Micah 6:8 is a summary of how God wants us to live. To walk humbly with God is to know him intimately and to be attentive to what he desires and loves. And what does that consist of? The text says to ‘do justice and love mercy,’ which seem at first glance to be two different things, but they are not. The term for ‘mercy’ is the Hebrew word chesedh, God’s unconditional grace and compassion. The word for ‘justice’ is the Hebrew term mishpat. In Micah 6:8, ‘mishpat puts the emphasis on the action, chesedh puts it on the attitude [or motive] behind the action.’ To walk with God, then, we must do justice, out of merciful love.
Why should we be concerned about the vulnerable ones? It is because God is concerned about them. Consider the following texts:
He executes justice [mishpat] for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free, the LORD gives sight to the blind, he lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves those who live justly. The LORD watches over the immigrant and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. Psalm 146:7-9
The LORD your God . . . defends the cause [mishpat ] of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the immigrant, giving him food and clothing. Deuteronomy 10:17-18
It is striking to see how often God is introduced as the defender of these vulnerable groups. Don’t miss the significance of this. When people ask me, ‘How do you want to be introduced?’ I usually propose they say, ‘This is Tim Keller, minister at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.’ Of course I am many other things, but that is the main thing I spend my time doing in public life. Realize, then, how significant it is that the Biblical writers introduce God as ‘a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows’ (Psalm 68:4-5). This is one of the main things he does in the world. He identifies with the powerless, he takes up their cause.
When I went to seminary to prepare for the ministry, I met an African-American student, Elward Ellis, who befriended both my future wife, Kathy Kristy, and me. He gave us gracious but bare-knuckled mentoring about the realities of injustice in American culture. “You’re a racist, you know,” he once said at our kitchen table. “Oh, you don’t mean to be, and you don’t want to be, but you are. You can’t really help it.” He said, for example, “When black people do things in a certain way, you say, ‘Well, that’s your culture.’ But when white people do things in a certain way, you say, ‘That’s just the right way to do things.’ You don’t realize you really have a culture. You are blind to how many of your beliefs and practices are cultural.” We began to see how, in so many ways, we made our cultural biases into moral principles and then judged people of other races as being inferior. His case was so strong and fair that, to our surprise, we agreed with him.
If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn’t live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God’s grace, but in his heart he is far from him. If he doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced, and at worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just.
There is an inequitable distribution of both goods and opportunities in this world. Therefore, 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 many great differences between the small southern town of Hopewell, Virginia, and the giant metropolis of New York. But there was one thing that was exactly the same. To my surprise, there is a direct relationship between a person’s grasp and experience of God’s grace, and his or her heart for justice and the poor. In both settings, as I preached the classic message that God does not give us justice but saves us by free grace, I discovered that those most affected by the message became the most sensitive to the social inequities around them. One man in my church in Hopewell, Easley Shelton, went through a profound transformation. He moved out of a sterile, moralistic understanding of life and began to understand that his salvation was based on the free, unmerited grace of Jesus. It gave him a new warmth, joy, and confidence that everyone could see. But it had another surprising effect. ‘You know,’ he said to me one day, ‘I’ve been a racist all my life.’ I was startled, because I had not yet preached to him or to the congregation on that subject. He had put it together for himself. When he lost his Phariseeism, his spiritual self-righteousness, he said, he lost his racism.
Recently there has been a rise in books and blogs charging that religion, to quote Christopher Hitchens, ‘poisons everything.’ In their view religion, and especially the Christian church, is a primary force promoting injustice and violence on our planet. To such people the idea that belief in the Biblical God necessarily entails commitment to justice is absurd. But, as we will see, the Bible is a book devoted to justice in the world from first to last. And the Bible gives us not just a naked call to care about justice, but gives us everything we need—motivation, guidance, inner joy, and power – to live a just life.
In the early days after becoming a Christian I first heard of this idea that Jesus Christ somehow ‘intercedes’ for me before the Father. I got this out of the book of Hebrews, where Jesus is depicted as our great high priest who stands before the Father for us, as priests in the Old Testament did for the people. When I first heard the idea of Jesus Christ representing me before the Father, it made me think of him going before the throne like this: ‘Good morning, Father, I represent Tim Keller. And my client, I admit it, is having a very, very bad week. He’s broken three or four promises he made to you. He has broken several of your laws that he knows and acknowledges. He has sinned a lot this week. He deserves to be punished— but cut him a break, please, Father? For my sake? I really ask that you give him another chance.’ That’s how I imagined him speaking. And I also imagined the Father saying in reply, ‘Well, all right. Okay. For you, one more chance.’
Now the trouble with that imaginary scenario is that Jesus does not have a case. He is simply pleading for another chance. And I remember thinking, ‘I wonder how long even Jesus can keep that sort of thing up?’ I wondered when the Father would finally say, ‘That does it! I’ve had it!’ But my imagination was ill-informed. It is not sufficient for a lawyer to just resort to tugging on the heartstrings of the jury or the judge, or to try to delay the verdict, or to appeal to technicalities. The lawyer doesn’t need spin or emotional manipulation – but a real case. And that is just what Jesus has.
What is his case? John goes on to tell us in 1 John 2: 2. First, he says, ‘He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.’ When Jesus goes before the Father he is not actually asking for mercy for us. Of course it was infinitely merciful of God to send Christ to die for us, but that mercy has now been granted, so Jesus does not need to beg for it. 1 John 1: 9 says that ‘if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.’ Notice it does not say that if Christians confess their sins God forgives because he mercifully gives them another chance. No, it says he forgives because he is faithful and just. To not forgive us would be unjust.
Most people love those who love them, yet God loves and seeks the good even of people who are his enemies. But because God is good and loving, he cannot tolerate evil. The opposite of love is not anger, but indifference. ‘The more you love your son, the more you hate in him the liar, the drunkard, the traitor,’ (E. Gifford). To imagine God’s situation, imagine a judge who also is a father, who sits at the trial of his guilty son. A judge knows he cannot let his son go, for without justice no society can survive. How much less can a loving God merely ignore or suspend justice for us – who are loved, yet guilty of rebellion against his loving authority?