December 1, 2012

Neither Generous nor Just

A Critique of Tim Keller’s Generous Justice

Examining the thesis and assumptions of Generous Justice reveals that Keller's understanding of justice is far removed from the biblical model. Justice is not a matter of economic situation; there is no partiality with God. It is rather the faithful application of biblical laws to judicial matters.

The Fruits of Compromise

In Generous Justice, Timothy Keller ties himself in knots trying to relate biblical justice to a vision of ‘social justice’ he seems to feel obligated to defend. Keller is a capable evangelist and evangelical pastor, and it is discouraging to think that he has become over-anxious to please the current culture. His book fails to clearly define justice and righteousness in terms of obedience to the law of God and instead imports cultural fads into its interpretative exercise: the end result is a hybrid abstraction that, in the name of being biblical, reads humanistic views of justice into Christianity. 

The need for a Biblical Foundation

Keller starts badly by using a contemporary story, rather than Scripture, to set up his discussion and to define justice:

Although both Heather and Mark were living comfortable, safe lives, they became concerned about the most vulnerable, poor, and marginalized members of our society, and they made long-term personal sacrifices in order to serve their interests, needs and cause.  That is, according to the Bible, what it means to “do justice.”[1]

This is pure question-begging. No specific biblical testimony supports the idea that this is the meaning of justice. Certainly God’s law requires us to help the poor as an aspect of a righteous life, but how is Keller’s definition supported by mishpat – the rule of God’s law?   

Keller’s foundational error is a problem that must be addressed in detail, for it is a common error in the Christian community. Namely, he does not explicitly make justice and righteousness virtues that are clearly defined by God’s law, and consequently, “doing justice” is not consistently viewed as being concerned with obedience to the law of God.

Deficient Understanding of God’s Law

Although paying lip service to the law of God as having “some abiding validity that believers must carefully seek to reflect in their own lives and practices,”[2] Keller does not appear to take the statement seriously enough to apply it. According to Keller, Christians are no longer under God’s theocratic rule, and since the church is not the state, there is ”massive change” in the application of God’s standards; although exactly what these massive changes are he does not tell us.[3] 

Validity without Authority

He adequately describes the fulfilment in Christ of ceremonial or restorative shadows in the law that pointed to the cross or our separation to holiness, but then he writes, “Do we still have reason to believe that the civil laws of Moses, though not binding, still have some abiding validity? Yes.”[4]  But if they are not binding [required], how can they have abiding validity? The law is here reduced to useful advice or helpful pointers that have ‘some’ value. Keller admits that the law of God is grounded in God’s moral character and so, “we should be wary of simply saying, ‘these things don’t apply anymore,’’’[5] and we must find some way of expressing these ideas in our present practice.  Yet at the same time, nations are no longer bound to the law of God and the worship of the God of Scripture.[6]

Biblical Law helps the Poor

Keller rightly notes that Scripture reveals that obedience to God’s law would virtually eliminate a permanent underclass.[7]  However, there are glaring weaknesses and omissions in this part of his argument, including his total failure to deal with the details and significance of tithing in the law of God for social welfare.[8]  This is very surprising, because the tithe is required by God in his law (Num. 18:28; 2 Chr. 31: 5-6; Mal. 3:10).  Furthermore, it is a matter of justice, because tithing is giving God his due. Not to tithe is explicitly described as theft from God and is thus a form of injustice (Mal. 3: 8-12; Mk. 12:14-17; Matt. 23:23). By failing to give God his due, people are also robbed of blessing because the use of the tithe includes education and meeting the needs of the poor (Deut. 14:28-29; 26:12; 33:8-10). As Ray R. Sutton has pointed out, “those who appear to be so much in favour of helping the poor abandon the most obvious Scriptural advice when they reject the application of the entire Bible.”[9] The end result of Keller’s pages on the law of God is decidedly odd to say the least.

Inseparable Ends and Means

What happens then is that the “great care”[10] taken to apply God’s law that has “some abiding validity” becomes an exercise in abstraction. Justice is abstracted from biblical law as though means and ends are not intimately related and appointed by God. It is certainly true that detailed exegesis is needed in interpreting the law of God––there have been changes in administration since the Promised Land of the Israelites, but not changes in substance. To use biblical law as a resource for ideas that sound useable and pliable for a chosen end, rather than as the binding Word of God, is simply unfaithfulness. Biblical law and justice are no more separable as means to end, than the preaching of the gospel is separable as means to the end of the salvation of sinners.


God’s law lays out for us the way of love or charity (Rom. 13:10), the way of righteousness (Ps. 119), and the way of mercy and justice (Matt. 23:23). We must go to the whole of God’s law in both testaments to understand all of these requirements. The righteous man or woman lives a life that is the opposite of lawlessness. He will obey the Ten Commandments, he will tithe (including the poor tithe), he will seek the welfare of the fatherless and widow, he will pursue justice in the courts, and he will do much besides.


For a more complete treatment of this subject, see the article “Neither Generous nor Just,” in the Winter 2012 issue of Jubilee.


[1] Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010), 2.

[2] Keller, Generous Justice, 24.

[3] Keller, Generous Justice, 21-22.

[4] Keller, Generous Justice, 22.

[5] Keller, Generous Justice, 22.

[6] Keller, Generous Justice, 23.

[7] Keller, Generous Justice, 26-28.

[8] Keller, Generous Justice, 27-28.

[9] Ray R. Sutton, “Whose Conditions for Charity?”in Gary North (ed.) Theonomy: An Informed Response (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), 239.

[10] Keller, Generous Justice, 29.

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