In Matthew 22, a lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Last time I did one of these, some of you may remember, I reviewed John Piper’s Desiring God. I don’t know whether it came across as I intended, but the main point about that book that made me want to recommend it to you was that it made me want to devote my whole life to worshiping God. Looking back on it now, I would summarise by saying it encouraged me to really try to obey that first great commandment.
I used to think loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength was only for the really super-spiritual Christians, it was unrealistic for just an ordinary person like me; but God used John Piper to change my view of His law, to see loving and obeying God as a joyful thing to do, and to see that my joy in God glorifies Him, and this gave me a new motivation for taking the first great commandment seriously and aiming for a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. Obviously I still fall far short of His glory, and I’m continuously becoming more and more aware that I’m justified solely by His grace, but my greater awareness of how unworthy I am just reveals more of how amazing God’s grace really is. So now, instead of attempting the impossible, thinking I should try to repay God for the favour he’s done for me by forgiving my sin, I’ve been inspired to really try to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, just for the pleasure of glorifying Him.
Now the book I’m recommending today is, I think, a logical progression from Desiring God, because this book did a similar thing for me with the second great commandment: to love my neighbour as myself. It’s by Tim Keller, and it’s called Generous Justice, which has the subtitle How God’s Grace Makes Us Just.
So to start with, a little bit about the author:
Tim Keller was born in Pennsylvania, in the United States, in 1950. He studied at Westminster Seminary, and was pastor of a church in Virginia for 9 years before he moved to Manhattan in New York with his wife and children, and there he founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Now obviously, we don’t judge a church by the number of attendees, but hopefully it’s encouraging and exciting to hear about places where God is at work, bringing people into His church. So, in early 1989 (while Ed Collier was writing to Aunty Rachel), there were 15 people meeting weekly to pray about planting a new church in Manhattan. They held their first worship service on the evening of the 9th of April that year; by Christmas, the regular attendance at their morning and evening services was about 250. By early 1993, they were holding 4 services every Sunday, but they had still outgrown the building they had been using, which seated nearly 400. In 2007, they added a 5th (!) service, and the average weekly attendance is now about 4,500. Plus they’ve planted a number of other churches, so Redeemer has sister churches, daughter churches, and granddaughter churches on several continents.
The first time I came across Tim Keller was through Sarah, who comes to our church while she’s in Bath to study at the university. She was reading his popular apologetics book The Reason for God on a Sunday afternoon. However, the first of his books that I read that really got my attention is called The Prodigal God, which I bought mainly just because I was intrigued by the title (it turns out the word ‘prodigal’ doesn’t actually mean what I thought it meant). I strongly recommend that book too. It’s a very short book on Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith.
At this point I’ll just give a very quick mention to another book I read before Generous Justice, which also played a significant role in making me want to love others as Jesus loved me: Francis Chan’s Crazy Love made me want to give everything I have to display God’s love to the world. It made me think about how I spend my time and money. I mean, what do I want money for? There are so many people who need it so much more than I do, and it’s not like I’m going to need it in heaven! And what am I doing with my time? There are so many people in the world that need help in some way, and I only have a few years on this planet to try and serve them in whatever way I can.
I’ll also mention another book by Tim Keller, which is quite similar to Generous Justice: Ministries of Mercy, gets more into suggested practical steps for carrying out justice, and includes an introduction with a lot of statistics, which are interesting, but things have changed a bit since the book was published in 1989, plus the statistics are from the U.S., so they’re not all relevant to us in the UK. Generous Justice focuses more on the universal timeless principles.
So, Generous Justice. I think it’ll be useful to start in the introduction, where Keller explains why he wrote the book: He says:
“Most people know that Jesus came to bring forgiveness and grace. Less well known is the Biblical teaching that a true experience of the grace of Jesus Christ inevitably motivates a man or woman to seek justice in the world.”
And apparently while he was writing this book, lots of people asked him “who are you writing this book for?”
