A Review of “Generous Justice,” Part 1 of 4: Tim Keller’s Definition of Justice

There’s much abuzz on the internet right now about “social justice.” I recently got into a bit of a debate/discussion with a fellow on Twitter recently about the relationship between social justice and the church. During this discussion, the book Generous Justice by Tim Keller was referenced frequently. In the spirit of furthering that discussion, I volunteered to read and review Keller’s book to interact with the arguments this other gentleman was putting forward (it is difficult, after all, to have a substantive conversation in under 280 letters).

Chapter 1 of Generous Justice provides Keller’s definition of justice, while Chapters 2-4 lay out Keller’s use of the Old and New Testaments to flesh out his definition. Chapters 5-7 address the why and how of doing justice and Chapter 8 closes the book with a discussion on the concept of “shalom” and justice.

I must admit, I have never been a follower of Tim Keller. Even in my “New Calvinist” days I never really spent time reading or listening to him. That being said, I have not tried to bring any negative bias into this review. I have no desire nor intention to slander Tim Keller. My aim is to simply examine Tim Keller’s exegesis and assertions and compare them with the Bible to see whether they line up or not.

There were several things I agreed with Tim Keller on; namely the importance of the Imago Dei and it’s basis for all Christians ethics and biblical justice, such as civil rights. I agreed with Tim Keller about the many of the causes of poverty that are mentioned. I also agreed with Keller that many Christians (especially in the middle class) tend to be far too comfortable and disconnected from suffering and social breakdown happening outside their bubble.

Unfortunately, upon finishing the book, I was disappointed and concerned. For being such a renowned pastor, Keller did not rely very heavily upon Scripture; instead, he quoted other theologians, philosophers, and sociologists rather than carrying the brunt of the exegesis himself. For being such an intelligent man, Keller made many exegetical mistakes that seemed careless to me and that led him to misguided conclusions.I am not a renowned pastor or scholar, nor a particularly intelligent man. However, I am fully confident in the clarity of scripture. I’m also aware of the glowing reviews this book has received from others. However, I cannot offer such a recommendation. In short, Tim Keller redefines the biblical concept of justice and makes exegetical/logical leaps that result in extrabiblical imperatives being placed upon the reader (and all Christians in general); all the while seeming to ignore the role of God’s sovereignty in society.

Keller’s Definition of Justice

How one defines a term is of central importance to understanding their argument.  According to Tim Keller, the biblical definition of doing justice is becoming concerned “about the most vulnerable, poor, and marginalized members of our society” thus making “long term personal sacrifices in order to serve their interests, needs, and cause” as well as “loving and defending those with the least economic and social power” (p. 2, 5).

Mishpat and Tzadekah

To flesh out his definition of social justice, Keller examines the Hebrew words מִשְׁפָּטִֽ (mishpat) and צֶ֫דֶק (tezedek). These words are defined as “justice” and “righteousness,” respectively. As Keller correctly states, mishpat means “more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means to give people their rights” (3).

Keller states that “every place the word [mishpat] is used in the Old Testament, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor” (4). It is true that sometimes mishpat has that definition… except for these and many other passages:

  • Genesis 18:19, 25
  • Exodus 15:25, 21:1, 31, 28: 15-29, 30
  • Leviticus 18:4, 5, 20:22, 25:28, 26:15, 43, 46
  • Numbers 15:27:21
  • Deuteronomy 4:1, 5, 8, 14, 8:11, 16:18-19, 17:8, 9, 11
  • Joshua 20:6
  • Judges 4:5
  • 1 Samuel 8:3
  • 2 Samuel 15:2, 6, 22:3
  • 1 Kings 2:3, 28
  • 1 Chronicles 16:12, 14, 18:14
  • 2 Chronicles 9:8
  • Job 8:3, 9:19
  • Proverbs 2:8-9, 8:20

Keller’s assertion that mishpat overwhelmingly refers to the “quartet of the vulnerable” (the widow, orphan, immigrant, and poor) is simply not true.

Tim Keller goes on to hypothesize what happens when “tzadeqah and mishpat are tied together” (p.14). According to Keller, the “English expression that best conveys the meanings is ‘social justice’” (p. 14). He then suggests that the reader “find texts where the words are paired and… translate the text using the term ‘social justice’” (p. 14). This pairing results in Tim Keller’s examples:

The Lord loves social justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love. – Psalm 33:5

I am the LORD, who exercises kindness and social justice on earth, for in these I delight.- Jeremiah 9:23-24

Take a minute to think about this. First, “social justice” is indeed an English term with modern, sociological, political connotations. It means different things to different people and, as a phrase, is connected to Western philosophy. Second, Tim Keller is not letting the Bible define “social justice,” but is eisegetically inserting his definition of “social justice” back into the text. There is a reason the biblical writers used these two individual words, and for Tim Keller to translate the two terms together as “social justice” and then encourage readers to do the same is some of the most blatant eisegesis I have ever seen. This “illuminating exercise” is changing the meaning of scripture to fit Tim Keller’s definition of “social justice.”   

