this point – if you break the law the police nab you and a judge will rule attempting to bring justice to the situation.
How does it interact with the others?
Judicial Justice stands apart from the next two, because it has more permanent and lasting punishments. Judicial Justice is the only form of justice that allows for imprisonment and capital punishment. Judicial Justice attempts to take on the most serious of sins and remove the offenders from society to protect the rest of us.
If you break the law, the government goes after you, but there is so much more that you can do wrong that isn’t illegal. For instance, it’s illegal to beat someone up, but it’s not illegal to antagonize them to the point where they feel physically attacked. Chris Moles uses the term “Crazy Making” to refer to husbands who haven’t technically broken any laws but act in a way that drives their wife literally crazy. They question what she does and lie and deceive to make her begin to question what really happened. Their actions cause her to question reality. While it’s extremely rude to make someone completely uncertain about what happened to them, it is not illegal.
In these hard situations, where the law provides no protections, Ecclesiastical Justice steps in. This is justice that the church bears out through church discipline on unrepentant people (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5; and 2 Thessalonians 3:14). This seems to be the kind Jesus accused the Pharisees of lacking (Matthew 23:23 & Luke 11:42).
The church aims to purify the body of Christ so that the world would see it and be inspired. Too often we fail as churches to be that pure, instead we sinfully opt to hide people from Judicial Justice. The church was never meant to be a refuge from the consequences of sin. When the church learns that someone has broken the law (ex. money laundering, molestation, rape, murder, et cetera), the church should escalate the situation by involving the appropriate government bodies.
Ecclesiastical Justice can work alongside Judicial Justice to point the offender to Jesus and perfect restoration. I’ve seen cases where the offender committed a crime, but the government has opted not to pursue it because it would be too challenging to convict. In cases like this, Ecclesiastical Justice is very important. The church is able to walk with offender and victim to find a path of repentance and hopefully restoration. Even if the government did choose to pursue conviction and punishment, the church can still walk with both the offender and the victim in ways the government can’t. They can offer help, support, and hope to the hurting victim. They can offer Biblical wisdom and truth to the offender – helping them to see the full extent of the damage their sin has caused.
When Ecclesiastical Justice is done correctly, we get a glimpse into the heart of the sinner. Do they want to be right with God or do they want to gratify the desires of their flesh?
I have had the opportunity to see discipline work well, breaking a hard man’s heart and spurring in him a desire to behave in a manner that glorifies God and uplifts his fellow man. And I know of church disciplines where the man being confronted with his sin didn’t show a broken and contrite spirit, and he left the church to pursue his own self gratification. In both types of scenarios, the church is better off. In both scenarios, the victim is better off, because it removes the lingering doubts of what will happen and frees her up to work on personal healing.
How does it interact with the others?
When done rightly, Ecclesiastical Justice steps in before Judicial Justice and protects the hurting and oppressed. It demands purity from Believers and points them to the Word of God on how they ought to be living. In that way, Ecclesiastical Justice aims to mirror Eternal Justice much more closely than Judicial Justice.
When we use only the three types of justice outlined above there are passages of Scripture that are very hard to understand. Consider the following:
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
What kind of justice is the LORD asking you to participate in? You cannot enact Eternal Justice. You are likely not involved in the church or governmental bodies to enact those kinds of justice either. What remains for the common man to do?
This last form of justice, General Justice, is executed by the people (you and I) to right the wrongs of those around us. This is the justice we’re called to enact for the hurting and oppressed (James 1:27). This is what we do when we fight against abortion and domestic oppression. These are not things that would historically get people kicked out of churches (Ecclesiastical Justice), but the people of God have still been called to look after those who are oppressed for the sake of the Gospel and the building up of believers.
In 1840 an Italian priest, Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, renamed this justice as “Social Justice” and called for its return to the church (see: Social Justice: Not What You Think It Is & The FAQs: What Christians Should Know About Social Justice). The term “Social Justice” has been adopted by many liberal thinkers in all religions and philosophies and the meaning of it has changed from what was originally intended. Because of this, there has been a lot of misconstrued meaning in what “Social Justice” (General Justice) means and where it gets its Biblical roots. So I want to take a moment and talk about some of the things General Justice is and is not, to fully clarify what the Bible preaches.
- is a call to compassionate action. We are to look after the orphans and widows in their distress (Isaiah 1:17, 23; Jeremiah 22:3; & James 1:27). We are to plead the widow’s cause. This means we need to know her plight (what are her struggles and how can we help?). Our compassion overflows to her because God’s love overflows to us. We spend time with her and get to know her and her family. We bring her struggles up on her behalf so that she can continue to attend to her needs since her time as a single mom is more precious and limited than our own.
- is a call to protect. We are to protect the weak and helpless (Isaiah 10:1-2 & Jeremiah 5:28). When the rules we have in place unfairly target the helpless, we are to step up and protect them (Proverbs 31:8). Isaiah condemn laws that unfairly target the poor and hurting and steal from them what is right for them to have. As God’s people, we are called to stand up for them – just as the good Samaritan did (Luke 10:25-37).
- seeks truth. Justice can never be done without honestly looking for the truth (Jeremiah 5:1). It requires us to be discerning, ask good questions, reflect on the matter diligently, and seek the Lord in prayer. Only with the truth can a right consequence be found for the actions or inactions of the offender. Seeking truth means working to find the source of their plight – whether that’s being wronged by another or the normal consequences of their own actions.
