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Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just Paperback – August 7, 2012
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It is commonly thought in secular society that the Bible is one of the greatest hindrances to doing justice. Isn?t it full of regressive views? Didn?t it condone slavery? Why look to the Bible for guidance on how to have a more just society? But Timothy Keller challenges these preconceived beliefs and presents the Bible as a fundamental source for promoting justice and compassion for those in need. In Generous Justice, he explores a life of justice empowered by an experience of grace: a generous, gracious justice. This book offers readers a new understanding of modern justice and human rights that will resonate with both the faithful and the skeptical.Show More Show Less
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Tim Keller defines a couple of Hebrew words from the Old Testament that suggest we are responsible to go beyond honesty and being merciful in our personal actions, to lift up those in our society who are poor and abused even if we, ourselves, aren't at fault. This is a very thought-provoking book.
In Chapter One, citing Micah 6:8, Keller defines biblical justice as care for the vulnerable.
In premodern, agrarian societies, these four groups [widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor] had no social power. They lived at a subsistence level and were only a few days away from starvation if there were any famine, invasion, or even minor social unrest. Today this quartet would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless, and many single parents and elderly people. The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. (pp.4-5)
Realize, then, how significant it is that the Biblical writers introduce God as "a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows" (Psalm 68:4-5). This is one of the main things he does in the world. He identifies with the powerless; he takes up their cause. (p.6)
Keller introduces another word for justice from the Old Testament, tzadeqah, which defines the righteous as those who are "right with God and therefore committed to putting right all other relationships in life." (p10) The two words, mishpat and tzadeqah, are used together over three dozen times. "The English expression that best conveys the meaning is 'social justice.'" (p.14) Keller then turns to the New Testament to point out that Jesus calls gifts to the poor "acts of righteousness." (Matthew 6:1-2) He concludes that "not giving generously, then, is not stinginess, but unrighteousness, a violation of God's law." (p15)
Chapter Two delves more deeply into the the themes of justice in the Old Testament. God gave the Israelites numerous laws "that, if practiced, would have virtually eliminated any permanent underclass." (p.27) There were laws of release from debt every seven years. Deuteronomy 15:7-8 commands Israelites to "be openhanded and freely lend him [the poor] whatever he needs," to help them reach self-sufficiency. Gleaning laws commanded land owners to leave a certain portion of their crops in the fields so that the poor could work to provide food for themselves. Every third year the tithes were put in public storehouses for the poor and marginalized. (Deut. 14:29) Every fifty years on the year of Jubilee, all debts were forgiven, the land went back to its original owners, and slaves were freed.
Each person or family had at least a once-in-a-lifetime chance to start afresh, no matter how irresponsibly they had handled their finances or how far into debt they had fallen. (p.28)
Keller shows how Paul used Exodus 16:18 as a reference when he wrote 2 Corinthians Chapter Eight. He showed how the Israelites were commanded not to hoard manna, but to share it with those who may not have gathered enough. The idea being that "the money you earn is a gift from God. Therefore the money you make must be shared to build up community. So wealthier believers must share with poorer ones. (p31) Before you jump to any conclusions, Keller is not a socialist, but shows how the Bible cannot be confined to any one political or economic philosophy. He cites Craig Blomberg's survey of the Mosaic laws of gleaning, releasing, tithing, and the Jubilee, where he concludes: "the Biblical attitude toward wealth and possessions does not fit into any of the normal categories of democratic capitalism, or of traditional monarchial feudalism, or of state socialism." (p.32)
Keller writes: "One of the main reasons we cannot fit the Bible's approach into a liberal or conservative economic model is the Scripture's highly nuanced understanding of the causes of poverty." (p.33) Whereas liberals blame social forces beyond the control of the poor and conservatives blame the breakdown of the family, poor character, and bad personal practices, the Bible is more balanced. Oppression is certainly one main reason for poverty, and the rich are blamed when vast disparities exist between the rich and poor. I will not cite the references here to be as concise as possible. He writes: "the Mosaic legislation was designed to keep the ordinary disparities between the wealthy and the poor from becoming aggravated and extreme." (p.33) The Bible also lists natural disasters as a cause of poverty. Some people lack the ability to make wise decisions. Another cause is personal moral failure. "Poverty, therefore, is seen in the Bible as a very complex phenomenon." (p.34)
In the New Testament, Keller quotes Luke 14:12-13 to show us "that it is in some respects our duty to give a preference to the poor." (p.46) In contrast to the patronage system in existence in Jesus' day, what Jesus prescribed "would have looked like economic and social suicide." (p.47) Instead of doing favors for the rich and influential, our Lord advised serving those who can do nothing for us. "Like Isaiah, Jesus taught that a lack of concern for the poor is not a minor lapse, but reveals that something is seriously wrong with one's spiritual compass, the heart." (p.51) The parable of the sheep and goats teaches that our heart and service towards the poor and marginalized reflect our heart and service to Jesus.
