Romans Bible study on Justice from Doing Theology
A month ago we had a “Doing Theology” time on JUSTICE. We had to think things over after being moved all year by the heartache and turmoil caused by police brutality and the protests about systemic injustice that is poured out on African Americans, especially. This is one of two posts that attempt to sum up what we heard when we gathered to listen to God about justice. Hopefully, they will contribute to our ongoing dialogue.
To begin with, there is no justice without Jesus. We are all wrong. God graces us with “right” and the ability to bring things to right. We exercise His grace by the power of the Holy Spirit and it leads to justice. We demand justice from the powers-that-be from our place of safety in Christ, we don’t beg the powers to give us what is right as if they create it.
Jesus’ mission is to restore humanity and the whole creation. He envisions well‐being for people who are spiritually poor and people who are socially poor. As he walks among us, righteousness and justice mark the events of his days and nights. Jesus lives right and makes life right with and for others. If Jesus had offered a justice code (and it is dangerous to think he might have done this) it might have been centered around this idea: to love is to be just; to be just is to love. When we claim to follow Jesus, we are disciplined by the call to love like Jesus.
Justice is a concept with many meanings. It is too multi‐dimensional to be reduced to a single dictionary definition. It is summed up in the person of Jesus. It is also well-explored in the Bible. Romans 12-13 is a good place to see all the different aspects of how justice is worked out in one place. Modern people divide things up when they think. The Bible writers tend to mash things together because they are doing something personal, not conceptual. They are relating to wholeness, not particularity.
What follows is an attempt to sort out these two chapters according to ideas of justice that often aren’t thought of together, or are considered in competition with each other. Paul mashes them all up in his teaching masterpiece and helps us get a feel for how God feels and how God would like us to act.
This is by no means the final word about how to divide up these chapters, but it gives an idea of how Paul understands the levels and depths of how justice is understood and applied.
1) There is legal/courtroom justice. In democratic societies and many other cultures there is an assumption that “you get what you deserve.” Virtue is rewarded, evil is punished and criminals are brought to justice. They get their “just desserts” and are penalized according to the law as guilty offenders. The justice system holds court, and penalties are meted out to fit the crime.
Romans 13:1-5—Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
2) There is ethical/human‐rights justice: Ethical justice gives a different meaning to “you get what you deserve.” In the moral equation that links basic rights with being a human being, individuals are inherently worthy to receive benefits from their society. We should look for what is good and bring about justice.
Romans 12:3-4—For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function 12:14-18—Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 13:6-7—This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
3) There is divine/God’s justice: God’s justice embraces measures of both legal and ethical justice. In some sense, people who disregard God’s laws of life and love get their “just desserts.” Selfishness eventually inflicts its own punishment. Unrestrained greed guarantees disdain and even revenge from those who are exploited. Deceit may lead to short‐term gain but guarantees long‐term pain.
God’s moral equation lifts life from the noble level of bestowing equal rights on all creation to the human experience of both loving and being loved. God’s vision for a just creation sees people in right relationships with each other. Love protects the vulnerable, and offers the right to fail and the freedom to begin again.
The ethic of love and the practice of “loving your neighbor as yourself” are at the root of God’s vision for a just creation. The tenacity of God’s love refuses to accept injustice. Because of God's relentless hope, we don’t get what we deserve. Instead of being forever guilty we are granted forgiveness. We are invited to walk alongside Jesus who shows us how and empowers us how to live right and make life with others right.
Again, Jesus is justice and personally gives it. He is not subject to an abstract idea that humans have socially constructed. He says in John 8:15-16—You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me.
Romans 12:19-20—Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 13:8-13—Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.
4) There is spiritual transformation or restorative justice. When God’s people get it right, they bring a distinctive contribution to the justice table. Even though followers of Jesus do not have sole access to human virtue or an exclusive claim on being principled people, they have two advantages: Christians have revelation to help them discern God’s will and ways for themselves and others; and they have Jesus with them in Spirit and in history to demonstrate what humans can be.
Followers of Jesus will never duplicate the full beauty and wisdom of Jesus. But their faith points them in the right direction. They bring the Spirit of God with them. The understanding they gain from the Bible and their relationship with God’s Spirit can enable them to translate their convictions into compassionate behavior that serves the eternal interests of others.
Circumstances will always influence the responses of God’s people. But personal concerns, self‐interest and material gain will not have the final word. Christians will champion the marginalized and be driven by the ethic of love. Right relationships will rule the day. Love will prevail. Justice will trump injustice. Reconciliation and restoration will be the goal. Gently, but prophetically, Christians will bring their confidence, born of being forgiven and renewed, to the table. Power‐brokers who have a vision for a just social order will welcome the participation of people of faith, or they will face their relentless conviction and hope.
Romans 12:1-2 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. 12:9-13—Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 12:21—Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 13:14—Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
Justice is at play on many levels. People are able to grasp what justice means at many levels of personal and spiritual development. Some of us may devote ourselves to the most basic idea on the level first mentioned. But as a whole, we are determined to reveal God’s justice on the deeper, world-changing level listed last.
This Bible study helps us mentalize with God so we can think and feel more about what we can do to restore creation with the Creator.