In his book, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, Dr. Tim Keller writes about a topic that is clearly dear to his heart: how we as Christians are to treat the poor and vulnerable in the world around us. I appreciate Dr. Keller’s desire to remind us all of the importance of generosity in the life of a believer. Christians should always have tender hearts towards those around us and a willingness to help others. Considering all that God has done for us, especially through the death and resurrection of Christ, how can we not be moved by the needs of others?
While I agree with Dr. Keller that generosity towards the poor and vulnerable is something Christians should be quick to pursue, I have serious concerns about Generous Justice. From the basic premise to the various applications, there is much about this book that concerns me.
To begin with, the main thesis of Generous Justice is that God’s grace makes Christians just:
A life poured out in doing justice for the poor is the inevitable sign of any real, true gospel faith (120).
Dr. Keller really works hard to drive this point home:
If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn’t live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God’s grace, but in his heart he is far from him. If he doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced, and at worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just (68).
I have three concerns with his premise. First, it seems to me that the basic premise, that grace makes us just, is based on a weak analogy. Grace is God’s unmerited favor. We do nothing to deserve it. Justice is, according to Keller’s definition, “giving people exactly what they do deserve” (43). Dr. Keller’s argument is that receiving what we do not deserve will make us give people what they do deserve. This is logically a very weak analogy. It can certainly be argued, and it has been by others, that because we have received God’s grace and mercy, we should treat others with grace and mercy. But to argue that we should give people what they deserve because we have not gotten what we deserve is an odd argument. The one does not flow from the other.
Second, Dr. Keller does not simply say that grace makes us just. He goes on to say that “[i]f you are not just, you’ve not truly been justified by faith” (71). He makes it clear that being just or doing justice is the sign that a person has been saved. While there certainly must be evidence of our faith in our lives, is Dr. Keller correct that justice is the fruit of the Spirit? If there is one thing that all Christians must have to demonstrate their faith, wouldn’t it be a heart that worships God and seeks to serve Him in all things?Is it right to use any other fruit to measure the authenticity of a believer’s profession of faith? Galatians says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Besides the fact that justice isn’t on this list, would it be appropriate to use any one of these fruits, or the lack thereof, to determine if a person really is a Christian?
Dr. Keller, then, appeals to James to support his claim that justice, as he defines it, is the evidence of justification:
However, James does not merely say that true faith will change one’s life in general. He goes on to describe the “works” that he says always accompany a living, justifying faith. If you look at someone without adequate resources and do nothing about it, James teaches, your faith is “dead,” it is not really saving faith. So what are the “works” he is talking about? He is saying that a life poured out in deeds of service to the poor is the inevitable sign of any real, true, justify, gospel-faith. Grace makes you just. If you are not just, you’ve not truly been justified by faith (71).
Interestingly, James 2 gives the examples of Abraham sacrificing Issac and Rahab receiving and protecting the Israelite spies as works that illustrate justifying faith. Neither example have anything to do with justice. This is not to say that having a heart for the poor or mercy ministries is not a fruit of the Spirit. I just don’t believe that there is good Scriptural support to say it is the fruit of the Spirit.
Third, even if we grant that doing justice is a fruit of the Spirit, Dr. Keller seems to be missing a crucial component in the life of a Christian, namely the process of sanctification. As every Christian is painfully aware, our lives are characterized by the struggle against what we should do and what we actually do. Paul expressed this struggle very clearly in Romans 7:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
By God’s grace, His Spirit works in us to complete the good work that He started in us. But it is a life-long process and not an on/off switch. While I am certain that Dr. Keller understands sanctification, his book does not address the sometimes more/ sometimes less aspect of Christian behavior. At one point, Dr. Keller writes, “Paul taught that if you receive God’s acceptance and blessing as a free gift through Jesus Christ, then you can and will live as you ought”(70.) This just does not seem to sync with Paul’s description of his own struggles. The real danger here is Dr. Keller’s insistence that a lack of justice means a lack of justification. None of us live as we ought, and all of us know we must daily (or hourly) repent and ask for forgiveness. Some recognition of the reality of Christian life is necessary in order to prevent unnecessary doubt or lack of assurance.
Another concern I have is about Dr. Keller’s description of what justice is. Dr. Keller defines justice as giving others exactly what they deserve (43). As people who have received grace and not justice from God, we ought to be careful in appealing to justice. Justice, especially God’s justice, is a fearsome thing. While it is true that justice can include good things that people owe each other, it also includes the punishments owed for the bad things people do. Dr. Keller’s view of justice does not address the latter (probably because he understands rightly that the ultimate punishment of evil-doing is God’s to do). It seems to me that we should tread carefully in seeking something that is clearly God’s domain and not ours. We are on much safer ground when we speak of the mercy, grace, and charity we should show to others.
Related to this, Dr. Keller has a very strong reaction against using mercy, grace, or charity as descriptors of how we are to treat others:
In English, however, the word “charity” conveys a good but optional activity. Charity cannot be a requirement, for then it would not be charity. But this view does not fit in with the strength or balance of Biblical teaching (24).
In Dr. Keller’s view, mercy or charity are not nearly as important as justice:
Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat (18). (emphasis added)
Our righteousness is directly linked to our justice, not to the mercy or charity we show:
To not “share his bread” and his assets with the poor would be unrighteousness, a sin against God, and therefore by definition a violation of God’s justice (24).
This seems to me to be a misunderstanding of the grace of God. God’s justice is not greater than His grace or mercy. His grace and mercy always go well beyond what is owed to us. Where justice can be defined and measured – “here is what you owe,” – grace and mercy have no limits. While we should certainly be careful not to cheat people or to deny them their rights, shouldn’t we concern ourselves more with showing others the same mercy and grace that we have received?
