I said I was looking forward to reading Tim Keller’s new book Generous Justice in a previous post and have actually had a great number of visitors to this blog read my previous post about Generous Justice. Since there is such an interest in Tim Keller’s book on justice and I have actually read the book (in 2 sittings, lol) I have written a review of the book which at one point might appear on ChristianBook.com’s Academic Blog. However, in the meantime I wanted to share some of the fine points of this book in review fashion in hopes that it might be useful for those of you who might read this book and that it might provide some benefit for you as a read in and of itself.
Grace and Peace to you all in Jesus Christ our Lord,
Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just
by Tim Keller
Review by Matthew C. Gladd
Tim Keller has been pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City since 1989. Prior to that he pastored a church in rural Virginia. He has attended Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan has grown substantially since Keller started in 1989 in a small New York apartment. Focused originally on serving primarily professionals living in Manhattan, Redeemer has grown from 15 members to thousands. Presently, Redeemer is starting churches in urban centers all over the country and even overseas. Tim Keller is the author of Ministries of Mercy, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Prodigal God, Counterfeit Gods, Generous Justice, and his forthcoming book titled King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus will be published in February 2011.
There is no shortage of books on justice today in the non-Christian community and the Christian community is not too far behind. The truth is all of us are greatly affected by injustices all around us whether we are Christian or not. The last century has seen no shortage of injustices globally and perhaps nothing in my life has affected me more than the Holocaust during World War II and the segregation of African-Americans in the United States. These among a few other things have brought me to a life of ministry. Out of all the books on justice out there, Keller writes for several types of people.
He writes that there is a rising number of younger Christians who are more involved in service and more passionate about social justice than any other generation. The problem, he says, is that many of these younger Christians do not relate their life of faith with their desire to do justice with the result being that the two are often segregated. There is another evangelical group that sees a desire for justice as a 1-to-1 equating with contemporary liberal Christianity as a result of the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch at the turn of the 20th Century, and thus, a need to stay far from such a desire. Another group Keller seeks to write for are the younger evangelicals who are fleeing from traditional forms of church for a number of reasons, but have since begun to question some of the essentials of the faith such as justification and substitutionary atonement. The last group Keller is writing for is the group that identifies with authors like Christopher Hitchens who have painted Christianity along with all religions as the reason for injustice and violence.
Keller seeks to prove that Christianity is a source of true selflessness, healing, and grace.[i] Collectively, Keller seeks to both inspire and motivate readers whether they are in the academy or church or marketplace to think critically about the theology of the Bible which demands justice and how a Christian cannot but help to live a life of justice as a result of our faith which is granted by grace (x-xiv).
Generous Justice is organized in such a manner that suits the needs of the scholar while being accessible to everyone else. The big questions about justice – why, how, where, who, etc. are many of the chapter titles. It is in this way that Generous Justice has a similar feel to The Reason for God which is outlined by questions skeptics ask. Keller again writes in typical deductive fashion tackling big questions about justice head-on. He begins his book by describing Mark Gornik who has worked miracles as one learns throughout the book in the “Sandtown” area of Baltimore.
Justice is not merely a quick fix, but is complex with multiple factors which influence a number of problems. Quoting Nicholas Wolterstorff and Gustavo Gutierrez, he makes note that injustice victimizing the poor is more than a coincidence – it is in fact preferential (7). Justice is defined as caring for the vulnerable and reflecting the character of God. Keller weaves a theme of what it means to do justice throughout his book and that theme is basically about the individual putting him/herself at a disadvantage for the sake of community as opposed to injustice which is the inverse of this relationship of individual to community.
Keller dissects the heart of several prophetical books in the Hebrew Bible as revealing the heart of God being for the widow, the orphan, the fatherless, and the downtrodden. This is the character of God. The ‘image of God’ is emphasized in a true understanding of justice, so doing justice isn’t merely a matter of trying to fix a problem in the world for it’s own sake – doing justice is about living as image bearers of God and reflecting his divine character which has a heart foremost for the poor of this world (18).
Keller moves on from the book’s opening to establishing the authority of the Old Testament for Christians and the commands therein. He doesn’t simply say that the commands in the Old Testament are all fully in effect, but more that there is still some bearing of Old Testament commands on the life of the Christian today and Old Testament commands aren’t merely culturally specific, at least, entirely (20). Keller uses several passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy to reinforce a biblical emphasis on justice for the community.
Something interesting he wrote on was how the infusion of left and right politics into Christianity today has polarized issues of biblical justice to a specific political party. As a result, neither left nor right politics can put the nail in the coffin of injustice because both define justice differently. One seeks healthcare for the poor and as a result higher taxes. The other sees higher taxes as an injustice in itself for those who have worked hard for their money. Both sides claim to have the answer for poverty today, but ultimately neither is making much ground (33-35). The complex reasons for poverty today according to the Bible are “oppression, calamity, and personal moral failure.” He also adds that “larger structural factors” like “corrupt governments, natural disasters, and oppressive economic orders” all contribute to the problem of poverty in the world (38).
Keller answers his critics who claim that the Old Testament only was concerned about justice, but the New Testament is different. In doing this, Keller describes what Jesus says about justice in Matthew 11:4-5 where Jesus tells of the justice that he is actively doing (43-44). The Gospel is a message of justice in how God came into the world in order to humbly serve humanity to the point of death on a cross so that humanity might be redeemed in him by grace through faith. Moving seamlessly from biblical citation after biblical citation to application in how being a Christian is not simply about believing the right doctrine, but is also about living the right lifestyle; Generous Justice covers a biblical mandate for justice in the beginning to examples of how a Christian can seek to do justice in their community in the middle to how general revelation directs many people to beauty, peace, and justice. However, this is only because a remnant of truth abides in these things and it isn’t until one experiences God’s grace through faith in his son Jesus Christ that one finds true redemption and justice.
In Generous Justice, the Gospel message is the true example of ultimate justice, in that Jesus “stood in place of all those of us in spiritual poverty and bankruptcy and paid our debt” in full (188). The book comes to a rather inspiring close with an example of how the Bible tells us that how we treat the poor is how we treat God. He makes a powerful closing appeal to the reader that a “life poured out in doing justice for the poor is the inevitable sign of any real, true gospel faith” (189).
Keller covers a great deal of biblical and theological ground given the size of his book (189 pages). The author offers solid exegetical work for the scholar with no small number of examples in applying various Old and New Testament texts to the modern world. He gives a solid biblical foundation for doing justice rooted in the very character of God while exploring real-life ways that Christians in urban and suburban neighborhoods can seek to do justice in their communities. He mentions the rural poor in the United States, though he doesn’t provide knowledge as to what can be done to meet the needs of the rural poor. What I like about this book is that it focuses on serving the poor in our own country. Many Westerners think poor and immediately consider ‘third-world’ countries as opposed to those who live on the other side of town or in the urban centers or rural areas.
This important work is geared toward inspiring the Westerner to seek to live a life that is biblically and theologically filled with a desire to do justice as Jesus lived his life. This book might not be the largest book on the issue of biblical justice that has been written in recent years, but it is a practical guide to understanding the foundational roots for doing justice in this unjust world while seeking to inspire and motivate future generations of Christians to not settle for ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ or consumer-driven Christianity. Tim Keller seeks to inspire Christians and reach non-Christians with his little book and with that in mind I believe he does just that. I recommend it whole-heartedly to all who are curious and simply haven’t picked it up yet, or for those who like me are passionate about justice and desire to gain a more rounded theology to why we should seek change and how we can live gracious lives which bring healing to others.