Acton Institute Powerblog

Whither Justice?

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Just how zealous for justice ought Christians be? I admit that I’m always just a bit put off when folks describe the prime mission of Christians as pursuing justice in the world. Let’s not forget that the foundational Christian reality is forgiving love on the basis of the divine justice manifested on the cross.

Or as Luther puts it in his commentary on Romans (emphasis added),

This is the reason (if I may speak of myself) why even hearing the word “justice” nauseates me to the point that if someone robbed me, he would not bring me such grief. And yet the word is always sounding in the mouths of the lawyers. There is no race of men upon the earth who are more ignorant about this matter than the lawyers and the good-intentioners and the intellectuals. For I in myself and with many others have had the experience that when we were righteous, God laughed at us in our righteousness. And yet I have heard men who dared to say: “I know that I have righteousness, but God does not notice it.” That is true, but it is a righteousness only in one particular; but for this God cares nothing. Therefore the only complete righteousness is humility, which subjects everyone to everyone else and thus gives everything to everyone, as Christ says to John: “Thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).

Thus in Dan. 3 Azariah confesses that he and his friends are at one and the same time suffering justly and yet are afflicted with evil, namely, at the hands of the wicked king. For even though he who acts does so unjustly, yet he does not do so to the person who suffers; for that person suffers justly. For by what legal right does the devil possess men? Or by what legal right does an evil hangman hang a thief? Certainly not in his own right, but by that of the judge. Thus men who glory in their own righteousness are unwilling to listen to the supreme Judge, but only to their own judgment, and because in respect to their victim they are innocent, they think that they really are innocent in every way.

Therefore since before God no one is righteous, absolutely no injustice can be done to a person by any other creature, even though he may have justice on his side. Thus all cause for contention is taken away from men. Therefore, to whomsoever an injury is done or an evil comes in return for his good actions, let him turn away his eyes from this evil and remember how great his own evil is in other respects, and then he will see how good the will of God is even in this evil which has come upon him; for this is what it means to be renewed in one’s mind and to be changed into another state of mind and to be wise in the things of God. Thus it is definite that Peter would not have glorified God if he had girded himself and gone where he wanted to go, even though he would not have walked a wicked path, but the highest road of righteousness. But after this road of his own righteousness was prohibited and he went where he did not want to go but where another wanted, then he glorified God. So also we cannot glorify God unless we do what we do not wish, even in the case of our own works of righteousness, indeed, particularly in the case of our own righteousness, our own counsels, or our own strength. And thus to hate our own life and to will against our own will, to be wise in opposition to our own wisdom, to confess sin in the face of our own righteousness, to heed foolishness spoken against our own wisdom, this is “to take our cross” (Matt. 10:38), “to be His disciples” (Luke 14:27), and “to be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

Don’t get me wrong. I acknowledge that the ethical norm in social ethics is “justice.” But out of sheer humility let’s not be too zealous for justice, at least not without consciously, intentionally, and systematically connecting it to divine love.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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