Those Who Live By Faith Are Just

“The Sermon of the Beatitudes” by James Tissot, circa 1886-69

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

In the last essay, I discussed how Christians are meant to live as humble rebels in a hostile world, serving as ambassadors for Christ. The first and most obvious way we do this is by proclaiming the gospel message and making disciples, which is the only true hope for reconciliation. That is the end to which everything else is a means. However, there is another aspect of our mission that I have previously hinted at and would like to dive into now: a humble rebel is committed to social justice.

Oddly, the concept of social justice makes some Christians uncomfortable. I believe this is because they are typically associating it with what is known as the “Social Gospel”, a theological movement that rose to prominence in the early days of the 20th century and was associated not only with a desire to help the poor and vulnerable, but also with theological liberalism and a de-emphasis on doctrine. I can understand why people would have serious reservations about that.

Social justice, on the other hand, is a very biblical concept. Indeed, it is one of the main themes of scripture, and it is inextricably linked with doctrine. The Bible actually has far more to say about social justice than any number of issues to which we devote more attention. It is part and parcel of reconciliation, for if you are not pursuing social justice, you are not only making reconciliation more difficult, but you are actively increasing discord.

Martin Luther is often said to have had his theological breakthrough when he read the Apostle Paul’s quotation of a phrase from the prophet Habakkuk: “The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17, KJV) Luther’s story is a bit more complicated than that, but the importance of this verse is clearly evident. What I am about to suggest to you is that this phrase can also be reversed: not only do the just live by faith, but those who live by faith are just.

(DISCLAIMER: I am not challenging the traditional view of justification by grace alone through faith alone.)

Icon of the prophet Amos at the Kizhi Monastery in Russia, circa first quarter 18th century

Justice and Righteousness

The divine mandate with regard to social justice can best be summed up in two words that often appear together in scripture: justice and righteousness. When I began seriously studying the writings of the Old Testament prophets, I was struck by how often these terms appeared, but they are not limited to those books. Indeed, the command to do justice and righteousness stretches all the way back to Abraham.

The Lord said of Abraham, “For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” (Genesis 18:19) As Abraham was the recipient of the divine covenant in which all of his heirs were included (and every believer is Abraham’s heir by faith – see Romans chapter 4), this command can easily be seen to apply to all the people of God down to the present day.

These twin concepts of justice and righteousness were also part of how the Lord revealed Himself to the nation of Israel in the Mosaic Covenant.

For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:17-19

Note how God links this aspect of who He is to what the Israelites ought to be doing. He shows love to the alien (foreigner), so His people must do the same. This is a fundamental part of God’s character: He executes justice and maintains righteousness, even for those who are weak or objectionable in the eyes of the world. As the Psalmist says, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne…” (Psalm 89:14a)

As justice and righteousness are the hallmarks of God’s divine rule, He also judged the human rulers of Israel according to this standard. Note how scripture tells us, “So David reigned over all Israel; and David administered justice and righteousness for all his people.” (2 Samuel 8:15) We know very well that David’s kingship was not perfect, but at least at that point He was following the divine mandate. The Queen of Sheba told David’s son Solomon, “Blessed be the Lord your God who delighted in you to set you on the throne of Israel; because the Lord loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness.” (1 Kings 10:9) The negative example is found in the sons of the prophet Samuel, who were appointed judges over Israel and “did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after dishonest gain and took bribes and perverted justice.” (1 Samuel 8:3)

This theme really picks up in the writings of the prophets who ministered before, during, and after the Exile. Most of us know that the dual kingdoms of Israel and Judah were punished due to their disobedience, and one of the main things we typically focus on is the rampant idolatry encouraged by many of the kings. This perverted worship was certainly a major cause of their demise. However, we need to appreciate just how their worship was perverted.

In some cases, the Jewish people were indeed bowing down to idols and engaging in heathen practices. What is actually scarier for us today is that many of the people in Israel and Judah were correct in the outward forms of their worship, yet received intense divine criticism. We already read in Proverbs 21:3, “To do righteousness and justice is desired by the Lord more than sacrifice.” Consider then this word of the Lord spoken through the prophet Amos.

I hate, I reject your festivals,

Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,

I will not accept them;

And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.

Take away from Me the noise of your songs;

I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters

And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:21-24

There is no true worship of the Lord that is not connected to justice and righteousness, for the one who does not follow these commands of God has not really understood Him. He is worshipping some kind of false god. The Lord, the Almighty, the Holy One is a God of reconciliation, and He is a God of justice and righteousness.

