On Social Justice (2): Defining (Social) Justice

Jared C. Wilson has a helpful post laying out 8 categories of people involved in the social justice debate and offering 5 very worthwhile suggestions for how to discuss the issue. In our analysis we are endeavoring to interact with the carefullest proponents of social justice – that is, those who are reformed/Calvinist and have tried to give biblical foundations for their beliefs. Much of what we have read online from these men points back to Tim Keller’s Generous Justice as the theological foundation for social justice. We think any response to the push for social justice needs to interact thoroughly with Keller’s arguments.

We are thankful that both sides agree that justice needs to be defined and understood biblically (see here and here for example). In his book, Keller argues that Christians and non-Christians may agree on certain matters of justice (because of the law written on the hearts of all men), yet we must ultimately root our understanding in Scripture (and hold unbelievers to that standard).

The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel defined acting justly as “showing appropriate respect to every person and giving to each one what he or she is due.”

E. Calvin Beisner defines justice as “rendering impartially and proportionally to everyone his due in accord with the righteous standard of God’s moral law.”

Tim Keller likewise defines justice as “giving people their due.”

Thabiti Anyabwile defines justice as “doing the right thing for the right people in the right way in the right proportion, according to the Bible… Justice is righteousness. It’s equity. It’s doing the right thing.”

Note that Anyabwile’s definition is much broader than the previous three. Greg Forster argues for a similarly broad definition. Anyabwile likely has in mind the Hebrew word tzadeqah and the Greek word δικαιοσ which refer to keeping the commands of God, being wholly in conformity to the will of God. It is often translated as “being just” or “being righteous.” It is the word used to refer to our justification through faith alone wherein we are declared to be in right standing with God, wholly in conformity to the will of God (because of the imputation of Christ’s conformity to the will of God – his righteousness).

How do these two definitions of justice relate? In the courtroom of God, a man who has rendered to God what God is due – conformity to his law – is declared just because God is an impartial (just) judge who will render to each man what he is due (Proverbs 24:12; Matt 16:27; Rom 2:6; 1 Cor 3:8; Gal 6:7-8; Rom 4:4; 1 Kgs 8:32; Ps 51:4; Ps 143:2; Pr 17:15). In the courtroom of men, a man who has rendered to other men what they are due is likewise righteous/just (tzadeqah; Deut 25:1; Is 5:23).

It is important to keep these different relationships in mind: God-man and man-man. For example, men who sinfully disobey their parents deserve death because they have not rendered God the obedience He is due (Rom 1:32) yet it would be unjust for us to put that man to death for not rendering to his parents what they are due. That would be a confusion of court rooms, a confusion of relationships/parties, a confusion of justice.

Loving Your Neighbor?

Like Anyabwile and Forster, Keller explains “tzadeqah… refers to a life of right relationships… though tzadeqah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social.” Joe Carter elaborates “As Keller says, when the two Hebrew words tzadeqah and mishpat [giving what is due] are tied together—as they are more than three dozen times—the English expression that best conveys the meaning is ‘social justice.’” Keller argues

In the Scripture, gifts to the poor are called ‘acts of righteousness,’ as in Matthew 6:1-2. Not giving generously, then, is not stinginess, but unrighteousness, a violation of God’s law… To not ‘share his bread’ and his assets with the poor would be unrighteous, a sin against God, and therefore a violation of God’s justice.” (Generous Justice, 12)

Social justice, under this formula, is simply obedience to the second table of the law: loving our neighbor as God commands. This is a novel use of the phrase “social justice.” The trouble with Keller’s thesis is that he equivocates on the word “justice.” He conflates the two distinct courtrooms: God-man and man-man.

Keller argues that because we are commanded to help the poor, helping the poor is not a matter of charity, but justice. “In English… the word ‘charity’ conveys a good but optional activity. Charity cannot be a requirement, for then it would not be charity.” (GJ, 12) He says “My definition of justice is giving humans their due as people in the image of God… It’s biblical that we owe the poor as much of our money as we can possibly give away.” The argument is that God has commanded us to give to the poor and needy, therefore we owe the poor and needy. “[I]f you do not actively and generously share your resources with the poor, you are a robber. You are not living justly.” (GJ, 13) As noted, this is a confusion of relationships, a confusion of courtrooms. If one obeys God’s commands he is just before God, but that does not mean everything one does in obedience to God is therefore a matter of justice between men.

