Guest Post By Levi J. Secord
The Q&A at this year’s Shepherds’ Conference revealed how deep the divide is within evangelicalism over social justice. In debates like this, defining terms is vital. Many evangelicals fail to realize there are two competing views of justice. A new definition of justice has crept into evangelicalism laying the groundwork for the current rise of social justice. From so-called gay marriage to transgenderism, the fiercest battles of our day all started over the dictionary. Definitions always matter. If evangelicals distort the meaning of justice, they will inadvertently undermine the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The redefinition of justice is rooted in confusing justice and mercy. Things which were once considered acts of charity are now demanded as necessary for justice. The redefinition of justice argues that mercy and justice are basically the same thing. Tim Keller argues for this position in his book, A Generous Justice, by pointing to Micah 6:8. Keller argues, “The text says to ‘do justice and love mercy,’ which seem at first glance to be two different things, but they are not.” He asserts justice is in essence “care for the vulnerable.”1 According to Keller, justice and mercy are combined by definition. He gets there by using Micah 6:8, which is the king of all social justice proof-texts.
The disagreement is over what justice is and what it isn’t. Does justice include mercy by definition? Or is justice based more on merit? Are Keller and other proponents of social justice right? Is this what Micah 6:8 really teaches?
Keller’s redefinition of justice has two terminal errors. First, mercy and justice are opposites. Justice traditionally defined is someone getting their due. This is what an eye for an eye is all about. You give someone what they have earned, not more and not less. An eye for an eye establishes the principle that the punishment must fit the crime. It outlaws both cruel and unusual punishment and overly lenient punishment. Biblical justice is balancing the scales. It is about merit. Mercy is the exact opposite.
Mercy at its root is the suspension of justice. It cancels the demands of justice and gives someone grace in the place of what they earned. Justice gives someone what is their right. Mercy gives someone what they have no right to claim. Therefore, mercy by definition cannot be a part of justice. To insist justice and mercy are part of each other is like having a square circle. It’s absurd. One is about giving a person his due while the other is about not giving him his due. The only way to combine the two terms is by redefining them. If evangelicals do that, they end up losing both.
Second, Keller’s understanding of social justice relies on a distortion of Micah 6:8. English translations often incorrectly include the word mercy. The Hebrew word translated as love mercy (chesed) is used throughout the Bible to communicate God’s faithful love toward his people. It is about his covenantal love. Old Testament scholar Michael Shephard asserts this word is often “mistranslated” as mercy. He insists the command in Micah 6:8 is a call to “covenant loyalty” and not “mercy.” Shephard arrives at this conclusion not only because that’s what the word means, but also because Micah 6:8 is a quotation of Deuteronomy 10:12.2 In this passage, God calls Israel to keep the covenant. There is no reference at all to mercy in Deuteronomy 10:12. Since Micah is citing this passage, there is no reason to conclude Micah 6:8 demands us to redefine justice to include mercy.
From this, we see that Keller’s interpretation of this passage is mistaken. Both the origin of the Hebrew word and the quotation used by Micah show us this passage is a call to faithfulness. The CSB gets it right with its translation, “Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Since mercy is not in view in this text, it is reckless to redefine justice in this way.
Definitions matter. The correct understanding of justice and mercy impacts how Christians view the gospel. If mercy is a part of justice, then we have a right to it. If mercy is a part of justice, then we are owed mercy, perhaps even from God. If mercy and justice are united, then the Cross of Christ is robbed of its glory.
It is only at the Cross that justice and mercy finally meet. By a supernatural act, God met the demands of justice and still gave us mercy (Rom. 3:26). On the Cross, God extinguished the righteous demands of his justice by pouring out his wrath on his Son. Justice was satisfied. Through the Cross, God offers mercy and grace to all who believe. Mercy is not owed to us, but God chose to freely give it. When we confuse mercy and justice the wonder of the Cross is lost.
Christians must refuse the siren call of social justice as it entices us to redefine biblical justice. It is a subtle seduction which appeals to our desire for power. It is far easier to raise our fists demanding justice than it is to humbly open our hands pleading for a mercy we do not deserve. If Christians claim mercy is a part of justice, then they will inadvertently teach that God owes us mercy. Keller’s redefinition of justice unwittingly undermines the very gospel he preaches. What is at stake in the battle over social justice isn’t just the future of evangelicalism, but a correct understanding of the work of Christ.
1Keller, Timothy. “Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just,” (Viking Publishing, 2010), pp. 3.
2Shepard, Michael. “A Commentary on the Book of the Twelve: The Minor Prophets,” (Kregel Publishing, 2018), pp. 271-272.
Levi J. Secord serves as a pastor at Riverview Baptist Church in West St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned a Master of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where is he currently pursuing a doctoral degree. Levi, his wife, and their three boys live in St. Paul, Minnesota where they enjoy slaying dragons together.