here are many visions and stories of justice clamouring for our allegiance. The temptation is for Christians to sign up for one of those versions of justice. We might imagine walking down Brick Lane in London, where every establishment has a barker out front, telling us that his restaurant has the best food at the cheapest price and he will give us a further discount. That’s what the “justice” market sounds like today.
But when we say, “Jesus is the justice of God,” we are saying that the only true, hopeful and complete story of justice is the “Jesus story,” that is, the gospel. And only this story offers a vision of justice that has already been made real and whole and guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection is God’s vindication of all he claimed and taught – that through him all creation would be made right, and lined up with God’s intentions for the life of the world. In other words, through Jesus we – and along with us – all creation is made “just”: justified, reconciled.
So, when we say, “Jesus is the justice of God,” we are saying that this is the only story and vision of true justice because it is the story of God making all things right.
Since Jesus is the justice of God, this means that how he taught us to live in word and deed is witness to and participation in God’s justice. This truth is woven into the fabric of our faith. In this article, we can only get started on this journey. But we can see something about this justice in Mary’s song (the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55), the Nazareth Manifesto (Luke 4:16-21), the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), and throughout the gospels as we learn to read them through the lenses provided by this teaching.
Although I have begun this account of the justice of God in the New Testament (NT), careful readers will recognize that the Magnificat and the Nazareth Manifesto echo the Old Testament (OT) and its cry for justice. As Israel’s Messiah, Jesus fulfils the OT cry for justice that we find in the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Job and more). We cannot understand Jesus as the justice of God apart from his identity as the Messiah of Israel and the fulfilment of the OT.
In Jesus, the justice of God is revealed as “making right” this fallen world so that it becomes what God created it to be: “new creation” is one of the ways that Paul proclaims this good news that he learned from the risen Jesus through the Holy Spirit. (And Paul often echoes Isaiah: see Isaiah 60-66 for a concentrated proclamation of the justice of God.)
Paul expands this vision in his letters to the churches. In Ephesians, for example, he begins with the blessings that God has bestowed on humans but enlarges the scope of God’s work: “With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfilment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” (Ephesians 1:8-10)
This is the vision of justice taught by the reality of the gospel. And this is good news beyond any other vision and story!
Now that we’ve discovered that Jesus is the justice of God, we will explore four more convictions that follow from this reality:
- Justice is integral to the gospel of Jesus Christ
- Justice must not be disconnected from Jesus
- The cry for justice all around us is a cry for the good news of Jesus Christ
- The justice of God is cosmic, global, local and personal
Justice is integral to the gospel of Jesus Christ
Given the vision and story that we’ve just affirmed, we know that not just any account of “justice” is integral to the gospel. But the gospel cannot be told and lived faithfully apart from this vision of justice taught by Jesus and Paul (and the rest of the Bible). How can we proclaim the gospel of Jesus in word and deed without declaring and living the reality that God is “justifying” all things – lining them up in accordance with God’s will – through Jesus Christ.
As we enter into the work of justice that is the story of Jesus, we confront a lot of obstacles to God’s will for unity under Christ. Sometimes these obstacles are in us and shape our resistance to the justice of God; sometimes they have a lot of control over us, limiting our vision of what is possible in faithfulness to the risen Jesus; sometimes the obstacles are powers that have become established in social structures – political, economic, medical, educational, architectural and more – that are enemies of God’s justice in Christ.
Jesus confronted these powers continually in his mission. Paul has a variety of names for them. In Ephesians, he tells us that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12) But Paul also assures us that “in [Christ] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16)
There’s a lot to think about in these passages, but two things stand out. First, when we become part of Jesus’ story by faith in him, we join in this struggle against forces that oppose God’s will to justify all things – line them up in their right relationship to God’s purposes in Christ. So, we don’t choose whether or not to be part of this struggle; if we are aligned with Jesus, we will be with him in this struggle. Second, the forces that oppose us are ultimately under the lordship of Christ. That’s why, when Jesus commissions us, he begins, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore ….” (Matthew 28:18-19) As his disciples, following him in this story of the justice of God, we need to know that he is making things right because all things belong to him – they are “through him and for him.” Thus, when we confess Jesus as the justice of God, we are simply confessing that in Jesus, all things are being brought into alignment with God’s plan for creation.
This simply is the gospel: that in the incarnation, life, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and return of Jesus Christ, God’s justice prevails. This justice is integral to the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ cannot be told or lived apart from this reality.
