Angry Justice?

Angry Justice?

I’ve heard people say, “The church needs to get angry about all these social injustices!” Many seem to believe that racism, misogyny, domestic abuse, child abuse, etc., are all worthy of our most intense anger so that we’re stirred to action in support of victims and so that we can bring oppressors to justice. But is that true? Certainly, the Scriptures are clear that we must seek justice. Proverbs 21:15 says, “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.” On the other hand, James 1:20 says, “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires.” There is something about human anger, untempered, and fully expressed that does not please God. I suggest we need to make some careful distinctions when it comes to angrily pursuing justice.

1. The Nature of Anger

The Bible does not teach that anger itself is sinful. After all, God is angry. Scripture frequently talks about “the anger of the LORD” (2 Kgs 13:3), His “wrath” (Ezek 7:8), and “indignation” (Hab 3:12). That means anger in itself must not be sinful.

In fact, anger is simply a policy and posture of opposition along with a relentless resolve to achieve some goal. Anger says, “You shall not pass.”

But like all emotions in human beings, anger can be godly, or it can be sinful. Paul says in Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry and do not sin.” Notice the two commands in that verse. First, there is a command to “be angry.” On the one hand, anger is required to oppose sin and ungodliness. But second, Scripture commands, “Do not sin.” There must never be any hint of hatred or murder in our anger. You may not break the 6th commandment, “You shall not murder” in your thoughts, words, or deeds, when you are angry for a good cause.

2. Hateful Justice

What does “hateful justice” look like? It looks like “unjust justice.” Hateful justice is lawless, sinful and murderous, and thus, it is injustice. Those who practice hateful justice tend to play fast and loose with the facts, breaking the 9th commandment. They may construct narratives and impose them broadly on large groups of people, even if the narrative is not true about many individuals in that group (Exod 23:1). This is also breaking the 9th commandment. They are more than willing to accept unproven allegations and then murder alleged wrongdoers with their words, and actions, breaking the 6th commandment (Gen 39:14, 19-20). They have no problem stealing the good names of those who may in fact be innocent, breaking the 8th commandment.

In short, hateful and murderous “justice” is by definition “lawless justice,” which is, of course, a contradiction in terms. Lying, murdering and stealing are all violations of God’s moral law. But the very definition of true justice is the faithful administration of God’s moral law.

The popular “vigilante” heroes of our culture, who “fight the system” by breaking God’s good law, are no heroes at all (Rom 12:19-21). To be very clear, vigilantes may actually be right in their stated cause. The perceived evil they are fighting may turn out to be real evil that needs to be fought and brought to justice. But those who use lawless means will never achieve justice because they leave so many injustices in their wake. Those who hatefully seek “justice” become the very kinds of people they claim to oppose: oppressors. And they create the very thing they claim to be fighting: injustice.

3. Loving Justice

Loving justice often has something in common with hateful justice. It often opposes the very same injustices that society opposes, such as racism, misogyny, domestic abuse, child abuse, sex trafficking, etc. But loving justice also opposes every kind of injustice, including injustices that are not recognized by society, such as abortion, false allegations against men, reverse racial discrimination, the adoption of children by homosexual couples, teaching children that their gender identity is rooted in their desires and choices rather than their biology, etc.

If we want to engage in loving justice, we need to remember three things.

First, those who practice loving justice remember that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Now some sins are much more severe and destructive than other sins (John 19:11; Matt 11:21-22). Great sins must be met with great force in order to protect victims and honor God. But those who practice loving justice never forget that God’s strict justice would send everyone to hell (Rom 6:23). We are all guilty before the bar of God’s good and holy justice (Rom 3:23). It’s simply not true that those evil oppressors over there deserve to go to hell, but we do not. We need to remember that we would all be like the most wicked of oppressors, if it were not for the gracious hand of our God, restraining us, and keeping us from becoming as bad as we would otherwise be.

You can tell when someone is in the grip of loving justice because they are humble, cautious, and not quick to condemn. They are not self-righteous or proud. They remember that we are all but dust. When God’s people lovingly seek justice, their words and manner have a gracious tincture (in the words of the Marrowmen of Scotland), even while they confront evil. They are not strident, but cautious because they know their own sins, and they fear that their sins might create more injustices, wrongfully hurting others and dishonoring God.

Second, loving justice remembers the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

When we practice loving justice, we remember God’s grace to ourselves. Our righteousness is not based on defending righteous causes for the sake of justice. If we believe our righteousness is based on achieving justice, then we will be tempted to sin in trying to obtain justice because our own righteousness depends on it. But in Christ, we don’t have to prove that we are righteous by destroying or punishing alleged oppressors. Rather, we remember that we are only righteous because of the free gift of Christ’s righteousness in the gospel. This frees us to be gracious and loving, even toward our enemies. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk 6:27-28).

The grace of God in Jesus also enables us to forgive as we have been forgiven. When we remember that Christ has freely cancelled our debt, then we can cancel the debts of others against us. We don’t have to harbor grudges or keep turning over personal offenses in our minds. Jesus said, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive your trespasses” (Mk 11:25). If we do not forgive our enemies, we will not go to heaven.  Jesus says, “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:15). Forgiveness is an essential response to the gospel. God’s grace in Christ allows us to truly love our enemies as well as the enemies of God. It allows us to love oppressors with a tough, but humble and merciful love, and to sincerely desire their good, which does not mean we desire them to be free from the consequences of their sin, but that we desire them to be made like Jesus, and to be brought to justice for their own sake and for the sake of others.

