Justice and Righteousness: Love of Neighbor in Action

I vividly remember listening to a talk several years ago in which Gary Haugen described the work he does – helping free people trapped in modern day slavery – as showing God’s love to them. In 1997, Haugen founded International Justice Mission, “a global organization that protects the poor from violence throughout the developing world.” Haugen’s motivation is from the heart of God Himself because justice is at the heart of God.

Lately for some reason, justice has become a controversial subject in the church. Haugen defines justice as “doing for others what we would want done for us.” Because “just” means what is morally right and fair, true justice means doing what is morally right and fair in the eyes of God Himself, according to His Word. Closely linked to justice is righteousness, the quality of being morally right or just. You could consider justice to be righteousness in action. Both justice and righteousness are born in the character of God, and they are His desire for mankind.

God has declared that He made man and woman in His image and therefore each person has inherent dignity. This inherent dignity makes all people worthy of love. This inherent dignity underlies Christ’s injunctions to His church to love our neighbors as ourselves. This inherent dignity is behind the God-willed sacrifice of His only begotten Son on a cross of crucifixion, because God so loved the world. Because it is rooted in the love of God, justice is in no way disconnected from the Gospel. Apart from the Gospel, there is no imperative for justice. But in light of the Gospel, justice and righteousness matter because what happens to men and women valued and loved by God matters. Their just treatment matters. Seeing them through the same eyes as the righteous God their Maker sees them matters. Relieving their pain and suffering matters and flows from His love. We see this truth in many places in Scripture but pointedly in the second table of the Decalogue, in which God prohibits activities that amount to unjust, unrighteous treatment of others.

The first time the word “justice” appears in Scripture is in a conversation God is having in Genesis 18:19. God’s will in choosing Abraham was that Abraham would do righteousness and justice, which God Himself describes as “the way of the Lord.” If God appointed Abraham to do justice, His expectation of His church for whom His Son died and in whom His Spirit resides can be no less.

The first time “righteousness” appears is also associated with the patriarch Abraham; in Genesis 15, God counted Abraham’s trust in Him as righteousness, an early instance of being declared just by God through faith. The apostle Paul reminds us that Abraham was declared just, righteous by God due to his faith. And if declared as righteous, certainly righteous deeds were expected from Abraham. And if from Abraham, how much more from the church bought by the blood of God’s Son?

As His church, we reflect God’s righteousness and justice in two ways: internally as a community marked by justice and righteous deeds among our members and externally by humbly serving the world according to God’s love for those made in His image. God’s people reveal His will and nature by living out His requirements, laid out in Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (ESV)?

When Christ declared His church is to be salt and light, He revealed His desire for us to impact our culture in His name and on His terms. Treatment that is morally right and fair according to God’s judgment is both just and righteous and must be inherent in that saltiness and light-bearing. However, as His church our track record has not always reflected His requirements. One of the founders of evangelicalism, Carl F. H. Henry, lamented the church’s lack of concern for engaging the world with justice and righteousness in his time. In his 1947 classic, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Henry wrote, “If Protestant orthodoxy holds itself aloof from the present world predicament it is doomed to a much reduced role. [. . . ] If the evangelical answer is in terms of religious escapism, then the salt has lost its savor.” These words bear weight today, seventy-five years later.

Justice and righteousness in the church are extensions of God’s character and thus call the church to not just share His love verbally but to show His love in selfless sacrifice. Jesus Christ gave Himself bodily in earthly ministry and ultimately on the cross, all for love. Rooted in God’s love, we as God’s people are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, as our Savior did.

So instead of asking, “What is justice?” the question God’s people should be asking is: “What does love of neighbor require of us?” The answer will lead us to acts of relational righteousness, standing for and doing what is morally just and fair because the answer will come from the character of our God. Our neighbor is a near one, and God’s command is for us to see our near one as a dear one. Wanting right and fair treatment for ourselves and our family is only natural. What is perhaps less natural but nevertheless commanded by God and empowered by His Spirit is for His church to desire and pursue right and fair treatment for near ones no matter who they might be, what they might look like, or even what they have done. Even when they are historically or culturally different than us, the other.

Haugen has said of the church, “God has a plan to help bring justice to the world – and His plan is us.” Justice and righteousness borne in the love of God underlie what we do as the North American Baptist conference of churches. We love because He first loved us.

Because we love, we plant communities of faith to show and share Who God is.

Because we love, we join with God in His desire to draw all people unto Himself, learning how we can grow in meeting people where they are to show them His love.

Because we love, we make those in other parts of the world near ones, sending them ministry partners to show and share God’s love.

Because we love, we are joined together as a conference of churches to encourage one another and to combine the strength of our member churches into a team to more effectively and more broadly accomplish God’s mission to reach people Christ came to save.