Eight-year-old Secoriea Turner was shot and killed in Atlanta, July 4, 2020.
Three weeks earlier, a 27-year-old man had died at the same location during an altercation with police. In response, armed protesters blocked the intersection, and cries of injustice filled the night air. On July 4, one driver saw he couldn’t pass through the blockade and tried to turn around in a parking lot. A man opened fire and Secoriea, who was in that car, died at the hospital.
“Justice for Secoriea!” is not hard to understand. What justice means in that earlier police altercation is far more complicated. For many, their vision of justice is informed by worldly ideas directly at odds with God’s intentions. Others pervert the biblical truth of justice to advance a social or political agenda.
Our society is utterly confused about what this word means, yet many are eager to share their thoughts. If we want to understand and have wisdom regarding justice, we should not consult celebrities, activists, or propagandists. Instead, we should look to the Creator’s Word.
Let’s look at five basic truths about biblical justice.
1. In the beginning . . .
God created a world in which justice reigned. Life in Eden was just as it should be. Surely wolves lived peacefully alongside lambs, as Isaiah 11 promises they one day will. The Creator pronounced it all “very good” (Gen. 1:31).
God designed his world to work a certain way. He set but one restriction — a single tree from which Adam and Eve were not to eat (Gen. 2:16-17). Yet restrictions always seem to inspire rebellious desire. Adam and Eve chose to disrespect God and do what they wanted. Peace and harmony were destroyed. Injustice soon seized power, and the first son murdered his brother (Gen. 4:1-8). The injustice multiplied, and all creation began yearning for the day God would free it from “the bondage of corruption into glorious freedom” (Rom. 8:18-23 HCSB).
The Bible makes it clear: God hates injustice in both personal lives and the public square (Prov. 6:16-19). He punished his people when they practiced injustice or were simply complacent about it. On top of that, God required his people to “do justice” (Micah 6:8).
“Justice” means different things to different people. For some, it’s taking wealth from those who have “too much.” For others, it means “I’m not getting what I deserve.” To many, justice is just bad people being punished.
Biblical justice, however, is about restoration — trying to put things right, the way the Creator intended.
2. Justice is hardwired into God’s righteousness
If we separate “justice” from the context of God’s righteousness, the word loses all objective meaning.
Ray Stedman, long-time pastor of Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California, points out that the word “righteousness” in the Old Testament (tsedeq – Strong’s H6664) means bringing something into conformity with the character of God, and “justice” (mishpat – Strong’s H4941) is the practical application of righteousness.
In the New Testament, the two are even more tightly intertwined. The word dikaiosune (Strong’s G1343) means, broadly, that life is, as it ought to be, characterized by integrity, virtue, and right behavior. In a narrower sense, it refers to giving each person what he is due.
Jesus commanded his disciples to “seek first the kingdom of God and his dikaiosune” (Matt. 6:33).
3. The gospel is about justice that restores
Eternal salvation does not stand independently of justice. Jesus said he came so those who place their trust in him will never die (John 11:25-26). Yet he also said he came to bring abundant life to those who would step into God’s kingdom (John 10:10).
It’s not so much that justice is part of the gospel, but that the gospel is about justice — restoring God’s original intention for his creation.
Our mission as believers is to join God in restoring his “already, but not yet” kingdom as fully as possible in this broken world, pending its complete restoration when Jesus returns.
4. Jesus did justice for you
The gospel binds personal salvation with social justice. One can find no more clear example than Jesus’ atoning death in substitution for our sinful souls.
In death, Jesus was “doing justice” for us all. Our rebellion had made us God’s enemies (Romans 8). We were enslaved, and Jesus paid an awful price to set us free.
Resurrection Sunday was God “doing justice” – for every sinner and, eventually, all creation (Romans 8:19-22). By his grace, reconciliation and restoration finally became possible.
This ties biblical justice to the very heart of the gospel. Moreover, reconciliation and restoration inevitably hold social, as well as individual implications.
Nowhere is this more true, relevant or complicated than our society’s current tensions regarding race issues. Though critiques of America’s founding as a racist project are overstated, only a fool would deny that overt legal racism utterly ravaged generations of Blacks. One of the results of our sinful nature’s tribalistic impulse is the racist tendency to elevate one race over another. However, God’s justice calls us to confront ethnic bias of every sort and devote ourselves to helping neighbors find their way toward restoration, both individually and as communities.
As individuals are rescued and transformed, those who walk in God’s ways serve as light and salt in a dark, rotting society. Disciples who experience divine justice inevitably work to set others free and lead them into abundant life.
5. Making disciples multiplies justice
Popular misconceptions must not be allowed to define “social justice.” We must not be deceived into supporting any agenda at the expense of God’s kingdom. What we must do is lead people into new-birth relationships with Jesus and teach them to walk in God’s ways (Matt. 28:18-20).
As we experience Jesus’ restoring justice, we instill that desire into newborn disciples, who in turn multiply it into the lives of family, friends, and co-workers. Our personal experience of God’s restoring justice ought to give rise, by degrees, to greater social justice, until the day Christ returns to establish it completely and permanently.
In our complex world, the specifics of “doing justice” and “social justice” are multilayered. Treating them as simplistic slogans — either advocated or dismissed — is itself an injustice. But we must harbor no doubt that divine justice carries social implications, and that God’s people must pursue biblical justice in every arena of society.