The grace of God makes us willing to lay down our lives for the sake of justice, for the good of victims, as well as for the good of oppressors.

The grace of God in Jesus also makes us very bold, even lovingly angry (Neh 5:6; Ps 139:19-22). If we know that Christ has given us eternal life, then we can stand for truth and righteousness, even if they kill us for it (Matt 10:26-33). We can boldly oppose injustices with love, humility, and mercy, no matter what others may say or do. Our treasure is not on this earth but in heaven. Believing the grace of God to us does not make us passive or lazy in the least. It makes us strong and willing to accept whatever consequences we may have to endure in this life because God has promised us a new heavens and a new earth, and perfect communion with Christ forever. The grace of God makes us willing to lay down our lives for the sake of justice, for the good of victims, as well as for the good of oppressors. The grace of God makes us humbly, mercifully and lovingly angry for the glory of God.

Third, loving justice remembers the good law of God as our guide.

Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Loving justice keeps the commandments of God in two ways.

1. Those who practice loving justice recognize that injustice is defined as a violation of God’s moral law.

In Romans 4:13, Paul says, “Where there is no law, there is no transgression” (cf. Rom 3:20; 5:13). Injustice is not a violation of a cultural construct or ideal. Injustice is not a violation of a secular philosophy of justice. Injustice is not a mere sense or feeling that some wrong has been done.

Injustice is strictly defined as a violation of God’s moral law, when God’s moral law is understood in all its fulness, expounded by the whole Bible, and manifested in the character of Jesus Christ. Those who practice loving justice don’t accuse others of injustice, unless there is clear proof that God’s law has been violated. A loving person defines injustice on God’s terms, not on his own terms. 1 John 3:4 gives us a clear definition of sin, or injustice: “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.”

2. Those who practice loving justice insist on following the moral law of God, even while they seek justice.

That is, the way and manner that they seek justice is just as important as the justice that they seek. Daniel, for example, opposed the injustices of king Nebuchadnezzar, but he did so, while prayerfully keeping the good law of God. Daniel was so consistent in keeping God’s commandments that his enemies said, “We shall not find any ground of complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God” (Dan 6:9). In other words, Daniel was so faithful to God’s law that his enemies would be forced to get at Daniel by attacking the law of his God. May that be said of us as well.

Those who practice loving justice keep the 9th commandment, which says, “You shall not bear false witness” (Exod 20:16). They do not lie about the facts. They do not impose false or favorite narratives on alleged oppressors. They make sure they have the full and complete story before repeating a matter. They corroborate their claims with sufficient evidence. They do not lie. They’re willing to hear or listen to any testimony or claim, but they are only willing to believe the testimony, when there is sufficient evidence of its truthfulness.

They keep the 6th commandment, “You shall not murder” (Exod 20:13). That means they do not deride, revile, mock, or verbally abuse anyone, including those they believe to be oppressors. The Bible teaches that “revilers” (verbal abusers) are not in the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10) and are actually worthy of church discipline (1 Cor 5:11-12). So, those who practice loving justice speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15). They tell the truth in such a way so as to try not to murder the reputation of another person so far as it depends on them (Prov 22:1). They do not harbor hatred in their hearts. They do not murder their enemies.

They keep the 5th commandment, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exod 20:12). This means they respect established authorities (Rom 13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet 2:13). They withhold final judgment until divinely established authorities have examined a matter and rendered judgment. Unless the authorities rebel against God’s law, or require sin, those who hold to loving justice submit themselves to the judgment of the authorities. They accept and submit to the authorities God has established in the family (Eph 5:22; 6:1), in the church (Heb 13:17), and in the civil sphere (Rom 13:3-5), and they attempt to work for justice through lawful means, not by rebelling against authority. If authorities need to be purged of corruption, then they seek reformation through biblically lawful means, not by lawless insurrection (1 Pet 2:18).

4. The Gospel of Jesus Christ

Above all, those who practice loving justice preach Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 1:23-34). They want others to know the holiness and love of God in Jesus Christ. They know that true justice can never come to the world apart from the conversion of human hearts or Christ’s second coming. When oppressors are converted to Jesus they are completely destroyed. The old man is gone and the new man has come to those who are in Christ Jesus. So those who practice loving justice preach the gospel of free grace, faith to God in Jesus Christ, and the repentance of sins. This does not mean that they preach the gospel instead of seeking to enforce justice in love (Mk 6:18-20). Rather it means that they know that evil is only truly conquered, when Christ conquers a sinful heart (Acts 26:28).

Those who practice loving justice also know that the law alone can never produce the justice that they seek. Preaching against and condemning injustices can never change human hearts. Preaching the law can slow down the polluted fountain of the human heart, protecting victims, which is a good thing.

But only the gospel can heal the diseased streams of the human heart and turn sinners into saints. Mere preaching against sin and oppression can never address the root problem. We must indeed preach the law. But we must also preach the gospel. Only the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Only Christ can bring justice into this world, which means that above all, we should preach and minister Jesus Christ and Him crucified, even while we lovingly and lawfully oppose oppression.

Tom serves as the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Clinton, LA. He’s married to Joy, and they have four children: Sophie, Karlie, Rebekah, and David. He received his MDiv and PhD degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a major in Church History, emphasis on Baptists, and with a minor in Systematic Theology. Tom is the author of The Doctrine of Justification in the Theologies of Richard Baxter and Benjamin Keach (PhD diss, SBTS). He serves on the board of directors for Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary and is an adjunct professor of historical theology for the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies.
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