Justice must not be disconnected from Jesus
The “justice market” today offers us many tempting options. But compared to the gospel story of justice, every one of them is incomplete, misdirected or in direct conflict with Jesus as the justice of God.
However, they are alluring. They may promise justice delivered immediately. They may promise justice that privileges my identity or group instead of the reconciliation of all things. They may promise justice that brings me peace of mind and prosperity here and now. But they all fall short of the glory of the justice that we see in Jesus.
However (again), many accounts of the gospel have neglected – or even rejected – justice as integral to the gospel. As a result, people who long for justice do not turn to Jesus. That is, people who see what’s wrong with the world and long for justice, even if they have “grown up in the church,” often turn away from the church and Jesus in their pursuit of justice through another story and vision.
This is tragic, because the one true hope for justice is Jesus. Any account of the gospel that neglects God’s justice is a reduction of the gospel and of justice.
When justice is disconnected from the gospel, the tragedy unfolds in many different ways. One tragic consequence unfolds when people seek to establish justice by force. They seek to correct an injustice through violent means. This may achieve a partial justice for some people only for a while, but we know from Jesus’ story that the final justice of God is achieved not through violence but through sacrifice: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20)
Another tragedy unfolds in the lives of those who pursue justice disconnected from the risen Jesus, to be precise, apart from the life of the Spirit. Such pursuit is bound to end in failure, disappointment and collapse. Many of my friends began their pursuit of justice as an act of discipleship by joining what God is doing in the world. But over time, they drifted away from Jesus and into another story in which some vision of justice replaces Jesus as Lord. They seek justice through human effort apart from the “coming down” of God. And somewhere in that other story, they find that a vision for justice that is not rooted in Jesus leads to despair, resentment, burnout and collapse.
If we are to sustain a lifetime of commitment to “justice,” we must know our work for justice joins us with the work that Jesus did and continues to do. When we are disappointed, when we appear to fail, when our hopes seem dashed, we must remember that it is through the cross that God is justifying all things.
One of the clearest ways for us to grasp our need to keep justice connected to Jesus is to consider the Beatitudes that introduce the Sermon on the Mount. Begin with the end of each beatitude: poor, mourn, meek, hungry and thirsty, mercy, purity, peacemaking, persecuted and insulted. Most of these are things that we want to avoid. And even the things that we might seek, such as meekness, mercy and purity, make us vulnerable to the way this world works. Now recall the first part of each beatitude: “Blessed”! How can this be – that we are blessed when we suffer the conditions identified in the second part of each beatitude?
The only way to make sense of this puzzle is to recognize – and celebrate – the connection between the two parts: Jesus. When we join Jesus in God’s work of justice, we will experience the following.
Poverty of spirit: how can we possibly do what we are seeking to do?
Grief: we will see how far this world is from God’s life.
Meekness: we must work in God’s way, the way of sacrificial love.
Hunger and thirst: we long for God’s justice to come and be made visible.
Mercy: this is the way that God’s justice – reconciliation and unity – comes.
Purity: we will learn to will one thing – God’s vision for justice, not ours.
Peacemaking: God’s justice brings wholeness and healing to all creation.
Persecution: this will happen when we stand against and expose the powers of injustice.
Insult: this will come when we do not conform to other ideologies of justice.
And we will experience blessing, because when we join the Jesus story of justice we are entering into life as God intends it to be and as God has given life to us in Christ by the work of the Spirit.
When we look at history, it may seem that pursuing justice in the way of Jesus is doomed to failure and disappointment – it ends on the cross. But when we come to faith in the risen Lord of all and live in the power of the Spirit, we know by faith and in hope that the real trajectory of the cosmos is to be God’s new creation. So, we remain faithful to Jesus’ way of justice and do not lose heart, turning to the right or the left. As we abide in Jesus, the Spirit sustains us in the hope – the sure expectation – that our hunger and thirst for justice will be satisfied in Christ.
The cry for justice all around us is a cry for the good news of Jesus Christ
“It’s not fair!”
“That’s not the way it’s supposed to be!”
“When will justice be served?”
“How long must we wait for justice?”
“How long will evil and injustice prevail?”
We hear these and many other cries from the world around us. Our newsfeeds are filled with stories of oppression and injustice, violence and abuse, poverty and disease. And so we cry out for justice.