- is a call to righteousness. If we want to live out justice for those around us, we cannot be sinning against those people (Proverbs 17:23 & Jeremiah 22:3). We cannot treat them rightly today and be stealing from them tomorrow. Justice requires consistent godly behavior.
- is a call to love. Hosea 12:6 is God’s plea with His people to return to Him. He begs them to hold fast to love, justice, and to wait for God. Justice and love are connected in the same way that parental discipline and love are connected. Without love, justice and discipline are often abusive and poisonous (Amos 6:12). An example of this poisonous behavior is the father who comes home and beats his kids for not doing their chores timely. Their misdeeds may have warranted discipline, but they didn’t warrant blood and bruises. With love, justice and discipline are the means by which we help others grow in their walk with God. A response lacking in love can taint the child and give them scars that are deeper than the flesh.
- is impartial. This is pretty obvious, as we said earlier injustice is common and is often rendered on incomplete information, and sometimes it’s rendered on biased opinions. In Proverbs 18:5 we are told that justice should not show partiality to the wicked or the righteous. The call here seems to be that those we think well or ill of still need a fair shake before justice can be properly administered.
- is humble. Those that seek to do justice are called to be humble enough to confess their sins to one another (James 5:16). Believers are called to humble admit when they are wrong, and have sinned against each other and thereby seek justice for their own sins.
- is an action God blesses us for taking (Psalm 146:5-7).
General Justice is a call to keep our eyes off ourselves and onto the plights of others. It’s a call to befriend those in need and help them where they’re at. It’s a call to love them more than we love ourselves.
We are called to look out for those who have been wronged and to step in for them when they can’t step in for themselves. This may mean taking time off work and going with them to court and helping them through the hurdles of the court system. It may mean opening up your pantry and giving them food. Whatever it means, it certainly means sacrifice.
General Justice is not…
- about revenge. General Justice is not about taking matters into our own hands. We must remember that Eternal Justice will reign and God knows better than us. Revenge belongs to the Lord (Leviticus 19:18 & Hebrews 10:30).
- about overthrowing the government. We care called to submit to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7). While some have co-opted “Social Justice” as a means to remake the government in our image, this is not the call of the Bible. General Justice is not the same thing as what Marx talked about in socialism and the rising up on the working class. That said, as we saw above General Justice does call for us to protect the helpless and that does mean getting involved in government. This is most clearly seen today when Christians speak up about abortion and vote to put an end to it. Abortion is an attack on the weakest of all humans and those most incapable of defending themselves. It is an act of compassion, love, and righteousness to stand up for them and plead their cause to all who will listen.
- about forced redistribution of wealth. It is right for believers to give of themselves to help others. This is clearly seen in Acts (2:45 & 4:32-5:11), but this kind of giving was entirely voluntary. And it’s important that it remains so today. Our ability to give freely of ourselves is commanded by justice and tested by our free will. If we are forced to give our things up, our heart response is no longer required and we are no longer being crafted into the likeness of His image in the process. And beyond that, we have the simple Biblical call to not steal – which is exactly what socialism calls for.
How does it interact with the others?
General Justice is the first temporal justice to be enacted. It is incumbent on the people to point out to the authorities abuses of power, corruptions, and other such violations of the law and morality. It is the job of you and I to see that our neighbor has sinned and go to them to correct them in private, and if that fails to escalate it to the church. And it is our job to turn in violators of the law to the government for the law to deal with them accordingly. Our justice kick-starts the process.
Unfortunately, we as Believers often fail to live up to this call, and when we do the church often adopts it as a cause of theirs. This is seen in Acts 6:1-7 when there was a failure to properly distribute food to a sect of widows and the apostles appointed seven people to lead a new ministry to oversee this distribution and make sure the widows were well looked after. While this kind of solution works (and works well) it does not mean that is how things ought to be. We need to live up to our calling as Believers and do what God has asked us to do.
When it comes to Eternal Justice, our justice is a dim reflection of what’s to come. A reminder that God is near and the Perfect will render justice impartially and completely.
Justice is the act of providing right consequences to one’s actions. There is a fourfold Biblical call to justice. Justice begins with us and escalates depending on the nature of the sin that has been committed. All forms of temporal justice serve to point us to God’s Eternal Justice. They point mankind to the perfection we find in the Lord and serve to drive our eyes to someone greater than us.
In our pursuit of justice, we must never forget grace and forgiveness, gifts God has freely given us. We are called to treat others as we would have them treat us, and when we’re honest we know we want an endless supply of grace and forgiveness. These are tools God has given us to be used alongside justice (not in replacement of it). Grace is what allows us to see the innocent being condemned and forgiveness is what allows us to free the hearts of the guilty. When used properly we are best able to provide true justice (Ezekiel 18:8).
It is my hope that this article on justice helps shed light on what God wants you to do with your life. The Bible is not just a book of facts… it is a book designed to motivate you to grow and change and pursue Christ with your every breath.
With that knowledge, where is God telling you that you need to step up and protect the helpless? Where do you need to work to find the truth and fight for the cause of the widow?
Where do you need to live out justice?
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