The people of God under the Mosaic Covenant never managed to live up to this mandate, but the prophets also spoke of a coming Messiah who would fulfill the righteous demands of the covenant and do justice for all peoples.

‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good word which I have spoken concerning the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch of David to spring forth; and He shall execute justice and righteousness on the earth. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell in safety; and this is the name by which she will be called: the Lord is our righteousness.’

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Thus, Israel failed because it did not practice justice and righteousness, but Jesus Christ has now done what the people of Israel could not do. He is our righteousness. We look to Him for our example, and if we are to be like Christ, then we must pursue justice and righteousness by the power of the Spirit.

“Caring for the Children at the Orphanage in Haarlem: Three Acts of Mercy” by Jan de Bray, circa 1663

Assisting the Vulnerable

There are many ways that we, as the people of God, can practice justice and righteousness in this world, and by doing so aid the work of reconciliation. One of the key ways we can accomplish this is by helping those in need. Now, there are all kinds of needs in this world and all kinds of people to meet them. It is difficult and not always entirely useful to rank one need against another. There is no Olympics of suffering! Nevertheless, scripture gives a special emphasis to helping those in society who are most vulnerable, particularly in terms of finances.

The Bible does not ignore the realities of this world: there are some people who have power and others who do not. In what I feel is one of the most poignant passages in all of scripture, the wisest man who ever lived lamented over the fate of those without power.

Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them. So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

Here we see a world in which the powerful have free reign to take advantage of those beneath them, and no one takes a stand for the oppressed. This is the opposite of reconciliation. Those who are in positions of power have a tremendous opportunity for either good or evil: to promote reconciliation or discord. However, we must realize that we all have that power to some extent, and more so if God has blessed us in terms of talent and resources. If your heart does not break for the vulnerable like Solomon’s did, then perhaps it is time to ask if your heart is really in tune with God’s.

Even today, those without family members to rely on are often more vulnerable financially, as I saw so often when working on the long-running Panel Study on Income Dynamics conducted by the University of Michigan. Yet, in the period when the Bible was being written, such a lack of familial connections was even more of a calamity, for there were fewer public resources for people stuck on their own. That is why scripture spends so much time focusing on two of the most vulnerable groups at that time: orphans and widows.

“Vindicate the weak and fatherless,” God told His people. “Do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:3-4) At one point, when the Lord is indicting the kingdom of Judah for sin, He commands them, “Seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17b) In another place, the Lord says of the people of Jerusalem,

‘They are fat, they are sleek,

They also excel in deeds of wickedness;

They do not plead the cause,

The cause of the orphan, that they may prosper;

And they do not defend the rights of the poor.

‘Shall I not punish these people?’ declares the Lord,

‘On a nation such as this

Shall I not avenge Myself?’

Jeremiah 5:28-29

Perhaps we can kid ourselves into thinking that these were only requirements under the old Mosaic Covenant and confined to the people of Israel. We who live under the New Covenant are not judged by such works of righteousness as looking after the vulnerable, we argue. Maybe not judged in terms of salvation, no, for that is dependent on the work of Christ. Yet, James tells us in no uncertain terms, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)

One of the most sobering parables Christ ever told was about the final judgment. He spoke first of the people to His “right” who had helped “the least of these” and were sent forth to eternal life. This is what he said next:

Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:41-46

The lesson is this: those who are truly followers of Christ will share His passion for doing it to “the least of these”, meaning those who are vulnerable. That is a heart for reconciliation. No one is perfect, but if you have no desire to help those in need, something is desperately wrong. Jesus says you might not even be a Christian.

This gets back to the concept of what true worship really is and what it means to be a follower of God. At one point in the book of Isaiah, we see the people of Judah complaining to God that they have obeyed all the fasting requirements, yet He has not blessed them as they hoped. Here is what He had to say in response.

Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire,

And drive hard all your workers.

Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist.

You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high.

Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself?

Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed

And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed?

Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord?

Is this not the fast which I choose,

To loosen the bonds of wickedness,

To undo the bands of the yoke,

And to let the oppressed go free

And break every yoke?

Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry

And bring the homeless poor into the house;

When you see the naked, to cover him;

And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Isaiah 58:3b-7

Truly, very sobering words. It is imperative that we care for the vulnerable and champion the oppressed.

