When Justice Is Too Narrow – a response to John Piper and The Gospel Coalition

The Gospel Coalition released a one minute video of John Piper speaking on justice and grace at a recent conference.

The enthusiasm about God’s grace is infectious, and I appreciate his encouragement to embrace that grace. His take on justice, on the other hand, is puzzling. I’m not sure what led him to say what he did but justice is a gospel-filled word and his use of it in that video is too narrow.*

God told his people Israel that in their courts, the basic rule was this:

Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16:18-20, emphasis added.)

God didn’t tell his people that everyone deserves God’s wrath so treat them accordingly. He said that everyone is to be treated fairly in court. This principle applies outside of court as well.

Justice Daily and Everywhere

The Bible does not define justice as meting out retribution according to a person’s faults. Rather, justice is found when God’s people do the right thing for those who are lost, orphaned, widowed, or poor.

“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.

“Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless.

“If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest.” (Exodus 22:21-22, 25.)

God tells us to care for the sick and imprisoned as well.

I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. … Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (Matthew 25:36, 40.)

After all, justice and mercy go together.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8.)

You can’t have justice without mercy, and achieving both requires humility as well. Justice is the pursuit of what is right. It is helping those who are weak, fighting for those who have been wronged, speaking against those who oppress their fellow women and men.

To be a follower of Jesus means to stand against injustice.

This is the justice Jesus said he fulfills.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

… Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. (Luke4:18-19, 21.)

Let’s not denigrate justice. Let’s celebrate this work as a sign of God’s mercy and grace that we can join with our Savior in helping those who are poor, blind, imprisoned and oppressed.

This is God’s justice.


*For those thinking Mr. Piper’s comments might be taken out of context, I’ve wondered the same. The Gospel Coalition (with which Mr. Piper is closely aligned) is the group that chose to publish that video excerpt to stand on its own, and that choice denigrates the pursuit of justice that many of God’s people are involved in.


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30 Responses to When Justice Is Too Narrow – a response to John Piper and The Gospel Coalition

  1. Laura Droege says:

    I think you’re right, Tim, both on your take on justice and on the suspicion that Piper’s words are taken out of context. I tried to search for the entire segment, but didn’t find a video of it. It’s apparently part of a panel discussion called “Biblical Foundations for Seeking God’s Justice in a Sinful World,” and included Piper, Tim Keller, Thabiti Anyabwile, Don Carson, and Miguel Nunez. I hope TGC makes a full video available; I’d certainly like to hear the context and responses between these folks. To publish the clip on its own isn’t right.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for checking into the context issue, Laura. Posting just this edited version seems irresponsible to me, since it gives a false impression of how a Christian should view justice.

      • Laura Droege says:

        It reminds me of how easily words are misinterpreted when taken out of context; how many heresies and false teachings have begun because someone takes a verse out of context?

        It also reminds me of the time I used the phrase “social justice” in a Sunday school class, and there were people there who thought I was talking about socialism. I’ve had similar things happen in our current church, to the point where I feel like I’m speaking an entirely different language than the other people in the class. Sigh.

    • April Fiet says:

      TGC does this all the time. When they think something says all that needs to be said on a topic, they will post it and share it as a “teaching tool.” Is it entirely cynical of me to think that the only reason they talked justice at all is that more and more Christians are demanding justice-oriented ministry. Traditionally the idea of “justice” is something that has been avoided in these circles, unless “justice” means “wrath against those who aren’t the elect.”

      • Tim says:

        I noticed that too, April. The only times I recall seeing TGC mention justice is in the context of God’s wrath on the unelect, not in relation to God’s justice in rescuing the oppressed and setting captives free. God’s justice for the oppressed is work we can all join in.

  2. April Fiet says:

    I wish he would’ve talked a little bit more about the difference between God’s justice and our justice. In the video, he seems to conflate those. The strangeness of the Gospel is that in some way, God felt justice was done when God lavished love on those who were sinners. 🙂

    • Tim says:

      Right. What he really means is retribution, and that God’s people are not to seek that but to live in grace and deliver grace. But he kept saying justice, and that’s a dangerous conflation when it comes to teaching God’s people how to pursue God’s justice.

  3. Jeannie says:

    Such an interesting discussion already — which is why I wouldn’t miss my daily visit to your blog, Tim! I was in a study group one time and the subject of justice came up, and one person (a very mature Christian guy, older than me) said, “Well, as the Bible says, mercy triumphs over justice.” I had to jump in and say “Wait a minute, no, it says judgment, not justice.” He smiled tolerantly at me and the discussion veered in another direction, but it really got me thinking about how exactly as Christians we even define justice (I think the guy in my group was defining it more as Piper does). I wish I’d read your post before that conversation happened because I like how you point out that “you can’t have justice without mercy.”

    • Tim says:

      I’m glad you were there to correct the notion of justice. Even if he wasn’t persuaded, perhaps it got someone else thinking.

  4. Doug Hanson says:

    This is Doug Hanson (Jan’s husband). I am getting hooked on your blogs. Thanks for encouraging us to reflect on different aspects of life.

    • Tim says:

      I’m glad you’re here, Doug (both internet-wise and States-wise), and finding the blog encouraging. That’s the ministry I’m aiming for!