By tying mishpat and the quartet of the vulnerable closer together than the Old Testament itself does and inserting “social justice” into the scriptures, Keller begins to steer his definition of “justice” towards an economic focus. This forms the backbone for much of the book.

An essential part of Tim Keller’s definition of “justice” is that wealth and money must be equally distributed. For example, Keller quotes from Ezekiel 18:5, 7-8:

Suppose there is a righteous man who does what is just and right. He does not eat at the mountain shrines or look to the idols of the house of Israel. He does not… oppress anyone, but returns what he took in pledge for a loan. He does not commit robbery but gives his food to the hungry and provides clothing for the naked. He does not lend at usury or take excessive interest (NIV).

Keller then states that the implication is “that if you do not actively and generously share your resources with the poor, you are a robber” (p. 17). He makes this argument based upon how “the text pairs ‘he does not commit robbery’ with the explanatory clause that he gives food and clothing to the poor” (p. 16)

This is an irresponsible treatment of the text. Here is why: In the Hebrew text of Ezekiel 18, we do not find the contrasting conjunction “but” as the NIV inserts (“does not commit robbery but gives…”) that Keller uses to make his point. Instead, the text provides a list of qualities that characterize the “righteous man.” This list should not be understood as causal (as Keller suggests) but rather as the behavior of the righteous. In the passage, there is no waw to be found to denote a link between robbery and poverty:

גְּזֵלָ֖ה לֹ֣א יִגְזֹ֑ללַחְמוֹ֙ לְרָעֵ֣ב יִתֵּ֔ן וְעֵירֹ֖ם יְכַסֶּה־בָּֽגֶד

Additionally, the focus here is the full orbed life of righteousness in accordance with covenant Law. The focus is on obedience to the Law of God; this is the standard of judgement by which Israelites were judged. It’s much more than economics.  The ESV translates these verses well from the Hebrew:

“If a man is righteous and does what is just and right—if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord GOD.

It is a startling and unbiblical claim for Keller to condemn those who do not measure up to his standard of active and generous giving as “robbers,” but this is the kind of argumentation that Tim Keller uses in Generous Justice to advocate for economic equality.

Economic Equality

Keller openly advocates for “economic sharing” (p. 23) and “state sponsored distribution” (p. 26) based on the example of the nation of Israel. Keller admits that Israel was a theocracy while the Church is not. However, throughout Generous Justice he uses an overwhelming amount of Old Testament quotations to support his thesis regarding modern economic justice. In fact, Chapter 1 (in which Keller defines “justice”) contains nothing but Old Testament quotations.

While Keller admits that “as a whole the Bible does not say how redistribution should be carried out,” he nevertheless clearly asserts that redistribution of wealth is a biblical mandate (p. 32). While I agree with Keller that Christians are indeed to help meet the needs of believers who are less fortunate, Keller goes far beyond this. Keller reveals that his view is that “just men and women see their money as belonging in some ways to the entire human community around them” (p. 90). Keller quotes Deuteronomy 24 regarding the gleaning laws to support his position.

Keller asserts that these verses (Deut 24) demonstrate that the poor in Israel had a “right” to “part of the landowner’s harvest” (p. 91). In one sense, this is true; the poor did have a right to the leftover gleanings, grapes, olives, etc. However, it was not their right because they were poor, but because God made that provision in the Law for them.

That’s just the thing: This provision was in the Old Testament Law. To withhold from the poor what the Mosaic Law demanded for them in Israelite society would indeed be unjust. Why? Because it was an explicit violation of God’s Law. That is the textbook definition of “injustice.” However, as the book of Hebrews makes clear, that Mosaic Law and theocratic system has passed away. While it is indeed helpful and valuable for the Christian, the ordinances of the Mosaic Law no longer govern the life of the Christian nor the Church (Eph 2:15).

Here we see a fundamental problem with Tim Keller’s approach to social justice. Though he understands that the purpose of Israel was 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,” (p. 9),  Tim Keller seems to ignore the differences between how Israel and the Church operate according to Scripture. Frequently Keller can be found discussing Israel and then immediately applying the Old Testament to “we” and “believers” and “Christians” in a way that the Bible never intended and that is hermeneutically inconsistent.

Tim Keller goes beyond saying that redistribution should happen because everything belongs to everyone to saying that the poor have a “right” to what belonged to the landowner. Indeed, Keller goes so far as to say that “There is an inequitable distribution of both goods and opportunities in this world” and insinuates throughout the book that the poor have a right to the money and resources of the rich. According to Keller, if you have goods but do not share, it “isn’t just stinginess, it is injustice” (p.92). Yet, again, this social dynamic was only mandated and established under the Mosaic Law, which is no longer in place and has never been binding on any nation but Israel. Thus, it cannot be defined as injustice in this day and age.

