In the introduction to “Generous Justice,” Tim Keller responds to three questions, “Why write this book?” “Who is this book for?” “Why am I interested in Justice?” According to Keller he wrote the book because, “Less well known is the Biblical teaching that true experience of the grace of Jesus Christ inevitably motivates a man or woman to seek justice in the world.” (Pg. xiii) The audience in the author’s mind are 4 groups of people:
- Young Christian believers
- Those suspicious of “doing justice”
- Young Evangelicals who are “social justice” minded in their evangelism
- Unbelieving skeptics
Keller discusses his interest in justice by sharing a few experiences from his own life. He shares how he turned a blind eye to a young man in his high school that was excessively bullied as a result of being poor. Furthermore, while in seminary Keller and his future wife Kathy befriended an African American student who lovingly but directly pointed out implicit bias in their lives. Finally, while studying for a doctoral degree and teaching at Westminster Seminary Keller was exposed to a tremendous amount of research, people, and resources that broadened his view on how the Bible views justice.
“Generous Justice” is eight chapters that can be broken down into two main parts. Part one focuses on laying out a theology of justice, while part two focuses on practices. Chapters 1-4 wrestles with, “What is Doing Justice?,” “Justice and the Old Testament,” “What did Jesus Say About Justice?,” and “Justice and Your Neighbor.” Keller roots the biblical idea of justice through an exposition of Micah 6:8;
“Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
What is key from this text in understanding justice are the hebrew words, “mishpat,” and “chesedh.” “Mishpat puts the emphasis on the action, chesedh puts it on the attitude [or motive] behind the action. So with God, we must do justice, out of merciful love.”(Pg.3) The remainder of the opening chapter wrestles with God’s heart for the vulnerable, and how God’s motivation for justice is rooted in his character. Justice begins to take place as a result of right relationships and a heart posture of generosity.
Chapters 2 and 3 functionally serve as a biblical survey on justice. Chapter 2 focuses on the Old Testament, while chapter 3 focuses on the New Testament. Throughout chapter 2 Keller builds a bridge from the Old Testament to current issues around political affiliations, and causes of poverty. The chapter starts with unpacking the role Old Testament ceremonies and the civil law of Moses play in the life of new covenant Christians. What is key for the Christian to understand is, “The coming of Christ changes the way in which Christians exhibit their holiness and offer their sacrifices, yet the basic principles remain valid… We should be wary of simply saying, “These things don’t apply anymore,” because the Mosaic laws of social justice are grounded in God’s character, and that never changes.” (Pg.21-22) Chapter 3 leans heavily on Luke 14:12-13 to discuss in detail Jesus’ heart for the vulnerable. It also connects the dots between Jesus’ ministry, his dependency and validation of the message of the OT Prophets, as well as how his heart for the vulnerable played out in the early church seen in Acts.
Chapter 4, “Justice and Your Neighbor,” walks the reader through Jesus’ parable of the “Good Samaritan.” “What does it mean to love your neighbor? What is the definition of “love?” Jesus answered that by depicting a man meeting material, physical, and economic needs through deeds… By depicting a Samaritan helping a Jew, Jesus could not have found a more forceful way to say that anyone at all in need-regardless of race, politics, class, and religion – is your neighbor.” (Pg.67)
Part two turns the reader’s attention to the practical outworking of seeking justice in society. Chapter 5 digs in to the motivation concerning why Christians should do justice. Keller roots our motivation in honoring the image of God that all mankind shares. He also unpacks the issue of stewardship through the reality that everything the Christian possesses is ultimately given by the grace of God. As those who have received much grace we are now motivated to extend that grace to others in part through practicing justice. Chapter 6 discusses practical ways for Christians to do justice. Keller examines Job 31:16-19, the work of John Perkins and the CCDA, the role of racial reconciliation, the need to change systems, and how to think through “spheres of justice.”
The final two chapters deal with doing justice in culture and what a realistic vision of seeking justice in society looks like. Chapter 7 does a great job of addressing how the word “justice” has become a trump card of sorts meant to shutdown conversation. Keller does a great job of articulating popular definitions of the term justice, and how every culture has some concept of “acts of kindness” as a result of God’s common grace. Keller explains that according to Scripture, “virtue, rights, and the common good are all crucial aspects of justice.” (Pg.159)In the final chapter it is shown how justice is a part of a larger biblical narrative of God reconciling all things to himself. Tangibly Christians are striving to seek the “shalom” of their environments. By shalom Keller means, “complete reconciliation, a state of the fullest flourishing in every dimension-physical, emotional, social, and spiritual-because all relationships are right, perfect, and filled with joy.” (Pg.174).
Generous Justice is a great introduction on the relationship between salvation by faith through grace and its social implications in the Christians life. Three major strengths really drive this book in to the sphere of “must read” in discipleship; it is biblically rich, incredibly practical in the life of the Christian, and does an excellent job speaking from an objective political lens.
