In chapter 3, Keller examines what Jesus says about justice. This chapter is much better than the previous one which is the low-point of Keller’s work because of his indefensible defense of wealth redistribution. Even though chapter 3 is better, that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems, but that many of these problems are repeats of error already covered. Overall, Keller gets many things correct in this chapter, like Jesus caring for the poor, but caring for the poor is mercy, not justice.
Before offering some critiques, I must acknowledge what Keller gets right in this chapter. Keller rightly recognizes Jesus ate with both the rich and the poor as he met with people from all parts of society. Unfortunately, this truth is often ignored by those advocating for social justice. Jesus visited the rich and powerful as well as the poor and vulnerable. Also, Keller stresses that Christians should care for the poor. I know of no Christian who disagrees with this, but again mercy isn’t justice. Keller is also correct when he admits the Christian responsibility to charity is primarily directed within the community of faith (61). This does not exclude caring for unbelievers, but Christians have a higher obligation to our brothers and sisters in Christ. I appreciate all of these points made by Keller.
While there is much good in this chapter, there were also some errors which deserve our attention. I explore three of those errors below.
Who Are the Blessed Poor?
Keller speaks of God’s affinity for the poor, but does this affinity include all poor people without exception? When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk. 6:20), does that all poor people will inherit the Kingdom? If so, then isn’t salvation in some way based on works? Of course not, so we must admit that Jesus isn’t referring to all poor people. Instead, we must recognize the Bible often uses the term poor figuratively to refer to those who are humble in spirit before God. This is why Matthew clarifies the poor as those who are “poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3).
So why use the term poor? Because poverty often is linked to spiritual humility, there is significant overlap between physical poverty and humility. Conversely, there is significant overlap between wealth and pride. The poor Jesus is speaking about are those who are sometimes called the pious poor, that is those whose poverty drives them to have faith in God. God’s disposition to the poor is not about their financial status, but a recognition of their humble faith and dependence which often accompanies their poverty. There is a righteous way to be poor, and there are also wicked ways to be poor. The same is true about the wealthy. God’s disposition to the poor is not universal as it has more to do with the internal realities of some poor people. Physical poverty does not grant entrance to heaven, but spiritual poverty is because being poor in spirit requires recognizing your sinfulness before God. Everyone who is truly poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom of God no matter their balance in their bank account.
Why Did Jesus Heal?
Keller also references an exchange between and John the Baptist’s disciples where they ask Jesus if he is the Messiah. He responds:
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them (Matt. 11:4-5).
Keller argues this is an example of how Jesus had a “particular interest” in the poor and downtrodden as displayed in his miracles, but this begs the questions, “What is the purpose of Jesus’s miracles?” No one can deny Jesus was merciful and compassionate to those suffering. Such actions display his glorious character as the savior of mankind, but this still doesn’t answer why Jesus performed miracles.
The purpose of the miracles is to reveal who Jesus is and what his mission was. Miracles are signs, that is they point to something greater than the act itself. They are divine acts of revelation which are not primarily about showing God’s care for the poor. Rather there are two things the miracles of Christ reveal. First, they reveal who Jesus is. John the Baptist desired to know if Jesus was the Messiah, and Jesus answers by pointing to his miracles. Jesus in essences says, “Yes, I am the Messiah,” because his miracles reveal that as the Messiah Jesus is the God-man.
The second thing the miracles reveal is Jesus’s mission. Christ redeems his fallen creation through his substitutionary death and through this he ushers in his kingdom. As Jesus goes around healing people and casting out demons, he reveals what his kingdom will be like—perfect and free from the effects of the fall. As he performs miracles, Jesus defeats illnesses, sin, death, and ultimately Satan giving us a glimpse to the final reality of those who have faith. In his miracles, we see a foreshadow of Jesus’s kingdom which is fully realized at his second coming (Rev. 21-22).
Keller’s Confusion on Justice Continues
I’ve said it repeatedly, but the core of Keller’s problem is his attempt to redefine justice to include mercy, grace, compassion, etc. As he attempts his redefinition, he continually contradicts himself on what justice is and what it isn’t. We find another example in this chapter as Keller affirms the traditional definition of justice. He admits:
At first glance, no two things can seem more opposed than grace and justice. Grace is giving benefits that are not deserved, while justice is giving people exactly what they do deserve. In Christ we receive grace, unmerited favor. Nevertheless, in the mind of the Old Testament prophets as well as the teaching of Jesus, an encounter with grace inevitably leads to a life of justice (page 49).
Keller admits (again) that justice is getting what you deserve while grace is the opposite. Elsewhere, he argues for the definition of justice to include grace, mercy, etc. Here is the problem, when Keller speaks of the gospel, he is forced to affirm the traditional definition of justice, but once he leaves the gospel, he forgets these important distinctions. Keller is correct, grace and justice are distinct, but he needs to consistently apply this definition to his thinking. It is also true that when we experience the saving grace of God we then will be transformed. Grace moves to live righteously, but that doesn’t make it a part of justice. If Keller could have kept this important distinction, this book would have been much better. This is the crux of my problem with the social justice movement—it’s definition of justice. Unfortunately, this redefinition appears to be motivated by the anti-Christian worldview Marxism. While Keller and social justice advocates confuse what justice is, the Bible is clear. How we think about justice invariably impacts how we think about God and the gospel.
Levi J. Secord