I was recommended Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just as preparatory reading for a sermon at Crossroads International Church in the Hague this coming weekend. It’s a compassionate, practical, carefully argued, and in some ways quite audacious exhortation to the conservative evangelical church—and from firmly within the conservative evangelical church—to recognise that practising social justice is an integral part of biblical teaching. “The most traditional formulation of evangelical doctrine,” Keller says, “rightly understood, should lead its proponents to a life of doing justice in the world.”
Given the theological starting point, it’s an excellent book, and we could leave it at that. But it seems to me that in places the scriptural substructure is rickety and on the verge of collapse. If it holds up long enough to enable Reformed Christians to take social justice seriously, all well and good. But in the long run I think that we are going to have to undertake some extensive renovations.
A case in point is the discussion about justification by faith. I’m using the Kindle version, so the page numbering may be inexact.
Much of the social justice material is found in the Old Testament, so Keller has to show that this is not all somehow transcended or abrogated when we get to the New Testament. Paul taught that we are justified not by works of the Law or works of righteousness but by faith in the saving power of Jesus’ death. That is the standard Reformed view. But Keller insists that it does not make good deeds irrelevant. On the contrary: “Grace makes you just. If you are not just, you’ve not truly been justified by faith” (99).
To back up this claim, he suggests considering the “alternatives to the doctrine of justification by faith”. Some people, for example, believe that “if human beings try hard enough to obey God they can be saved”—the old pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps doctrine of salvation.
Keller maintains that this option is ruled out by Jesus’ teaching about the Law in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-30). Salvation by works might be feasible if the bar is low enough, but in this passage, Keller argues, Jesus has “raised the bar infinitely” (100). Therefore, we can only be saved by grace. “Why can we never be saved by our own moral efforts? It is because the law of God is so magnificent, just, demanding that we could never fulfil it.”
But this propagandist reading only works if you put your face close up to the page and squint through half-closed eyes under low light. If you read it properly, it’s a plain distortion of Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus is speaking to his Jewish disciples as an eschatological community defined by the beatitudes. He tells them that he has not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. He has come to fulfil them, which has something to do with a future moment when all will be accomplished:
For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matt. 5:18)
As Dick France points out in his commentary on Matthew, this is the language of eschatological fulfilment:
if we were right to understand the “fulfilling” of the law and the prophets in terms of a future situation to which the law pointed forward, this clause could be saying that the smallest details of the law would be valid only until the time of fulfillment arrived. This would be a natural understanding of “not … until …,” which seems to suggest a temporary situation.1
Until that moment of fulfilment, the Law stays firmly in place for those who wish to participate in the kingdom of heaven. Any disciple who relaxes one of the commandments “will be called least in the kingdom of heaven”. But whoever does them and teaches them “will be called great in the kingdom of heaven”. So Jesus sums up unequivocally:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:20)
Far from arguing that the disciples cannot keep the impossible standards of God’s law, he is teaching them to raise their game, to jump higher. They have to do what the scribes and Pharisees do and then some. They have to do better than the scribes and Pharisees.
But it is not an infinite leap from not committing murder to not getting angry. The demand imposed on the community is radical but it remains fully practicable. Jesus tells them what to do, and he expects them to do it.
The Jewish Law says, “Do not murder,” and the person who murders will be “liable to judgment”. But Jesus says that even the person who is angry with his brother will be “liable to judgment”; the person who insults his brother will be “liable to the council”; and whoever says, “You fool!” will be “liable to the Gehenna of fire”.
What Jesus is doing here is not so much making it an issue of the heart as bringing lesser or less destructive offences against the brother within the scope of judgment. Insulting a fellow Jew is still an action; and being angry has concrete effects: “in anger his master delivered him to the jailers”; the “king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city” (Matt. 18:34; 22:7).
What Jesus expects his disciples to do when they remember that their brother has something against them is not throw their hands up in despair and say, “It’s impossible, I can’t do it! You’ve set the bar too high!” Rather, it is to go and be reconciled. They must do something—and not anything terribly difficult, frankly.
The same applies for the argument about adultery (Matt. 5:27-30). The Law says don’t commit adultery. But Jesus tells his disciples not to look at a woman with lustful intent. He does not expect them to exclaim, “Wow, you have set the bar infinitely high!” He expects them to do it. Otherwise they risk being thrown bodily into Gehenna. They will be carried along with the crowds on the broad road leading to destruction. Their house will be swept away when the eschatological storm comes.
What it comes down to, I think, is basically that Jesus does not want his disciples to be “hypocrites” like the scribes and Pharisees, who are scrupulous about tithing mint and dill and cummin but “have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23)—and who, therefore, will not escape the “judgment of Gehenna” (23:33).
Jesus does not tell the scribes and Pharisees that they cannot save themselves by keeping the Law. On the contrary, he tells them to keep the Law and practice “justice and mercy and faithfulness”. “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
The question we then have to consider is: when did Jesus expect all things to be accomplished? My simple, historically meaningful answer is: at the the climax to the impending war against Rome. I’ll give a couple of broad reasons with some links to fill out the argument.
First, I have repeatedly argued here that the language of being thrown into Gehenna, into the valley of the Sons of Hinnom, alludes to Jeremiah’s shocking vision of the dead being thrown over the walls of Jerusalem during the Babylonian siege. The valley of Gehenna, regardless of whether rubbish was burned there, was a symbol not of a final judgment of the dead, and certainly not of conscious post mortem suffering, but of historical judgment on Israel.
Secondly, the statement that the Law will stay in force “until all is accomplished” (heōs an panta genētai) anticipates the saying in the later apocalyptic discourse: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place (heōs an panta tauta genētai)” (Matt. 24:34). The Jewish Law will remain operative until the good news of the coming rule of God has been proclaimed to all nations of the Greek-Roman world, until the tribes of the earth see that the Son of Man has been glorified at the right hand of God, until the disciples are delivered from their sufferings and vindicated for their faithfulness—until the end of the age of second temple Judaism, in other words (cf. Matt. 24:1-3, 13-14, 29-31; 28:20).
So Jesus’ argument about the Law in this passage offers no direct support to the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith rather than by works. In fact, it appears to run quite contrary to the doctrine. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is shaping a radical community of Jewish followers which will demonstrate a standard of righteous higher than that of the scribes and Pharisees in the period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
It is a community of faith, certainly: they will have to trust that the narrow road of suffering will lead ultimately to life. But it is a fundamental narrative-historical error to confuse this situation with the controversy over “membership” that gave rise to Paul’s affirmations about justification and faith.
As for justifying the practice of social justice—well, we need the whole story for that.
- 1. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (2007), 185-186.