What is Biblical Justice?

This is the first post in a series of seven examining the Bible’s concept of justice and the action expected of Christ-followers by our King. These principles are essential to the ministry and the faithfulness of 2nd Mile Ministries to remain on mission.

Written by Marc Nettleton, Interim Executive Director

For a year I lived in an East Asian nation that has sharply different views on shame and recognition than my home country. There, it is rarely good to draw attention to oneself and personal embarrassment is to be avoided at all costs. Once a man and I collided on our bikes and while it wasn’t a violent or high-speed accident by any means, I wanted to check to make sure he was ok. He would have none of it. Not wanting to draw attention to his literal run-in with a very-noticeable foreigner, he deferentially responded to me as quickly as possible and biked away.

A decade later, if I’m at a restaurant in America and a server drops a plate and I hear glass shatter, I stare straight ahead. I try not to flinch and I certainly do not look at them or the mess that they have created. My internal dialogue pleads with me, “Don’t draw attention to him! Don’t make her lose honor!” 

Why? My year of absorbing another culture has impacted me deeply. By spending time around people and their influences, I too have been influenced. Maybe you too have had a similar experience where a word has entered your vocabulary, an unfamiliar food has become commonplace, or you began mimicking another’s mannerisms. This is the process of discipleship. We naturally begin to become like those who we share life with. We act how they act, we speak how they speak, we care about the things about which they are passionate.

In Matthew 28, Jesus gives his final, earthly instruction to his followers in what has come to be known as the Great Commission. He commands them to go to all peoples of the earth to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to obey all that he commanded. 

The key concept here is the end result. What is it that his followers are to create more of?


Jesus commanded his people to go out and make, not converts, not cultural adherents, but disciples. And if we, too, are to obey this command, we must make sure we ourselves are in pursuit of discipleship for ourselves and for those with whom we have influence. To be a disciple is to be apprenticed to your leader. To be a disciple means to be continually being made more and more into the likeness of the one you follow. And this is certainly the expectation for those who follow Christ, that we would continually be formed into greater Christlikeness (2 Cor 3:18, 1 Cor 11:1, Rom 8:29, Rom 12:1-2).

However, any even cursory glance at church history (or our own backstory) will tell us that we are prone to blind spots in our discipleship formation. Augustine seems to have not believed women were made in the image of God. Martin Luther was in favor of the death penalty for Anabaptists. Jonathan Edwards enslaved divine image bearers.

So, I think this makes it safe to presume that we would be right to examine our own 21st Century North American discipleship to find what parts of God’s likeness may have slipped through the cracks, been left un-highlighted in our Bibles, and are neglected in our pulpits. Because our goal must be to become continually more like our God and if we are neglecting any part of his character, we are falling short in our discipleship.

One area that I believe certainly needs greater emphasis in our cultural moment is God’s character as it relates to justice and righteousness.

And these two specific terms carry deep meaning if we interpret them in their original, Biblical context and apply them to our modern context. The Hebrew word for justice is mishpat, which Dr. Tim Keller describes as “giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care…Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor—those who have been called ‘the quartet of the vulnerable.’”

And since I have never written a sentence more eloquently or clearly than Dr. Keller, here too is his definition of the Hebrew word for righteousness: “in the Bible tzadeqah [righteousness] refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity, and equity.” Righteousness by our cultural definition primarily looks like inward piety, religiosity, or morality. But, in truth, the Bible’s concept of righteousness far transcends your prayer life or devotional habits. This righteousness is far broader. It deals with the way we conduct business, the way we treat the poor, the way we set up systems and our society. True righteousness requires the pursuit of equity, the fair treatment of all parties in all our dealings. This equity must account for fairness in all matters including wealth, status, gender, race, and ethnicity.

These two words, justice and righteousness, are used in tandem throughout the Hebrew Bible with over three dozen occurrences. In Jeremiah 9:24, when the Lord identifies what he delights in, He names, “justice and righteousness on earth.” In Job 14, when Job is presenting his defense to God, he appeals to the divine attributes by saying tzadeqah (righteousness) is his clothing and mishpat (justice) is his robe and turban. Proverbs 21:3 states that doing mishpat and tzadeqah is more acceptable to God than sacrifice. Further, in Jeremiah 22:14-16, God equates doing what is right and just and defending the cause of the poor and needy with knowing the Lord. This means that conversely, to not do what is just and right is to not know, at the very least, some part of the Lord. When these two words are used together they become more than they are as separate concepts. The best modern translation for the joined concept would be the phrase “social justice”.

But the closeness of justice and righteousness to God’s heart is not limited to these occurrences or to the Hebrew Bible alone. In the Scriptures we can see justice tied with:

  • God’s character (Ps 146:7-9, Ps 106:3, Deut 24:17-22, Lev 25)

  • True worship (Is 1:13-17, Is 58, Amos 5:18-24)

  • Judgment (Eze 16:49-50, Eze 18:5-27, Amos 5:11-15, Amos 8:4-10, Amos 2:6-7, Jer 22:3-9, Deut 27:19)

  • Key New Testament themes (Lk 11:42, Mt 25:31-46, Gal 2:10, 1 Jn 3:16-18, Jas 1:27 Jas 2:1-10, Jas 2:14-18, Jas 5:1-5)

In fact, there are more than 2,000 verses in the Bible that deal with justice and the poor. This is close to God’s heart. It is an essential part of his immutable character. But, if we miss it, it does not just mean we are disobedient, it does not just mean our discipleship is incomplete, though it does mean those things. If we miss God’s essential justice, we miss out on a huge part of our God. We lose something that is tremendously valuable and beautiful. We neglect God’s character and make him something lesser.

In Matthew 25, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus identifies himself with the hungry, the vulnerable, the immigrant, and the prisoner. Further, he actively separates himself from those who would denigrate or disregard justice for these groups. Jesus’ point in all this, in my view, is not to make salvation dependent upon one’s orientation towards justice, but is this: He is saying, If you are a follower of me, these are the things that should be characterizing you. Or, if you’ll allow me to quote Dr. Keller one more time, he is saying, “Justice is the grand symptom of a real faith.”

To be discipled means to become like the one who we desire to emulate. The process of discipleship should come naturally, but we also must examine ourselves and the Scriptures to ascertain if we are missing something in the character of God. Our first step must be to ask ourselves about our blind spots. 

  • Have I embraced the justice and righteousness of God? 

  • Does this vision of God’s character inform my worldview? 

  • What can I do about it?

As we continue on in this series, we will explore some of these questions along with the practical implications of all this in the life of a Christ-follower that we all might strive towards being continually made into the image of our God.