Seven Biblical Principles for Justice

Earlier this month I wrote on the importance of understanding the different ways the Bible uses the term justice. The main uses for justice in Scripture are universal and particular justice. Universal justice refers to personal righteousness and moral uprightness. Particular justice refers to implementing justice in specific situations. Particular justice is what most people today mean when they speak of justice, but we must remember the Bible uses both definitions of justice.

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It is only by understanding these two different uses of justice that we can understand justice from God’s point view. This is why on the one-hand God calls us to defend the poor (Isa. 1.17) in a display of universal justice, and on the other hand, he commands us to not favor the poor in particular justice (Lev. 19.15). The Bible is not being contradictory; rather it is talking about two different types of justice. 

We must remember this distinction in justice as our society debates how to understand justice, specifically social justice. This discussion has naturally bled over into the church, where much of the reasoning has been sub-biblical precisely because we refuse to read the biblical terms on its own terms. This is chiefly displayed by people misunderstanding texts which speak about universal justice by forcing them in particular justice categories of laws, cases, and court decisions. When Christians do this our vision of justice looks more secular than biblical. 
As stated above, when most people talk about justice today they are referring to particular justice that is justice in individual scenarios.

Particular justice deals with implementing justice when an injustice has occurred (or at when an accusation has been made). The Bible gives us clear instruction on how to practice justice in individual cases and by doing so we can avoid perpetuating injustice. Only by seeing justice rooted in God and his word, will we be able to pursue actual justice as defined by God. 

Here are seven biblical principles for justice we desperately need to hear today:

Innocent Until Proven Otherwise

The American judicial system holds to the principle of “innocent until proven guilty’ which is borrowed from the biblical system of justice. In Deuteronomy 19.15 we are told, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” This command is not isolated as it is repeated as a core aspect of human justice throughout the Bible (Duet 17.6-7; Num. 35.30; Matt. 18.16; 1 Tim. 5.19; John 8.17; 2 Cor. 13.1).

The requirement for multiple witnesses entails a presumption of innocence. If one person accuses you, then you are still to be considered innocent. The fact there are protections for the accused ensures that proceedings will be just, and it also means you must prove that someone is guilty. You do not need to prove your innocence because that is already presumed. This does not mean the person is, in fact, innocent, but that we all start as innocent until we are proven to be guilty. Far too often when a person is accused of wrong-doing today there is a stampede to pass judgment on the spot with no thought to the case actually being proved. Such behavior does not further justice but undermines it. 

People Sometimes Lie

People lie, and we must remember that when making a judgment. This principle is tied to the need for multiple witnesses. It is far too easy for someone to lie either intentionally or unintentionally. Our world is broken into many warring factions, and sometimes a person will make an accusation against an innocent individual in order to advance his cause or to exact revenge. We need to look no further than the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife to realize that false accusations, when there are no proper protections in legal proceedings, can be used as a weapon against innocent parties (Genesis 39). This is only intensified when the liar feels justified to deceive because of personal injury or for the perceived good of a greater cause. We are reminded in the Ten Commandments that people will feel tempted to lie about their neighbors to get what they want, “Do not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20.16). If we want to pursue justice in a fallen world, then we cannot lose sight of the fallen nature of humanity when it comes to telling the truth. This is one of the hardest things when seeking the truth, trying to determine who is telling the truth and who is lying. 

Justice Requires Blindness to Who the Individual Is

The legal process is to be blind to the status of individuals. In both Exodus 23.3 and Leviticus 19.15 God tells us it is unjust to take into account who someone is when deciding what is true, right, and just. Exodus 23.3 says, “Do not show favoritism to a poor person in his lawsuit” and Leviticus 19.15 says, “You must not act unjustly when deciding a case. Do not be partial to the poor or give preference to the rich; judge your neighbor fairly.” It is a perversion of justice to pronounce judgments based someone being rich or poor; lowly or exalted; weak or powerful. Justice is about truth and righting wrongs, not about identity politics. Why? Because this is central to the very character of God—he shows no partiality (Rom. 2.11). 

We need to hear this clearly today—you cannot favor the rich or the poor, whites or minorities, the political left or the political right when it comes to issues of justice. The problem is social justice asserts exactly the opposite! As it is conceived of today, social justice argues justice can only be achieved by being partial to those who are “oppressed”. Social justice advocates already know how they are going to feel about the next scandal before it happens because they judge not on the specifics of the case but by an agenda driven by the identities who are involved. This is not justice; it is a perversion of justice. It is wicked. It is evil. It is opposed to the very character of God.  Social justice says we must show partiality in order to achieve justice, but God says you must never show partiality when seeking justice. There is a stark contrast between these two competing views of justice. Christians cannot pursue both. It is God’s definition of justice or the modern concept of social justice. 

