Book Review: Generous Justice


I've been given the opportunity to follow up my review of Dr. Timothy Keller's Counterfeit Gods (buy) with a review of Generous Justice. Thanks to Dutton for the book. It's another great addition to his works: The Reason for God, The Prodigal God, and the long-ago written Ministries of Mercy. Dr. Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC. If you haven't yet, you should check out my Tim Keller Resources page.


A lot has been said in recent years of orthodoxy & (or vs) orthopraxy. We have become a people who know the Book but don't "do" what the Book tells us to do. We aren't being changed. We are better on paper than we are in practice.

And we don't take correction well. It takes a distinct voice to speak in a way we can hear, to lift the conversation above misunderstanding and reactionary responses. I believe Tim Keller is one of those voices and has accomplished that goal. He's done it before. For example, in The Reason for God he elevates the conversation with skeptics. I've read and encouraged others to read his Introduction there a number of times because it changes the conversation, it raises it "to the level of disagreement." Brilliant stuff. I think Keller does that again here on a polarizing topic: Justice.

"Scars" from old battles are hard to overcome. Theological conservatives, like me, tend to react against issues beloved by theological liberals, like social justice. And the more justice issues are brought up, the more likely (typically) theological conservatives will be leery of an author. But, and all man-love aside, Tim Keller in Generous Justice has done something I consider remarkable. He has cut through the thicket on justice to show us a clearing. It's a breath of fresh air among stuck arguments and stuffy minds.

Here's how Keller sets up his argument from the introduction... 

Elaine Scarry of Harvard has written a fascinating little book called On Beauty and Being Just. Her thesis is that the experience of beauty makes us less self-centered and more open to justice. I have observed over the decades that when people see the beauty of God's grace in Christ, it leads them powerfully toward justice.

Through dealing with several Old & New Testament passages, including word studies made simple (not just a scholarly work), Keller writes deep enough for the scholar and simple enough for the layperson. He shows himself well-read in both historic Christianity and modern cultural scholarship. Several times I found myself finding the endnotes for more info on an author or book I've never heard of and want to check out.

Some of my favorite sections are on biblical passages I'm very familiar with but Keller explains in a fresh way, such as his explanations of gleaning, tithing and Jubilee in chapter 2. Keller argues with these concepts that, "God's concern for the poor is so strong that he gave Israel a host of laws that, if practiced, would have virtually eliminated any permanent underclass" (p 27). I have not encountered a discussion on business and profit like this before (p 30). I believe it will shake the rich up and, Lord-willing, lead them toward justice. Keller reveals how profoundly American (and worldly) we are, yet he uses thoughtful, biblical argument to open our eyes. 

Then Keller discusses Jesus and "your neighbor" in chapters 3 and 4. His explanation of The Good Samaritan in chapter 4 is rich. Just as he makes Luke 15 and "The Prodigal Son" come alive in The Prodigal God, he continues to surprise us at our own dullness as he reveals the *sparkle* of familiar stories. In this instance he does it both through exposition of biblical texts as well as the liberal use of the writings of Jonathan Edwards. Keller works through the objections he's received to teaching love for neighbor and the answers he's seen from Edwards. His use of Edwards is compelling. Then Keller does what too many fail to do with The Good Samaritan, which is bring Jesus directly to bear. Instead of teaching the parable merely as the great example of how to love neighbor, he goes one step further.

Jesus is the Great Samaritan to whom the Good Samaritan points. 

Before you can give this neighbor-love, you need to receive it. Only if you see that you have been saved graciously boy someone who owes you the opposite will you go out into the world looking to help absolutely anyone in need. (p 77)

Keller then discusses the motivation for doing justice, treasuring human beings because they are creations of the Almighty. It's how we show God respect, by seeing His image in people. He mentions our redemption as motivation. Keller says, "If you look down at the poor and stay aloof from their suffering, you have not really understood or experienced God's grace" (p 96). "If you are not just, you've not truly been justified by faith" (p 99). How can someone who has experienced justification not respond by doing justice? When you understand the gospel, you see the poor and realize you are looking into a mirror. There can be no superiority or indifference when you get God's grace toward you.

Biblical background and motivations in mind, Keller gets practical in chapter 6. He says it should be our constant thought, to look for ways to do justice. We should ponder it. We should have "sustained reflection" on issues and places of justice. He considers big justice needs and areas. He discusses education and social capital, the need for business owners to be neighbors, racial reconciliation, and more. But then he does zero in on what everyday, neighborhood Christians can do. He mentions the mission of London City Mission as "the same person, going to the same people, regularly, to become their friend for Jesus's sake" (p 143). I love that. Keller does well to bring all our efforts, individually and organizationally, to bear on a community needing justice. "While the institutional church should do relief inside and around its community, the 'organic' church should be doing development and social reform" (p 146).

Keller also considers justice in the world of ideas, the public square. Keller's proposal: "Christians' work for justice should be characterized by both humble cooperation and respectful provocation" (p 158). I'm particularly encouraged by Keller's understanding of being distinctly Christian even when working in cooperation with others...

Christians should identify themselves as believer as they seek justice, welcoming and treating all who work beside them as equals. Believers should let their co-workers know of how the gospel is motivating them, yet also...they should appeal to common values as much as possible. (p 161)

Keller avoids pitfalls on both liberal and conservative sides by encouraging bold Christian work for justice while embracing a cooperation with others for the good of the oppressed. Yet he says Christians should "at the same time be respectfully provocative with them, arguing that their models of justice are reductionistic and incomplete" (p 164).

I love the way Keller ends Generous Justice. A chapter on "Peace, Beauty, and Justice." He ends where he started, remember the quote from Elaine Scarry above. Here Keller focuses on "shalom" or "harmonious peace." He refers to the "interwovenness" of rightly related human beings into community. He describes shalom as "flourishing in every dimension -- physical, emotional, social, and spiritual" (p174). Keller considers shalom and justice...

In general, to 'do justice' means to live in a way that generates a strong community where human beings can flourish. Specifically, however, to 'do justice' means to go to places where the fabric of shalom has broken down, where the weaker members of societies are falling through the fabric, and to repair it. This happens when we concentrate on and meet the needs of the poor.

How can we do that? The only way to reweave and strengthen the fabric is by weaving yourself into it. (p 177)

But Keller doesn't paint us as the hero. We do justice "because serving the poor honors and pleases God, and honoring and pleasing God is a delight to you in and of itself" (p 183). Loving and seeking justice means hard work. It's painful and people are difficult to love. But Keller says, "Don't shrink, says the Lord, from spending yourself on the broken, the hurting, and the needy. I'm good for it" (p 185).

Keller has written the best sort of book. He deals with something that has and can divide us, and does it winsomely. He does it biblically and theologically. He does it convincingly and compellingly. I finished Generous Justice desiring to see the hurting and oppressed with new eyes, a new generosity, and a new desire for shalom. 

This book is suited to many audiences. It can be read and understood by the average Christian and the more learned. I think it will be quite helpful for Christians involved in the leadership of business or government. Those responsible for much will be challenged to do it different, do it justly. And yet those with the simplest of lives and in the smallest of places will see in this book the profound, eternal purpose of God as they seek justice where they live. What a great gift a book like this is! 

I highly recommend Generous Justice, though I'm sure I haven't done the book justice (pun intended). There are a few books I know will be a constant reference for the remainder of my life, and this is one of them. Go get it.

Purchase Generous Justice | Christianity Today interview with Tim Keller | Other reviewsChuck Huckaby | 9 Marks | Brian Hedges