Generous Justice – Book Review

I just finished reading “Generous Justice” by Timothy Keller, and I felt compelled to comment on it here.

If you are looking for a book to motivate you to do more work with the poor and less fortunate among us, this might actually be a useful book that you won’t want to throw across the room. There are no guilt trips for eating french fries and he does not confuse the message of the gospel of grace and forgiveness with a heavy responsibility to go to Africa and suffer for the poor. This is a grace-honoring work that bases concern for the poor and disenfranchised on honor for the character of all people as made in the image of God.

He bases the first chapter, and perhaps the whole book really, on Micah 6:8:

8 He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8, NASB).

He shows from the Old Testament how God’s definition of justice is to show mercy and compassion to widows, the fatherless, immigrants, and the poor. Justice means care for the vulnerable. He goes on to explain that God isn’t on the side of the poor, but that the poor are much less likely to have human justice go their way.

He goes on to show that justice is also about right relationships, that Biblical righteousness is inevitably social. Justice, as well, is characterized by generosity. He uses a great deal of OT scripture to show that these rather strange ideas of justice are … justified.

Mr. Keller goes on in Chapter 2 to show God’s heart for justice under this definition from the Old Testament, and in Chapter 3 and 4 in the New Testament. Chapter 4 in particular focuses on the story of the Good Samaritan. He does note that this story is in fact a rebuttal to a pharisee who believes he can self-justify based on an anemic understanding of the Law. However, his main point is that the story is a good practical example of what we should be doing.

Chapter 5 is the pivotal chapter in the book, in my opinion. He makes the case that it is a powerful view of grace for ourselves which is the main motivator for living a life which reflects God’s justice, and that any other motivation is damaging. He also makes the case that because all men are made in God’s image, whether they are Christian or not, we are motivated by grace to extend compassion to all.

Chapter 6 has looks at some ideas for how such justice might practically work out. I thought the ideas of relief, development, and social reform were especially helpful. Often we think the only way to help the poor is through immediate relief, but clearly some people need much more than that. He uses the example of a fellow named John Perkins, who looked at compassion for the poor in terms of reforming an entire community spiritually and socially. This reminds me of the work of David Collins at Paradigm Ministries, who is always looking at how to express the gospel at a city-wide level.

I really liked how Keller made a very careful distinction between compassion type ministries and preaching/teaching ministries, and how both are important. Some groups try to emphasize one or the other, when in fact all are needful.

In Chapter 7 he talks about the need to be mindful of justice in the public arena, in legal issues and in politics. I love his thoughtful take on this, that we need to be humbly cooperative and respectfully provocative. We need to rehash the whole argument about matters of faith in politics, even quoting a very favorable quote by president Obama.

Chapter 8 wraps up the book by talking about justice in terms of the peace it brings to a community or society, and the beauty and art and helpful industry that arise from such a community.

While I think that sometimes Keller’s definition of justice becomes a bit confused, and really does come to embody just about any virtue you can name, in fact this is an extremely helpful book. From my perspective, I would like to see a lot more thought given to the connection between radical grace and concern for the poor, and how the gospel is the essential ingredient for their rescue. However, I loved the book and I am motivated to think and act differently after reading it. I would much recommend this book over other more fiery and more polemic tomes on the same subject, because this book makes a serious attempt to respect the grace of God in motivating us to do works of mercy and compassion in the world.

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