Cutting Through The Obscurities on Justice — A Response to Tim Keller

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Tim Keller has finished his four-part series on justice and race, with the final article supposing to be an unpacking of the biblical view of justice. But I am concerned that his efforts will result in less clarity, rather than more, for Christians who earnestly want to cultivate and carry out a biblical view of justice in society. 

Let me begin by emphasizing that I agree with Keller on the radical importance of getting justice right, both in theory and in practice—especially as the Church. In addition to playing a crucial role in our theology (especially concerning the gospel), justice is absolutely essential for a civil society. There is much at stake in getting it wrong—likely, much more than any one of us may realize. Thus my deep concern over what appears to be a highly confused treatment of the topic by Keller. 

There are a number of obfuscating aspects to Keller’s approach which I will briefly outline and address before moving on to what I intend to be the primary focus of this article: a positive and clear construction of both the theory and practice of justice, which aims to integrate Keller’s various biblical concerns. 

The Obscurities

Keller begins his article with a reference to his previous piece which contrasted biblical justice with other secular views, noting that the Christian approach “should not ignore any of the rightful concerns that they raise, but also should not wholly align themselves with any of them.” This conviction, that the Christian view of justice ought to accommodate aspects of various non-Christian views while remaining distinct from each, seems to drive Keller’s method throughout. But this seems backward, and leads to quite a bit of confusion. 

What if a given secular view of justice doesn’t have anything going for it in terms of “rightful concerns”? Or what if there are one or two secular views of justice which have 80-90% overlap with the Christian view—should we artificially jettison much of that overlap in order to be equally overlapping with all secular views, so as to be sure we aren’t being partial to any? Is the Christian view of justice to be determined by equal parts being mixed together by all non-Christian views? I don’t think Keller would answer in the affirmative, but these are the questions raised by his general method. Wouldn’t it be better to simply set aside all the competing views of justice, in order to first establish what the Christian view of justice ought to be, on it’s own terms—and then let the possible overlap with competing views (if there is any) fall where it may? 

The second major difficulty with Keller’s approach is that, where he does attempt to set forth a positive vision of the Christian view of justice (i.e., rather than merely contrasting it with other views), it is difficult to describe what he sets forth as a singular vision. Rather, it is more of a hodge-podge of various, and seemingly competing, concerns taken from throughout the biblical text and presented to the reader as “part” of biblical justice—with little to no indication as to how the sundry parts are meant to be integrated into a coherent whole. This leads to a number of apparent contradictions which Keller seems to expect the reader to resolve. 

For instance, Keller says, “theft is always an injustice,” but then in the very next sentence he continues, “yet…these property rights are not absolute.” Well which is it? Theft just is the violation of property rights. If it is always an injustice, then property rights are absolute. If property rights are not absolute, then theft is not always an injustice. Such paradoxical constructs are found throughout Keller’s work on the topic of justice, making it nearly impossible to say with certainty what Keller’s entire view really is, or how it ought to be cashed out in any given situation. 

Don’t get me wrong. I do thank Keller for the helpful catalog of things the Bible has to say about justice, and other related topics. But what the Church needs is an integration of all of those teachings into a coherent (non-contradictory) whole. We need to be able to identify the fundamental principles and how they relate to each other, and then make sense of the various biblical commands in a way which coheres with, rather than contradicts, those principles. 

To use Keller’s apparent contradiction from above as just one example, we need to know whether theft really is always an injustice (and thus whether property rights are, in fact, absolute)—and then we need to be able to understand the biblical commands which made Keller think otherwise, such that they are consistent with that principle of theft always being an injustice (assuming that it is). 


The Positive Construction

The rest of this article will be my attempt to begin the positive construction of that integration project. I stress that it is a beginning because it would be impossible to handle every possible objection, every controversial application, and every “difficult passage” in a single article. I do hope, however, to set a foundation and framework of certain category distinctions which can be applied to those various problems as needed. 

