What is Biblical Justice?

`Joke: Q. What’s the best way to study the Bible? A. You Luke into it.

Biblical justice involves making individuals, communities, and the cosmos whole, by upholding both goodness and impartiality. It stands at the center of true religion, according to James, who says that the kind of “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). Earlier Scripture says, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Prov. 29:7).

Justice flows from God’s heart and character. As true and good, God seeks to make the object of his holy love whole. This is what motivates God throughout the Old and New Testaments in his judgments on sin and injustice. These judgments are both individual and corporate in scope.

One of the greatest injustices we succumb to individually is self-righteousness—the belief that we do not need Jesus but are just and good and right apart from him. We can fail to see that Jesus is the righteous “judge judged in our place” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics) for our own acts of injustice, including our marginalizing him by refusing to sense our need for him to remove our sin and make us whole.

Only as we despair of ourselves and cling to Jesus can we participate in his work of restoring lives, the church, and the world by the Spirit of the Lord. We, the church, are to live now in light of Jesus’ restoration of all things.

As we experience the wholeness that Jesus offers, we are to carry his justice forward in the world. We sense God’s heart for this in James’ epistle. James, like an Old Testament prophet, denounced oppression toward the poor. He saw church leaders favoring the rich and looking down on those less fortunate (James 2:1-13). James calls for the breaking down of these divisions, as God seeks to renew his people, making them whole.

The God of Justice

Biblical justice is not first of all a set of bullet points or a set of rules and guidelines. It is rooted in the very character of God and it is the outworking of that character, which is never less than just.

In his magisterial work on God’s attributes, Herman Bavinck argues that in the Bible, God’s justice is both retributive and reparative. It not only punishes evildoing, but it restores those who are victims of injustice. Yet interestingly, “God’s remunerative [restorative] justice is far more prominent in Scripture than his retributive justice.” God stands against “perverting the justice due the poor… slaying the innocent and righteous… accepting bribes…. oppressing the alien, the widow, and the orphan…” God “raises them to a position of honour and well-being… [D]oing justice with an eye to the needy becomes an act [also] of grace and mercy.” And therefore, God’s restorative justice “is not, like his anger, opposed to his steadfast love but is closely akin and synonymous with it.” His justice is “simultaneously the manifestation of his grace (Psalm 97:11-12; 112:3-6; 116:5; 118:15-19).”

Biblical justice is not first of all a set of bullet points or a set of rules and guidelines. It is rooted in the very character of God and it is the outworking of that character, which is never less than just.

The Lord’s justice is also retributive. He not only establishes justice for those who have been wronged and mistreated, but he also metes out punishment to those who have perpetrated those wrongs. He “does not spare the wicked” (Ezekiel 7:4, 9, 27; 8:18; 9:10).  As the Judge of all the earth, the Lord will finally give everyone what justice dictates is due to them (Acts 17:30-31). But he will also restore and “renew all things” so there is no more evil, suffering, or death (Matthew 19:28). Both his retributive and remunerative justice will come to final fulfillment at the end of history, and we will live in a new heavens and new earth filled with dikaiosune – justice (2 Peter 3:13).

The world God had in mind

Anyone can see that the world we live in has much that is wrong. But what’s right? If we correct the wrongs, at what do we aim to arrive?

In learning about God’s Justice, it’s crucial to begin with the early chapters of Genesis. It is deep reading, and no wonder. We’re talking about the origins of all that is. Today, even in our bruised and battered world, God’s original intentions remain. It’s as though Genesis tells us, This is what I had in mind. It is a good world. (God pronounced it very good in Genesis 1:31.) We might also call it a just world, because not only was every part good, but every part was in the correct relationship to all the other parts.


Think back on some great project you once embarked on: a degree, a career, a relationship, a piece of art. How did that project change for you as time went on? Did your original ideals find complete fulfillment? In the end, could you pronounce it “very good?” Why or why not?


What’s the opposite of injustice? If you think of a particular injustice that bothers you—child slavery, sex trafficking, bribery, murder, to name a few examples—can you describe its positive mirror image? What should a world without injustice look like?

Genesis 1-3 has sparked a lot of arguments about interpretation of key questions, such as the age of the earth, or whether Adam and Eve were real individuals. As you read Genesis, it’s important not to get trapped into the tunnel vision brought on by these controversial questions. There’s a wealth of encouragement and inspiration built into these verses; open your mind to their riches. Read Genesis 2:8-25.

  1. This section of Genesis begins by describing God making a garden. What does the word “garden” suggest? What makes a garden garden-like? What did God put in the garden? (vv. 8-14)
  2. Verse 9 tells us that a great variety of trees grew in the garden, “pleasing to the eye and good for food.” What does this suggest about the qualities God built into his creation?
  3. Why do you think the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was placed at the center of the garden? (verse 9)
  4. What do you think is meant by the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Why are they important resources for the garden?
  5. What is the role of “the man?” (vv. 15-20) What does this suggest about economic development?
  6. Is there any limit to “the man’s” power?
  7. Some suggest that an “off-limits tree” teaches “the man” not to confuse himself with God; every day he passes a tree that God made and humanity is not allowed to enjoy. Have you ever lived with a limit that you did not understand or appreciate? What was it, and did you learn anything from it?
  8. What relationship does “the man” have with the animals and birds? (vv. 19-20)
  9. What is the relationship between “the man” and the woman God formed as his helper?

Despite the injustice we witness around us, we refuse to accept that poverty is an inevitable part of our broken and hurting world. Our response to poverty is different. Rather than seeing it as something that’s too complex, too insurmountable, we focus on tackling it one child at a time. In Genesis and throughout the Bible God demonstrates His desire to be in relationship with us, to see us as individuals. Our model of linking one child with one sponsor is a reflection of this, and is how we seek to release children from poverty in Jesus’ name.


Ask God to help you see our world through the lens of Genesis. We see a garden well provided and protected, with humanity carrying the responsibility of working and caring for it. We see man and woman and animals in proper relationship. We see human beings who know their proper place: they are not God, they live with limits, while they work the garden to discover its potential. Is such a vision possible in the world as it exists now? Ask God for help in seeing clearly how you can be part of re-making the garden.


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