Book Review: Generous Justice by Timothy Keller

Reviewed by Mary Brown

In Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, Tim Keller lays out the biblical call to social justice. He presents a clear and convincing biblical exegesis from the Old Testament, especially Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the teachings of Jesus in the gospel accounts, and the practice of the early church as shown in Acts and the epistles. He then seeks to apply those teachings to now, working through the more practical side of social justice and explaining why Christians have a unique contribution to make in this area. Along the way he counters many commonly voiced arguments against the church’s involvement in social justice.

Keller’s use of the Old Testament to argue for Christian commitment to social justice is particularly relevant to the Jubilee Centre. Keller quotes from two of Christopher Wright’s books (including Old Testament Ethics for the People of God), and clearly demonstrates the continued applicability of Old Testament law. He answers the common objection that the law was fulfilled in Christ and is therefore no longer applicable to believers, saying: ‘the Mosaic laws of social justice are grounded in God’s character, and that never changes.’ (p.22) He adds that if something ‘is true of God, we who believe in him must always find some way of expressing it in our own practices, even if believers now live in a new stage in the history of God’s redemption.’ (p.23) Similar to the work of Jonathan Burnside in God, Justice and Society, Keller defends the practice of reading Old Testament law and distilling the principles behind the laws, in order to apply those principles now. His exegesis shows that ‘when we study the gospels we find that Jesus has not “moved on” at all from the Old Testament’s concern for justice.’ (p.43)

Later in the book Keller explains that a true understanding of justification through grace must lead to a high view of God’s law; grace is necessary for our salvation ‘because the law of God is so magnificent, just, and demanding that we could never fulfil it.’ (p.100) Therefore, biblical law, and the principles embodied in it, can not be ignored or rejected by believers. With this he highlights the need for the church to rethink its common stance of evangelism or social justice, with different churches and individuals choosing one or the other as the priority. He offers a biblical understanding that sees both as essential. We cannot and do not choose between them; the two must exist hand in hand in the life of a Christian who seeks to live in light of the Bible. He challenges ‘the orthodox to see how central to the Scripture’s message is justice for the poor and marginalized.’ (p.xxi) Those who have abandoned orthodox theology, or rejected Christianity altogether, are asked to look again at the Christian God and see that the Bible is ‘the basis for the modern understanding of human rights,’ and that true justice can only be motivated by seeing the glorious goodness of God. (p.xxi)

Keller’s book is deeply convicting; he cuts to the heart of the excuses Christians make for themselves and calls the church to radically rethink its attitude to all forms of social justice. In his chapter on Jesus’ teaching, Keller states that ‘like Isaiah, Jesus taught that a lack of concern for the poor is not a minor lapse, but reveals that something is seriously wrong with one’s spiritual compass, the heart.’ (p.51) And that ‘one’s heart attitude towards the poor reveals one’s heart attitude toward Christ.’ (p.53) In short, the first half of the book is dedicated to showing, through biblically reasoning, that ‘if you are trying to live a life in accordance with the Bible, the concept and call to justice are inescapable.’ (p.18)

The final chapters of the book go through the practicalities of social justice in detail, helping individual Christians or churches to practice justice in their own communities. He also deals with the issue of Christians speaking into the public square, arguing that Christians need to speak openly about their true motivations and reject the myth that there can be a value-neutral discourse.

This is an excellent book and I would heartily recommend it to anyone, whatever their position with regards to God and to social justice. It will encourage those who combine an orthodoxy of theology with an acting out of social justice; challenge those who choose to commit to evangelism or social justice; and demonstrate to all, the potential good of an active and socially involved church which hears and responds to the justice demanded by our supremely good God.

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Category: News and Reviews

July, 2011

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