Perhaps the best chapter in the book is the fifth, entitled "Why Should We Do Justice?" When we delve down into what really motivates our behavior and values, we discover hidden treasure. It is obvious that mere reason and guilt trips will not change people's hearts to be more involved with helping the helpless. Keller comes at the "why" from two angles. The first is what he calls "honoring the image," which is based on creation. "The image of God carries with it the right to not be mistreated or harmed." (p.84) Or to put it another way, "Because we treasure the owner [God], we honor his house [people]." (p.85) Using this line of reasoning, we must acknowledge that everything we have came from God and ultimately belongs to God. We are stewards or caretakers of another's property. Applying the Old Testament principles of mishpat and tzadeqah, we can say, "the righteous [tzaddiq]...are willing to disadvantage themselves to advantage the community; the wicked are willing to disadvantage the community to advantage themselves." (p.90) Does this not echo the words of Paul:
You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich. 2 Corinthians 8:9 (NLT)
With reference to the gleaning laws, Keller writes:
In God's view, however, while the poor did not have a right to the ownership of the farmer's land, they had a right to some of its produce. If the owner did not limit his profits and provide the poor with an opportunity to work for their own benefit in the field, he did not simply deprive the poor of charity, but of justice, of their right. Why? A lack of generosity refuses to acknowledge that your assets are not really yours, but God's. (p.91)
The second part of the "why" we should do justice is found in our response to grace. The idea here is that none of us deserve God's grace. Any argument against serving the poor because they don't deserve our help falls apart in light of this truth. James wrote that to look at a brother or sister without resources and do nothing about it reveals a lifeless kind of faith. (James 2:15-16) The doctrine of justification is necessary because the demands of the law are so high that none of us can attain to it. God's commands regarding loving the poor and helpless are so high that we must rely on God's grace to enable us to fulfill them. "People who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitating toward the materially poor. To the degree that the gospel shapes your self-image, you will identify with those in need." (p.102) Keller concludes: "I believe, however, when justice for the poor is connected not to guilt but to grace and to the gospel, this 'pushes the button' down deep in believers' souls, and they begin to wake up." (p.107)
The last two chapters deal with practical aspects of doing justice individually, as a church, and in partnership with others in the community. Since I am growing weary and need to move on to some other things, I will leave those to you to read. The last chapter shows how Jesus identified with the poor and oppressed when he hung upon the cross, penniless and without justice. His trial and execution were illegal. God came to earth as a poor carpenter and died as a criminal. He is the advocate of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized people of the earth, and has called his church to join him in manifesting God's love to those who desperately need it.
I hope you will take the time to purchase and read this book. It will impact your life for good.
You can purchase the reviewer's book on Amazon:
Seeing God's Smile
-- Those, especially the young, who are active in volunteering and want to help the poor but their concern does not affect how they spend money or plan their careers.
-- Those who don't see, as Jonathan Edwards said, that when the Spirit enables us to understand what Christ has done for us, "the result is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor."
-- Younger evangelicals who have expanded their mission to include social justice along with evangelism.
