It’s no secret that I’m against social justice as I’ve made clear in my writing. I continue to write about it because it is a pressing issue within the reformed Christian community. For that reason, I’m writing a series of posts evaluating Tim Keller’s Generous Justice. Keller is a prominent voice in this debate, and he exemplifies the best this movement offers.
Engaging Keller is dangerous as I’m wrestling someone above my weight class. He is a modern theological giant known for his precision and clarity. Despite this, his thinking on justice is at best muddied. As I will demonstrate in this series, his trademark precision is astonishingly absent in this book. As a major influencer in the reformed movement, Keller’s book spreads confusion about justice throughout evangelicalism.
With that in mind, let’s dive in. This post evaluates the introductory chapter of Generous Justice. I’ll start with the good things found in the introduction.
Keller affirms three truths in this chapter that I whole-heartedly endorse. First, he acknowledges that the gospel is different than social change. He rightly believes the gospel is primarily about atoning for sins and the granting of forgiveness through the work of Christ. This belief prevents him from endorsing the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch, which rejects the substitutionary death of Christ by replacing it with social activism. Keller notes many Christians who stressed fixing social ills eventually abandoned the gospel. I am grateful that Keller adheres to the gospel of Jesus Christi and that he draws this necessary distinction between it and seeking societal change.
Second, Keller also stresses the gospel impacts individual lives and society. Again I agree. Someone cannot truly believe the gospel and remain unchanged. As more and more people change, this impacts families, churches, and even societies. This influence isn’t the gospel, but it does flow from the gospel.
Third, Keller writes, “The Bible provides the very basis for justice” (xx). He affirms Scripture is our standard. Again, I enthusiastically agree, but I contend Keller doesn’t consistently follow the Bible’s teaching on justice. Nonetheless, it is good that he consciously attempts to place himself under the authority of Scripture.
The Bad: Inconsistent Definitions of Justice
Despite all the good in the introduction, Keller repeatedly stumbles in his definition of justice. This chapter is only an introduction, so Keller will further explain his beliefs throughout the book. Nonetheless, this chapter demonstrates the main problem of the book—Keller confuses what justice is and what it isn’t. He uses the term justice in at least four different ways without defining it. It is this sleight of hand which undermines the biblical definition of justice. The core debate over social justice is over defining the term justice. Because Keller doesn’t carefully define terms, we find muddied and unclear thinking. For example, in this chapter, Keller uses justice as synonymous with mercy, charity, righteousness, and traditional justice. By examining his usage of justice, we see how confusing it leaves Christians vulnerable to worldly thinking.
First, Keller uses the term justice as referring to mercy. Keller asserts, “There is a host of young Christians believers who respond with joy to call to care for the needy…As a pastor whose church is filled with young adults, I have seen this concern for social justice” (xiv).Does justice really include mercy? Keller argues so in the next chapter as well, and this is at the heart of the problem. Traditionally speaking, justice is giving someone what they are due, but mercy is giving someone good when they had no right to it. Keller collapses this distinction. When you do that, you lose both mercy and justice. This problem runs throughout his book. While Christians cannot oppose mercy, they must never confuse it with justice. For more on this point, see my article on Keller and Micah 6:8.
Second, Keller argues charity is a part of justice:
“In the minds of many orthodox Christians, therefore, ‘doing justice’ is inextricably linked with the loss of sound doctrine and spiritual dynamism. However Jonathan Edwards…was a staunch Calvinist and hardly anyone’s idea of a ‘liberal.’ Yet in his discourse n “The Duty of Charity to the Poor,” he concluded, ‘Where have we any command in the Bible laid down in stronger terms, and in a more peremptory urgent manner, than the command of giving to the poor?’” (xvi)
In this quote, Keller equates charity to justice. Charity, like mercy, is not about giving someone their due. Rather, it is showing kindness to those in need. This traditionally would not be listed under the category of justice, but Keller insists on redefining the categories of justice. He fails to realize his example backfires as Edwards calls giving to the poor charity and not justice. If Keller’s titled this book, Generous Charity or Generous Mercy, then I would have no problem with this chapter at all. Instead, he confuses these good things with justice, and in the process, he undermines them all.
Third, Keller uses justice as a reference to personal righteousness or virtue. He argues the Bible guides us “to live a just life” (xviii). Historically speaking, there is a category called universal (or primary) justice. This type of justice refers to the character of an individual—being a just man. This is someone’s status as righteous or virtuous. Here Keller uses the term that way, with no explanation of how his use of justice changed. Keller later admits the biblical word used for this category is normally translated as righteousness, which is a more accurate and useful term in this context. For example, I’m all for social righteousness, as I believe it is a far better term than social justice.
Fourth, Keller uses the term justice with its traditional meaning—giving someone his due. He admits, “I preached the classic message that God does not give us justice but saves us by free grace” ( xxiii). I’m glad he makes this distinction because it’s true. God does not give us our due, but he shows us mercy through his grace. The problem is, Keller uses justice in this chapter as a synonym for mercy. Mercy and grace overlap.
On the one hand, Keller says justice is giving mercy, but on the other hand, he contradicts himself by arguing God doesn’t give us justice (mercy?). This is the core problem—he confuses and muddies the definition of justice. It appears the term means whatever he wants as long as it helps his argument.
In this way, Keller oscillates back and forth between different definitions of justice without explaining those definitions. What is justice at its root? If it is mercy, then God’s mercy is a form of justice. But if justice is giving us what we have earned, then mercy, grace, and charity are different. This doesn’t make them less important than justice, but it does keep important definitional distinctives which preserve the gospel message—Jesus took the penalty we earned satisfying the justice of God and then offers us grace and mercy if we repent and believe.
Keller’s confusion of justice is dangerous as it opens the door for neo-Marxism to enter the church. We see this reality daily in the social justice movement. When mercy becomes something we can demand absent of a changed heart, then it is used in the most unmerciful ways. In this way, social justice demands mercy with sledgehammer-like precision. This problem manifests itself as identity politics, social justice, and intersectionality are endorsed under the banner of Christ.
Wherever the social gospel goes, the church loses the true gospel. While Keller affirms the true gospel, he undermines it by redefining justice. Definitions matter and ideas have consequences. I fear much of Keller’s ideas about justice are holdovers from his earlier life when neo-Marxism influenced his thinking (The Reason for God, xi-xiii). Those who follow the gospel cannot also follow Marx. This much is clear, we must serve God and not Marx.
Levi J. Secord