I’m reading through Tim Keller’s new book, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes us Just. Keller treats his subject carefully and with the necessary nuance (be sure to read the footnotes). Just as important, his passion (and God’s passion) for the poor and vulnerable comes through in a contagious way. Both those on fire for “social justice” and those suspicious of it will benefit from Keller’s latest.

Tim was kind enough to take a few moments out of his busy schedule to do an interview with me. My questions are in bold and Tim’s answers in regular type.

I’ll start with the million dollar question, what is justice and what does it mean to do justice?

Doing justice means giving people their due. On the one hand that means restraining and punishing wrongdoers. On the other hand it means giving people what we owe them as beings in the image of God. Nick Wolterstorff says that, as a creature in the image of God, each human being comes into your presence with ‘claim-rights.’ That is, they have the right to not be killed or kidnapped or raped. Of course there is plenty of room for disagreement on the specifics of these things, but that’s my basic definition. Doing justice, then, includes everything from law enforcement to being generous to the poor. (I believe Job 29 and 31 include generosity as part of a just life.)

You explain at the beginning of the book that you are writing for four kinds of people: those excited about doing justice, those suspicious, those who have expanded their mission to include social justice, and those who think religion poisons everything. In a sentence, what do you want to say to each group?

I hope that the 1st group gets a more sustained commitment to doing justice through growing in theological and spiritual maturity.

I hope that the 2nd group becomes aware that what Jonathan Edwards says is true, namely that there is “no command in the Bible laid down in stronger terms…than the command of giving to the poor.”

I hope that the 3rd group would be more patient with warnings to not let a justice emphasis undermine a church’s work of evangelism and making disciples. Careful balances have to be struck. (Whoops—that’s two sentences!)

I hope that the 4th group will be able to recognize that much of their understanding of rights and justice has come from the Bible, and even to critique the church they have to use standards borrowed from Christianity.

What is one of your favorite verses that speaks to either God’s heart for the needy or our call to generous justice?

I don’t have just one. The entire parable of the Good Samaritan has shaped my thinking profoundly.

Why are you so passionate about this issue?

I read the Bible and I’m overwhelmed with the amount of Biblical material that expresses concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien. My main gifting is evangelism and I’ve never had extensive experience in a poor community or country. So I reason—if I can see all of this in the Bible, despite the fact that I’m not especially oriented to do so—it must be important to God. I’m passionate about it because I’m passionate to be shaped by the Bible.

What do you do in your own life to pursue generous justice?

At Redeemer, we have an excellent diaconate that works with those in need within our community. In addition, years ago I helped a group of people establish “Hope For New York,” a separate but closely aligned organization, that helps our church members give of their time and money to the needs of the whole city. As I say in the book, many churches who work among the poor establish a 501(c)3—often a ‘community development corporation’—to do much of the direct ministry to people in need. That way the elders of the local church can concentrate on building up the flock. That fits in with Abraham Kuyper’s insight that it is best for much of Christian work in society to happen through voluntary societies and associations, run by lay people. In the end, then, my main personal contribution to justice in New York City has been to establish and lead my church in a way that makes all this possible.

Any cautions you would give to Christians who are eager to transform the world or make the shalom of the city their church’s mission?

I believe that making disciples and doing justice relate (not exactly) but somewhat in the same way that faith and works relate to one another. We would say that faith alone is the basis for salvation, and yet true faith will always result in good works. We must not “load in” works as if they are an equal with faith as a salvation-base, but neither can we “detach” works and say that they are optional for a believer. Similarly, I would say that the first thing I need to tell people when they come to church is “believe in Jesus,” not “do justice.” Why? Because first, believing in Jesus meets a more radical need and second, because if they don’t believe in Jesus they won’t have that gospel-motivation to do justice that I talk about in the book. So there’s a priority there. On the other hand, for a church to not constantly disciple its people to “do justice” would be utterly wrong, because it is an important part of God’s will. I’m calling for an ‘asymmetrical balance’ here. It seems to me that some churches try to “load in” doing justice as if it is equally important as believing in Jesus, but others, in fear of falling into the social gospel, do not preach or disciple their people to do justice at all. Both are wrong. A Biblical church should be highly evangelistic yet known for its commitment to the poor of the city.

