Book Review: Generous Justice by Tim Keller
Review of Generous Justice by Timothy Keller (Dutton, 2010)
Last year saw a flurry of books on the mission of Christians in the world. Those up to speed with the rapidly growing list of WSC faculty titles will remember David VanDrunen’s two significant contributions, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms (Eerdmans) and Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (Crossway). More broadly, other works which have lately entered into the conversation are James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, David Platt’s Radical, and Christopher J.H. Wright’s The Mission of God’s People. Whether you’re a plumber, college student, housewife, lawyer, or seminarian trying to think through issues of Christianity and culture, there is no shortage of accessible and helpful guides.
One such guide is Timothy Keller’s recent Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. Those familiar with Keller will find his latest book recognizable in both content and style. For one, Generous Justice deals with some of the same subjects that Keller had addressed some years ago in his Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road (1997). Those like myself, who find Keller’s preaching powerful and persuasive, will find this book to be another engaging, convincing, humble, and biblically-thoughtful piece of work.
The book, as the subtitle suggests, shows how God’s grace makes us just. Keller argues that those who have experienced the prodigal grace of God cannot help but be those who desire to be just and do justly. Always the conscientious preacher, Keller is explicitly writing to four groups: Christians concerned with social justice not explicitly motivated by the gospel, Christians who are skeptical of social justice, Christians who do social justice while neglecting many traditional evangelical doctrines, and Non-Christians who believe that religion (especially Christianity) promotes injustice.
Keller’s chapters are fairly straightforward. He begins by defining what it means to “do justice.” Doing justice, Keller says, is not merely about just deserts, but giving people their due as God’s creatures (18). It includes not only the righting of wrongs, but also generosity and social concern, especially to the poor and vulnerable. Keller traces the theme of doing justice through the Old Testament, the ministry of Jesus, and into the New Testament church. A close read of the parable of the Good Samaritan supports Keller’s conclusion that receiving the “ultimate, radical neighbor-love” of Jesus is the only way to start being the neighbors Scripture has called us to be (77).
Very helpfully, Keller shows the two basic motivations for believers to do justice. First, we are to honor the goodness of God’s creation, especially by treasuring those who bear God’s image. Second, like the Old Testament Israelites, we are to respond to God’s grace in redemption by doing justly. Like the Israelites, we were once poor, racial outsiders living in bondage, but now Christ has set us free and seated us with Him. Justice to the poor and outsider is now a sign of our relationship with God.
There is much to commend in Keller’s relatively short work. Those sympathetic with the work of Abraham Kuyper will find in Keller a thoughtful dialogue partner. For instance, he helpfully distinguishes between the church as institute and the church as organism (144ff.), each given its particular level of help. Perhaps the church as institute should be concerned primarily with relief, while the church as organism should be concerned with development and social reform. Keller’s suggestions are modest and humble.
Interestingly, Keller makes use of Kuyper without loading too much eschatological baggage on the concept of doing justice. Desiring justice and doing justly does not restore shalom or redeem people, only God in Christ redeems. At best, our works are signs of a right relationship and the world to come. Readers will have to reflect on whether Keller’s decision not to base his case on a particular view of the “kingdom of God” (202-4, n. 61 for his survey of the debate surrounding the kingdom) is problematic for his argument as a whole. Especially towards the end Keller sounds very optimistic about doing justice and repairing the places where the fabric of shalom has broken down; yet he is able to strike a middle ground between those who might identify themselves as transformationalists and those who are sympathetic to a two-kingdoms perspective.
In a day when many churches and Christians neglect the work of evangelism as “the most basic and radical ministry possible to a human being” (139) for doing justice or do justice only as a means to the end of evangelism, Keller offers a balanced corrective. His suggestions are thoughtful. And the book as a whole is jam-packed with Scripture. Readers will find it a helpful contribution to an important discussion and a humbling reflection on our response to our God who not only became poor and marginalized, but stood in our place of spiritual bankruptcy and paid the debt.
By Eric Chappell