Beyond Generous Justice

I’ve had some time to reflect on this, and it has come to me what was bothering me about Tim Keller’s book “Generous Justice”. Don’t get me wrong, I like the book, and I don’t mean to disrespect pastor Keller at all. I am a guy with no ministry and no following and no published book, just a tiny blog. Think of this as having a beer with Tim Keller to go over a few things in a genial manner; I don’t now what he would say but this is what I would say in response to his wonderful book.

The problem is that mercy and grace offend justice. The gospel is scandalous precisely because of this, and we cannot sweep it under the rug. That is the essential nature of the gospel; unless you believe in Christ’s propitiation, forgiveness is an affront to justice. If the church or anyone dispensed justice, then actually everyone would die. This is why, when you get down to it, homeless people have truly earned their homelessness. There is no justice in helping them. They will misuse the help. It is unjust to keep helping them. If we give someone money on the street, they will possibly use it on the addiction that led them to beg for it. Justice demands we withhold help, that what they reaped they have sown.

It won’t quite work to try to couch help for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, the addict, as justice, because there may be a niggling suspicion, perhaps a justified suspicion, that they deserve their plight. We feel it, we draw back from helping. It is dangerous to get involved; we feel how it offends the justice we know should prevail.

Our motivation for helping the poor must reach beyond justice, and on to grace. It must seek favor and prosperity which justice alone would withhold. It must seek love which goes justice and on to grace.

What this teaches us is that grace must first and most profoundly apply personally to me. It must not demand that I give mercy, that I extend grace; I am not the source of this fountain. I am leading others to a great fountain of help and provision that I just as undeservedly drink from. We want to see grace flourish in community, we want to share the joy because it really is so wonderful TO ME. We cannot go around wondering if blessing ought to be given, whether or not it is just. We have entered a gift culture, we have received an abundance. We receive blessing, not because we deserve it, but as a free gift. So we ought to love others.

The same heart which operates under grace to speak spiritual blessing, also sees teh plight of the whole person and seeks to bless. There is no division or stopping of blessing by dividing it into spiritual and non-spiritual categories. The same man who needs release from shame and regret needs food and physical healing. Grace and love want it all for him, no holds barred.

The circle of this kind of love which transcends justice on a personal level can then extend to family, to friends, to church members, and to society. Why should we help? Because we have been helped. As redeemed Christians, as believers, we have entered into a gift culture, and we extend a strong kindness to others, not because they deserve it, but because of love. The message is this: we need grace to prevail, on a deep personal level first, on an interpersonal level, and on a societal level. This is the kingdom of God come to earth.

Generous Justice – Book Review

I just finished reading “Generous Justice” by Timothy Keller, and I felt compelled to comment on it here.

If you are looking for a book to motivate you to do more work with the poor and less fortunate among us, this might actually be a useful book that you won’t want to throw across the room. There are no guilt trips for eating french fries and he does not confuse the message of the gospel of grace and forgiveness with a heavy responsibility to go to Africa and suffer for the poor. This is a grace-honoring work that bases concern for the poor and disenfranchised on honor for the character of all people as made in the image of God.

He bases the first chapter, and perhaps the whole book really, on Micah 6:8:

8 He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8, NASB).

He shows from the Old Testament how God’s definition of justice is to show mercy and compassion to widows, the fatherless, immigrants, and the poor. Justice means care for the vulnerable. He goes on to explain that God isn’t on the side of the poor, but that the poor are much less likely to have human justice go their way.

He goes on to show that justice is also about right relationships, that Biblical righteousness is inevitably social. Justice, as well, is characterized by generosity. He uses a great deal of OT scripture to show that these rather strange ideas of justice are … justified.

Mr. Keller goes on in Chapter 2 to show God’s heart for justice under this definition from the Old Testament, and in Chapter 3 and 4 in the New Testament. Chapter 4 in particular focuses on the story of the Good Samaritan. He does note that this story is in fact a rebuttal to a pharisee who believes he can self-justify based on an anemic understanding of the Law. However, his main point is that the story is a good practical example of what we should be doing.

Chapter 5 is the pivotal chapter in the book, in my opinion. He makes the case that it is a powerful view of grace for ourselves which is the main motivator for living a life which reflects God’s justice, and that any other motivation is damaging. He also makes the case that because all men are made in God’s image, whether they are Christian or not, we are motivated by grace to extend compassion to all.

Chapter 6 has looks at some ideas for how such justice might practically work out. I thought the ideas of relief, development, and social reform were especially helpful. Often we think the only way to help the poor is through immediate relief, but clearly some people need much more than that. He uses the example of a fellow named John Perkins, who looked at compassion for the poor in terms of reforming an entire community spiritually and socially. This reminds me of the work of David Collins at Paradigm Ministries, who is always looking at how to express the gospel at a city-wide level.