Before Passing Judgement We Must Hear Both Sides

Proverbs 18.17 reminds us of another crucial principle of justice, “The first to state his case seems right until another comes and cross-examines him.” Ours is an age which thrives off of hot-takes, hashtag activism, and instant judgment. It is as if individuals can only be righteous if they pronounce judgment immediately online. If you fail to do so, then clearly you endorse evil and wickedness. In the wake of every tragedy our society openly displays its own foolishness by being slow to listen and quick to pass judgment. As Christians, we really need to check our hearts as to why we post what we do online. 

The Bible reminds us that the pursuit of justice means hearing both sides of the story. If we pass judgment after only hearing one side of the story, we are acting like fools who make a mockery of justice. This is not a sign of people who are interested in justice. How many times in the wake of a tragedy do we jump to conclusions and spout supposed “facts” to only find out later those facts were inaccurate or incomplete? We are far too quick to judge, and in the process, we mock the process of justice. 

Too many evangelical leaders have become the equivalent of online ambulance-chasers as every time a tragedy happens they rush to pronounce judgment before gathering all the facts. This is not the behavior of people who want justice. I cannot help but wonder if what they are actually pursuing are more likes and followers. Christians, if we want to be about justice, we need to be more patient before we pass judgment, especially online.

Don’t Join the Mob

Angry mobs often get justice wrong, particularly online. The pressure for our online denouncing of events is often done with an eye toward the online mob. Exodus 23.2 warns us, “You must not follow a crowd in wrongdoing. Do not testify in a lawsuit and go along with a crowd to pervert justice.” When everyone on Facebook has reached a verdict on the latest controversy, shouldn’t the church automatically join in to denounce it and thus maintain its influence and reputation? No. The importance of getting justice right far outweighs appeasing an angry mob which actually needs to be called to repentance.  

Part of the issue here is that we feel this need to distance ourselves from certain thoughts, actions, or groups associated with a certain evil. How better to do that than with 140 characters or less on social media? What we are actually doing is trying to prove our own righteousness by aligning our works to the standards of a worldly mob. 

Online self-righteousness is a pandemic in our age. Christians must display a better ethic by rejecting the mobs, and by pursuing truth and actual justice. Our righteousness will never be established by our online outrage, as it can only come from the blood of Christ. 

Now sometimes we know an evil has happened as soon as we hear about it. For example, when a man goes into a church and just starts shooting, the burden of evidence has been met. We know what he has done is evil, but we should display patience in judging what his motive was and how we should react. Justice demands we avoid the mentality of the mob as much as we can. 

An Eye for an Eye is Actually a Good Thing

“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” is an example of how easy it for people to completely miss the point of what the Bible teaches. This command by God is actually a good thing to practice when pursuing justice. This principle is not about personal revenge as it is sometimes thought; rather it is about punishments in the court of law. This principle does not endorse over-the-top punishments; rather, it outlaws them. In the ancient world punishments for crimes often far outweighed the crime itself. It was not uncommon for theft to be punished with death, but God’s law says the punishment must fit the crime. What God is describing is for punishment to be just it had to fit the severity of the crime. Here God forbids cruel and unusual punishment as unjust. Such a command surely would not leave the whole world blind but provides guidance on how to practice justice in the correct manner. 

Human Justice Will Only Ever be Human

Our society’s obsession with social justice points to its belief that justice instituted by governments, courts, and men can somehow right every wrong. A worldview which has no God searches for ultimate justice in the systems of men and thus it always comes back dissatisfied. When their search for ultimate justice inevitably fails, it brings greater frustration to those promoting social justice. Their frustration leads them to lobby for more power to enact what they think will be ultimate justice through the systems of men. Such a search for ultimate justice is not only doomed to fail but it will inevitably lead to an increase in wickedness because it relies on sinful men and not God. 

The reason God laid out checks and balances in human justice is precisely because man apart from God can never practice justice fully or perfectly. As Christians, we understand that no sin, no evil, will go unpunished in the end. While we want the courts and governments to get it right, we know that sometimes they won’t. This reminds us of our need for a perfect judge who executes perfect justice. This is only found in God who is perfectly holy and just. It is before this God that all the world stands condemned. It is only in the atoning sacrifice of Christ Jesus that we can be found just by the one who is the justifier (Rom. 3.26). Christians know that ultimate justice will come at the appointed time through God alone. So as we rightly seek some level of justice in this world, we always keep an eye on the final coming judgment of the whole world. 

Conclusion: Equality in Process, Not Outcome

A summary of the biblical idea of particular justice demonstrates that it revolves around equality in process, not in outcome. Justice demands outcomes will be different depending on the circumstances, but every person should be treated equally with fair processes. Christians must never make justice about age, race, income, or influence. When we do, we pervert justice and rebel against the very character of God. This is yet another reason why Christians must leave behind the common understanding and practice of social justice and return to what God has revealed to us about justice in his word. Justice is impartial and it is primarily concerned with righteousness and truth, not power and politics. 

Such justice can only be found fully in its source—the Lord God. If we want to be people who promote and pursue justice, then we need to open our Bibles more and tweet a little less.