To begin, I would like to point out that Keller has helpfully drawn our attention to a number of important biblical concerns surrounding the topic of justice. These include, but are not limited to the following: Theft is an injustice; God often commands us to give to and help the poor; we are ultimately mere stewards of God’s creation, and we owe everything we have to Him; God is particularly concerned about justice for those who are more likely to be victims of injustice, and He calls us to be particularly concerned in like fashion; we are ultimately responsible to God for our own sins; the sins of others can and often do have terrible consequences for those who are otherwise innocent of those sins; and there is a sense in which whole communities can be responsible for certain sins. Our challenge is to develop a framework for understanding and integrating these things such that they can all be true without contradiction. 


What is Justice?

I appreciate that Keller began his fourth article emphasizing the divine roots of justice. The God of the Bible is most emphatically a God of justice, and it is therefore impossible to get justice wrong without ultimately getting God wrong. So let us first consider what justice is and how it is manifest in the character of God before moving on to other matters of application.

As Keller notes in his article, the most basic and classical definition of justice is “getting or giving what is due.” But this definition immediately demands the crucial question: how do we determine what is due? Note also that there is the additional implied question of “due from, or to, whom?” This is where the controversy, and confusion, ensues. But let us stick to God as the fount of justice in order to achieve clarity. What does God say is due to Him, and what does He say He owes to others? Or, to be more specific, how does God determine what is due to Him from others, and what is due from Him to others? What is the metric which determines what is due, in God’s eyes, both to Him and from Him? 

As I pointed out in this article, there are typically two basic alternatives for determining what is due from whom and to whom. One is based on need: “From each according to their ability, and to each according to their need.” The other is based on merit, or agent causation (see the article for further elaboration). Which of these aligns with God’s view of justice? The biblical answer is unequivocally: merit

God is owed all worship and praise because He deserves it; He merits it. And God does not owe anything (positively) to His creatures, because they do not merit anything from Him. No creature has a just claim before God such that he could demand anything from God as justice based merely on his own person or being.

The picture gets quite a bit bleaker when we add in the factor of sin. Sin is the failure of a creature to give God His due; it is an injustice against God. And God, being perfectly just, cannot abide such an injustice against Himself. Therefore, the justice of God demands a punishment against such sin, and this punishment is considered an act of justice because it is merited (“the wages of sin is death”). 

When it comes to the question of what God is owed, and of what God owes to others (both positively and negatively), the biblical answer is that it is determined by merit. God’s justice is ferociously merit-based. 

Moreover, consider what would happen if this merit-based model of justice were swapped out for the now en vogue model of justice being based on needs. If need, rather than merit, determined what one was due, then God would not have anything due to Him because He does not need anything. Sin would not be an injustice against God. There cannot be such a thing as injustice against one who does not have anything owed to him as his due. And what would God owe to us? The list would literally be infinite, because our need in respect to His ability to satisfy it is infinite. The only injustice between us and God would be God’s failure or refusal to give us all that we need. 

Of course, this is quite contrary to the God of the Bible, who condemns us to eternal wrath, rather than giving us what we need, because we have failed to give Him the worship He is due. If we get justice wrong, by basing it on needs rather than on merit, we will get the God of the Bible wrong, and end up turning the God of the Bible into a moral monster. 

So we now have a basic and general theory of justice, rooted in the God of the Bible. Justice is getting what is due from those who owe it, or giving what is due to those to whom it is owed. And rightful ownership (to whom what is owed) is determined by merit, not by need.


Justice & Charity

We are now ready to begin analyzing the various biblical concerns Keller mentions in order to see how they fit together under this biblical concept of merit-based justice. To begin, it seems pretty straight-forward that theft is always an injustice and property rights are therefore absolute. We not only have the command, “do not steal,” in the decalogue; we also have the principle that justice is getting what one is due. If a given piece of property, whatever it may be, rightfully belongs to a person, then the theft of that property—regardless of the motive—is necessarily an injustice. 

But how does this square with the fact that God often commands us to give to the poor and needy—or even more puzzling, that the failure to give to the poor could be considered an injustice? The answer lies in recalling the fact that justice always involves two major parties: the one to whom something is due, and the one from whom it is due. In our discussion above, this was fairly clear-cut because there were only two parties to speak of: God and ourselves. Now we have three apparent parties (God, ourselves, and the poor) and the confusion comes from our failure to clearly identify which party is which in the transaction of justice. 

