Social Justice: A Definition

Biblical Justice: Positive and Negative

Biblical justice has negative and positive dimensions, and Christians should not overemphasize one at the expense of the other. Biblical justice in the negative dimension both restrains evil and punishes evildoers (Rom. 13:4). Focus is placed on the punitive and restrictive aspect of justice to uphold law and order (1 Pet. 2:14).

At the same time, biblical justice also has a positive dimension that advocates for human thriving and restoration. Biblical justice has both a promotive and restorative function in this regard to bring humans to their fullest potential as image-bearers (Deut. 10:18; Psa. 140:12; 146:7–9).

Both positive and negative dimensions are at play within biblical justice, and Christians should affirm one as much as the other. This tells us that God is not simply a divine Judge, but he is also a faithful Sustainer, watching over his creation and imagebearers.

Biblical Justice: 3 “Tiers”

Biblical justice also has multiple “tiers”:

  1. Eternal divine justice, which has both positive and negative dimensions (Rom. 3:26; 12:19; 2 Thess.1:8–9).
  2. Temporal divine justice, which has both positive and negative dimensions (Exo. 15:1–21).
  3. Temporal human justice, which reflects temporal divine justice (Mic. 6:8; Jer. 22:3; Amos 5:24; Zech. 7:9)

While all interrelated and ultimately flowing from the nature of God himself as a God of justice, it is helpful to distinguish between these three “tiers” in order to not conflate or confuse between them. As an example, eternal divine justice of God displayed at the cross is distinct from the temporal act of justice God displayed during the Exodus. Likewise, the calling of God’s people to “do justice” is also distinct from God’s eternal divine justice on the last day.

Biblical Justice: Individual and Social Expressions

Temporal human justice, which reflects temporal divine justice, also has both individual and social expressions, primarily because the image of God is not only individual but corporate as well (Gen.1:27). Humanity in its unity and diversity reflects the image of God. Just as image-bearers are called to be holy like God is holy, they are called to be just as God is just. The corporate nature of image-bearing means that temporal human justice always is connected to relationships, corporate bodies, and societies at large.

Likewise, the cultural mandate at its core tells us that image-bearing is connected to culture making, nurturing, shaping, and breaking (Gen. 2:15). Christians and non-Christians share in the venture of actively forming and re-forming culture as it connects to broader corporate units of humanity — from families to cities to societies to civilizations.

Justice, then, is necessarily both individually and socially expressed by nature of who we are as bearers of God’s image.

Biblical Justice and Social Justice

Putting this all together, Christians who advocate for social justice are advocating for both positive and negative temporal human justice in its social expression in the world. “Social justice” is simply shorthand for a legitimate calling of Christians to give what’s due their neighbors by virtue of being made in God’s image. It’s a specific example of loving your neighbor as yourself.

In reality, Evangelical Christians already function with this understanding of social justice, though they may not use the term. When an Evangelical Christian not only believes that abortion is an evil and an injustice but also advocates for social, cultural, and political change, they are actively engaging in social justice. The same thing is at play in the Evangelical conviction about pornography, and how it’s more than simply an individual problem but is a societal and cultural problem that is connected to the objectification of women, rape culture, etc. Evangelical Christians have always been and continue to be active in social justice. The scope of social justice has now come to include other important justice issues such as race, gender, and poverty that the Bible teaches about.

Ultimately, Christians should never be ashamed of wanting to pursue social justice endeavors. In fact, if you feel called towards those ends, know that you have the privilege and joy of imitating the Triune God who is perfectly and eternally just.