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On Martin Luther King Jr. Day we remember his pioneering work as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle to bring about a more equitable and just society. Justice is also one of the central concerns of the Bible, and it’s no coincidence that leaders of the Civil Rights Movement frequently appealed to Scripture as they advocated for fair and nondiscriminatory treatment under the law.
As long as we live in a fallen world in which human beings naturally gravitate toward evil (Jeremiah 17:9), we must always strive to pursue justice in our personal lives as well as in our various communities. Below we’ll explore some key aspects of what the Bible says about justice and how justice relates to God, our relationship with him, and with one another. We’ll also see that justice is an integral part of the mission God has called us to today.
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Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: A Devotion About Race and Ethnicity (14 days).
Encountering the God of Justice (7 days).
The Source of Justice
The most basic but important point to make about justice is that its source and foundation is God’s holy nature. God himself is the standard of right and wrong, rather than anything outside of God. Scripture declares “he is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4). Since God desires to communicate his will to humanity, his commands in Scripture reflect his just and righteous character. Thus David declares, “As for God, his way is perfect: The LORD’s word is flawless” (2 Samuel 22:31).
God’s Call to Justice
Because God is just and righteous, he calls us to reflect these same qualities in all we do, say, and think. While “justice” is a difficult term to define, a helpful definition in the context of this discussion is the following: “Justice is the manifestation of God’s righteous character in the world—the execution of God’s righteousness. Justice is the expression of God’s righteousness through right action.” 1
As has been the case throughout human history, in Old Testament Israel those most likely to suffer injustice were the weak, vulnerable, and marginalized. Consequently, God expressed special concern for those who experienced these circumstances, especially the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners. Here are a few representative passages:
- “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).
- “You, LORD, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed” (Psalm 10:17-18).
- “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).
- “You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).
- “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (James 5:4).
God’s concern for the vulnerable and oppressed has not changed, so we should be watchful today for ways we can help those least able to help themselves. Citing James again, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
The Mission of God’s People and Social Responsibility
Some Christians have worried, especially over the past century and a half, that an emphasis on social responsibility will detract from preaching the gospel. They view the primary mission of the church and individual Christians as evangelism, and see involvement in social issues to be a distraction from that primary goal. However, a strong biblical case can be made that preaching the gospel and ministering to practical needs are actually two sides of the same coin—namely, the mission of God’s people. Biblical scholar Christopher Wright summarizes this mission as “the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world.” 2
The best example of the harmony between proclaiming the good news and meeting social needs is Jesus’s earthly ministry. Jesus not only “went around teaching from village to village,” but also “went around doing good and healing” (Mark 6:6; Acts 10:38). He taught the importance of repentance and conversion through the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), as well as the necessity of providing physical well-being through the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Angels in Heaven (Frequently Asked Questions) by Christopher Reese]
The late church leader and theologian John Stott observed, “There was in [Jesus’] ministry an indissoluble bond between evangelism and compassionate service. He exhibited in action the love of God he was proclaiming.” 3
Jesus’ example is one reason the church and individual Christians have often been at the forefront of humanitarian efforts that have changed the world—from creating the first hospitals, to establishing universal education, to abolishing the slave trade, to passing labor reforms, to advocating for social justice.
In remembering the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and those who opposed unjust laws that fell short of God’s standard of justice, may we be encouraged and challenged by God’s directives recorded by the prophet Micah:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
1. [Mae Elise Cannon, Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World (IVP, 2009), 20.]
2. [Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, Biblical Theology for Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 266.]
3. [John Stott, The World (God’s Word for Today) (InterVarsity Press, 2019), 58, Kindle Edition. Much of my discussion here draws from Stott’s insights in this volume.]
BIO: Christopher Reese (MDiv, ThM) (@clreese) is a freelance writer and editor-in-chief of The Worldview Bulletin. He is a general editor of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2021). His articles have appeared in Christianity Today and he writes and edits for Christian ministries and publishers.
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