So let’s get it straight. When God commands that we give to the poor, and we obey, to whom is justice being given (who is receiving their rightful due)? God, or the poor man? 

Or, put it this way: does the poor man have a rightful (just) claim against you for the things he needs because he needs them? If you answer “yes,” then you are answering on the premise of the need-based theory of justice, which we saw above has terrible consequences for the rest of our theology. Moreover, if you answered “yes,” it would seem impossible for the concept of private property to have any meaning—since there would always be people who need (and therefore have a just claim on) what you have. 

The answer must be, “No, the poor man does not have a just claim against you for the things he needs.” How then can it be an act of justice, on your part, to give him what he needs? Or, how can it be an act of injustice, on your part, to refuse to give him what he needs? The answer is in that third party: God. It is not the poor to whom you owe the obedience of giving, but to God. God ultimately owns (has a just claim upon) all that you have. Therefore, when He tells you to do something with what you have, it is an act of justice to obey Him—and an act of injustice to disobey Him. That His command happens to involve another person is irrelevant to the nature of the justice being carried out. If God commanded you to burn all your money, it would be justice to obey, and injustice to disobey. To whom is justice being given in such obedience, and against whom is injustice being committed in such disobedience? Answer: God. So it is when God commands you to give to the poor. The justice or injustice of the act is entirely vertical—between you and God; not horizontal—between you and the other person. 

The nature of the horizontal relationship between you and the person to whom God has commanded you to give is not justice, but charity. It is the same act—giving to the poor—but it necessarily involves three parties, and it matters that we get the relationships between those parties right. The singular act of giving to the poor when God has commanded it is an act of justice toward God, and an act of charity toward the poor. It is an action which is owed to God, and which is not owed to the poor. It is an action which God deserves from you, but which the poor do not deserve from you. 

Do not allow yourself to shrink back from this truth out of squeamishness, because you are afraid to allow yourself to think that the poor do not deserve something from you. Remind yourself of the reason God commands us to give to the poor to begin with, which is to paint a living picture of His undeserved grace. When God commands us to give to the poor, it is not about us, and it is not about the poor. It is about God. Therefore, don’t allow yourself to lie about Him, even in your heart, as you contemplate the nature of the action you are carrying out, and how it does, and does not, pertain to justice. 

After establishing these important distinctions between justice and charity, even as they might pertain to the same action, we are still left with the question of what God actually commands of us when it comes to giving to the poor. There is a tendency among many evangelicals—even those who would consider themselves on the conservative side of things—to think that the only moral justification for making money is to potentially give it away to the poor. Or, put another way, many believe that God’s command to give to the poor is the only or ultimate command given by God regarding our money. But this overlooks many other things God expects us to do with our money; e.g., taking care of our own families, contributing to the expansion of His kingdom, and pursuing God-glorifying excellency in our vocations. I won’t attempt a systematic treatment of the topic here, but it’s important to note that we need such a systematic treatment of the topic, rather than simplistically assuming that charitable giving is the only or primary godly use of our money. 

I will, however, point out that there are at least two instances in Scripture where God does not want money to be given to the poor. One is in 2 Thessalonians 3: “if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat.” The other is in Matthew 26, when the woman pours out the costly perfume to honor Jesus, and Jesus rebukes His disciples for complaining that the money hadn’t been given to the poor. I don’t point these instances out in order to argue against giving to the poor, or even to suggest some systematic understanding of when we should and should not give to the poor. I simply point them out in order to demonstrate that there are times that we shouldn’t give to the poor, in addition to there clearly being times that we should; and also to once again stress the importance of developing a fully orbed theology of how God desires for us to use our money in general.


Special Concern for Victims of Injustice

Keller mentions another biblical aspect of justice which I am afraid he, and many others, are getting almost backwards in their application of it to the contemporary context. That is the biblical emphasis on having a special concern for victims of injustice, and advocating for justice on their behalf. Here is it not the principle (having a special concern for victims of injustice) which Keller gets wrong, but the application: He misidentifies where injustice is most consistently overlooked in our culture. 