In the introduction Keller explains, “Throughout this book, I will begin each chapter with a call to justice taken directly from the Bible and show how these words can become the foundation of a just, generous human community.” (Pg.XXV) By starting each chapter with a section of Scripture Keller is able to plant the seeds of understanding justice in the soil of a biblical worldview. Along with his ability to root each chapter in Scripture the author flexes his hermeneutical mastery. Keller is able to deconstruct various texts in to their simplest forms, and reconstruct them to show the depth and nuance the Bible speaks about regarding justice. In every chapter Keller does this well, however chapter two, “Justice and the Old Testament” stands out as an excellent example. In this chapter Deuteronomy 15:1-8 is discussed in depth to show how God expected Israel to deal with the poor among them. Ultimately, if Israel followed God’s direction with all their hearts there would have ceased to exist long-term poverty in their land. By expounding on texts in both the Old and New Testament it is made evident that God’s concern for doing justice is a main theme throughout the Bible.
There’s also an ability that Keller possess to explain terms and biblical truths in ways that are accessible for every Christian to understand. This makes Generous Justice incredibly practical for all Christians. One example is how he walks through what justice looks like in the public square. Keller discusses how their is significant division within academia around the definition of justice. The major issue is that justice is inherently judgmental and religious in nature. Keller concludes “Underneath all notions of justice is a set of faith assumptions that are essentially religious, and these are often not acknowledged.”(Pg.154) To take a stand on what justice means inherently forces the definer to make value judgments, which is the greatest sin in our current American culture. For the Christian, to understand that justice inherently contains value judgments that are religious in nature should create a boldness when discussing the issue. Christians should be bold because we intimately know the God of justice, and possess the hope of seeing true justice take place as a result of God’s people doing justice in society. Another example is when the case is made for Christians to do justice because, it reflects God’s character, everything we have is ultimately God’s, and doing justice is a response to the grace of God poured out on sinners through Jesus. In his conclusion to these points Keller shares, “when Christians who understand the gospel see a poor person, they realize they are looking into a mirror. Their hearts must go out to him or her without an ounce of superiority or indifference.” (Pg.103) He then goes on to explain, “The world makes social class into bottom-line identities. You are your social status and bank account-that is the basis for your self-regard.” (Pg.104) Because Christians find their identity and value rooted in the image of God and not in their status or bank account, our worldview admonishes us to care for and enter into the suffering of the oppressed.
The third strength of Generous Justice is how it’s able to cut through the political ideologies that tend to get interwoven with justice. This is especially evident in chapter 1 where he makes the argument for the use of the term “social justice.” Keller explains his reasoning for embracing the term from a biblical viewpoint when he explains, “When these two words, tzaedqah (righteousness with social implications) and mishpat (justice in Hebrew), are tied together, as they are over three dozen times, the English expression that best conveys the meaning is “social justice.”” (Pg. 14) However, as the reader continues through the book it becomes apparent that Keller advocates for an objective view concerning biblical justice and politics. For example, after walking through the implications of Old Testament ceremonies, and the civil laws of Moses, Keller makes the connection to the political implications these texts have today. Essentially, in an American context, within our two party system, each party holds to different truths concerning doing justice, but a biblical view of justice doesn’t fit neatly into either party. Keller goes so far as to say, “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.” (Pg.32) Furthermore, in his discussion of doing justice in the public square Keller says, “No current political framework can fully convey the comprehensive Biblical vision of justice, and Christians should never identify too closely with a particular political party or philosophy.” (Pg. 163) Keller goes on to conclude with a warning, “And if we tie the Bible too tightly to any particular economic system or set of public policies, it bestows divine authority on the system.” (Pg.164) What this means practically is that Christians should humbly cooperate with their political allies while at the same time having the willingness to disagree and pushback against shortcomings within their party. Regardless of Democrat or Republican Christians should encourage their party where they are seeking biblical values around justice, but must also speak prophetically against areas their party is overly reductionist.
The main weakness of Generous Justice primarily comes from chapter 3. In chapter 3 “What Did Jesus Say About Justice?” there is a lack of New Testament exposition on Jesus’ teachings and ministry efforts in doing justice. Where every other chapter is rich in texts that take a deep dive on its context, significance, and meaning, the chapter about Jesus left this reader wanting. Mind you, there are several passages in the New Testament and explicitly the gospels that are referenced, however they are primarily relegated to parenthetical references. Obviously all Scripture is God breathed, and Generous Justice does an outstanding job of being biblically saturated, however it would have been beneficial to see more tangible examples of how Christ perfectly demonstrated justice in his earthly ministry.
Finally, Generous Justice is a book that every Christian should read, especially as they think through the social implications of their faith. This book serves as a great introduction to the topic of justice and the Christians role in doing justice. Tim Keller uniquely is able to speak with authority, biblical fidelity, and cultural awareness on the issue of justice and the nuances that come with it. Keller brings to the table a pastor’s heart and an incredibly balanced approach to the topic. Furthermore, Generous Justice is able to show how God’s concern for the oppressed is weaved throughout Scripture and is a primary concern for how his people engage in society. In a day and age where American Christianity at least has become overly individualistic and highly consumeristic, Generous Justice is an exceptional resource that turns the Christians gaze away from the self, and moves it toward “the other.”