Syrian refugee children at a camp in Jordan in 2013. Photo by UK Department of International Development

Showing No Partiality

Our culture tends to divide people into two groups: those who are prejudiced and those who are not. Some people discriminate, we say, while others are entirely loving. I do not deny that some people are more prejudiced than others, but the fact of the matter is that all of us are partial to a certain degree because we are all selfish. We like ourselves, therefore we like people who are similar to us, therefore we dislike people who are not similar to us. Some of this has to do with our comfort level, while some of it is plain narcissism.

The other side of this is that because we are selfish, we are always looking for ways to self-promote. Therefore, we either consciously or subconsciously rank people based on what benefit we could derive from our association with them. This means that we not only value those who are similar to us, but also those who have what we feel are redeeming qualities that will make our own lives better.

Out of these two sides of selfishness come our tendency to favor people of our own race or gender, people with similar political or religious beliefs, people with more money, people who look better (or at least smell better), people who are clever, people who hold the reins of power, or people who know people who fall into one of those categories. No human being is immune to these types of prejudice, as much as we may wish to deny it. Some of us have made greater strides in combating our own selfishness than others, but none of us have reached perfection.

Though society likes to talk about the concept of equality, this inherent selfishness means that when we act according to our sinful nature, we will never treat human beings as truly equal. The biblical doctrine of equality is rooted in two things. First, every human being is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and it is from this that we derive our value. Second, every human being is sinful before God and in need of a Savior, thus removing any opportunity for boasting. (Romans 3:21-30)

What is equality built on if not these biblical truths? If we achieve salvation or perfection based upon our own goodness, then how can we not slip into self-righteousness? If there is no God, and we are all simply evolved from apes (some of us potentially more so than others), then what moral imperative is there for us to treat each others as equal? No, we need only wait long enough to see certain groups of human beings treated as less important…and certain groups of animals treated as equally important.

The Bible says that no human being is any more inherently valuable than any other human being. This flies in the face of the way we mentally rank one another. It should not surprise us that those who think themselves on the top of the societal heap would be offended by this message, while the disenfranchised flock to Christianity. There is no reconciliation without this principle of equality, which rests upon the Word of God.

This Holy Word does not permit us to show partiality based on how much money a person makes, the color of their skin, the language they speak, their level of intelligence, their age, or anything of the kind. Consider what James wrote.

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.

James 2:1-10

Partiality is abhorrent within the body of Christ, and it is also abhorrent within our wider society. Since we as Christians know God’s truth that no human being is superior to another human being, and that those who are saved are saved only by the grace of God and not by their own merit, we ought to be the most passionate advocates of reconciliation between genders, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic classes. We must defend those against whom society chooses to discriminate, including those who are not yet born and those who are seen to be a burden to others.

If we shut off our hearts to the disenfranchised because it is not politically convenient, or financially convenient, or even emotionally convenient, we fail to show the kind of love that is incumbent upon all believers. It matters not how perfect our doctrine is if we fail to love unconditionally the way that Christ loves us. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3) Let us pursue that spirit of Jesus, which seeks out the forgotten people of this world with a view toward eternity.

“Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares” by Yevgency Vuchetich, a 1959 Soviet gift to the United Nations. Photo by Wikipedia user Neptuul

Promoting Peace

I attended graduate school at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. This university was founded back at the time when the sun never set on the British Empire, but in the 21st century, the very title “Department of War Studies” can seem both antiquated and politically incorrect. The United States long ago renamed the “Department of War” as the “Department of Defense”. Most people prefer to talk about “Peace Studies” rather than “War Studies”.

In truth, I was not part of that department because I wanted to start wars, but because I wanted to limit them, and I’d like to think this was the case for my fellow students. Warmongers have a very bad name in our society, and for good reason. War is the most extreme form of sinful discord: the destruction of lives and livelihoods, often in the service of less than noble ideals.

How should Christians respond to the presence of war in our world? Should we accept it as a fait accompli or oppose it in every form? Is it permissible for Christians to fight in a war or for a Christian leader to declare war? How can we possibly hope to bring about peace and reconciliation in a world that sets itself against those things?

Much as we might like scripture to specifically address every one of our time sensitive questions – to invade of not to invade, to protest or not to protest – it is not always going to do that. We need to look for general principles that will guide our way. Yet, even here, people can get very confused, and this has led to a wide variety of viewpoints in Christian history, from outright imperialism to absolute pacifism.