  5. Tim, how you understood Piper to be denigrating justice from that clip, I cannot fathom. It would seem to me, in fact, that the more highly you esteem justice, the more glorious appear the grace, love, and kindness he is calling for Christians to display in daily life. To assume that Piper has a lower view of justice than scripture requires based on his exaltation of grace, love, and kindness far above justice is to:
    1. assume Piper doesn’t know the scriptures quite so well as you do, yourself.
    2. betray that your own view of these three is virtues may not be lofty enough.

    Let me challenge you to watch the video clip again with the assumption that Piper has in mind every bit of the expansive view of justice you hold and have depicted above. Ought grace, love, and kindness (as Piper is calling for) above and beyond that kind of justice yet mark the daily lives of Christians? I believe they should and I suspect Piper does, too.

    Brother, I understand the impulse to be contrarian. Believe me, I do. Sometimes though, that impulse has caused me to object to what is right. I suspect you can testify to first-hand experience with this very same phenomenon. No?

    • Tim says:

      I think Piper does have a high view of God’s justice. I just don’t think that’s how he used it in that clip above. Also, I completely disagree that grace, love and kindness are above justice. They are all found in God’s character. As I said in the post, Scripture shows us that justice and mercy are not antithetical but rather go hand in hand.

      P.S. Have I ever been tempted to be merely contrarian? Sure. Is this post an instance of it? No. This post is an attempt to correct a poorly edited presentation of the doctrine of justice and grace.

  6. Jeremy M. says:

    There is part of me that wants to say this was taken out of context or not meant exactly as it is, but there is also part of me that doubts it. If you view humans as totally depraved then there is a tendency to conflate justice and judgment. Getting what we deserve is justice in that line of thought. Perhaps it is a problem of too closely relating God’s idea of justice to a legal sense of justice? This tends to be a fairly common line of thought within reformed, particularly Calvinistic, traditions.

    The problem with this is that God’s justice isn’t merely legal. God’s justice seems to include mercy, love, and forgiveness as hallmarks. So in that regard loving our neighbors, and yes even our enemies, is not greater than justice, but is ultimately part of God’s justice for the world.

    • Tim says:

      Great points, Jeremy. I think he did conflate justice and judgment, which are not the same thing of course.

      • Mannah says:

        Seems neither one of you understands the doctrine of “total depravity”… You should do your research before sounding ignorant.

        • Tim says:

          I do know the doctrine. I also think Piper does not understand judgment under the New Covenant. Then again, there’s a lot of his doctrine that misses scripture.

  7. David M says:

    Yeah, I think you’re spot on, Jeremy M. When some of the foundational aspects of a theology are the premise that all of mankind is born depraved and PSA (Penal Substitution Atonement) was required, then it’s not a stretch to conflate justice and judgement. The real clue is about 30 seconds in when he says, “God got justice in the gospel”.

    • Tim says:

      I wondered about that line in the video too, David.

      • David M says:

        Yeah, in Piper’s theology and the theory of (PSA), God did get justice. God demanded a perfect sacrifice to satisfy his wrath against man. Piper recently amended the 5 points of Calvanism with 2 additional points and calls it the New Calvanism.

        As Jonathan Edwards summed it up “Sinners in the hands of an Angry God”. Personally, I walked/ran away from PSA a few years ago. 🙂

  8. Pastor Bob says:

    First reading, I saw some hair-splitting — seems like we argue the semantics of: social-justice, criminal-justice, civil-justice, adding Christian-justice, legal-justice, and…… Can the word “justice” have more modifiers added to it, creating a myriad of opportunities for misapplying or misunderstanding a key concept of our existence?

    Second reading, with comments helped show the more narrow focus of this posting, so …. thought the first thought would be interesting.


  9. Beth Caplin says:

    His view of justice seems consistent, given that it doesn’t seem to make Piper squeamish that the same God who calls us to love others and show mercy also commanded genocide, and it’s perfectly justified so long as God is the one calling for it.

  10. dpersson7 says:

    It is interesting after listening to this video clip that I found myself agreeing in a sense that yes we as Christians should go the extra mile in showing grace to others. However, extending grace to others cannot be broadly applied to each and every situation. Especially when extending grace means not involving legal authorities. My husband and I both have worked in family court and I can testify to the fact that adults can do very evil things to young children. That may not be what John Piper intended, but the extending grace has been used to discourage notifying the authorities in the past. The “forgive because we all get better than we deserve from God,” cannot apply to these types of circumstances. There really is no one size fits all answer to this question, but I think carefully clarifying that while mercy triumphs over judgment the offender must be actively seeking mercy and stopping the evil behavior, not just continuing on in it. No wonder we need the Holy Spirit to guide us when we talk about grace because it can easily be misunderstood and misapplied.
    Romans 13:3-4
    3For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.

    • Tim says:

      “No wonder we need the Holy Spirit to guide us when we talk about grace because it can easily be misunderstood and misapplied.” – Great wisdom, dp, thanks.

  11. Vashra Araeshkigal says:

    Q. What’s inside the Ark of the Covenant?
    A. (Among other things) The Law (Torah) and the Tablets of the Law (10 Commandments).

    Q. Where does the Living Presence of the Lord dwell?
    A. On *top* of the Ark of the Covenant.

    Q. What is the lid of the Ark of the Covenant *called*?
    A. It is called the MERCY Seat/Throne (usually translated seat in KJV)

    Q. What must happen before one can get inside the Ark to reach “the letter of the Law”?
    A. The Living Presence of the Lord must…..leave….vacate..
    A1. The Seat of Mercy must be *empty*

    I don’t know about others, but I know which one I’d rather have.

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