While it has certainly been true in the past that society, as a whole, and the justice and legal systems, in particular, have been prone to ignore justice for the poor, in favor of justice for the rich, it is very difficult to argue that that is the case in modern-day America. One could present many other biblical reasons that we ought to have a special concern for the poor, but it is not true that injustice against the poor is more likely to be overlooked by today’s society or justice system. 

For those who might be tempted to immediately and strongly disagree, I will remind you of the nature of justice. Justice is not getting what you need. It is getting what you deserve, what you have merited. And injustice is not the lack of what you need. Injustice is not receiving what you deserve (or receiving some bad thing that you did not deserve). I will also remind you that Keller, himself, notes that the main Hebrew word for “the poor” has a root meaning which is to be brought low by force. Having a lowly status, as such, is not an injustice. The use of force in lowering one’s status is

With those reminders in mind, I will ask you: What group of people are most prone to be victims of actual injustice in today’s society, such that the culture, at large, would turn a blind eye to the injustice? Answer: The rich—or, to be more precise, the businessmen. Not all businessmen are rich, but they are all subject to the same kinds of systemic injustices which are not only ignored, but often applauded by our cultural institutions (including, shamefully, the Church), and the degree of their relative success (i.e., the degree to which they are even perceived of as “rich”) is the degree of their susceptibility to such culturally approved injustice. 

Our legal and tax system is replete with injustices which specifically target businessmen, and especially those who manage to get rich from their businesses. The most blatant example of this is the so-called “progressive” income tax, which literally uses unequal “weights and measure” (i.e., tax-rates) based on one’s income. It is explicit partiality against “the rich,” and our culture—including many within the church—applaud it as justice. There are countless other such examples which could be cited, but nowhere do you see explicit partiality against the poor in the legal system—and if you did, you can bet that our cultural institutions would be up in arms over it immediately. 

I don’t say this to dismiss injustices against the poor, or to claim that they don’t exist. They surely do. And we in the Church ought to advocate against actual injustice wherever it may be found. But if we are to have an emphasis in our advocacy for those in society for whom justice is most likely to go overlooked, then in the modern American context, that emphasis should be for the businessmen and the rich. 


Individual & Collective Responsibility

Finally, I would like to address the issue of individual and collective (or “corporate”) responsibility when it comes to societal injustices. Again, this is not meant to be a thorough treatment of the topic. I intend only to submit what I believe to be a helpful and needed framework for clarifying the contours of the issue. 

It is often assumed that we, who oppose the modern social justice movement in the Church, do not allow for any sense of collective responsibility when it comes to societal injustices. But this is not entirely true. It is not that we question the validity of the concept of collective responsibility, but rather that we question the validity of how it is often applied to the various issues pushed by the social justice movement. 

To be more specific, there are two major objections to the way the concept of collective responsibility is utilized today. The first objection is that, in many instances, the thing being called a societal injustice does not seem to actually be an instance of injustice—if we are utilizing the above referenced biblical criteria for understanding justice. The second objection is that the social justice movement seems to be rather arbitrary in the way it classifies certain aspects of collective responsibility. To flesh out these objections, it would be helpful to cite some examples of collective responsibility for societal injustices which we would affirm as legitimate, in order to contrast these against some of the popular claims of contemporary social justice. 

There are two major historical examples of actual societal injustice which we would refer to as “systemic” and which we would affirm carried elements of collective responsibility. Importantly, both examples are also closely tied to the sin of racism, just as many of the current claims are supposed to be tied to racism. They are chattel slavery and Jim Crown laws. In both instances, the government was clearly and officially exercising racial partiality. Because the government is the system of force and justice in society, these were indeed “systemic” injustices (as well as “systemic” racism). And to the extent that men and women who were aware of these injustices did not oppose the injustices, they could rightfully be seen as complicit in those injustices.1 And here’s the important note: Their relative complicity does not rely upon their “benefiting” from the system, or not. We are not only called to oppose injustice when the injustice benefits us. We are called to oppose injustice, whether it benefits us or not. 

Note that in both of these examples, the injustice in question is an actual injustice, according to the biblical, merit-based view of justice established above—rather than being merely an apparent injustice based on the mere fact that certain needs are not being met. Note also that collective responsibility is not about some nebulous class status and the supposed “advantages” awarded to that class relative to other classes. The collective responsibility of being complicit in the injustice is tied to the individual, in that it is based on the individual’s knowledge of the injustice and his choice not to oppose the injustice once he is aware of it. 

