Justice and Righteousness
Religious Word Alert
The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. –Psalms 103:6
We define Justice as:
Getting what is deserved. Lamp Lighters Year 2, Quarter 1 Page 3, Green Question
We define righteousness as:
Acting the way God wants you to act towards others. Lamp Lighters Year 2, Quarter 1 Page 3, Yellow Question
This blog post is meant to flesh out these definitions and demonstrate how justice and righteousness are used in the Bible and in our lives to help us join in to God’s story.
To get a firm grasp on these ideas we also need to define the two other words from this section, “mercy” and “grace”.
Mercy: Deserving punishment but not getting it. Grace: Deserving punishment but getting rewards. Lamp Lighters Year 2, Quarter 1 Page 3, Red Question
God’s story in the Bible is not one of linear karma, of good things happening to good people because they are good, or bad things happening to bad people because they are bad. It is a long, deep story where non-perfect people are used for God’s will, with his goals always on the forefront: blessing his partners often in spite of their behavior. And for him to accomplish this task with the short-minded, selfish people of the Bible (just like the people of the church now), he uses the four virtues of justice, righteousness, mercy and grace.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
This is important because if we have a more thorough understanding of what true justice is, what true righteousness is, and how God’s grace and mercy is pivotal to both of those, we can see how God’s goodness and glory is something that we need to attach ourselves to. It is not something that we can attain on our own and then try to “cash out” in times of need.
Justice from the Beginning
When God set about creation and about creating a people made in his image, he set up the foundation for justice. Unlike plants or animals, that kill, breed or eat with no regard to civility or respect, people were made in his image and therefore deserve to be treated with the dignity an image bearer deserves. This is shown when God called Abraham to be the patriarch of God’s chosen people. He wanted his people to be ones who treat each other with the righteousness and justice all people deserve.
The old law is filled with these notions, as the laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus consistently call the people of God to not deprive, withhold or pervert justice (Deut 24:17, 27:19, Lev 19:15). Deuteronomy 16 says to “follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.”
This is not some far-reaching philosophical idea of justice either. It is straight forward enough for God to simply tell his people to not mess it up. For judges and others in power, it meant to not show favoritism or partiality. For lay people it meant looking out for the vulnerable in their community and not taking advantage of them. God promised as a reward for doing these things to live forever with his children in the Promised Land. Something that unfortunately was not achieved for Israel.
When we think of justice today, we most often think of the criminal justice system and someone “getting what is deserved” in the negative sense. That a criminal gets the punishment he deserves. And of course there is an aspect of that in scripture, but often times it uses the word “judgment” instead of “justice”. When the term “justice” is used, it is primarily used for a person getting the good things they deserved. Victims being made whole again, the oppressed being supported and people being treated with the God-given dignity they deserve are all examples of the “justice” that God calls his people to uphold.
Why are people so inclined to not treat each other justly?
What are some other places in the Old Testament where God showed his affinity for justice?
Righteousness and Justice
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
love and faithfulness go before you. –Psalm 89:14
To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice. –Proverbs 21:3
When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers. – Proverbs 21:15
Throughout the Old and New Testament, justice and righteousness are found hand in hand. As Psalm 89:14 says, they together are the foundation of God’s throne. Which makes sense. God is basing his kingdom on the idea that his people should act the way he wants them to act towards each other and to give each other the dignity and respect they deserve. This is why doing those things are said to be more acceptable to God than sacrifice. It is also why justice and righteousness go hand in hand, as Proverbs 21:15 says.
There is one big problem with this justice/righteousness cycle that God tries to bring his people to: we are not good at it. As many times as God warned and commanded and encouraged his people to love justice, the Israelites still treated each other with the same wickedness and apathy that plagues people to this day. And really, this has happened since the beginning. Since the time of Adam and Eve God has been calling people to live a certain way and to do certain things and to not do certain things and we have consistently fallen short. From Adam to Abraham to Moses to David all the way down to the exiles of Israel in the Minor Prophets, the people of God have fallen short of the righteousness they are called to, which is why God is also a God of mercy and grace.
Jesus, the Bringer of Justice
The epitome of God showing his people mercy and grace for their shortcomings is found in Jesus. Matthew 12 quotes the prophet Isaiah and says the following about Jesus coming:
18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. 19 He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. 20 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory. 21 In his name the nations will put their hope.” Matthew 12:18-21
Jesus came in order to show mercy and to give a sacrifice for God’s grace, and in that mission he brought justice to the earth. This was the main objective of his life. In Matthew 23 Jesus has started his verbal assault on the prominent teachers of the law at that time, who were guilty of twisting the laws of God into frivolous guidelines that made the lives of the people of Israel more difficult. At one point in the tirade he says the following:
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Matthew 23:23-24
This verse is helpful because it illustrates the reality of Jesus’s time on earth. He is not bringing about anything different than what the Old Testament says. Elsewhere he puts it this way, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus was not a restart or a reset button for God’s plan for his people, he was a culmination of God’s love and desire to bring justice and mercy to them. Paul even says, at the end of Acts 17, the God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
Why are justice and righteousness found together so often in scripture?
Thinking of Jesus, what are some of the things he did or said that is a good example of treating people with Godly justice?
Faith and Righteousness
God has made it clear through his interactions with the world that his kingdom is one based on justice, righteousness, mercy and grace. So what can we do with that information? How can we be the justice-seeking, righteous people that God calls us to be?
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Romans 3:19-26
Faith in Jesus is the culmination of these virtues. In our lives we are called to be conscious and intentional of the way we treat others and as Christians we have a duty to show mercy and kindness to others. However, if our actions are not based on faith in Christ, there is no reason to do them. Paul says it is that faith in Christ which causes God to declare us the righteous people he has caused us to be. It is an odd and beautiful set up God has placed with his people. In his mercy and grace, he grants righteousness to those who have faith in Christ, which in turn brings justice to the world. Justice in the large sense in that the world can now be justified to how God first created it and in the small personal sense, as we now, through the Holy Spirit, can treat others with the justice and righteousness that God calls us to do.
I encourage you then to not think of justice as just some societal wide calling to fix all of the world. But also something that you can do every day to the people around you. If you see someone who is not being treated with the dignity and respect they deserve as a child of God, go do that for them. If someone has been hurt or neglected by a friend or peer, see what you can do to help them. Remember, while often times people get caught up in the idea of justice as giving the “bad guy” what they deserve, more importantly, it is doing what we can to help the people hurt by sin to feel whole again.
Why is faith so important to be righteousness?
What are some ways you can bring justice to the people around you?