Article 3—Justice: Explanation by Phil Johnson

WE AFFIRM that since he is holy, righteous, and just, God requires those who bear his image to live justly in the world. This includes showing appropriate respect to every person and giving to each one what he or she is due. We affirm that societies must establish laws to correct injustices that have been imposed through cultural prejudice.

WE DENY that true justice can be culturally defined or that standards of justice that are merely socially constructed can be imposed with the same authority as those that are derived from Scripture. We further deny that Christians can live justly in the world under any principles other than the biblical standard of righteousness. Relativism, socially-constructed standards of truth or morality, and notions of virtue and vice that are constantly in flux cannot result in authentic justice.

Justice is, of course, a major theme in Scripture. In fact, it’s a much larger concept–and more central to the Gospel–than most people realize. In both Hebrew and Greek, the words translated “justice” and “just” are the same words normally translated “righteousness” and “righteous.” No distinction is made in the original text of Scripture. The biblical idea of justice encompasses everything the Bible says about righteousness.

In English, when we use the word justice, we normally have in mind evenhanded impartiality (especially in the realm of law and civic affairs). The dictionary defines justice as “maintenance of legal, social, or moral principles by the exercise of authority or power–including the assignment of deserved reward or punishment.”

Righteousness denotes virtue, uprightness, moral rectitude–godly character.

Because we differentiate between the words and use them differently, we tend to think of justice predominantly as a legal standard or civic paradigm, and righteousness as something more personal. Again, Scripture makes no such distinction. In the Bible, justice and righteousness are the same thing, encompassing all the legitimate connotations of both words.

How comprehensive is this idea? God Himself is the embodiment and the touchstone of true righteousness. The moral principles spelled out in His law describe what human righteousness looks like. In fact, when Moses delivered the tablets of stone from Sinai to the people, he said, “It will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us” (Deut. 6:25). Jesus exposed the rigors of this standard even more clearly when He said, “You …must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

But now you are talking about the law, you might protest. How can you say it’s central to the gospel? Aren’t you the guy who scolded preachers of social justice for mingling or confusing law and gospel?” Excellent question, and it requires a two-part answer.

First, justice is a vital gospel issue because the atoning work of Christ turned divine justice in favor of sinners who trust Him as Savior. “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Having fulfilled the whole law to absolute perfection, Jesus (who “knew no sin” by experience) bore the sins of others (by imputation). Those sins were accounted as if they were His, and He fully paid the due penalty, so that His own perfect righteousness could be imputed to His people. The law has thus been perfectly fulfilled and sin fully punished in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. So God can “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins . . . We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Jn. 1:9–2:1).

Second, “social justice” is entirely different from biblical justice. It is a severely abridged and often badly twisted notion of legal equity–dealing mainly with matters like economics, social privilege, and civil rights. In recent years, a plethora of politically correct causes have been added to the menu, including global warming, animal rights, abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, gender fluidity, war, immigration, socialism, and a cornucopia of similar issues borrowed from the political left.

Historically, social justice advocates have not concerned themselves much if at all with other vital aspects of biblical justice, including the moral content of the law (particularly biblical standards of sexual purity); condign punishment for evildoers (Gen. 9:6Rom. 13:4Matt. 26:52); and the duty and privilege of work (2 Thess. 3:10).

To be clear, there is no single authoritative definition of “social justice.” Definitions abound from those who are promoting the terminology. But there are common themes that run through virtually all of them. Here are a couple of typical samples: “Social justice is a political and philosophical concept which holds that all people should have equal access to wealth, health, well-being, justice and opportunity.” And “Social justice is the equal access to wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.”

Those familiar with neo-Marxist rhetoric will recognize the themes. Indeed, the derivation and connotations of the expression “social justice” are rooted in secular political and academic dialogues rather than in biblical ideas about divine justice. The rhetoric of social justice has gradually migrated from the radical far left by a dialectical process. Early in that process, the language was baptized and the worldview was given a religious veneer replete with a name: Liberation Theology. The same language and rhetoric were brought into evangelical circles through groups like Sojourners and the Emerging Church movement. Then it was disbursed through student groups like InterVarsity. And most recently it has found its way into more conservative organizations like The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel, and it seems to have been accepted by large numbers of evangelicals with great enthusiasm.

Despite the claims of its proponents, however, the popular notion of “social justice” was not derived from Scripture. It actually began among people well known for their hostility to biblical authority–and the pedigree is not at all difficult to trace.

The dangers of this world-view’s influence are not really hard to see, either. Read the chatter in social media and you’ll regularly encounter young fair-weather evangelicals who say they have abandoned (or are in the process of abandoning) their evangelical convictions now that they are “woke.” Even some of the respected evangelical leaders who have lately become enthralled with “social justice” seem to have fallen silent on the issue of abortion–an easily quantifiable injustice that is responsible for the deaths of more disadvantaged and defenseless children each day than all the unjust police shootings of the past fifty years combined.

When the Statement on Social Justice denies “that true justice can be culturally defined or that standards of justice that are merely socially constructed can be imposed with the same authority as those that are derived from Scripture,” it is referring to this fact: “Social justice” is not biblical justice.

Thanks for Nothing

That our society is permeated by an entitlement mentality should be manifestly evident to all. Most people, it seems, believe themselves to be victims in one way or another and are, therefore, entitled to various benefits even if said benefits are not earned and come at the expense of others.

This entitlement mentality is both the foundation of and fuel for the social justice movement that is sweeping through evangelical churches. [1] The evangelical church, though, should be the one bastion in which any sense of entitlement and victimhood finds no quarter.

