Book Review–Generous Justice (Tim Keller)

Both the previous Tim Keller books I have read were outstanding (Prodigal God and Counterfeit Gods), so I was greatly looking forward to this one. The format is very similar to both those books – a relatively short (less than 200 pages) hardback with eight chapters. His goal is to help people see the connection between the Christian message and justice. To give you a flavour of the book, I’ll summarise some of his main points in each chapter using his own words.


In the introduction he states his conviction that:

the Biblical gospel of Jesus necessarily and powerfully leads to a passion for justice in the world. A concern for justice in all aspects of life is neither an artificial add-on nor a contradiction to the message of the Bible


there is a distinct relationship between a person’s grasp and experience of God’s grace, and his or her heart for justice and the poor.

1. What is Justice

He starts off by defining justice for us, indicating that it is something God cares about deeply:

God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. This is what it means to “do justice”. … This is one of the main things [God] does in the world. He identifies with the powerless, he takes up their cause.

The implications for us are obvious:

What should God’s people be like? They must be people who are likewise passionately concerned for the weak and vulnerable.

This was God’s intention for the Israelite people:

Israel was charged to create a culture of social justice for the poor and vulnerable because it was the way the nation could reveal God’s glory and character to the world.

He highlights Job 31:13-28 as “one of the most important texts in the Scripture for the study of Israelite ethics”:

Remarkably, Job is asserting that it would be a sin against God to think of his goods as belonging to himself alone. To not share his bread and his assets with the poor would be unrighteous, a sin against God, and therefore by definition a violation of God’s justice.

2. Justice and the Old Testament

Are the Old Testament laws concerning justice still binding on us in the New Covenant era? Keller cites Craig Blomberg:

Every command [from the OT] reflects principles at some level that are binding on Christians

He argues that “the Mosaic laws of social justice are grounded in God’s character, and that never changes”.

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.

Just as Israel was a “community of justice”, so the church is to reflect these same concerns for the poor.

The Bible does not oversimplify poverty, but recognizes its many and varied causes. The multi-faceted nature of the problem means the solution must go deeper than public policy and social programs.

3. What Did Jesus Say About Justice?

He quotes John Newton:

One would almost think that Luke 14:12-14 was not considered part of God’s word, nor has any part of Jesus’s teaching been more neglected by his own people. I do not think it is unlawful to entertain our friends; but if these words do not teach us that it is in some respects or duty to give a preference to the poor, I am at a loss to understand them.

and add his own challenge:

[Jesus] is saying that we should spend far more of our money and wealth on the poor than we do on our own entertainment, or on vacations, or on eating out and socializing with important peers.

Lest we fear that Keller is laying down some kind of legalistic rules, he clarifies on the role of grace in justice:

An encounter with grace inevitably leads to a life of justice … A lack of justice is a sign that the worshipper’s hearts are not right with God at all

4. Justice and Your Neighbour

This chapter explores the parable of the Good Samaritan. Some of the most powerful material is drawn from some sermons by Jonathan Edwards.

in dealing with the objection that many of the poor do not have upright, moral characters, [Edwards] counters that we did not either, and yet Christ put himself out for us.

Again, he grounds our impulse to help our neighbour in the gospel:

Before you can give this neighbour-love, you need to receive it. … Once we receive this ultimate, radical, neighbour-love through Jesus, we can start to be the neighbours the Bible calls us to be.

5. Why Should We Do Justice?

Keller examines the motivations for justice:

Our real problem is that, while knowing [we should help the poor], we are insufficiently motivated to actually do it. … The Bible gives believers two basic motivations – joyful awe before the goodness of God’s creation, and the experience of God’s grace in redemption.

He challenges our attitude to our money:

Just men and women see their money as belonging in some ways to the entire human community around them, while the unjust or unrighteous see their money as strictly theirs and no one else’s … If you have been assigned the goods of this world by God and you don’t share them with others, it isn’t just stinginess, it is injustice.

There are some really hard-hitting challenges:

People changed by grace should go, as it were, on a permanent fast. Self-indulgence and materialism should be given up and replaced by a sacrificial lifestyle of giving to those in need.

He includes this wonderful quote from Robert Murray M’Cheyne:

If you would be like Christ, give much, give often, give freely, to the vile and poor, the thankless and undeserving.

6. How Should We Do Justice?

In some ways this was the chapter I most wanted to read. It’s one thing to be convinced of the need to do justice, but another to find real-world hands-on practical ways of doing it. And Keller agrees that helping the poor is not simple:

God does not want us to merely give the poor perfunctory help, but to ponder long and hard about how to improve their entire situation.

He lays down some helpful guidelines for those running social projects such as “those helping a neighbourhood should live in it” and “leadership for community development should be multiethnic and interracial”.

He claims that “it is naive to focus only on the individual” (whether evangelism or meeting needs) – some structures need changing.

If your church is not in a poor area, “begin by discovering the needs in your locale.” Ask questions (e.g. of the local council), and let them tell you.

He devotes some space to addressing the thorny issue of what the relationship and proportion between social justice and evangelism should be. While maintaining that “the most loving thing anyone can do for one’s neighbour is help him or her to a saving faith in God”, he also contends that

Deeds of mercy and justice should be done out of love, not simply as a means to the end of evangelism. And yet there is no better way for Christians to lay a foundation for evangelism than by doing justice.

7. Doing Justice in the Public Square

Keller discusses the difficulty of getting widespread agreement since “freedom” and “equality” are not neutral terms and it makes it hard to agree on justice.

We all agree that freedom should be curtailed if it harms people, but we can’t agree on what harm is, because we have different views of what a healthy, flourishing human life looks like.

We must recognise the “common grace” present in every culture:

When we speak publicly, we should do so with thoughtfulness and grace, in recognition that Christians are not the only ones who see what needs to be done in the world.

8. Peace, Beauty, Justice

The final chapter presents God as a master craftsman, who “weaved” the world together in creation, and gave it “shalom”. This “fabric of shalom” has been broken by the fall.

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. … Reweaving shalom means to sacrificially thread, lace, and press your time, goods, power, and resources into the lives and needs of others.

He again draws on Edwards to make the point that

Human beings will only be drawn out of themselves into unselfish acts of service to others when they see God as supremely beautiful

The book closes with a succinct summary of its main challenge:

A life poured out in doing justice for the poor is the inevitable sign of any real, true gospel faith.


Overall this is an inspiring book on justice, but perhaps a little light on practical examples. Its real strength lies in laying biblical and gospel foundations for justice, and with Keller’s knack for putting things in a fresh and compelling way. Writing as he does to the very polarised political situation in America, some of the arguments he weighs in on are probably not so contentious here in the UK. But there is plenty of food for thought. The real challenge is to allow a message like this to make a tangible difference on our churches and day to day lives.

What I feel would complement this well is some stories and examples of what what individuals, small groups and whole churches can and are doing. As I think of my own church, I am glad to report that there are many brilliant social action projects already going on, plus countless individual acts of service and kindness towards those in need. But at the same time, I feel that it is easy to leave the burden to the few, and live an isolated life that rarely interacts with those who need our help the most. As Keller says in the book, we may to “ponder long and hard” before it becomes clear what we can practically do. Maybe I’ll get my cell group brainstorming on this next time we meet.

1 thought on “Book Review–Generous Justice (Tim Keller)

  1. Pingback: wordandspirit » Book Review–The Cause Within You (Matthew Barnett)

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