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Justice and righteousness

Tuesday, 14 November 2017  | David Griffin

Justice gets good press these days. After all, who can be against justice, seeing that it lies at the heart of a good society? John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice put justice firmly in the centre of political debate when first published in 1971. At a pastor’s conference a few years ago a speaker suggested some churches are gospel-focussed and others are justice-focussed. One pastor muttered a strong protest: ‘the gospel is justice!’

But rarely in church discussions of justice is the idea subject to biblical assessment. For a start, the English language has certain inadequacies when it comes to the New Testament word group dikē. From its Latin roots English gets ‘justice’ words, and from its German root it gets ‘righteous’ words. A simple table will help.




Greek Word




English from Latin



to justify

English from German



to make righteous

It is immediately clear that the Latin and German derivations convey two quite different meanings and moods, even though they translate identical NT Greek words. Politicians and social commentators will argue for a just society, but rarely will they plead for a righteous society. And a magistrate is expected to be just but not necessarily righteous. Justice seems to apply to law and public life, whereas righteousness appears to apply to the private sphere. The verb ‘to make/declare righteous’ is an awkward periphrastic for ‘to justify,’ and the very old English ‘rightwising’ is no real substitute for ‘justifying’, although ‘righting’ might do.

Moreover, the church is rather divided on this matter. Those who call themselves progressive Christians talk about justice, and those who call themselves conservative Christians talk about righteousness. Both seem to express an emotional attachment to a social and political view of the world rather than a biblical understanding. Moreover, being ‘self-righteous’ is seen as arrogant, but to ‘justify ourselves’ is acceptable if our actions are criticised.

So why has the church recently defaulted to the Latinate ‘just’ from the Germanic ‘righteous’? Let me offer a few suggestions:

1: It gets the church a seat at the table of public engagement. Bishops can argue for justice for the poor with governments, but not for greater righteousness.

2: It functions as a ‘natural law’ equivalent: that is, it functions as a universal form of moral language that enables all religious and secular people to talk meaningfully to each other.

3: It is popular amongst educated millennials in their fight against exploitation and oppression of people in the two-thirds world. It has a ‘cool factor’.

4: There is disenchantment with excessive inward piety or personal righteousness.

5: It has no ‘wowser’ factor like the word ‘righteousness’. [Note: Wowser is an acronym for We Only Want Social Evils Removed. Perhaps if we put ‘injustice’ instead of ‘evils’, getting Wowsir, we might be onto something? No?]

What follows is a series of reflections and comments on righteousness and justice.  

What justice?

You may have occasionally noticed TV coverage of a trial of a violent crime. Outside the court a type of lynch mob demands justice. They chant ‘An eye for an eye ...‘, often meaning capital punishment. What they want is the retribution: retributive or punitive justice. This justice is far from the social justice that wants a just distribution of the world’s goods: distributive justice. So whose justice do Christians seek when we call for justice? For the Old Testament certainly speaks of both retributive and distributive justice. And if the retributive justice of the OT is superseded, can we not say the same as its pleas for distributive justice?

God: where righteousness and justice meet

It seems that there is one place where it is OK to mix righteousness and justice: when discussing God. God is both just and righteous. His actions are just, his actions are right. We get a sense of this from Jeremiah 9:24: ‘I am the Lord who exercise kindness, justice and righteousness’. This sense of God’s righteousness and justice spills over into Israel’s law, where the two words, sad-dîq and miš-pāt, occur. These two words are like Siamese twins, sometimes used interchangeably in the Old Testament. They do however have different shades of meaning and differing central tendencies. Any Christian discussion of justice must be derived from God as both just and right. If not, we will likely default to the ideas dominant at any one time in the wider world.

Righteousness in the Old Testament: sĕd-āqâ

The English ‘righteousness’ is a translation of the Hebrew word sĕdāqâ. It does not mean piety or adhering to abstract moral norms. It means fulfilling the obligations of a relationship, whether that relationship is with God, the king, the king with his people, a husband to a wife or vice versa, a father to a child, a father to a daughter-in-law etc. Every person lives within many relationships, and these relationships are covenantal in character. God is righteous because he faithfully fulfils his covenant relationships with Israel by protecting and providing for her. Israel is righteous when she obeys her covenantal obligations to God, expressed in the Ten Commandments. Sad-dîq is a covenantal concept.

Justice in the Old Testament: miš-pāt

The English ‘justice’ translates the Hebrew word miš-pāt, and like sĕd-āqâ it is a covenantal concept, but with a slightly different shade of meaning. Miš-pāt tends to have a forensic or legal sense and concerns judicial proceedings. We may say that miš-pāt is forensic sĕd-āqâ. In a sense, the way to pursue miš-pāt is to go to court or to make good laws. Miš-pāt is the legal establishment and defence of social sĕd-āqâ. Miš-pāt is a covenantal concept. Sĕd-āqâ and miš-pāt can be used in parallel (Gen. 18:19, 25).

Sĕd-āqâ and Miš-pāt: covenantal words

But because both sĕd-āqâ and miš-pāt are covenantal words, it follows that any actions that fall outside of God’s covenant cannot be righteous or just. Thus defending actions that break the covenant cannot be righteous or just either. So it cannot be just to support injustice, nor can it be right to support unrighteousness. Jeremiah suggests this when he said that the false prophets’ unjust use of their power unjustly (23:10) strengthened the hands of evildoers (v 14). This occurred because the false prophets’ ideas came from their own heads, not from God (v 16-22). It cannot be just or right to support any act that breaks covenant relations with God or others. Consequently, we gain a better grasp of the biblical ideas of righteousness and justice if we keep in mind the covenant as the more global concept that invests them with meaning. Supporting people’s legal rights to sin is biblical injustice.