I think you’re at least a little familiar with some of things I’ve said and written about social justice and the mission of the church. Any cautions or corrections for me?

I must confess I don’t read your blog religiously. However, I look at it fairly often and I’m always impressed with your thoughtfulness. Here’s one thought. When you say, “the church’s mission is to make disciples, not change the culture,” on one level I’d agree with you, as you can see by my answers under #5 and #6 above. However, you have to disciple people to follow Christ not only inside the church but outside in the world. For example, when a Christian actor asks “what roles can I take as a Christian—and what roles should I turn down?” or when a hedge fund manager asks: “can a Christian do short selling?”—these are discipleship questions. If you disciple people to bring their faith to bear on all of life, you will be equipping them to do justice and also, inevitably, “do culture-making”.  I’m pretty sure you’d agree with me here. I’m only proposing that, when you say, “we must make disciples, not do justice or engage culture” you might give the impression that disciples simply do evangelism, follow-up, and recruiting people into the church. But disciples do more than that.

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44 thoughts on “Interview with Tim Keller on Generous Justice”

  1. Malin Friess says:

    Can’t wait to read a book that for the first time in a long time seems to take a balanced look at biblical justice.

  2. John says:

    This was an informative interview, but there’s just something in me that doesn’t like the terms “social justice” and “missional”. I’m not sure I even know why. I believe I align more closely with your position as defined in “My Missional Misfire?” which was right on target, in my opinion, and I will be interested to read your upcoming book.

    The goal and priority of the Church should be to make disciples of Jesus Christ. In doing so, Christ will work in the hearts of men to move them towards particular areas of “mission” because He then becomes both the motivation and the goal in their lives. I fear that attempting to correct the “injustices” of the world as a primary agenda shifts the focus from Christ to man and has potential to add yet another distraction to an already long list of preaching the Gospel. I realize Keller speaks of balance and I hear that being said, but is it being put into practice? If there isn’t a Gospel focus and a commitment towards discipleship within the Church, then “social justice” and “missional” sounds awful Emergent to me.

    “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” 1 Cor. 2:2

  3. Thanks, Pastor DeYoung, for the Q&A with Dr. Keller. I especially appreciate the insight from Dr. Keller in parsing out the idea of making disciples in the church and giving them the ability to live as disciples in the world. Looking forward to the book.

  4. Mason says:

    “I hope that the 2nd group becomes aware that what Jonathan Edwards says is true, namely that there is ‘no command in the Bible laid down in stronger terms…than the command of giving to the poor.’”

    I hear the argument. But I’ve wondered if the nature of the covenants (with the OC being largely external and physical and the NC being largely internal and spiritual) should play a role in how much we emphasize issues like working with the poor? I’m not saying the NC has nothing to do with externals. But it may be that the OC, by it’s very nature, tended to emphasize social justice more than the NC. While helping the poor does comes up in the NT, it doesn’t come up as frequently as it does in the OT. And when it does appear in the NT the burden seems to be helping poor *believers* although there are certainly exceptions. I’m not disagreeing with the concept, but I am wondering if the emphasis is correct.

    Any thoughts?

  5. David Ketter says:

    Mason:

    Presbyterian and reformed theology traditionally held to a one-covenant view, so your question wouldn’t even occur in Keller’s framework. I tend to fall into that framework myself…But here would be my pushback

    Luke 4 — Jesus’ first sermon, he highlights his role in fulfilling Isaiah 61 – and I assure you he means the poor of the world, not the poor of moral merit. Matthew 25 doesn’t seem to require belief as a standard of the poor who are being served by the righteous. Then in Galatians 1 and 2, Paul recounts how the apostles ask him “to remember the poor – the very thing I was eager to do.” James 2 is concerned primarily with our witness and love of neighbor and highlights the necessity of treating the poor with dignity and blessing them (he warns those who are rich later in ch. 4).

    Hope those passages help. :)

  6. Doing justice means giving people their due.

    How does this fit with the reality that all people deserve hell?

  7. David Ketter says:

    Mike: In the reformed tradition, man’s total depravity has often been held in tension with the doctrine of Imago Dei – that man bear’s God’s image. God’s shalom and justice (which are often associated in the prophetic literature of the OT) are based on redemption and on the image of God. In other words, the Messianic community is called upon to enact shalom based on God’s redemptive work and surrender the punishment of the wicked to God. That is a broad statement, but do not mistake me for arguing for passivism…but I’m speaking particularly of the role of God’s people as such.

