Sermon Audio: 20min
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him,“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless,hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision,“Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
Timothy 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.” 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. 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.”
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), 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” 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.”
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.