I really liked how Keller made a very careful distinction between compassion type ministries and preaching/teaching ministries, and how both are important. Some groups try to emphasize one or the other, when in fact all are needful.

In Chapter 7 he talks about the need to be mindful of justice in the public arena, in legal issues and in politics. I love his thoughtful take on this, that we need to be humbly cooperative and respectfully provocative. We need to rehash the whole argument about matters of faith in politics, even quoting a very favorable quote by president Obama.

Chapter 8 wraps up the book by talking about justice in terms of the peace it brings to a community or society, and the beauty and art and helpful industry that arise from such a community.

While I think that sometimes Keller’s definition of justice becomes a bit confused, and really does come to embody just about any virtue you can name, in fact this is an extremely helpful book. From my perspective, I would like to see a lot more thought given to the connection between radical grace and concern for the poor, and how the gospel is the essential ingredient for their rescue. However, I loved the book and I am motivated to think and act differently after reading it. I would much recommend this book over other more fiery and more polemic tomes on the same subject, because this book makes a serious attempt to respect the grace of God in motivating us to do works of mercy and compassion in the world.

Assurance is reassuring

blessed assurance
Hymn - Blessed Assurance

If we are going to use the word “assurance”, we should use it in a meaningful way. It means you are sure of something, you are confident of it. If you keep thinking that your salvation is unsure because you sin, that is up to you, but realize you are no longer able to talk about having assurance.

I think assurance is a valid concept concerning our salvation. What about this passage:

8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
(1 John 1:8-10, NIV).

Obviously, John understands that you can be a Christian have less than perfect fruit. If some level of sinfulness can break your assurance of the sufficiency of Christ’s blood, where do you draw the line? What is the purpose of all this fruit checking? There is a place for it, there is no denying. I’m not even trying to deny it. As in James 2, deeds are a window into someone’s world to possibly see the authenticity of their faith. It is faith which is all-important. Repentance means going back to the throne of grace, and getting help. As in 1Peter 1:5 it is our FAITH which supplies moral excellence. I think most Christians agree with that.

The place for fruit checking is to see the general arc of someone’s life, as a possible clue that they have entered into grace, and if not, to ponder how, by hook or by crook, to get them there. This can include mature walking Christians. Real scandalous broad grace is such a game-changer. Assurance that we are the beloved of God, the bride of Christ, favored and desired, the pearl worth everything, changes the way we live. There is a difference between someone who walks around thinking they are Christ’s favored beloved bride and someone who thinks it is all about moral fortitude and that God is watching so they can (in one guy’s flawed exegesis of 1John 3:19-20) be condemned even more. I have had many struggles with sinful and horrible addictive behaviors, and this way of living is the one thing that has brought sustained change. All the accountability partners in the world did nothing for me but tempt me to lie.

I am saying that real assurance of unbreakable acceptance and love from our Father is the kind of faith that produces moral excellence. I am not saying we should throw moral excellence out the window. I am saying that if we let our lack of moral perfection undermine our assurance, we can no longer go boldly to the throne of grace in our time of need. How shall we persist in our pursuit of moral excellence if we cannot go the the throne of grace and receive mercy when we actually need grace and mercy? Assurance kicks in when it is required.

As I said in another post, it is God’s love that is the engine of His justice, and His justice is the engine of His good wrath. Jesus has stepped in as the just justifier, and the more truly and non-mythologically we see His suffering on our behalf, the more we live in the light of that. the more we agree with God’s wrath as just love, the more we purify ourselves. The law, gospel imperatives, and the like, serve to bring us to that throne, but it is a throne of mercy. We are changed, not as slaves coerced, but a with a transformation from the heart, unrequired and desired.

15 For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.
16 Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.
(Hebrews 4:15, 16, NASB).

The sheep and the goats

sheep and goat
Sheep and Goat Together

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.
32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.
35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,
36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?
38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?
39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
(Matthew 25:31-46, NIV).

The other day, I was driving along, thinking about this passage, and it hit me. The difference between the sheep and the goats, is that the sheep saw people in need, and extended grace to them without judgement. They saw the hungry, and instead of making them earn it or turning away because they should have had a job, they gave them food. If someone needed somewhere to stay, they helped. They didn’t judge, they loved. They were instruments of grace to people who needed it. Why would someone SEE someone hungry, or a stranger stranded and homeless or lonely, or in need of clothes, and not help them? Gracelessness! Gracelessness would say, “I worked hard for what I have, why should I help this person who is lazy and addicted to harmful things? If I help them it will just encourage them to go on being dysfunctional. It is best if they learn to accept the consequences of their actions.”