I’ll add that there is at least one further way that an individual could be complicit in some societal injustice even without having direct knowledge of the injustice: If he has adopted some evil belief or mindset which would necessarily blind him to the injustice. For instance, if he believes that there is no such thing as objective morality, or objective knowledge, and this leads him to discount the concept of justice altogether, he would very likely be complicit through his failure to oppose serious societal injustices of which he would otherwise be aware, apart from such an evil idea as moral or epistemological relativism. 

But then contrast all of this with the supposed collective responsibility preached by contemporary advocates of “social justice.”2 Such advocates have an appearance of following the above pattern, but with their own twisted inversions. Typically, there is very little legitimate evidence that the supposed injustice is actually an injustice. That is because they focus on outcomes, rather than the process. They do not care if equal weights and measures have been used—only if equal outcomes (as they define it) have been achieved. And if equal outcomes have not been achieved, then it is automatically assumed that unequal weights and measures have been applied. 

Then, when it comes to collective responsibility, the advocates of social justice define the collective who is responsible, not by moral categories of knowledge and choice, but by arbitrary and often unchosen categories of class, race, etc… This is because they often implicitly assume a sort of social determinism, where one’s character and moral status are determined by one’s social class, such that the individual things like knowledge and choice become irrelevant. It is also because their view of justice, being based on outcomes and need, is fixated on things like “advantage” and “disadvantage,” which can only be approximated by looking at the general differences between various social classes. 

Finally, social justice advocates have a similar category for being complicit in the supposed injustices apart from knowledge of the injustices, but their rationale is the exact opposite. It is not a complicity which comes from an embrace of moral or epistemological relativism. It’s a complicity which comes from the rejection of such relativism. One is complicit in the injustice, they’ll typically imply, to the extent that one wants to deal with facts, coherent definitions, and objective reality. The way to escape the complicity, they say, is to reject all of that for an emotional and subjective relativism which passively “listens” to the complaints of supposed “victims” without ever questioning whether they are in fact victims of injustice. Such relativism and subjectivity may sound nice and sentimental, but it is necessarily antithetical to any biblical concern for actual justice. 



Keller, and many of the contemporary advocates of social justice, are right to draw our attention to the deep significance of justice, and the crucial need for Christians, especially, to be advocates of justice in society. But this general and vague concern for justice, per se, is about as far as we can follow them if our goal is to accurately understand and seek justice in a way that coheres with, rather than contradicts, our biblical worldview. When it comes to defining justice, integrating it with other biblical concepts like charity, and applying it to the social sphere, the advocates of social justice get it almost exactly backwards every step of the way (and Keller seems either to generally agree with them, or to obscure the issue so badly that it is impossible to know whether he agrees or not). In a very real and tragic sense, the self-proclaimed advocates of social justice have become the greatest advocates of societal injustice. 

They pervert the very concept of justice in a way which will necessarily pervert our concept of the character of God, and of the gospel. This perversion results in them calling that which is unjust “just” and calling that which is just “unjust.” This is true when it comes to economic issues of justice and when it comes to racial issues of justice. They call theft “justice” and property rights “injustice.” They call racial partiality “anti-racism” and the refusal to engage in racial partiality “racism.” Then, as if to cement and seal their error, they preach a dogmatic and militant moral and epistemological relativism which self-righteously condemns those who do not mindlessly bow to it. 

The Church absolutely must be a beacon for justice in the world. Therefore, the Church must oppose the contemporary social justice movement as one of the greatest ideological threats against true justice in our lifetime. 



  1. There are a number of potential factors to consider when discussing such complicity. How much did they know about the specific laws? How clear was is it that an injustice was taking place? What were the reasonable means they could have undertaken to oppose the injustice? Etc…
  2. I’m not necessarily referencing Keller here. His latest article is too ambiguous on much of this. He attempts to straddle so many apparent dichotomies without explicitly showing how they are not dichotomies (in his mind), that almost any side could come away thinking “Keller agrees with me.”


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