The Theological Problem With Tim Keller’s So-Called Social Justice

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The Church has begun to widely embrace so-called social justice, and much of it is thanks to Tim Keller’s book, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just

There are certainly a lot of good things in Keller’s book—the greatest of which is his call for the Church to pursue justice. However, I think Keller makes some grave mistakes when it comes to identifying what justice is, and how it should be pursued. This is most obvious in his discussion about the economic aspects of social justice (sometimes called “economic justice”).

The economic aspect of social justice typically consists of some sort of appeal to economic equality, where the sense of justice implied is that of alleviating economic needs. Keller expresses this view saying, “if you do not actively and generously share your resources with the poor, you are a robber. You are unjust.”1 (17) He makes a similar claim in his article, “The Gospel and the Poor,” saying, “To fail to share what you have is not just uncompassionate, but unfair, unjust.” (19-20)

Justice or Charity?

In today’s political climate, this kind of talk might smack of Marxism. But before assuming that Keller—and his fellow evangelical advocates of so-called social justice—are peddling Marxist notions, we ought to consider what else they might mean with this kind of language. One of Keller’s major rationales for using the language of “justice” rather than “charity” when talking about giving to the poor is that the word charity “conveys a good but optional activity” (Generous Justice, p. 15); and giving to the poor—Keller points out—is not an optional activity for the Christian.

Of course, Keller is right that giving to the poor is not optional for the Christian. Christians are indeed commanded to help the poor in order to set forth an image of the grace of God. But is this a good reason to refer to that act as “justice” rather than as “charity”? Is the mere fact that something is morally obligatory sufficient for changing its name to “justice”? Presumably not. There are dozens of things in the Christian life that are not optional (e.g., prayer, fellowship, communion with the saints, etc...), and yet it would be absurd to change the names of those activities to “justice” merely because they’re obligatory.

There is a traditional category of justice called universal justice which, according to Ronald Nash, “is coextensive with the whole of righteousness, with the whole of virtue” (Social Justice and the Christian Church, p. 30). So, one could say that charity is an expression of universal justice, which just means that charity is part of the moral life for the Christian. In this sense, the Christian’s failure to do what is morally obligatory (whether it be charity, prayer, or whatever) would be an injustice against God. But it’s clear that Keller means to say more than this in referring to aid to the poor as “justice.”

To Each According To His Need

He doesn’t merely mean that the failure to be charitable is an injustice against God, in the universal sense of justice. He means that it is an injustice against the poor. That’s why he calls it robbery. On this idea of justice, the extent to which someone is poor is the extent to which they have been robbed by those who are not poor. Need, and the obligation to alleviate it, is the suggested standard of justice.  

So it turns out that this idea of justice is rooted in Marxist notions after all—as expressed in that famous maxim, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Do you have resources that someone else needs? Then this view of justice demands that you give until the needs are met. If you don’t, you’re a robber.

Granted, Keller (pp.29-31)—and many other evangelical advocates of this idea of justice (e.g., see Greg Forster’s articles here and here)—are quick to note that they don’t necessarily advocate for government action in meting out this justice. Though it’s difficult to see why not, if it is in fact “robbery.” But we can go ahead and take them at their word, since the government’s involvement isn’t actually the main problem with this view. The main problem is the moral and theological implications of such a need-based, Marxist conception of justice.

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God—The Cosmic Greedy Thief

Step back and ask yourself what it would mean if we applied this idea of justice to God. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Isn’t God the most able being in all the universe? And aren’t we infinitely needy in respect to Him? Justice then would seem to demand that He give us everything we need.

Instead, He makes demands of us. He threatens to punish us if we’re evil, and He puts conditions on giving us the heaven that we need. But we’re needy, and on this view of justice, that gives us a just claim against Him. The extent to which He does not alleviate every one of our material and spiritual needs—without condition—is the extent to which He is robbing from us. We are the poor, innocent, needy victims—and He is the greedy cosmic thief, who refuses to give us what we need.

It will not do to say that this need-based idea of justice only applies to us, and not to God. The whole reason that Christians are supposed to give to the poor is to paint a picture of the grace—i.e. undeserved gifts—of God in the gospel. By calling charity “justice” and claiming that it is deserved, the implication is that God’s grace in the gospel is deserved. So, there can be no equivocation when discussing the justice of God and justice between us humans on the matter of giving to the poor.

Christianity teaches that God doesn’t owe us anything. This so-called social justice implies that God owes us everything. Christianity teaches that God graciously gives us undeserved good gifts. So-called social justice teaches that there can be no such concept as grace when needs are at stake; what one deserves is determined by one’s needs. Christianity teaches that it would be unjust for God to bring sinners into heaven, and that the death of His Son was required to make it just (Romans 3:23-25). So-called social justice implies that it would be unjust for God not to bring sinners into heaven, and that there was no need for the death of His Son—unless, of course, it was to pay for God’s sins against us.

Consider what this would mean for the work of Christ on the cross. Christ was not performing an unspeakable act of grace, leaving us speechless, humiliated, and worshipful. No. He was paying the debt He owed to us for His Divine privilege. We owe Him no thanks. He owes us thanks for deciding to forgive Him—so long as He bears fruit in keeping with repentance, and does not exalt Himself too highly again. We do not come to the cross, broken and contrite in heart, to worship. We come as haughty claimants to stand as judge over Him, and to assess whether His sacrifice was sufficient to assuage our just cause against Him.

The only appropriate Christian response to this is: To Hell with such blasphemy. To hell with the gospel of so-called social justice.

Redeeming Gospel Giving

Of course, Christian advocates of social justice would never say any of those things about God, Christ, or the gospel. But that doesn’t change the fact that their concept of justice demands that they be true. So-called Economic justice, understood as owing resources to the needy, turns the true God of the Bible—who very emphatically claims to owe us nothing—into a moral monster, and flips the gospel on its head. There’s no way around it.

If we don’t want to lie about the nature and character of God in our giving, then we must not lie about the giving. The cross of Christ was absolutely not an act of justice—to us. He was not giving us our due. Christ owed us nothing. God owed us nothing. No, the cross of Christ was a feat of staggering, undeserved, grace. Consider the fact that it must be received by faith alone, without works—without deserving it. To receive God’s gift in Christ, we must receive it as a gift—not as justice. Likewise with our giving.

To accurately picture God’s graciousness to us in the gospel through our giving, the one thing we must never do is claim that the recipient of the gift deserves it; that we are committing an act of justice to them in our giving. For the sake of the integrity of the gospel, gospel giving must never be thought of as justice. It’s not justice. It’s grace. It’s charity.

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Footnotes:

1 - Keller attempts to justify this claim by referencing Ezekiel 18:5-8, where “commits no robbery” is listed next to “gives his bread to the hungry” in a long list of descriptions of the righteous man. But there is no clear exegetical argument for taking the latter to be the means of doing the former, as Keller does. When one considers the theological problems with Keller's reading to be outlined below, it becomes clear that if an alternative reading is available (and I think there is), then it should be preferred.

Bachelor of Theology, Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. M.A. in Philosophy, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX.