May 12, 2011

How your attitude to the poor is a measure of your grasp of the gospel

Generous Justice by Tim Keller is subtitled ‘How God’s Grace makes us just’ and the subtitle is itself very telling because the book is not just a biblical defence of the idea that Christians should be concerned to uphold justice in our communities by sharing God’s concern for the needy or  vulnerable. The book is also written to measure our grasp of the gospel and our desire to live in obedience to it.

The main argument of the book can be summarised in the following statement;

A life poured out in doing justice for the poor is the inevitable sign of any real, true gospel faith.

For Keller the gospel both shows that Christians have unique motivations for social justice and also that Christians alone have unique power to demonstrate this justice in a radical way that is made possible by the gospel. Keller comments;

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.

Elsewhere he comments

We can see what an important and powerful resource the Bible gives us when it provides not merely the bare ethical obligation for doing justice, but a revolutionary new inner power and dynamism to do so. The Bible gives believers two basic motivations  – joyful awe before the goodness of God’s creation, and the experience of God’s grace in redemption.

If Keller is right it seems inevitable that the Christian ought to be more engaged in Generous Justice than his non-Christian neighbour because he has both unique motives and a unique power.

My goal in this post is not to rehearse all of Keller’s arguments. But I would like to highlight a few examples of what it looks like when the gospel is applied to our attitudes to the poor and to matters of justice.

Keller says that Micah 6:8 as ‘a summary of how God wants us to live’. The Chrsitian is ‘to do justice (mishpat) and love mercy (chesedh).’

Justice is at it’s most basic meaning ‘to treat people equitably’. And God is concerned to defend those for whom justice is hard to come by. So

if believers in God don’t honor the cries and claims of the poor, we don’t honor him, whatever we profess, because we hide his beauty from the eyes of the world.’

But justice also calls for radical generosity.

Keller cites Matthew 6 and Jesus description of giving alms as ‘acts of righteousness’.

Not giving generously, then, is not stinginess, but unrighteousness, a violation of God’s law.’

How does the gospel dynamic work to renew our minds and transform our lives so that the gospel leads to generous justice. I want us to briefly look at five examples from the book.

1. The gospel empowers us to be radical neighbours.

If we are to be committed to our communities we need our care and concern to be motivated not by pity for the poor or guilt because we’re more affluent but we need our compassion to be motivated by the conviction that we ourselves have received from Jesus the love that we are seeking to share. As Tim Keller writes reflecting on Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan

According to the Bible, we are all like that man, dying in the road. Spiritually, we are ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ (Ephesians 2:5). But when Jesus came into our dangerous world, he came down our road. And thought we had been his enemies, he was moved with compassion by our plight (Romans 5:10). He came to us and saved us, not merely at the risk of his life, as in the case of the Samaritan, but at the cost of his life. On the cross he paid a debt we could never pay ourselves. Jesus is the Great Samaritan to whom the Good Samaritan points.

Before you can give this neighbour-love, you need to receive it. Once we receive this ultimate, radical neighbour-love through Jesus, we can start to be the neighbours that the Bible calls us to be.’

2. The gospel changes the identity of the well-off so they have a new respect and love for the poor.

Again a powerful motivator for compassion and respect is that the gospel teaches us to identify ourselves with the poor as Jesus did. We share not just a common humanity but we share even the status ‘the undeserving’ poor.

Keller notes:

My experience as a pastor has been that those who are middle-class in spirit tend to be indifferent to the poor, but people who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitating toward the materially poor.

And what this means is

To the degree that the gospel shapes your self-image, you will identify with those in need.

When we see that we too have bankrupted ourselves spiritually if not financially and we recognise that it was our own fault and that we too are in need of great mercy it will lead to Generous Justice.

3. The gospel declares that God identifies with the poor.

Where would we be if God had not identified himself with the poor? Physically he choose to become  poor and marginalized in that he came as a working-class Palestinian Jew not a King or a Lord. He chose not to own a home or to seek the comforts of life.

He stood in the place of us all when he recognised our own spiritual poverty and bankruptcy (Matthew 5:3) and paid our debt.

4. The gospel enables the Christian to sacrifice, take risks and even disadvantage themselves to the advantage of others.

Keller reminds us that the real love that we have received in Christ entailed risk and sacrifice. For the Christian it is a Christ-like love that we offer in return.

The Christian is ready to give not out of his riches but even out of his poverty. He quotes a section from a sermon by the great Jonathan Edwards to demonstrate;

We in many cases may, by the rule of the gospel, be obliged to give to others when we can’t without suffering ourselves…If our neighbour’s difficulties and necessities are much greater than ours and we see that they are not like to be relieved, we should be willing to suffer with them and to take part of their burden upon ourselves.

5. The gospel enables us to overcome racial bias.

The Bible provides deep resources for racial rapprochement. Its depiction of creation cuts the nerve of racism at its source.

And the gospel of grace also serves to kill off any racist instinct.

Racial prejudice is wrong because it is a denial of the very principle that all human beings are equally sinful and saved by only the grace of God. A deep grasp of the gospel of grace, Paul says, should erode our racial biases.

What is at stake?

1. The glory of the gospel in transformed lives

What should we conclude when Christians fails to engage in acts of social justice? Keller would argue we should conclude that Christians have failed to grasp the gospel in all its dimensions and that we need to relearn and reapply the gospel in our attitude to the poor.

I would like to believe that a heart for the poor ‘sleeps’ down in a Christian’s soul until it is awakened.

2. Our witness to the world

Surely the gospel would have a much greater impact if the world saw the power of the gospel at work in the lives of Christians who are motivated to do justice?  An awakened heart is a powerful witness.

Deeds of justice give credibility for the preaching of the gospel. When our deeds contradict our words, our words have no power.


The book Generous Justice is a great example of what happens when we allow the gospel free reign to do its work into all of our lives and every aspect of our thinking.

A true experience of the grace of Jesus Christ inevitably motivates a man or woman to seek justice in the world.

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