For example, as Christians, we are commanded to be respectfully subject to “unjust” masters who cause us to suffer unjustly. Our obedience to that command is not “optional,” but neither is it a matter of justice. It is specifically called “gracious” and we are told Christ’s suffering is our example in this instance (1 Pet. 2:18-25). Romans 4:4 and 10:6 are clear that grace and justice are antithetical. “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due… But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” Christ’s suffering on our behalf was not a matter of justice. Justice is about giving what is due. The Gospel is about giving what is not due. Keller agrees: “Justification is the doctrine that God has not given us our ‘just deserts.’” (GJ, 96)

Confusingly, however, these men actually appeal to the Gospel as a parallel for understanding our giving to the poor.

When you come upon those who are economically poor, you cannot say to them, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” because you certainly did not do that spiritually. Jesus intervened for you. And you cannot say, “I won’t help you because you got yourself into this mess,” since God came to earth, moved into your spiritually poor neighborhood, as it were, and helped you even though your spiritual problems were your own fault. In other words, when Christians who understand the gospel see a poor person, they realize they are looking into a mirror. (GJ, 99)

Christ’s grace to us cannot be our example in giving to the poor if we must give to the poor as a matter of justice. If giving to the poor is looking in a mirror, then I deserve the Gospel as a matter of justice. Keller quotes Robert M’Cheyne’s response to objections against giving to the poor:

Objection 2: “The poor are undeserving.” Answer: Christ might have said, “They are wicked rebels . . . shall I lay down my life for these? I will give to the good angels.” But no, he left the ninety-nine, and came after the lost. He gave his blood for the undeserving… Oh, my dear Christians! If you would be like Christ, give much, give often, give freely, to the vile and poor, the thankless and the undeserving.” (105)

Which is it? Are the poor undeserving (and therefore our giving to them is an analogy of the Gospel) or is giving to the poor precisely what they deserve as a matter of justice? It cannot be both. Keller refers to giving to the poor as a “gift” (11, 181). Yet, again, Rom 4:4 specifically says that something cannot be a gift if it is due to the person as a matter of justice. Keller devotes an entire chapter (“Justice and Your Neighbor”) to explaining how the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us what we owe the poor as a matter of justice. However, he also argues it was a matter of grace. He quotes Jonathan Edwards’ sermon on the parable

Christ loved us, and was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very hateful persons, of an evil disposition, not deserving of any good . . . so we should be willing to be kind to those who are . . . very undeserving. (68)

Keller summarizes another point from Edwards: “Christ found us in the same condition [as a poor man who caused his own poverty]. Our spiritual bankruptcy was due to our own sin, yet he came and gave us what we needed.” (69) He even calls the Samaritan’s help towards the robbed man “free grace.” (72)

According to the Bible, we are all like that man, dying in the road. Spiritually, we are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:5). But when Jesus came into our dangerous world, he came down our road. And though we had been his enemies, he was moved with compassion by our plight (Romans 5:10). He came to us and saved us, not merely at the risk of his life, as in the case of the Samaritan, but at the cost of his life. On the cross he paid a debt we could never have paid ourselves. Jesus is the Great Samaritan to whom the Good Samaritan points. (74)

I quote all of this at length simply to show how thoroughly self-contradictory Keller’s good-intentioned thesis is. Keller (and Forster following him) lean heavily on Jonathan Edwards. However, Edwards calls mercy to the poor “charity,” not “justice.” Keller acknowledges this point (page 65 fn 65) but argues “For Edwards, lack of ‘charity’ was a sin, and therefore a violation of God’s law and justice.” Keller makes the leap from “sin” to “injustice,” but Edwards does not. It is important to understand this difference and understand why Keller is compelled to call it justice.