So Keller explains that he had four groups of people in mind when he wrote this book:
1. Firstly, people who are Christians, and have a concern for social justice, but don’t necessarily see a connection between the two.
2. Secondly, (and this is the group I was in,) it’s for Christians who approach the idea of “doing justice” with suspicion, because, he says:
In the twentieth century the American church divided between the liberal mainline that stressed social justice and the fundamentalist churches that emphasized personal salvation.
Because the liberals’ emphasis on social justice was often accompanied by a shift in theology, including rejection of the traditional doctrines of Scripture and atonement,
In the minds of many orthodox Christians… “doing justice” is inextricably linked with the loss of sound doctrine…
3. And the third group Keller wrote this book for is those people in the liberal camp who do emphasise justice at the expense of sound Biblical doctrine, and he argues that you don’t have to change classic Biblical evangelical teaching to do ministry to the poor. On the contrary, such ministry flows directly out of that teaching. He says:
When the Spirit enables us to understand what Christ has done for us, the result is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor.
4. And fourthly, the book is for people who think religion poisons everything, that all religion does is divide people into tribes and start wars. And obviously Keller hopes to show that that’s not the case.
Now I usually find it helpful, when I start reading a book, to look through the contents to get a rough idea of where we’re going, so the chapter headings of Generous Justice are: 1: ‘What Is Doing Justice?’, 2: ‘Justice and The Old Testament’, 3: ‘What did Jesus Say About Justice?‘, 4: ‘Justice and Your Neighbour’, 5: ‘Why Should We Do Justice?’, 6: ‘How Should We Do Justice?’, 7: ‘Doing Justice In The Public Square’, and 8: ‘Peace, Beauty and Justice’.
So in Chapter 1 Keller explains what he means by “justice”, using texts like Psalm 146 verses 7 to 9:
He executes justice 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.
Then Chapter 2, on Justice in the Old Testament, starts with a couple of verses from everyone at my church’s new favourite book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, chapter 15 verses 4 & 5:
There should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.
And this Chapter includes some thoughts on what the Bible says are the causes of poverty, and I should probably be careful mentioning the ‘p’ word, but I will say that my political views have shifted a bit as a result of this and other books I’ve read in the last year. Keller says:
One of the main reasons we cannot fit the Bible’s approach into a liberal or conservative economic model is the Scripture’s highly nuanced understanding of the causes of poverty. Liberal theorists believe that the “root causes” of poverty are always social forces beyond the control of the poor, such as racial prejudice, economic deprivation, joblessness, and other inequities. Conservative theorists put the blame on the breakdown of the family, the loss of character qualities such as self-control and discipline, and other habits and practices of the poor themselves. By contrast, the causes of poverty as put forth in the Bible are remarkably balanced.
Next we hear what Jesus had to say about justice, including Luke 14 verses 12 & 13:
When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours; 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 and the blind…
Then Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan gets its own chapter. I started off this review with Matthew 22 and the first and second great commandments. In Luke 10 there’s something very similar, as Jesus is asked
“What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” [Jesus] said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” So he answered and said, “’You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbour as yourself’” And [Jesus] said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”
And most of my readers are probably pretty familiar with Jesus’ answer to that question (if not, you can read the parable of the Good Samaritan here), but Keller makes a very convicting point:
The lawyer wanted to justify himself. He was hoping Jesus would interpret the law in a way that would allow him to feel like he was obeying the law well enough that God would be pleased with him. He hoped that, as long as he kept to a certain standard of loving people which was higher than most people could manage, God would let him off loving that one really annoying person. Because we all know there are some people who are really difficult to love, and God understands; don’t worry, as long as you love the people who love you back, that will be good enough. But obviously that’s not what Jesus says. He doesn’t let us get away with that. He seriously means for us to love even the filthy Samaritans as much as we love ourselves.