Keller’s redefinition of justice only works in a theocratic society, and that is why all of his support for this definition comes from the Old Testament. In the New Testament context, there is a completely new dynamic.

Tim Keller is right to observe that Jesus Christ became incarnate and “lived with, ate with, and associated with the socially ostracized” (p.44). Praise God for this. However, when Keller actually engages with the scripturally recorded words of Christ, things begin to get off course.

Citing Luke 14:12-13, Keller states that “we should spend far more of our own 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” (p. 48). Let’s look at Tim Keller’s citation of this passage:

When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind…

It seems like this is applying to the disciples of Christ, right? That’s how Tim Keller is applying it. However, some words were neglected from this scripture quotation: “Then Jesus said to his host.” Jesus is not talking to his disciples but to his host. Who is his host? Luke 14:1 tells us: “a prominent Pharisee.” This is the first clue that Jesus’s words here aren’t primarily directed at the disciples sitting around the table.

The second clue is found in the Greek. As seen above, the NIV translates the Greek as “Do not invite…” In effect, it presents a general imperative. However, that is not what is found in the Greek. In the Greek, we find μὴ φώνει; this is a second-person singular present active imperative. As the NAC observes, “The present tense of the verb is perhaps better translated, “Stop continually inviting.” [1] Furthermore, because verb is second-person singular, it proves that Jesus addressed nobody but the prominent Pharisee who invited him to lunch. Jesus is commanding this Pharisee to stop his sinful habit of only inviting to lunch those who can pay him. Notice what Jesus does not say here; He does not command his disciples to “spend far more of [their] own money and wealth on the poor than [they] do on our own entertainment, or on vacations, or on eating out and socializing with important peers”(p. 48).

Again, I’m not advocating against meeting the needs of or providing charity to the poor. Churches can do that, and so can Christians. However, I am saying that Tim Keller is misusing this passage to support his redefinition of social justice as obligatory economic redistribution.

Brother or Sister= Every Person?

Keller also goes on to broaden the biblical scope of the poor that Christians are indeed commanded to care for. Take, for example, his use of James 2:15-17 to claim that “a life poured out in deeds of service to the poor is the inevitable sign of any real true, justifying, gospel-faith” (p. 99):

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Who does James refer to as “brother or sister?” He refers to believers within the church. Indeed, when we do find apostolic teaching about caring for the poor, it is only in the context of other believers in the church. Take John’s words, for instance:

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16–18)

Another example is in Acts 2:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44–45)

Yet when Tim Keller looks at such passages, he seems to completely ignore the context: Christians are indeed commanded and obligated under the teaching of Christ and the Apostles to share with those who are needy, if they are brothers or sisters in the faith. This is important because it reveals to us the original intent of the Apostles for the actions of the Church and it’s members. The New Testament presents no other imperative, and to add to or alter the original intent of the divinely inspired authors of Scripture is to add to or alter the Word of God.

Is it wrong to share with unbelievers who are in need? Absolutely not, and it can be a helpful way to demonstrate the love of Christ and a segue to verbally communicate the Gospel. However, to attempt to use the New Testament to mandate the involvement of Christians in “radical sharing with the needy” is simply impossible to base upon honest, consistent, and accurate exegesis of the New Testament.

I don’t want to belabor the point here, but there is one last element to mention. In closing Generous Justice, Tim Keller writes that 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 places where the fabric of shalom has broken down, where the weaker members or societies are falling through the fabric, and to repair it. This happens when we concentrate on and meet the needs of the poor” (p. 177).

The way we accomplish this, the way to “reweave shalom”, according to Keller, is to

sacrificially thread, lace, and press your time, goods, power, and resources into the lives and needs of the poor (p. 177).

It is again clear that Keller’s definition of “justice” is largely (though not entirely) an economic one. In short, Keller redefines biblical justice to mean mandated redistribution of power, resources, money, from those who have much to those who do not to create an equal society that portrays “social shalom” (p. 175). This is simply not the biblical definition of justice.

In the Old Testament, biblical justice is obedience to the covenant Law of God. In the New Testament, biblical justice within the Church is treating nobody with partiality in accordance with the teaching of Christ and the Apostles while waiting for the final and just reign of Christ over the entire earth. The idea of a just society outside of the Millenial Kingdom of Jesus Christ is foreign to the New Testament. Tim Keller’s redefinition of justice reveals the faulty heremeneutics and faulty conclusions that one is in danger of if they overlook this plain teaching of Scripture. 

In the next post, we will take some time to examine how Tim Keller uses the Bible in Generous Justice.



  1. Robert H. Stein, Luke, vol. 24, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 390.

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