Tim Keller: This Needs to Inform Your View of Social Justice

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Tim Keller says many people in the church fall into one of two categories; they are into justification but not justice or they love justice but have a low regard for justification.

In this video he makes the case that both positions are wrong.

The doctrine of justification by faith teaches that our sins were placed on Jesus and his righteousness was given to us when he died on the cross for the sins of mankind.

Justice is the idea that Christians should be showing concern for the widow, orphan, immigrant and poor, what Keller calls “the quartet of the vulnerable.”

For those who prefer justification, Keller said “Justice is the sign that you have been justified by faith. It’s not the basis, you aren’t justified because you’re helping the poor, but a heart poured out in deeds of mercy and justice for the poor is a sign that you have been saved by grace.”

Keller said he regularly meets Christians who miss one of the major themes of the Bible found in the Old Testament, “If you aren’t intensely concerned for the quartet of the vulnerable…it’s a sign your heart is not right with God.”

He uses examples from Isaiah 29:21, Isaiah 58, and Deuteronomy 10. And he said the theme is repeated in the New Testament passages of Mark 12:38-40, Luke 11 and James 2.

Keller summed up the New Testament verses this way, “How do you know you’re really saved by faith? You care about the poor. When you see people without resources, your heart goes out to them. If it doesn’t, maybe you’re saved, but you’re lacking the evidence of salvation. Justification leads to justice. Justice is the sign of justification. It’s all through the Bible.”

He offered several reasons to back up his argument.

Justification and Justice Connections

First, the doctrine of justification by faith alone will eventually change your attitude toward justice.

If you believe God will accept you because you’re a good person, you are taking a low view of the law of God.

That’s because God is so holy and you fall so far short of his requirement, only the death of the son of God can save you.

Once you understand justification in that way, said Keller, you will realize that “justice matters to God.”

There’s also a balancing perspective on this point. Keller said once you understand the depth of sin from which we all suffer, you can’t be self righteous against perpetrators of unrighteousness, because you once rebelled against God.  

And he observed, an awful lot of people who are the biggest advocates helping the poor are every bit as self-righteous as the pharisees were against those who don’t.

Justification and the Poor

Second, Keller said a proper understanding of justification and justice changes your attitude toward the poor.

Matthew 5:3 quotes Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Poor in spirit, Keller instructed, is our infinite sin debt. It could only be paid by Jesus’ death on the cross.

Those who are poor in spirit cannot say to someone poor in a material sense, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”  Keller noted, “If Jesus had said that to you (in a spiritual sense), you’d be in hell.”

If one poor in spirit says, “I’ll only help those who are deserving”, Keller points out,  “If Jesus had done that, only shed blood to deserving poor (in spirit), there isn’t anybody like that here.”

“When you are poor in spirit when you look at the economically poor you know you’re looking in a mirror,” Keller said.

For the group that prefers justice, Keller called them, “middle class in spirit,” suggesting they think God would accept them or their prayers because of their good deeds.

Third, a proper understanding of justification and justice changes the attitude of the poor.

Referencing James 1:9-10, Keller said the poor Christian ought to take pride in his high position and the rich Christian should take pride in his low position because he’ll pass away like a wildflower.

Keller said the passage can be confusing if you don’t read it from the perspective that all Christians are vile sinners and at the same time fully loved as adopted children of God.

The instruction from the passage to successful Christians is, it would be good to dwell on their sinful condition since they can easily be swayed by the world where they get nothing but acclaim.

And poor Christians should dwell on their high status knowing that while they are disdained by the world, they are children of the king.  Where the the world says you are your bank account, the gospel says you aren’t defined by outside forces.

And finally, when the world sees the church doing justice then the world will get interested in justification. They’ll want to know what changed Christians. The answer will be justification.

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Bob Ditmer
Bob Ditmer has worked in Christian media for more than 20 years including positions with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and Focus on the Family.