Righteousness and justice in the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew’s Gospel uses righteousness to mean keeping covenant faithfulness - obeying God - with God and others. Pharisaic righteousness is inadequate (5:20) because it minimises the inner covenantal obligations of God’s commands. We should crave righteousness (5:6) and endure persecution for it if necessary (5:10). It is identical with God’s kingdom (6:33). Righteousness includes alms, prayer and fasting (6:1, 2-5, 6-15, 16-18), but these must be done without an eye on approval.

Restorative justice

Restorative justice is a new development. It has a developed theological base grounded in peace/shalom. It holds that justice is done only when the real harm to a victim or the social good is remedied. It seeks to restore the victim to his/her situation before the crime, and restore the perpetrator to his/her humanity. It goes beyond arguing that the response to an unjust act is punishment, restoration of moral balance, rehabilitation, warning to others, or the prevention of more injustice. It seeks to restore to the victim (and his/her family etc.), the perpetrator and the wider society the peace or shalom that characterises a good society.

Justice and equality

There are two basic democratic traditions in our society. The first is liberal democracy, and its primary value is freedom or liberty. The second is social democracy, and its primary value is equality. These values tussle back and forth in the public imagination and law. Equality’s star is currently waxing, and the popular mood sees justice almost as identical with equality. This politics of sentiment means that a group can effect fundamental social change if it successfully identifies its cause in the public imagination as an issue of equality. This is used particularly by groups that feel marginalised. But the issue of justice for Christians does not swing on the quantity of voices but on the covenantal rightness of the voices. Minorities come in many forms: weak alcoholics to powerful billionaires. And marginalised minorities have no mortgage on rightness: outlaw bikie gangs call themselves ‘one percenters’.


It appears that much of the church has been linguistically colonised by liberalism that is out of step with the gospel. One key feature of liberalism is that it elevates alienation as a central moral virtue. That is, we are deemed to be morally responsible to the extent that we disown or disengage from our own personal ethics as we engage in moral discourse. People are expected to adopt the common public moral language of secularism in order to appear non-judgmental and wise. We are considered educated to the extent that we allow our own biblical and theological language to be displaced as a primitive tribal artefact, unbecoming to modern tolerant people. But rather than gain our sense of justice by social or liberal democracy, we ought to go back to our own native tradition - the Bible - and mine our ethics from there. While this may make us feel out of step with liberalism, it will keep us internally consistent and emotionally complete as people whose lives are an integrated whole. Christians can avoid a sense of alienation by owning a robust biblical ethic. This resists the equation of justice with indiscriminate social equality or libertarian concepts of freedom. There is tension here, for we are both ‘in Christ’ and ‘in the world’, yet our moral reasoning is primarily determined by God’s mercy in Christ (Rom. 12:1-2).


If we are to reflect the coherence of the Bible’s witness, we will be equally concerned with both righteousness and justice. We will pursue justice in the public sphere and righteousness in the private sphere. For what use is fighting for justice with an unrighteous or impure heart? And what use is a pure and righteous heart that ignores public justice? God is both just and right in all his covenant dealing with his people. He seeks the same from us in our relationship with him and with others.

David Griffin is pastor of North Canberra Baptist Church and author of The Word Became Flesh: A Rapprochement of Christian Natural Law and Radical Christian Ethics (Wipf and Stock, 2016).

This article was first published in TOAD (Theology on a Diet): fide quærens intellectum, No. 4, May 2015, at North Canberra Baptist Church. Reproduced with permission.


Fletcher Cole
December 4, 2017, 10:31AM
Helpful. Yes, the word 'Justice' is used in a number of different ways. It is useful to make clear what its particular meanings are in different situations. Often several meanings apply at the same time, but are worth unravelling, so we get the balance right.

The theme of Restorative Justice in the Bible doesn't seem so new. The OT prophets, in their warnings of coming judgement and their cry for justice, not only warn of retribution but almost always offer the hope of restoration. God’s Judgement both eliminates evil and re-makes what is good. To me this is unexpected Good News.

And, just for the record, other types of Justice, besides Retributive and Restorative Justice, include:

'Administrative Justice': fairness and consistency in the administration of government; making right decisions. Legal justice, according to the Law.

'Attributive Justice': giving someone what is claimed, according to merit, or status, or role (e.g. respect for important people).

'Distributive Justice': socially just allocation of goods & services; healthy relationships within a community.

'Commutative Justice': fair dealings between equal individuals (in families, in business, in kids’ playgrounds.)

Restorative Justice is also known as Reparative or Redemptive Justice.
Ako Daniel Takoh
November 10, 2018, 11:03AM
Very interesting, Sir.

I studied that gentleness involves reasoning and dealing meekly, softly and fairly one to another in tolerance or forbearance...

With that in mind, I can classify justice as: Restorative, Retributive and Gentle... Gentle justice would take care of good administration, attribution, commutation, distribution, etc... The Bible emphasises Gentle justice in various passages. For example: Eph. 4:2... Just a contribution to reduce the many number or types of justice to retain... Thanks.
Dale McFarlane
June 12, 2020, 6:54PM
Thank you. This is a topic I have been interested in for some time.

I felt you brought a fresh, insightful, challenging and motivating approach to this. Righteousness and shalom peace kiss each other (Ps 85:10) - when that peace is formed through true justice, and not through silence or appeasement, no matter how well-intentioned. And certainly we can only understand what true justice and righteousness is as God has revealed it through Scripture and through Jesus.

Some good meat to chew on, thank you.

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