  8. Brian says:

    Mike,

    I think Keller unpacks what he means by that in saying “giving people what we owe them as beings in the image of God.” He is speaking of what we owe people on the horizontal person-to-person plane. As we relate to other image-bearers we owe them respect, mercy, & charity. On the vertical plane, God owes these to no one, yet he graciously shows mercy to sinners like us. This gives us even more precedent to “do justice and love kindness” in our dealings with others.

  9. Mason says:

    David,

    Thanks for sharing the verses. As I said, I have no trouble affirming the issue occurs in the New Testament (although one or more of those references may lean toward poor believers).

    “Presbyterian and reformed theology traditionally held to a one-covenant view, so your question wouldn’t even occur in Keller’s framework.”

    I doubt the question never occurred to Keller :-) While working in a Reformed framework, he seems to be careful to always keep his eye on the biblical text.

    Nevertheless, your statement highlights my concern. The Bible (Reformed theology notwithstanding!) speaks of an Old Covenant and a New Covenant. While they share some definite continuity, there are some differences. And I think those differences may account for what seems to be a different *emphasis* in the OT versus the NT. And if my last statement is true, we may acknowledge Edwards’ statement as true but the application will need to be thought through for our place in redemptive history.

  10. Larry says:

    Kevin,

    I’m curious to know what your thoughts are on Keller’s “caution” for you at the end?

    And thanks for your model of humility in asking such a question of him!

  11. Mason says:

    …I want to clarify one thing. I’m not necessarily interacting with Keller as I’m not sure how he fleshes it all out. I’m sure the book will help in this regard. My comment arose from the Edwards’ quote reminding me of a question (stated above) that I have about whether the differences in the covenants should play a role in how we emphasize these issues.

  12. David Ketter says:

    Mason:

    The only passage I think we could argue could lean towards poor believers is Paul’s account in Galatians. Others, by context, appear to be much more general…and with no textual indicator to discriminate, I don’t think an exegete has the option to do so.

    I’m not saying Keller never thought of it, but that it’s not a strong enough question to merit addressing given the presupposed framework. What’s more, I think the discontinuities between old and new covenants are very often overstated since Luther’s imposed dualism of faith vs. law. To varying degrees, all Protestant denominations have been influenced by that – sometimes to the point of a modified Marcionism. Without getting too much into an off-topic debate here, I think it’s noteworthy that Jesus uses “kainos” (renewed) not “neos” (new) in talking about the New Covenant in Luke 22:20 (and Paul continues with that in 1 Cor. 11:25, 2 Cor. 3:6, and the author of Hebrews – a discontinuist’s favorite book in so many respects, uses kainos in Heb. 8-9).

    All that said, I don’t see a shift in emphasis. Maybe that’s the Dutch Reformed tradition Geneva College has made me heir to (thank you Kuyper and Wolterstorff) or maybe it’s the broader comprehensive nature of a covenant that always makes the initiating party pre-eminent. Because Yahweh is the initiating party in all covenantal relationships, He is the emphasis. And because He is the Lord of all, those in relationship have concern for all. And because that covenant is redemptive, our engagement with all is redemptive, and our priorities have the redemption of the cosmos in view (Romans 8, Colossians 1, Revelation 21).

  13. Richard says:

    There is also a Reformed tradition on the “two kingdoms,” see David Van Drunen’s recent book on natural law. I think we should also remember this when we talk about issues such as “transforming” or “redeeming” culture. Pastor Keller’s view seems to be at odds with this Reformed tradition.

  14. Mason says:

    Thanks for your interaction, David. I especially appreciated this:

    “Because Yahweh is the initiating party in all covenantal relationships, He is the emphasis. And because He is the Lord of all, those in relationship have concern for all.”

    That’s wonderful!

    Your brother,
    Mason

  15. David Ketter says:

    You, too, Mason! Thanks for the encouragement and I pray that the Holy Spirit continues to lead and guide our discerning engagement with the world and blesses our ministry to the poor.

