In Lady Justice’s most popular form, she appears blindfolded to signify that justice is impartial. Evidence is simply weighed in her balance, and the decision goes in whatever direction the weight falls. The sword reminds us that justice is to be enforced authoritatively. All of these concepts are valid ways to think about justice, but the Bible gives us a much richer picture which both expands on these concepts and balances them.
Scripture certainly embraces the concepts of fairness and accountability depicted by Lady Justice, but it reveals more about the nature of justice than the famous statue. According to Tim Keller, author of Generous Justice, there are at least two major concepts of justice referenced in the Hebrew Bible— what we might call primary justice and rectifying justice.
Rectifying justice is represented in passages like Micah 6:8. The Hebrew term for justice in this verse (mishpat) can be used in reference to something akin to the forensic emphasis depicted by Lady Justice. However, in its biblical context, justice is administered not solely through the sword but from a posture of loving kindness (chesed), which seeks equity and biblical peace (shalom).
Primary justice is demonstrated by a different Hebrew term: tzadeqah (see Amos 5:24). Tzadeqahis frequently translated as “righteousness,” but it is essentially a way of speaking about God’s goal of keeping things in appropriate order within his creation in a way that accomplishes his redemptive purposes.
Rectifying justice (mishpat) is about responding to wrongs through punishment of the culprits and protection of the casualties. Primary justice (tzadekah) is about keeping things in right order in relationship to God and others. If primary justice were enacted, there would be little if any need for rectifying justice at all.
The world is very interested in justice, but the type of justice people are interested in can be influenced by where they are on the political spectrum. If they are politically conservative, they might associate justice with more strict punishment or a focus on personal responsibility and ethics. If they are politically liberal, they might think of justice in reference to dealing with structures that perpetuate inequality.
Before we hasten to judge, we should note that the church follows a similar pattern by focusing on different sets of sins. Whereas conservative churches might focus more on sexual ethics and traditional morality, liberal churches might focus more on the sins of oppression and inequality. Conservative churches tend to view the gospel primarily as a spiritual reality that calls for conversion of sinners. Liberal churches tend to view the gospel primarily as a social reality that calls for commitment to social justice.
In truth, Jesus did not focus on one type of justice to the exclusion of the other. He held them together in symbiotic relationship. He demanded spiritual and moral transformation, but He insisted that transformation would impact how we care for others.
Jesus’ refusal to separate physical from spiritual needs was a reflection of the Old Testament prophetic stance (Isaiah 1:17). This theme appears throughout Isaiah’s prophecies and surfaces in Isaiah 58 in a powerful excoriation of religious ritual that neglects to deal with injustice and oppression. In no uncertain terms, Isaiah decried any so-called spirituality that does not take up the cause of the oppressed.
Jesus takes up the same theme in His own teaching when time and time again He challenges the religious elite for their attentiveness to the law and simultaneous deafness to the cries of the poor and needy (see Matthew 23:23). This reality is portrayed in vivid detail in the striking commentary on justice in Matthew 25. Jesus tells a parable of the final judgment in which people from all the nations will be gathered before Him, separated as sheep from goats and judged accordingly.
The sheep demonstrated care for the needy. The goats were concerned only with themselves. Jesus so identified with the oppressed that He interpreted the actions of the sheep and the goats as an indication of how they treated Him!
The sheep were surprised at their commendation and the goats were surprised at their condemnation! They were both surprised because they simply acted in accordance with their true nature. Jesus taught that justice flows naturally from the hearts of those who are his true followers, and He takes our concern for the vulnerable of society very seriously. Biblical justice does involve rectification, but it also encompasses keeping relationships with God and others ordered according to His redemptive plan.
Nowhere is this balance clearer than in the interplay between the writings of Paul and James. The apostle Paul was the earliest interpreter of the teaching of Jesus and its implications for the lives of believers. It was Paul who articulated most clearly the truth that we are saved by grace through faith apart from our works. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians makes abundantly clear that salvation is a gift of God that can neither be earned nor deserved (Ephesians 2:8–9).
This is the source of the Reformation doctrine of sola fide—salvation by faith alone. Yet, it would be a mistake to understand the “alone” of that doctrinal expression to mean that true faith is not accompanied by action on our part. James clarifies that faith without works is dead (James 2:17, 26). Does this mean that James and Paul are contradictory? Not at all.
What it means is that real saving faith is necessarily followed by action. As Martin Luther famously said, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” The kind of faith that saves us is nutrient rich, productive soil for the fruit of the Spirit.
One contemporary application of biblical justice may be seen in the issue of race relations in the United States. On the one hand, there is a focus on the personal responsibility of people to work hard, earn a fair wage, and obey the law. On the other hand, there is a focus on historic injustice and systemic inequalities. The two sides talk past each other and shout over each other from their perches on news programs.
Jesus calls us to think about not just one of these issues, but to think about and act upon both of them. We cannot blame every problem on irresponsibility and personal immorality. Neither can we attribute blame simply to institutional and structural bias. Jesus would affirm that people are personally responsible for their actions. He would also decry structures that perpetuate disadvantage.
Musicians have long noted the principle of sympathetic resonance. When a stringed instrument is perfectly in tune, strings will vibrate in harmonic resonance when other strings are played. Imagine that! The strings are not plucked, strummed, or bowed. Yet, they resonate in harmony when the right note is played.
This principle is a beautiful illustration of how believers respond to the heart of God. When our hearts are aligned with God’s heart by his gracious justification of our sins, we resonate with His heart to care for the needs of others. Overwhelmed by amazing grace, we embrace the biblical mandate to resonate with our Father in aligning his world with his merciful will.
This article was first published in Encourage magazine.