What Is Justice?

Dr. Josh Mulvihill

We all desire justice. One of the most common phrases in the human language is: “It’s not fair.” When someone gets away with something wrong, it bothers us. Unfortunately, justice is a confusing, foggy topic for many right now. As a result, we are prone to absorb society’s ideas about a subject without knowing it. It seems everywhere we turn, someone is talking about social justice, environmental justice, economic justice, educational justice, or transportation justice. This article will provide a biblical overview of justice, two questions to recognize counterfeit justice, and biblical applications to do justice.


What Is Justice?

In the most basic sense, justice is receiving what we are owed. In the Bible, this is known as retribution, punishment for wrong-doing. Because humanity is fallen, we tend to act unlawfully. When someone commits a crime or does what is evil, justice demands that they be punished for their actions. God has given the home, church, and government the means to enforce justice. God has given parents the rod (Prov. 13:24; 22:15; Heb. 12:7), pastors are to utilize church discipline (Matt. 18:15-18; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Thess. 3:14), and the state is given the sword (Rom. 13:4; Gen. 9:6). In the home, God has given this responsibility to parents to train a child in holiness (Heb. 12:10). In society, God has given this role to government leaders to be a minister of God for the good of others by impartially upholding the rule of law and punishing those who violate the law (Rom. 13:4). Justice is enacting appropriate payment for a crime.


In another sense, the Bible also talks about justice as communitive, living in right relationships with others. God’s law tells us how we ought to treat other people. Justice occurs when we live out The Ten Commandments in our everyday relationships. We do justice when we recognize the dignity and value of all people and treat others with God-given respect.


Some people believe it is the civil government’s job to fix what is broken and address the needs of society through redistribution (deciding who gets what), but this is not God’s design. The government cannot change man’s heart or bring about justice through equal outcomes. Only Jesus Christ can transform our hearts. If God gave us what we truly deserved, we would all receive God’s wrath. Christ’s death paid the price for our sins by meeting God’s demand for justice on the cross. Those who place faith in Jesus receive grace rather than God’s wrath. When Jesus transforms our hearts internally, then God can work in us to transform society through restored relationships, obedience to God’s laws, and the application of God’s Word to all spheres of life.


God requires all people to “do justice” (Mic. 6:8). God declared, “All His ways are justice” (Duet. 32:4). The Bible reveals the standard for what is good and right. Acting justly is living in accordance with what is right. To do justice is to do what is right according to God’s law. Justice is the result of obeying and applying God’s law to life.


To understand biblical justice further, I will use Lady Justice as an illustration. Lady Justice reveals the biblical principles of justice that America was founded upon.


  • Lady Justice is standing on the Bible. God’s Word and His righteousness are the foundation for justice. The pursuit of justice requires a standard. When we lose a sense of right and wrong, we cannot determine what is just. Justice requires the truth. An apologist once said, “When truth dies, justice is buried with it.” Notice what Psalm 89:14 says: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne.” God wants both righteousness and justice. Righteousness is the moral standard of right and wrong to which God holds humans accountable based on His divine standard. Justice is the fair and impartial application of God’s moral law in society. When there is no standard for right or wrong, it leads to partiality, unfairness, and injustice.


  • Blindfolded, she practices no bias, never showing favoritism or partiality based on wealth, skin color, or sex. Lady Justice is blindfolded because she does not favor rich or poor, elite or lowly, black or white, male or female. Everyone stands on the same standard as image-bearers of God. Justice requires blindness to who the individual is. The Bible tells us it is unjust to take into account who someone is when deciding what is true and right: “You must not act unjustly when deciding a case. Do not be partial to the poor or give preference to the rich; judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:15 CSB).


  • The scales in her hand represent that her judgment is grounded in objective truth so that there can be fairness (a level playing field rather than crooked scales—taking in both sides of a story) and uprightness (a straight standard so that we can deal with people equally), not based on external factors or appearance. There can be no justice where relativism prevails because the standard for right and wrong always changes. When facts are presented, Lady Justice applies the standard impartially, without favoritism or rigging the scales. Justice hears both sides of a case and is not quick to jump to conclusions. This concept is based on the biblical principle of cross-examination and fair process (Prov. 18:17). Those who pass judgment after hearing only one side are not interested in justice. Therefore, we must not pronounce a judgment hastily or without all the facts.


  • The sword in her hand reveals the necessity of authority manifested in law and law enforcement. God has given civil government the role of punishing criminals. The principle of “an eye for an eye” is good when pursuing justice. In the ancient world, punishment often exceeded the crime, such as the death penalty for theft. The punishment must fit the crime. In addition, when crime is ignored, injustice multiplies. Therefore, God commands civil leaders to read the law before governing so that they administer justice impartially and biblically.


How to Recognize Counterfeits

There are numerous counterfeit versions of biblical justice occurring in our society right now. The Bible tells us that evil people don’t understand justice (Prov. 28:5). Ungodly people call their actions just and identify many things as an injustice, but they do so in error. Consider asking two questions to recognize distorted justice:


1. What is the problem? Social justice redefines sin as oppression against humans rather than rebellion against God. It compares one group of people with another group and incorrectly defines the differences as injustice. As a result, the standard of right and wrong becomes group identities such as sexuality, race, or gender rather than God’s law.


2. What is the solution? Because a secular view of justice gets the problem wrong, it also gets the solution wrong. Salvation has been redefined as activism with the goal of liberation rather than repentance to Christ with the goal of restoring a broken world through gospel transformation. One way to differentiate the biblical gospel from the social gospel is that the social gospel preaches structural transformation that works from the outside-in to reform systems, structures, and policies. In contrast, the biblical gospel preaches spiritual transformation from the inside-out, transforming systems and structures by restoring one’s relationship with God and others.


Applying the Biblical Teaching on Justice


Ask yourself three questions:


1. How am I living and treating others?

If we want to live justly, we must live according to God’s laws and His good design. When we live out of alignment with God’s laws, it will lead to injustice for others. When we live according to the truth, we will be a sweet aroma of Christ that is attractive to others. We should seek to live without partiality toward others. Ask yourself, “Am I treating others differently because of skin color, gender, religion, wealth, health, age, or any other way?” If we simply lived according to The Ten Commandments, justice would occur.


2. What is good in the world that you can promote, protect, or contribute?

We can promote the sanctity of life, the value of motherhood, or orphan care. We can protect biblical marriage, freedom of speech, and God’s creation. These are examples of doing justice.


3. What is evil in society that you can fight against?

Courageous Christians have worked to stop evil. Throughout history, Christians have been known for running toward, not away from the suffering of others, and standing against injustice in the world. God has called some Christians to be advocates against evil. The gospel saves souls, closes abortion clinics, frees women from sex trafficking, and eliminates addiction.


Biblically, God deals with us fairly and according to a standard. God instructs us to deal with each other in the same way, without favoritism or partiality. Applied to all of life, a biblical view of justice means equal, fair, and impartial treatment for everyone according to God’s law.

 

Dr. Josh Mulvihill is the Executive Director of Church and Family Ministry at Renewanation. He served as a pastor for nearly 20 years, serves on the board of Awana, and helps to provide leadership to the Christian Grandparent Network. He holds a Ph.D. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Biblical Grandparenting, Preparing Children for Marriage, and Biblical Worldview. Josh is married to Jen, and they have five children. Josh blogs at GospelShapedFamily.com.