Keller had a primary hand in writing The Gospel Coalition’s Foundation Document Theological Vision for Ministry, which states “The gospel opens our eyes to the fact that all our wealth (even wealth for which we worked hard) is ultimately an unmerited gift from God. Therefore the person who does not generously give away his or her wealth to others is not merely lacking in compassion, but is unjust.” He likewise argues in his book “There is an inequitable distribution of both goods and opportunities in this world. Therefore, if you have been assigned the goods of this world by God and you don’t share them with others, it isn’t just stinginess, it is injustice.” (88)

This again confuses grace and justice. How does the recognition that I have received an unmerited gift (grace) entail that the poor are due my gift as a matter of debt? It doesn’t. Rather, the recognition that I have graciously been given a gift I did not merit should motivate me to share the gift with others who do not merit it. Not to do so would be ungracious, not unjust. Jesus specifically appealed to the fact that God graciously makes the sun shine and the rain fall on the unjust as motivation – not for loving our neighbor – but for loving our enemy (Matt. 5:43-48)! An appeal to grace entails grace, not justice.

In light of this basic contradiction, why would Keller continue to argue for understanding our treatment of the poor in this way? In the previous post we noted how Keller said he was deeply influenced and drawn to Neo-Marxism during his college years. In Generous Justice he notes “At first I merely imported my views on racial justice and added them onto the theology I was learning as a Christian. I didn’t see what later I came to realize, that in fact the Bible provides the very basis for justice.” (Intro) Perhaps Keller has merely continued to import his pre-existing view of justice into his theology and reading of Scripture, resulting in his self-contradictory view of grace and justice.

God can command us to be gracious because we are commanded to be like God, who is not only just, but also gracious. Our requirement to love our neighbor does not entail that it is always a matter of justice between men. Listen to this 3 minute track from Beautiful Eulogy.

Group Justice?

In his FAQ on Social Justice, Carter goes on to try to further define the “social” part of “social justice.”

Social justice, then, would be not only a biblical concept, but also a subset of biblical justice. Claiming that we need only “biblical justice” and not “social justice” is a category error.

Biblical justice includes all forms of God-ordained justice, including the rectifying justice that belongs to the government (what we’d call public or legal justice) as well as justice between individuals (what could be called inter-individual justice) and justice involving organizations and groups (what we’d call social justice).

Mohler likewise argues rather vaguely that social justice simply refers to the laws in Deuteronomy that have societal implications. But what justice does not have societal implications? And yes, there are instances of (in)justice between individuals and instances of (in)justice between groups of individuals. That in itself does not qualify as two different kinds of justice. That’s just two different parties. The burden would be the same in both cases: individuals, or individuals united in a clearly identifiable group, would need to demonstrate how other individuals, or individuals united in a clearly identifiable legally responsible group, violated their rights.

But how does that work, exactly, with regards to the poor and their daily bread? If their daily bread is their right (their property) and it has been stolen from them, who stole it? Who must be taken to court and tried for violating the poor person’s right? Interestingly, you can’t point to an individual or even a group of specific individuals. You can only point to “society” or “the rich.” Perhaps this is why the language of “social justice” came to fruition. Simple “justice” presents a roadblock. If an offense is too vague to identify a specific culprit, justice can’t be pursued.

In sum, identifying parties as individuals or groups of individuals is not quite sufficient ground to identify “social” justice as a unique kind of justice – especially when “social justice” has always meant much more than simply a difference in parties. When most people today outside of the church use “social justice” to refer to Marxist conceptions of justice that we all (supposedly) reject, we need a better reason to use the same term.