-- People like the atheist Christopher Hitchins who believe that religion "poisons everything."
This book, Keller writes, is for "the orthodox (Christian) to see how central to the Scripture's message is justice for the poor and marginalized. I also want to challenge those who do not believe in Christianity to see the Bible not as a repressive text, but as the basis for the modern understanding of human rights."
Keller spends the early parts of his book discussing how justice for the poor, the immigrant, the widow and orphan was central to the concept of mercy (in Hebrew, chesedh), justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tzadeqah). Mercy has to do with aligning our attitude with that of a merciful God. Justice is aligning our actions -- equitable dealings with people -- with a just God's. Righteousness in the Hebrew context has more to do with right relationships than obeying a set of rules, as modern Christians often think of it.
Someone who is "right with God (is) therefore committed to putting right all other relationships in life." (Alec Motyer) Righteousness is "day to day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness.While tzadeqah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social. (See Job 29:12-17, 31-13-28.
Keller details the Hebrew law's provision for exercising justice. These are:
-- Shemitta, or release. The practice of the Sabbath year, every seventh year releasing people from debts or servitude. Deut. 15:1-2
-- Gleanings. The practice of not harvesting fields to their borders. Keller suggests that modern businesses could imitate this practice by not maximizing profits, thus giving price relief to their customers, and not paying workers the lowest possible wages. Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22
-- Tithing for the priests and the upkeep of the temple. Every third year the tithe was put in public storehouses for the poor, "the aliens, the fatherless, and the widows." Deut. 14:28-29. This makes me think that churches should practice this in some form by systematically committing a portion of its receipts to serving the poor and needy.
-- Year of Jubilee. The practice of every 49th or 50th year of forgiving debts and returning land to its ancestral owner. Leviticus 25:10, 23, 27:21.
These practices helped meet the needs of the poor and helped prevent permanent cycles of poverty.
The three causes of poverty, according to the Law are oppression, calamity and personal moral failure. The biblical emphasis is usually on the larger structural factors -- corruption, oppressive economic systems and natural disasters. The exercise of justice, however, never distinguishes between the three. That is, no matter why a person is poor, the righteous person should care for him.
Well, that's the Old Testament,, some might say. But Jesus showed the same concern for the poor and disadvantaged, if not more so. His response to John in Matthew 11:4-5, and the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4. As Eugene Peterson writes in The Message, the Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. He identified himself with the poor and showed special concern for children, aliens, women.
Jesus and the prophets all "leveled the charge that while the people attended worship, observed all religious regulations and took pride in their biblical knowledge, nevertheless they took advantage of the weak and vulnerable."
Vulnerable people need three levels of help -- relief, development and social reform. Relief is the immediate problem (paying the rent, for instance); development is to help then move beyond dependency (job training); social reform is correcting systemic injustice (redlining).Social reform likely requires the creation of extra-church or parachurch organizations. Churches also can partner with existing organizations or churches that operate in vulnerable populations.
Evangelism and social justice "should exist in an asymmetrical, inseparable relationship. Evangelism is the most basic and radical ministry possible to a human being ... not because the spiritual is more important than the physical, but because the eternal is more important than the temporal. If there is a God, and if life with him for eternity is based on having a saving relationship with him, then the most loving thing anyone can do for one's neighbor is help him or her to a saving faith in that God, Keller writes.
Doing justice is inseparably connected to preaching grace. One way is that the gospel produces a concern for the poor. The other is that deeds of justice gain credibility for the preaching of the gospel.
This book is a slim one that carries a heavy message. It challenges us comfortable churchgoers to examine our community and ask whether we are of any importance to the wider community. If our "church" ceased to exist, would anyone miss us? What are we doing in obedience to God's commands to serve the poor, the widow, the orphan, the prisoner, the hungry? There is a lot here to reflect on and for a small group(s) to discuss and apply. Unfortunately, I contacted the publisher and there is no accompanying study guide.
Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.
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Would recommend to anyone who is seeking a better understanding of God's grace.