  16. Kevin DeYoung says:

    I can’t comment on all the comments, but I thought Keller’s caution for me at the end was well put. I agree completely that making disciples involves helping people live as disciples.

  17. Simon says:

    “no command in the Bible laid down in stronger terms…than the command of giving to the poor”.
    Reformed….high view of scripture….theologically learned, all good things. But without obedience and concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien, it really is faith without works. We all know what that means.
    This I find cause to humble ourselves before God, particularly to those God has blessed with much learning and knowledge.

  18. Doyle says:

    I’ll pose the two million dollar question. Not too many Christians would disagree on what is justice and what does it mean to do justice. The big question that divides many today is this: Is doing justice a personal virtue or a social virtue? I believe the virtue of justice that the Bible teaches is a personal one. However, many well meaning Christians have bought into the myth that it can be a social one.

  19. Doyle,

    Can you unpack further what you mean by personal vs. social? Maybe give an example of each?

    David,

    Thanks for your response. I think the differences between a fully reformed ecclesiology and my own (which seeks to honor the distinction between Old and New Covenants, as Mason has mentioned) are what have me falling on the other side of the issue than you.

    Brian,

    Thanks also for your response. I think you pick up on something valuable — namely, that we never dispense “vertical justice,” but leave that for God (cf. Rom 12). But something in me recoils at the idea of a distinction between “horizontal” and “vertical” justice, which is probably why I’d call the ministry of “social justice” simply, “Mercy ministry” (cf. Lk 6:36).

  20. Doyle says:

    Mike,

    I’d love to unpack this but rather than me write a long response, I will point you to an excellent article by Michael Novak on just what I am referring to.

    It was originally published in First Things but no longer is available on their site. However, I found it on another site shown below.

    Novak writes, “I have never encountered a writer, religious or philosophical, who directly answers Hayek’s criticisms” and I have found this to be true as well even though social justice discussions come up a lot. I would be interested in your response as well as any others willing to take it on.

    Article is at:

    http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft0012/opinion/novak.html

  21. Daniel says:

    Great interview, and excellent discussion from Keller. Looking forward to reading the book.

  22. StephenL says:

    Pastor Keller’s reference to Jonathan Edwards reminded me of his earlier book (written before he was a household name) Ministries of Mercy. There he unpacks in some detail Edwards’ teaching on mercy, and has a ton of good practical advice for churches trying to be obedient to the biblical mandate to love mercy and do justice.

  23. Doyle says:

    Kevin – how about you or Keller doing a critique of Novak’s article (linked above) with respect to social justice? I haven’t been able to find any theologian willing to take it on. I find that the interview above with Keller totally dodges the question and it reinforces what is said in Novak’s article.

  24. Paul says:

    Doyle writes:
    “Not too many Christians would disagree on what is justice and what does it mean to do justice.”

    Oooooo, I don’t think that’s true at all. Just look at the arguments there are on this blog about what “justice” means. (And there’s MacIntyre’s book.)

    and also writes:
    “The big question that divides many today is this: Is doing justice a personal virtue or a social virtue?”

    I’ll agree that that’s a divisive question. I think it’s both personal and social and my reasoning is this. Passing laws or encouraging their enforcement is in no sense a “personal virtue”. Most Christians, I think, would say that lobbying to pass laws or encouraging their enforcement on some social issues (partial birth abortion and human trafficking spring to mind) would be morally correct. Therefore, most Christians would say that some justice issues are social virtues.

    The real question is, which social issues are social justice issues that the church or Christians should be involved in? There’s no agreement about that, especially wrt money.

    Having read the Novak paper, I don’t find it remotely convincing. If you start with the premise that free market capitalism is a wonderful thing that’s entirely consistent with Christian ethics, then Novak is going to be convincing but I don’t so I don’t.

  25. Doyle says:

    Conversely, if you read the article starting with the premise that communism/socialism is entirely consistent with Christain ethics, you probably won’t understand the article, and you don’t.

  26. George says:

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  27. THE NEW COVENANT

    Once we become members of Christ’s family, he does not let us go hungry, but feeds us with his own body and blood through the Eucharist.

    In the Old Testament, as they prepared for their journey in the wilderness, God commanded his people to sacrifice a lamb and sprinkle its blood on their doorposts, so the Angel of Death would pass by their homes. Then they ate the lamb to seal their covenant with God.