This brings us to the next step in defining social justice. John MacArthur defines social justice as “equal distribution of wealth, advantages, privileges, and benefits—up to and including pure Marxist socialism.” He notes that “the rhetoric of ‘social justice’ is deeply rooted in Gramscian Marxism.” This is fitting with the definition offered by Merriam-Webster: “a state or doctrine of egalitarianism (“a social philosophy advocating the removal of inequalities among people”).” Al Mohler argues that there is a biblical and a non-biblical version of social justice but agrees that

The one that is getting a lot of attention right now is a notion of social justice that was basically a Marxist source, and explicitly you can draw a line… It’s a very toxic worldview… Critical theory and the Frankfurt School coming out of the left-wing of Marxism in Europe… Now the universities are filled with those who are committed to critical theory. It’s a radical form of Marxism. Social justice was very much a part of that movement… Social justice in that view became identified with identifying peoples who are oppressed at various levels of oppression and working to liberate them by whatever means necessary, and that was put in the language of social justice. That’s justice for an entire society… That understanding of social justice is not compatible with a Christian understanding of justice. (~26:00)

In the CT podcast, Anyabwile said “For me, it has nothing to do with socialism or the social gospel. It has everything to do with the Bible’s ethics.” TGC Chief Editor Joe Carter tweeted out his frustration with being called a socialist when TGC called failure to redistribute wealth injustice. In his TGC FAQ on Social Justice, Carter leans on Gideon Strauss’ distinction between “public justice” (the political aspect) and “social justice” (nonpolitical organizations) in order to argue that “Social justice should not equate all societal improvement with legislation, regulation and other coercive state action.” He tweeted “Socialism is about government intervention in the economy. We’re talking about God’s economy and the individual/collective obligations of individuals and the church.”

Keller, on the other hand, remains rather non-committal on the question.

We have seen a number of ways in which the social justice legislation of the Old Testament has abiding validity, yet we must recognize that everything I have just outlined is inferential. The Bible has many very direct and clear ethical prescriptions for human life. But when we come to the Old Testament social legislation, the application must be done with care and it will always be subject to debate. For example, while we have seen that the Bible demands that we share our resources with the needy, and that to fail to do so is unjust, taken as a whole the Bible does not say precisely how that redistribution should be carried out. Should it be the way political conservatives prescribe, almost exclusively through voluntary, private giving? Or should it be the way that political liberals desire, through progressive taxation and redistribution by the state? Thoughtful people have and will argue about which is the most effective way to help the poor. Both sides looking for support in the Bible can find some, and yet in the end what the Bible says about social justice cannot be tied to any one political system or economic policy. If it is possible, we need to take politics out of this equation as we look deeper into the Bible’s call for justice. (27-28)

Jonathan Leeman warns that using the coercive state to eliminate disparities “can sacrifice justice for the individual [by] sanctioning state-sponsored thievery instead.” However, he does believe that Ps. 140 and Ps. 72 require some form of state coercion above and beyond due process – he is just unwilling to commit to any specific program.

In his TGC post How Should We Talk About Justice and the Gospel? Greg Forster says

It’s true—as I’ve devoted my career to arguing—that we must distinguish carefully between the broad set of moral duties we owe to our neighbors and the narrower set enforced by civil law. I’m as much against socialism or large-scale redistribution of wealth as anyone, and have devoted a fair amount of effort to opposing it. One of the greatest threats to justice in our generation is the paternalistic degradation of the poor, whom our welfare systems (both civil and ecclesiastical) often keep in a state of economic dependence to the technocratic elite.

But there are simply no grounds, whether scriptural or philosophical, for limiting justice to that subset of politically enforceable duties.

This leads the CT podcast host to ask whether the source of division in the church over social justice is caused by Christians taking language from a non-Christian subculture and using them in a very Christian subculture. Anyabwile answers

You’re right Morgan. A lot of this is about language policing. And the extent to which it is about language policing but isn’t listening deeply enough to get at the users’ meaning, again it’s one of the reasons we’re missing each other. The language of social justice – TGC did a post on this a couple of weeks back [referencing Carter’s FAQ] – well that’s actually Catholic in origin, from the mid 1800’s. So in the broad Christian tradition that’s our term. And so, even there I think if you assign it solely to the secular Academy you’re doing something ahistorical and you’re doing something that doesn’t really foster understanding. (~31:00)