He also borrows from a Jonathan Edwards’ sermon called “The Duty of Charity to the Poor” to answer some objections that people raise against the idea of doing social justice. Two of the objections he deals with are that a) the poor person is not grateful for the help I’ve given them, and b) it’s his own fault that he’s in that state. I’m sure we’ve all thought of both of these reasons not to help someone at some point. Well, Edwards defeats these objections by pointing out that:
Christ loved us, and was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very hateful persons, of an evil disposition, not deserving of any good… so we should be willing to be kind to those who are… very undeserving.
The rules of the gospel direct us to forgive them… [for] Christ hath loved us, pitied us, and greatly laid out himself to relieve us from that want and misery which we brought on ourselves by our own folly and wickedness.
Then, in case you haven’t heard enough reasons yet, we reach the chapter that asks “Why should we do justice?”
I particularly liked his quote from a sermon by Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who said:
Some of you pray night and day to be branches of the true vine; you pray to be made all over in the image of Christ… Oh, my dear Christians! If you would be like Christ, give much, give often, give freely, to the vile and poor, the thankless and the undeserving. Christ is glorious and happy and so will you be. It is not your money I want, but your happiness. Remember his own word, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
And I think I could sum up the effect of this book on me by saying that God’s used it to make me really believe that that’s true; that it really is better to give than to receive.
Then we get on to how we should do justice.
And in this chapter Keller makes it absolutely clear that doing social justice should not replace evangelism, but he claims that doing justice works together with preaching the gospel to show Christ to be attractive. He says:
If we confuse evangelism and social justice we lose what is the single most unique service that Christians can offer the world. Others, alongside believers, can feed the hungry. But Christians have the gospel of Jesus by which men and women can be born again into the certain hope of eternal life. No one else can make such an invitation. However, many Christians who care intensely about evangelism see the work of doing justice as a distraction for Christians that detracts from the mission of evangelism. That is also a grave error.
When a city perceives a church as existing strictly and only for itself and its own members, the preaching of that church will not resonate with outsiders. But if neighbours see church members loving their city through astonishing, sacrificial deeds of compassion, they will be much more open to the church’s message. 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.
Then the Chapter on Justice in the Public Square discusses how we should interact with the world as we seek to bring about justice.
And we finish with Peace, Beauty & Justice.
And we return to Jonathan Edwards, who argued in his book ‘The Nature of True Virtue’ that:
human beings will only be drawn out of themselves into unselfish acts of service to others when they see God as supremely beautiful. Here’s an example to illustrate what he means. If you listen to Bach because you want people to think you are cultured (or because you want to think it of yourself), then the music is only a means to achieve some other end, namely the enhancement of your reputation. But if you play Bach because you find it not just useful but beautiful, then you are listening to it as satisfying in and of itself.
Edwards taught that if, through an experience of God’s grace, you come to find him beautiful, then you do not serve the poor because you want to think well of yourself, or in order to get a good reputation… You do it because serving the poor honours and pleases God, and honouring and pleasing God is a delight to you in and of itself.
So, whether you read any of these books I’ve recommended or not, I hope I’m doing a little bit to make the thought of loving God, and loving other people, and acting that love out in practice, sound like a delightful thing for you to do.
Now, it’s likely that the better you know me, the more you’re thinking “what a hypocrite!” I mean, I’m saying these books I’ve read have made me want to use every penny in my bank account and every second of every day to glorify God by serving those in need, and implying that you should do the same, but really, you can’t see that it’s made any visible difference to my life at all… and to be honest, I kind of have to agree. The more I think about this task, the more I’m aware of my failure to carry it out. As I was preparing this book review, I was thinking that, to prove how good this book is, I should go out and do something really big that I could point to and say “look how much I’ve done for the poor since I read this book”, and I do think my lack of action has meant I’m failing to recommend this book in the way it deserves, but at the same time, I don’t want you to look to me as an example of how to live; I want you to look to Jesus for your example. If I waited to talk about this until I felt that I was living it out well enough that I’d be a good example for you to follow, well, we’d be waiting a long time, let’s put it that way. So instead, I hope you’ll read this book and we can encourage each other to live it out in practice, and follow Jesus’ example more closely.