    This lamb prefigured Jesus. He is the real “Lamb of God,” who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

    Through Jesus we enter into a New Covenant with God (Luke 22:20), who protects us from eternal death. God’s Old Testament people ate the Passover lamb.

    Now we must eat the Lamb that is the Eucharist. Jesus said, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life within you” (John 6:53).

    At the Last Supper he took bread and wine and said, “Take and eat. This is my body . . . This is my blood which will be shed for you” (Mark 14:22–24).

    In this way Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist, the sacrificial meal Catholics consume at each Mass.

    The Catholic Church teaches that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross occurred “once for all”; it cannot be repeated (Hebrews 9:28).

    Christ does not “die again” during Mass, but the very same sacrifice that occurred on Calvary is made present on the altar.

    That’s why the Mass is not “another” sacrifice, but a participation in the same, once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

    Paul reminds us that the bread and the wine really become, by a miracle of God’s grace, the actual body and blood of Jesus: “Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:27–29).

    After the consecration of the bread and wine, no bread or wine remains on the altar. Only Jesus himself, under the appearance of bread and wine, remains.

  28. Sold! Sounds like a great book to add to the collection.
    Blessings,
    Ron

  29. Jason says:

    The real objection I have to Keller’s definition of justice is that he sees “generosity to the poor” as part of justice and, in that context, that it is “giving people what we owe them as beings in the image of God.” Since justice must be carried out by human governments, this makes wealth redistribution and welfare for the poor necessary duties of government. Many have claimed that this view of justice necessitates Marxism/socialism. I really don’t see how this can lead to any other kind of conclusion. I think Keller and Wolterstorff and others who advocate this definition of justice are pushing a Christianized socialism on the church. I think it’s misguided, in part because this is not how God calls the church to care for the poor. God calls the church to do so willingly, lovingly and freely, not as a matter of “justice” and “what we owe” to people. That’s the language of duty, obligation and mandate, mandate which must be enforced by governments.

  30. Ronda Wintheiser says:

    So Keller says: “Doing justice means giving people their due. On the one hand that means restraining and punishing wrongdoers. On the other hand it means giving people what we owe them as beings in the image of God. Nick Wolterstorff says that, as a creature in the image of God, each human being comes into your presence with ‘claim-rights.’ That is, they have the right to not be killed or kidnapped or raped.” So how do we give unborn people their due? How do we restrain (punish?) the wrongdoers who oppress them? How do we give them what we owe them as beings in the image of God — if indeed they also have “claim-rights” — the right not to be killed?

  31. Jon Orcutt says:

    I haven’t read the book,…yet. Did Dr. Keller mention the supposed “claim-rights” of the unborn not to be killed? It would be interesting to note the date of his sermon on abortion and the publication date of this book. Any sort of “Christian” or “Biblical” social justice that is quiescent on the issue of abortion is problematical.

  32. Verbose4Him says:

    @ David and Mason,

    You have answered the question of many on the scope and application of the term “poor” contextually. I am Premill and see the OT passages referring strictly to the Covenant Community of Israel. All the passages utillzied INCLUDING Isaiah are restricted to the community of Israel. Yahweh NEVER called on Israel to feed the Canaanite poor, Midianite poor, disenfranchised of the Philistines. This was the model of the People of God ministering to their own.

    Luke 4, Galatians 1 and James 2 also refer to those in the Church community. John 17 refers to the Church’s greatest testimony that we are His disciples is by how we take care of our own. We ought to be eager to bring those outside of Christ INTO the Church community.

    We will ultimately be clashing not only on our Systems of Theology but what no one is saying much about is the Missional Hermeneutic verses the traditional Historical-Grammatical Hermeneutic Shift imposed on the Church via Seminary professors. Mark Young, Ed Stetzer and others (dare I say D.A. Carson?!) have imposed a new hermeneutical framework on the Church that envelopes ALL POOR in ALL the World. I resonate well with another commentor that stated “If God calls you individually to witness to specific poor in your sphere of ministry…so do it”. Imposing via bad bible interpretation…passages restricted to either Israel (Samaritans included)or the Church community on a social global model does a great …yes I will say it…INJUSTICE on the Church.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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