Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and author of various books, is a leading evangelical thinker. Known for his sharp intellect, what has always impressed me about Keller is the humility apparent in his writing. He’s admired by evangelical leaders across the spectrum, from Billy Graham and Rick Warren—both of whose endorsements are on the back of Keller’s books—to Bill Hybels and John Piper. If there’s not a single heir to Billy Graham as the de facto leader of American evangelicalism, it’s at least true that most of the candidates are vocal fans of Tim Keller.
Keller’s newest book is called Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010). The book is a theologically-grounded look at the concept of justice, a theme that’s always been biblical but which has been experiencing something of a resurgence amongst American evangelicals—particularly younger evangelicals—in the past several years.
Justice, Keller says, implies ensuring equitable treatment, but it goes beyond that to ensuring the rights of the vulnerable. Keller, following Nicholas Wolterstorff and citing Zechariah 7:10-11, notes a “quartet of the vulnerable” repeated throughout Scripture:
This is what the LORD Almighty says: Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the immigrant or the poor.
Keller notes, in the footnotes, that he has translated the Hebrew word gare as “immigrant” (rather than “alien” or “foreigner” as used by other translators) because it “more accurately conveys to modern readers the meaning of the word. The word means ‘the outsider living in your midst’,” and Keller uses it appears regularly throughout this book precisely because the Old Testament so repeatedly highlights the immigrant as one of those to whom justice is due.
Justice, Keller argues, is close to God’s heart. “He identifies with the powerless, he takes up their cause,” and he calls his people “to create a culture of social justice for the poor and vulnerable… to reveal God’s glory and character to the world.”
Job serves as one example of this justice. In Job 29, Job defends his own reputation by highlighting his just life: “I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the immigrant. I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth.” This sort of justice, Keller says, is not synonymous to the English word charity precisely because it is not optional: failure to provide justice toward the vulnerable is “a sin, offensive to God’s splendor [Job 31:23], and deserving of judgment and punishment [Job 31:28].”
Jesus himself had much to say about justice, Keller notes. In Matthew 25, our Lord gives us a prescription for a new community of believers, open to all, regardless of race, social standing, or power. Amongst those Jesus says that his disciples will have cared for are strangers, who, Keller says
were immigrants and refugees, and they were… to be “invited in.” They were not merely to be sent to a shelter but were to be welcomed into the disciples’ homes and lives and, it is implied, given advocacy, friendship, and the basics for pursuing a new life in society.
Keller spends an entire chapter unpacking the justice required by Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. He notes that a simple reading of this story has always led to objections from some, and he cites 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards’ responses to those of his own age who “sought to put limits on the biblical injunction to love their neighbor.” Quite simply, there are no limits: our neighbor is defined very widely, and it does not matter if she is merely poor, not destitute, nor that he is of questionable morals, nor even that the neighbor in need brought his condition upon himself through poor decisions.
This brings us to Keller’s central point, tying together our justification and the justice we are now called to seek: we love because we have been loved by a God who loved us not because of our justice, but when we were lost in sin. Those who have received grace—who have been justified not by our good works but by Christ’s death on the cross—have more reason than anyone to seek justice:
For indeed, grace is the key to it all. It is not our lavish good deeds that procure salvation, but God’s lavish love and mercy. That is why the poor are as acceptable to God as the rich. It is the generosity of God, the freeness of his salvation, that lays the foundation for the society of justice for all…God’s concern for justice permeated every part of Israel’s life. It should also permeate our lives.
Generous Justice provides a succinct, biblically-grounded case for justice for immigrants and for all those who are vulnerable, reminding all of us who have received God’s grace that justice is not merely an optional activity, but a requirement for all who desire to follow Christ.