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"Doing justice," Tim Keller, and Jesus

If you are a Christian, you may remember the adage it's not what you do, it's what God has done through his son Jesus. Tim Keller, in "Generous Justice," has a different take on that. It actually is what you do. Because what you do determines your sense of public justice and how God looks at you. Do you give to the poor or provide food for the homeless? If not, you may be guilty of robbery - not literal robbery, Godly robbery.

It's a new interpretation of how God looks at us, perceives us, by our public acts that are considered "doing justice." Typically, these are not private acts of prayer, giving, tithing, or simple charity.

The concept of justice is at the forefront of Christianity, and throughout the Bible. It’s also part of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ as taught in the first four gospels and the remaining sections of the New Testament.

But there is a difference between the justice, or justification that God offers through his Son, and choosing how to emphasize God’s justice as people become Christians and live a Christian life. It it therefore slightly shocking that someone like Keller would make an issue of how we demonstrate generosity and mercy, and that it should follow a particular path.

As a leader in the U.S. for theology and practice in the church, Keller sets out a benchmark for Christians. Lots of people pay attention to him. His books, like The Reason for God, have sold millions of copies. But Keller is not infallible, contrary to some who follow or quote him may think.

Keller offers the first chapter of his book on the Redeemer web site: Redeemer Report: Justice and Generosity. While introducing his subject, he talks about social justice, and how he hopes his book will appeal to young people who want it in public. Social justice certainly does appeal to young people, but not necessarily in a Christian way. It often is is revealed in uncivil, disruptive behavior.

“For a great number, then, volunteering is part of their portfolio of life-enriching activities, but it is not a feature of a whole life shaped by a commitment to doing justice, including radical generosity with one’s finances.”

Keller uses Old Testament scriptures to promote his beliefs, mostly to the exclusion of the New Testament. But there is a significant problem with his interpretation of scripture, for the simple reason that most of our influence in acts of charity, healing, helping others in various ways, were modeled by Jesus in the four gospels, and by the Apostle Paul in the remaining decades of the first century after Jesus death. We can read about it in the New Testament, Paul's letters to the Christian church. It seems like Keller wants to reinvent the concept of charity by taking us back to the Old Testament prophets.

It's not that Old Testament prophets did not promote justice. They did. But if Jesus modeled how we re supposed to live, why use the Old Testament prophets, etc., as the main scriptural source or model? It's as though Keller is proclaiming a new edict as the new pope of the evangelical church in America.

Many people think justice is punishment for wrongdoing, he says. It's really not that far from reality in God's perspective. It's a theme throughout the gospels. That's why Jesus had to come. But that's not what Keller is talking about. He is talking about specific action or actions that could be interpreted as sinful in regard to giving to the needy.

He quotes Job 31: 13 - 28: “If I have kept my bread to myself, not sharing it with the fatherless...if I have seen...a needy man without a garment, and his heart did not bless me for warming him with the fleece from my sheep...these also would be sins to be judged, for I would have been unfaithful to God on high.”

Christians should interpret this passage differently than people who observe the law, namely Jewish people since Jews still follow the law, or something like a law today.

“They don’t think we should be indifferent to the poor, but when we help them they would call such aid charity, not justice.”

That’s because that’s what it is. Charity is not forced giving, at least for Christians. The Bible calls us to be charitable to others, believers and non-believers - to everybody. Here is the second definition of charity: the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need. This definition of charity defines Christianity, or an unmerited favor, the same grace or unmerited favor that God showed by allowing his Son to die for our sins. That's why we give to charities.

Let's be clear. Charity and charitable organizations are incredibly popular in the U.S. It's an industry all by itself. But the concept of charity was first modeled by Jesus and carried out by early Christians. That's the real source of the thinking behind charity.. While our culture recognizes charity as good, it does not recognize Jesus as the source of the motivation for this charity.

In fact, a group of gay activists in Portland, MN, protested a business because they adopted or gave money to the the Salvation Army, a Christian organization that was started in England. The Salvation Army, more than any other Christian or secular organization, assists those in need in the U.S.

The Salvation Army was founded by William Booth in 1852. He was a preacher similar to Keller, preaching from the pulpit. But he abandoned the concept of the traditional church and took his preaching to the streets of London. He preached to exactly the people Keller is talking about - the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and the destitute.

If the law were all that we had to motivate us, including the Old Testament prophets, where would we be today in regard to charity? Would hospitals be named after Job, Ezekiel, or Jeremiah?

We are not set establish a law of giving to others that justifies us, or the person who receives what we are giving to them. We are to give what is in our heart. Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing, etc.

2 Cor. 9: 7: “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

But compulsion is exactly what Keller is suggesting:

“But Job says that if he had failed to share his food or his fleece—his assets—with the needy, that would have been a sin against God and by definition a violation of God’s justice.  Of course, we can call such aid mercy or charity because it should be motivated by compassion, but a failure to live a lifestyle of radical generosity is considered injustice in the Bible.”

God’s greatest demonstration of mercy and justice was by giving his Son Jesus as an offering for sin so that we, all of humanity would not have to face condemnation here on earth and when we die.

This distortion of the true message of the Bible, and the freedom that Jesus offers - or lack of condemnation for what we do or don’t do, is completely missing the mark of the gospel. It’s also a strange interpretation of the Bible for a pastor who claims to represent the gospel and have a coalition of churches that are supposed to do the same.

Keller quotes philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, who retired in 2002 from a life-long philosophy teaching career as a Christian at Calvin College and Yale Divinity School.

Wolterstorff wrote, “Until Justice & Peace Embrace,” and “Educating for Responsible Action.”

In 2016, he spoke in favor of same sex marriage, saying people of homosexual orientation should be granted “the great good of civil and ecclesial marriage.”

Keller does not follow this advice, since his Presbyterian denomination, as well as churches in The Gospel Coalition, which Keller supports and promotes, do not believe in same sex marriage, and will not perform same sex marriage ceremonies, or allow them to be held at Redeemer church in New York City.

While this may not directly impact Keller’s view on “generous justice,” it does mean that the people he follows or is guided by, are just as infallible as he is. "Generous Justice" is an example of that infallibility.

© 2018 Larry Ingram

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