Book Review: Generous Justice by Timothy Keller

Generous Justice: How God's Makes Us JustTimothy Keller is an author and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  In recent years, he has been quite prolific in his written work, publishing roughly one book per year for several years.  In 2010, he published Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just.  He hopes the book is read by four types of people: young Christians who instinctively understand the need for social justice, older evangelicals who approach the subject of doing justice with suspicion, young evangelicals who have expanded their mission to include social justice, and lastly those who are persuaded by the new atheism who view religion as poisonous to society.

Keller’s thesis in Generous Justice is that a person who fully comprehends and appropriates God’s unconditional grace through Jesus Christ will necessarily do justice as an outflow of his or her received mercy.  He writes, “The logic is clear.  If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice… God’s grace should make you just.”[1]  I found his argument to be theologically sound, logically coherent, and compelling on a number of levels.

Throughout the book, hardly a page is turned without a Biblical reference.  In fact, Keller is clever to begin the first chapter with Micah 6:8.  It is a clever strategy because, in my experience, Micah 6:8 has been carried as a banner mostly by churches in the liberal stream of the faith; while Keller is considered by many to be a champion of conservative Christianity.  To begin with a liberalized verse, he earns early credibility with his intended audience of those suspicious of his position.

In Micah 6:8, the reader is reminded of what God requires of his people, namely that they “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with [their] God.”  Keller then parses the verse, thoroughly describing the Hebrew derivations of both justice (mishpat) and mercy (chesed), and how they reflect the character of God.  He exposes the Biblical “quartet of the vulnerable”, that is, the widow, orphan, fatherless, and the poor, and makes the case that God has for many generations commanded his people to show them mercy and justice.[2]  The remainder of the book flows from this Biblical foundation, each application for contemporary social justice fully couched in the Old and New Testament commands to join God’s work in showing justice and mercy to the vulnerable.

As is typical of Keller, he spends a lot of time focusing not on the importance of simply following God’s commandments, but more importantly on our motivation for doing so.  Keller’s impassioned focus here is on the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, that on the cross Jesus has shown the ultimate justice and mercy to those impoverished by sin.  Regarding Isaiah 58, he paraphrases, “What is this permanent fasting?  It is to work against injustice, to share food, clothing, and home with the hungry and the homeless.  That is the real proof that you believe your sins have been atoned for.”[3]

Having spent many pages laying the foundation for social justice—that it is an outflow of the mercy Jesus has shown to us all—Keller then shifts toward the explanation of how God’s people are called into such work in the real world.  Citing John Perkins’ famous philosophy of ministry (relocation, reneighboring, redistribution, and reweaving)[4], Keller challenges the reader to consider shifting his or her entire life towards intentional justice- and mercy-showing.

Finally, Keller employs the vivid motif of “reweaving the fabric of shalom”[5] in human societies that have been “torn” by sin.  His challenge is as clear as it is profound, “The only way to reweave and strengthen the fabric is by weaving yourself into it.”[6]

I find Generous Justice to be profound, personally challenging, and truth-giving.  Because the entirety of his argument is grounded in Scripture, I find it difficult to disagree with any of his assessments and conclusions.  Experientially, I have discovered that the more deeply I understand God’s mercy for a sinner like me, the more I am compelled to show mercy to the people around me.  Jesus came a great distance to lay down his life for me, and I am thus inspired to go to great lengths to live sacrificially for others.

My only critique is that Keller might have been more strategic when he cited modern figures.  For example, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama are exhibited as very positive figures, which I think is fine, but if one of his intended audiences was older and younger evangelicals, he might have appeased their potential complaints by also citing at least one conservative public figure.  Perhaps there are none that apply to his overall argument.

Other than this possible improvement to the book, I find Generous Justice to be an exceedingly helpful and even winsomely challenging approach to the topic of social justice in the church.  I frequently recommend it to my parishioners.

More Resources: Listen to the audio of the class I taught on this book.

[1] Keller, Timothy.  Generous Justice.  New York, NY: Dutton, 2010.  Print.
[2] Ibid, pg 4.
[3] Ibid, pg 96.
[4] Ibid, pg 117
[5] Ibid, pg 173
[6] Ibid, pg 177