What was the Roman Catholic meaning of social justice? Recall from part 1 that Carter references two Roman encyclicals. In “The Power of Rome in the Twentieth Century,” Roman Catholic writer Anthony Rhodes noted “much of the encyclical [Rerum Novarum] appeared only to repeat in more orthodox language what Marx had said ten years before.” In the 1997 American Journal of Jurisprudence, historian Eugene Genovese remarked

The Marxists were right: The twentieth century has been a century of the “general crisis of capitalism,” even if they erred badly on the nature of that crisis, which has been primarily a crisis of the spirit engendered by the loss of faith in God and a transcendent law. Still, the Marxist critique of capitalism had much in common with the critique offered in Rerum Novarum[.]

Pope Pius XI noted

In fact, the Encyclical Rerum Novarum completely overthrew those tottering tenets of Liberalism which had long hampered effective interference by the government. It prevailed upon the peoples to develop their social policy more intensely and on truer lines, and encouraged the elite among Catholics to give such efficacious help and assistance to rulers of the State, that in legislative assemblies they were not infrequently the foremost advocates of the new policy.

Thus Roman Catholic “social justice” was a restatement of Marxist ideology in Christian language and it specifically pushed for Roman Catholic elites to implement it into public policy. For a thorough analysis of Rome’s teaching on this matter, see John W. Robbins. This led to the development of Liberation Theology. In the founding document, Roman Catholic priest Gustavo Gutiérrez explained this theology as it had arisen in Latin America.

For some, participation in the process of liberation means not allowing themselves to be intimidated by the accusation of being ‘communist.’ On the positive side it can even mean taking the path of socialism… ‘We are led to direct our efforts and actions toward the building of a Socialist type of society that would allow us to eliminate all forms of man’s exploitation of his fellow man’… ‘I believe that a socialist system is more in accord with the Christian principles of true fellowship, justice, and peace’… [D]ifficulties in reconciling justice and private ownership have led many to the conviction that ‘private ownership of capital leads to the dichotomy of capital and labor, to the superiority of the capitalist over the laborer, to the exploitation of man by man… The history of the private ownership of the means of production makes evident the necessity of its reduction or suppression for the welfare of society. We must hence opt for social ownership of the means of production.’

In Generous Justice, Keller says

This emphasis in the Bible has led some, like Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, to speak of God’s ‘preferential option for the poor.’ At first glance this seems to be wrong, especially in light of passages in the Mosaic law that warn against giving any preference to rich or poor (Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:16–17). Yet the Bible says that God is the defender of the poor; it never says he is the defender of the rich. (7)

We are thankful that some of these men wish to distance themselves from socialism. However, they cannot have their cake and eat it too. Secular “social justice” is a Marxist push for socialistic redistribution of wealth, and so was the Roman Catholic version. Scripture is clear that coercive force is warranted – in fact commanded – in order to rectify instances of robbery (Ex 22:1-14), and the men we have looked at have been quite clear that not providing the poor with their daily bread is robbery.

Putting the pieces of their offered definitions together we are left with a view that claims one group (the rich) have robbed another group (the poor) of what they are due, with the necessary consequence that coercive force is warranted to rectify the injustice by redistributing the wealth. Whether they want it to be or not, that is socialism.


Reformed proponents of social justice (Keller offering a book-length theological foundation) have argued that social justice is the idea that God’s command to love our neighbor entails a right that our neighbor has to our love as debt owed. We have argued that this definition confuses courtrooms (God-man vs man-man) and results in self-contradiction.

We urge proponents of social justice to abandon this definition and instead limit themselves to the more accurate definition of justice (that we all agree on): rendering to one what is due. In the next post we will take a look at what Scripture says is due to the poor and needy.

We have endeavored to truly listen to our brothers to understand what they intend by their language. We hope that this post may be a step forward in the conversation. If we have misunderstood or misrepresented anyone we would love to have you clarify in the comment section below.

One thought on “On Social Justice (2): Defining (Social) Justice

  1. Pingback: On Social Justice (3): Justice for the Poor & Needy – Contrast

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