Upon being confronted with sin, human nature’s inclination is to blame shift. Upon being confronted with her sin, Eve blamed the snake. Adam blamed God. Cain deflected. We, as their spiritual progeny, do the same. We all have the tendency to point the finger at someone else to explain away our own sin or our lot in life if it is not to our satisfaction. We all want to be innocent victims rather than morally accountable.

One of the subtlest and yet, left unchecked, deadliest dangers of the social justice movement is that it fosters in people the idea that they have been unfairly treated and are entitled to preferential treatment to compensate for this inequity. If we look hard enough, most of us could find someone or something to blame for not having what we want to have.

I was born with a moderate case of cerebral palsy. Through no fault of my own, many – likely most – occupations will never be options for me. I will never be able to be a server in a restaurant, police officer, firefighter, construction worker, janitor, mechanic, farmer, or pizza delivery man. Any occupation that necessitates carrying anything from one place to another while bipedal will forever be off limits for me. Daily tasks such as showering, getting dressed and the like that most people do in a few minutes take me nearly two hours. Some stores I cannot shop in because of steps leading into them.

Do I feel oppressed by society? No. Do I see myself as a victim? Not at all. By God’s grace I do the best with what He has given me. People have, at times, commended me for not just giving up. They commend me for not living off of the government (which I could do). But I am not to be commended in this. It is my responsibility before God to do the best with the abilities He has given me; a responsibility clearly espoused by Christ in Luke 17:10. To quote my wife, Kathy, “When you’ve done all you could, you’ve only done what you should.”

It is not that the temptation to see myself as a victim is not there; of course it is. But it is a temptation that I strive to mortify. To see myself as a victim would be to disparage others who suffer far more than do I. Here in the United States I have a nice pair of crutches, an electric mobility scooter, good medical care, and a truck with hand controls that allow me to drive. I’ve seen crippled people in poor countries like India and Uganda who have none of these things. Life is far harder for them than for me.

Some people with cerebral palsy cannot speak and cannot feed themselves. They are very intelligent, but they are trapped in bodies that they simply cannot control. That is something to which I cannot relate. No matter how much we think we suffer or how short we believe our end of life’s stick to be, it would behoove us to remember that others suffer far worse than do we regardless of which form that suffering takes. We should be grateful and content in all things (Philippians 4:12).

Additionally, to see myself as a victim would be to complain to God about what He has providentially decreed for me. It is His will that I have cerebral palsy. To complain about my physical condition would be to question God’s good providence and to suggest that He owes me more than what He has graciously provided. Whether we are limited by a physical malady, a government, or some unjust aspect of society, it is sinful to assert that God has made a mistake in placing us where He has or that He owes us anything other than what He has given.  And this leads me to what really troubles me about the social justice movement.

The Bible does not portray men as victims. The Bible portrays men as being born dead in sin and evil from the womb (Ephesians 2:8-9; Psalm 51:5; 58:3) whose hearts are deceitfully wicked (Jeremiah 17:9) and who love darkness while hating the light (John 3:19). The Bible says that men knowingly suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18) and are not only not seeking God (Romans 3:10-11) but indeed are His active enemies (Romans 5:10).

The social justice movement engenders in people an entitlement mentality. People believe that they are owed some form of restitution or preferential treatment because of some injustice, real or perceived, that has been done to them. But this is a profound misunderstanding of both the nature of man and of God.

We are indeed owed justice. But we don’t want it. The justice that we are owed is eternal punishment for our sin. Each of us deserves to spend all of eternity in Hell where the “worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). Each of us deserves to “drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger” and “be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (Revelation 14:10).

My pastor, Jim Osman, and I were talking theology one day over lunch and he said, “If God took from me my wife, children, health, every possession I own, and let me die a cold, slow, painful death alone lying in a ditch and then send me straight to Hell, He would have done me no wrong.”

How’s that for encouragement?

You may not find that sentiment on a Hallmark card anytime soon but it is absolutely true. God owes us nothing. God owes us neither physical health nor material goods. He does not owe us a fair and equitable society in which to live. We deserve nothing but judgment. Our sins have earned us nothing but holy wrath and to intimate otherwise is to have an elevated view of man and a diminished view of God.

There is a wonderful statement from David in Psalm 103:10:

He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.

Isn’t that wondrous? God would have been entirely just to deal with us according to our sins and reward our iniquities with everlasting punishment. I am grateful beyond what this written word can express that none of what my sins have earned He has visited upon me. And so, in a very real sense, I am thankful for…nothing.


We are not victims of an unjust society, we are violators of God’s law.  Given that we have been delivered from eternal justice, how is it that we are disappointed if we do not have temporal, social justice? Paul stated in Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Christ died for us while we were in open rebellion against Him. Anything short of Hell is God’s mercy.

In closing let me state unequivocally that neither I nor any of the other signatories denies that injustice exists. The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel itself affirms injustice exists. The harmful effects and real pain experienced by people upon whom various injustices have been inflicted should never be belittled. All of creation groans under the terrible weight of sin yearning to be free from the same (Romans 8:20-25). We are part of the “all of creation.” We yearn for freedom from sin and the vanquishing of all of its painful consequences. But our yearning for this freedom must not spring from an unbiblical position of thinking we deserve it. We must yearn for this freedom because it will represent the final, eschatological victory of the Lamb and we should be thankful for it precisely because we do not deserve it.

The only justice that we deserve we do not want. God gave Another our justice so that we could be made just—and that, dear ones, is what we do not deserve.

[1] The term “evangelical” has lost much of its meaning but for simplicity sake, I will employ it to denote doctrinally sound churches that hold to salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone as taught in scripture alone.