Scripture makes it clear that war is not sinful in every circumstance. The Lord commanded the nation of Israel to go to war on many occasions. The Apostle John received a prophetic vision of Christ leading a heavenly army at the end of time to destroy all the enemies of God on earth. (Revelation 19:11-21) Warrior kings such as David are held up as godly examples, and we have the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans about divinely ordained government: “But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” (Romans 13:4b)

Yet, the words of Jesus Christ ought to induce caution in those who advocate for war. He famously said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God,” (Matthew 5:9) and “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5:38-39) In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Peter pulled out a sword and wielded it, Christ told him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52b) Each of these verses must be read in context, but they certainly suggest that peace was central to Christ’s message and we should obey the biblical admonition not to take our own vengeance, but to leave such things to God.

The New Testament in particular is more concerned with spiritual warfare than physical warfare. See, for example, the Apostle Paul’s comments to the church in Corinth. “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4) He also wrote to the Romans, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” (Romans 12:18)

However, we see plenty of places in scripture where the reality of warfare in this world is accepted as the natural consequence of sin. Neither Christ nor Paul told soldiers to give up their professions. King Solomon had wisdom to share on this score drawn from his own experience. He stated that, “Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good,” (Ecclesiastes 9:18) acknowledging both the futility and ubiquity of war at the same time.

Augustine of Hippo is one of the fathers of what is known as “Just War Theory”. He wrote the following:

However, there are some exceptions made by the divine authority to its own law, that men may not be put to death…And, accordingly, they who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”[1]

Augustine, City of God, Book 1, Chapter 21

The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas was well aware of Augustine’s writings and expanded upon his thinking in a way that has been very influential.

In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior…Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault…Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.[2]

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, Secunda Secundæ Partis,

Question 40, Article 1

I quote from these two venerable theologians to provide a taste of how Christians have wrestled with these issues over the years. War leaves us with few easy answers, but it is safe to say that if we want to promote reconciliation in this world, we cannot do so by promoting war. We as Christians should be working to limit wars, both in number and severity. There may be times when war is necessary from a defensive standpoint or in order to resist a tyrant. I am not suggesting that we shut down the Department of Defense. However, I am saying that we ought to follow the biblical directive, “Depart from evil and do good; Seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalms 34:14)

Sometimes good Christians will look at a seemingly intractable conflict, such as the disputes between Israel and its neighbors or North and South Korea, and conclude, “There is no way they will ever agree, so the peace process is a waste of time.” From a realist standpoint, it may not be possible to achieve complete peace in these regions in the near future, and there is certainly nothing in scripture that suggests that we will have complete peace on earth until the Prince of Peace sets up his rule. (Isaiah 9:6-7) That is the time of which Isaiah prophesied,

And He will judge between the nations,

And will render decisions for many peoples;

And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation will not lift up sword against nation,

And never again will they learn war.

Isaiah 2:4

Nevertheless, we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, or at least the better. Even if we as Christians cannot convince the nations to abandon all their weapons of war, and even though it would be foolish to do so in a world still ruled by sin, we can strive to bring about as much peace as possible and to promote the cause of justice not only in our own country, but in the whole world. We must fight against genocide, tyranny, and every other form of brutality that plagues this planet.

To sum up, our Christian faith is one that cannot be separated from the pursuit of social justice. I have outlined three major ways that we can promote justice and righteousness in this world. Each one is deserving of its own book-length treatment. I simply hope that I have wetted your appetite. This is not an addition to the gospel. It is the gospel. It is straight out of scripture. Let us remember that as we pursue reconciliation on a global scale. Those who live by faith are just.

Unless otherwise noted, all scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

[1] Augustine of Hippo. The City of God. Translated by Marcus Dods. Translation copyright 1887. Taken from The Complete Works of Saint Augustine, Amazon Kindle edition, copyright 2013.

[2] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiæ, Secunda Secundæ Partis (Second Part of the Second Part), Question 40, Article 1. Taken from The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas, Second and Revised Edition. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 1920. Online edition copyright 2016 by Kevin Knight.

Other articles in this series:

#1 – Wars and Rumors of Wars

#2 – Discord

#3 – A Scriptural Imperative

#4 – The Cross of Hate

#5 – The Age of Sacrifice

#6 – The First Step

#7 – Impossible Questions

#8 – True Love

#9 – A New (Old) Commandment

#10 – Truth with a Capital ‘T’

#11 – Christ is All in All

#12 – Awaken!

#13 – Another Path to Reconciliation?

#14 – Humble Rebellion