I think we would all agree that it is fortunate that the savior doesn’t work this way! The kingdom of God is a kingdom of grace, and those who do not choose grace remain under a graceless and judgmental regime.

The nature of personal identity in Christ

I have a question, I mean this really honestly. Is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, meant to control us like puppets? Is there no person left at all to do things? Let’s assume that Paul had the real stuff, and was writing from that perspective. We are all non-heretics here, there is no problem taking that as a given. On the one hand he says:

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me. (Galatians 2:20, NASB).

On the other hand, he speaks very much as having a personal identity:

This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; (Ephesians 4:17, 18, NASB).

See, there is very much a PAUL who speaks, who affirms with the Lord. So, setting our mind on the things of the Spirit, and walking by the Spirit, is quite a different idea than being a shell or a puppet controlled by the Spirit but no longer personally there. So there remains a personal autonomy although we are new creatures, and the presence of the Spirit instructs and empowers, but our personality and autonomy remain. The Holy Spirit is a paraclete, a helper, but not a controller. There is a “me” who exerts effort in these things, but I think the Holy Spirit reveals to me the love which God has for me. The Holy Spirit makes righteousness revealed as delicious, but the choice remains for me to eat of it and see that the Lord is good.

So if I have died (Romans 6:3), and now walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4), is there some identical self that is essentially ME, originally made in the image of God, that remains in this process? We put a lot of stock in this supernatural change of personhood upon becoming a Christian and yet I find I am only an infant in understanding any of it.

Sometimes I think we talk about a lot of pet doctrines as if all of this is so obvious, but it is really very deep waters. Some of the reason I don’t like to dwell on my own self and my own sanctification is because I don’t really understand what I am made of and I don’t want to put the wrong box around what God thinks sanctification is or what kind of spiritual mechanism produces it. Is it personal effort? Apparently so. Is it the Holy Spirit? Apparently so. Are we puppets of God? Maybe when we surrender as when Jesus only did what the Father wanted. Are we autonomous choice makers? It would seem so. How can all of these things be true? I don’t know, it is honestly beyond me.

Conversation in Heaven

“Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. And the LORD said to Satan, “From where do you come?” So Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it.” Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?” So Satan answered the LORD and said, “Does Job fear God for nothing? “Have You not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. “But now, stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face!” And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person.” So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.

Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house; and a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, “when the Sabeans raided them and took them away–indeed they have killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three bands, raided the camels and took them away, yes, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, “and suddenly a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you!”” Job 1:6-19, NKJV.

This is such an important passage. There are many things we could focus on:

  • There are days in heaven?
  • Satan hangs around in heaven?
  • God doesn’t know where Satan has been?
  • Satan walks around on the earth, and knows details about people!
  • Does righteousness make you a target? Wouldn’t it be easier to be normal

We are not going to look at these questions directly now, because the bigger question is this: how does the life of Job instruct us about grace?

We notice that Job has a lot of behavioral righteousness going on. He is distinguished from everyone else on earth, in that he is blameless and upright, and shuns evil. This is the assessment of GOD. Satan agrees. God brought it up! God is saying, Satan, you must not be all that effectual with whatever you are doing on the earth, because it hasn’t affected Job!

Satan counters with the argument that it is easy, because the grace and material blessing and protection of God produced Job’s righteousness – anyone could do it! Satan sees clearly what legalists cannot – grace and favor produce righteousness.

So, here is the crux. God, acts out of respect for Job, out of a gracious desire to prove Job’s authenticity of faith. Satan accuses Job of having a false righteousness, not based on trust in God’s goodness but based on the immediate evidence of material blessing. He says, in effect, sure, Job is upright, as long as everything is going his way. Let’s see if he is really upright!

What’s amazing is, God seems to care that Satan’s accusations do not stand. Even in this there is grace. Superficially, there is the grace that God puts strict boundaries on the kind of access he will let Satan have to Job – “only, do not lay a hand on his person.” However, more deeply, we see that God trusts that Job is the real deal, that his righteousness will indeed withstand the test. God in His grace let’s circumstances fall that let Job prove his muster, and this is as much grace as the material favor and protection he had before. In effect, we see that God lives dangerously, he believes in Job.

From Job’s example, it is true that God protects and blesses the upright. There is no reason to oppose this, it is biblical. If we suppose that we want to be the subject of heaven’s conversations, that we want to be exceptionally upright, we must expect that there will be opposition. We must also know not only that we trust God, but that God trusts us, and that all that happens to us may not be explained this side of heaven.