My next concern with Generous Justice is the very specific applications that Dr. Keller gives for doing justice. While he addresses both sides of the political spectrum and offers a brief critique of the shortcomings of each, his practical application of doing justice is not as politically neutral as he suggests. Here are some of Dr. Keller’s specific examples of how to do justice:
Doing justice includes not only the righting of wrongs, but generosity and social concern, especially toward the poor and vulnerable. This kind of life reflects the character of God. It consists of a broad range of activities, from simple fair and honest dealings with people in daily life, to regular radically generous giving of your time and resources, to activism that seeks to end particular forms of injustice, violence, and oppression (25).
In our world, this could mean prosecuting the men who batter, exploit, and rob poor women. But it could also mean Christians respectfully putting pressure on a local police department until they respond to calls and crimes as quickly in the poor part of town as in the prosperous part. Another example would be to form an organization that both prosecutes and seeks against loan companies that prey on the poor and the elderly with dishonest and exploitive practices (22).
Rather – to put this in a more modern context – he (Jesus) is saying that we should spend far more of our money and wealth on the poor than we do on our own entertainments, or on vacations, or on eating out and socializing with important peers (42).
One way many Christians seek to do justice in their daily life and work is by paying attention to the sources of the products they consume. … Christians who want to support justice in the world may wish to patronize some companies over others (135).
While any Christian is free to pursue any or all of these, the problem comes because of the logic of the book. If Christians are to measure their justification based on whether or not they do justice, then it is important to note what Dr. Keller means by “doing justice.” It isn’t enough, according to Dr. Keller, not to steal, not to cheat, and to give generously:
Doing justice, then, requires constant, sustained reflection and circumspection. If you are a Christian, and you refrain from committing adultery or using profanity or missing church, but you don’t do the hard work of thinking through how to do justice in every area of life – you are failing to live justly and righteously (78).
People changed by grace should go, as it were, on a permanent fast. Self-indulgence and materialism should be given up and replaced by a sacrificial lifestyle of giving to those in need. They should spend not only their money but “themselves” on others. What is this permanent fasting? It is to work against injustice, to share food, clothing, and home with the hungry and the homeless. That is the real proof that you believe your sins have been atoned for, and that you have truly been humbled by that knowledge and are now living a life submitted to God and shaped by knowledge of him (69).
That last quote really encapsulates my concern with the book. According to Dr. Keller, if you are a Christian, you will do justice, as he has described it, and if you don’t, then you aren’t really a Christian. There are other things about his book that I have trouble with. For example, he believes that Christians who prefer to do evangelism and individual social work instead of justice as he defines it are naïve (86). But my greatest concern is that Christians who read the book will be left with a burdensome list of rules to follow and a growing lack of assurance in their own salvation.
8 thoughts on “Generous Justice?”
As to Keller’s reading of James, I think that one of the best short articles I’ve read that gives good examples of what that means (although not quite as modern, hip, or trendy) would be Malachi 🙂
You didn’t mention this passage from James 2, which seems to make Keller’s point. Every commentary I’ve looked at says that James is teaching that helping the needy is a sign of justifying faith–
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
Joe~ actually I did address that part of James 2. I have absolutely no problem with helping the poor as A sign of faith. My concern with Dr. Keller’s use of James 2 is that he says that “a life poured out in deeds of service to the poor is THE inevitable sign of any real, true, justify, gospel-faith.” (emphasis added).
Here is what I wrote about that:
I appreciate this Rachel. I would add a concern about Keller’s view on those believers who are in financial difficulty or those whose health or mental capability hinders their ability to act in the ways he lays out. It seems a very narrow focus and in no way addresses the great many Biblical teachings on suffering or the temporary nature of this current world. I haven’t read the book, perhaps he addressed these issues. Either way, his view-point raises many concerns when you begin to flesh it out, does it not? Well done.
Then there’s always the discussion about what James meant by ‘brother or sister’. While it could be actual physical family, it most likely has a broader meaning. Does it mean a brother or sister in Christ- caring within the body? Or, is it even further- a ‘who is my brother’ type of application?
What is enough to determine I am doing ‘justice’? Does it need to look like Sister Theresa? Do I become a monk and denounce all worldly goods? What type of housing should I choose, what car, what clothing? Do I save for retirement or live ‘on faith’ (so that I possibly become a charity case for my family!)? Who is my judge in these matters?
These teachings tread a very close line to the old Church of Christ doctrines of works/salvation and faith.
Because today’s culture is one of both ‘health/wealth gospel and ‘easy believe-ism’ as well as a culture that is abandoning orthodoxy for social gospel and PC stances, it is critical that there is clarity in what is being taught here.
Hi Rachel —
I can’t imagine Keller is saying that helping the poor is the only fruit of the Spirit or the only or main sign of saving faith. The word ‘the’ doesn’t have to mean ‘the only’. If he put the word ‘the’ in italics or if he underlined it, then you could assume he means ‘the only.’ I have his teaching on the Fruit of the Spirit (it’s in his Galatians Bible Study, available on the Redeemer website) and he says nothing about helping the poor being a superior fruit to any other.
Joe~ Have you read Generous Justice? Dr. Keller says at least 18 different times that doing justice is the inevitable sign of a person who has been saved by God’s grace. It really is the whole point of the book.
Here are a couple of those quotes:
James is comparing the absurdity of saying to someone who is “without clothes and daily food” to “go in peace; keep warm and well fed”, with the absurdity of saying “I have faith” and then not living as if you do. While helping the needy is something we as Christians should desire to do, (and despite numerous commentaries to the contrary), James is not making the point that helping the needy is the sign of faith. His point is much more profound than that. For example; what does the NT say about why Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son? The OT illustrates (with good and bad examples) what James is talking about here over and over. P.S. Malachi is a good short read to illustrate the point of this passage.