This cry for justice arises from the very centre of our being made in the image of God. Among other things, to be made in the image of God means that we are made for:
- relationship with God
- relationship with other humans
- relationship with the rest of creation
- relationship with ourselves
When any of these is “out of alignment,” that is not “justified” or in right relationship with God, we know something is wrong, even if we don’t know what that something is. Cries for justice are just this: “I know that something isn’t right and I want it made right!” Sometimes those who cry out for justice think that they know what’s wrong and how to make it right. But sometimes the cry for justice is simply a crying out in the midst of oppression.
In Exodus 3, we have a story of this dynamic. We read that YHWH has heard the cry of the Israelites “because of their slave drivers,” (Exodus 3:7) but there is no mention of them crying out for “justice” or liberation. Yet that is what YHWH comes down to do: “I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:8) Through Moses, YHWH brings a people into alignment with his life – justifies them – as a witness and blessing to all nations.
We who are followers of the Jesus story of justice now have that same calling, to be witnesses and a blessing to all people. So, when those around us who do not know the story of Jesus cry out for “justice,” we have good news for them.
Many of those who cry out for justice have an incomplete vision of justice; many have a distorted vision of justice; indeed, many have a vision of justice that is contrary to the justice proclaimed by Jesus in word and deed.
We must not be put off by these partial and competing visions. Every one of those cries arises from the sense that something is wrong and should be made right. Every one of those cries is an occasion in which the Spirit is calling us into the world with the good news. In Jesus Christ we have the only vision of justice that brings life everlasting to all creation through the reconciliation of all things.
As we hear the cries for justice in the world, we must also pay close attention to our response. If we respond only with words, we betray the reality of the good news of God’s justice in Jesus Christ. Jesus calls us to put his words into practice. (Matthew 7:24) Paul admonishes us that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10) James warns us that “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:26) And John writes, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech, but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:18) Those who cry out for justice must not only hear the good news of Jesus, they must see it. The justice of God in Jesus is not an ideal, not an idea – it is reality.
Sometimes it seems that those outside the church have a deeper passion for justice than we who are followers of the only true and hopeful justice. When Israel was unfaithful to God’s call to live justly and bear witness to the nations, they cut themselves off from the life that God gives and brought themselves under God’s judgment. May we, by God’s grace, be faithful to the justice of God and proclaim Jesus, the justice of God, to a dying world.
The justice of God is cosmic, global, local and personal
- Cosmic: since God is reconciling all things to Godself, that is, bringing all things into just alignment with God’s will, and since “all things” includes “things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,” (Colossians 1:16) then the justice of God is cosmic in its scope. In John’s vision in Revelation 21, this work is complete in “a new heaven and a new earth.” (Revelation 21:1; in John’s vocabulary, “a new heaven” refers to the astronomical bodies.)
- Global: since “all things” includes “thrones, powers, rulers and authorities” (paraphrasing Colossians 1:16), and since these things extend their authority as far as their power enables them, God’s justice disarms them and makes a public spectacle of them, “triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:15)
- Local: when the justice of God becomes real in the coming of Jesus, God also “justifies” human relationships. In NT times, this took the form of Jew and Gentile coming together as one people in Christ. And in Colossians, Paul describes this justice in communal life as he admonishes them to put to death their old way of life that was out of alignment with God, and to live as “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.” (Colossians 3:12) This is one small way to enter into the justice of God made known in Jesus.
- Personal: in the same passage in Colossians, Paul also admonishes each follower of Jesus to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” (Colossians 3:10) In this renewal, God’s justice brings each of us into a right alignment with God and with ourselves as God has made us. In order to do that, God forgives us – and is just in doing so because of the atonement of Jesus Christ. (Romans 3:21-26)
“Justice” often appears to be a complicated and controversial topic. When we begin to cry out for it and work for it, we usually find ourselves tangled up in economic and political ideologies that divide people from one another. Or we may try to do something for a while, then our good intentions wither and we lose hope and burn out. In this article, I have invited us into the journey that is the Jesus way of justice. It is a lifelong, generation-spanning journey.
May we hope, pray and work toward a conversation about God’s justice and a practice of God’s justice that brings us toward unity and deeper faith in him because Jesus is the justice of God, where “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11)
Jonathan R. Wilson is Senior Associate for Theological Integration with CBM and Teaching Fellow at Regent College.