To accurately picture God’s graciousness to us in the gospel through our giving, the one thing we must never do is claim that the recipient of the gift deserves it; that we are committing an act of justice to them in our giving. For the sake of the integrity of the gospel, gospel giving must never be thought of as justice. It’s not justice. It’s grace. It’s charity.
The Church has begun to widely embrace so-called social justice, and much of it is thanks to Tim Keller’s book, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just.
There are certainly a lot of good things in Keller’s book—the greatest of which is his call for the Church to pursue justice. However, I think Keller makes some grave mistakes when it comes to identifying what justice is, and how it should be pursued. This is most obvious in his discussion about the economic aspects of social justice (sometimes called “economic justice”).
The economic aspect of social justice typically consists of some sort of appeal to economic equality, where the sense of justice implied is that of alleviating economic needs. Keller expresses this view saying, “if you do not actively and generously share your resources with the poor, you are a robber. You are unjust.”1 (17) He makes a similar claim in his article, “The Gospel and the Poor,” saying, “To fail to share what you have is not just uncompassionate, but unfair, unjust.” (19-20)
Justice or Charity?
In today’s political climate, this kind of talk might smack of Marxism. But before assuming that Keller—and his fellow evangelical advocates of so-called social justice—are peddling Marxist notions, we ought to consider what else they might mean with this kind of language. One of Keller’s major rationales for using the language of “justice” rather than “charity” when talking about giving to the poor is that the word charity “conveys a good but optional activity” (Generous Justice, p. 15); and giving to the poor—Keller points out—is not an optional activity for the Christian.
Of course, Keller is right that giving to the poor is not optional for the Christian. Christians are indeed commanded to help the poor in order to set forth an image of the grace of God. But is this a good reason to refer to that act as “justice” rather than as “charity”? Is the mere fact that something is morally obligatory sufficient for changing its name to “justice”? Presumably not. There are dozens of things in the Christian life that are not optional (e.g., prayer, fellowship, communion with the saints, etc…), and yet it would be absurd to change the names of those activities to “justice” merely because they’re obligatory.
There is a traditional category of justice called universal justice which, according to Ronald Nash, “is coextensive with the whole of righteousness, with the whole of virtue” (Social Justice and the Christian Church, p. 30). So, one could say that charity is an expression of universal justice, which just means that charity is part of the moral life for the Christian. In this sense, the Christian’s failure to do what is morally obligatory (whether it be charity, prayer, or whatever) would be an injustice against God. But it’s clear that Keller means to say more than this in referring to aid to the poor as “justice.”