Tim Keller on Justification and Justice: The Both/And Gospel

In case you didn’t know already, Tim Keller has a book coming out later this year entitled Generous Justice.  In the publisher’s description of the book, it says:

Keller calls upon life-long Christians to deepen their faith by understanding that justice for the poor and marginalized is central to the Scripture’s message and challenges skeptics to recognize that the Bible is actually the basis for the modern understanding of justice.

This theme of justice was picked up yesterday in Keller’s talk at the Q Conference.  Skye Jethani has the summary at Out of Ur:

[T]he justification people are all about justification by faith alone. Only after being justified can a person live as he/she ought to live. While Keller was in full agreement with this doctrine, he said the unfortunate implication for many of the justification people is the belief that “we are mainly here to do evangelism” and they view “justice as a distraction.”

The justice people, on the other hand, tend to downplay or completely ignore the doctrine of justification by faith. Instead they can focus on language about “defeating the powers” or seeking the renewal of communities. Also good ideas, but not if justification is lost in the mix.

Keller believes this rift between justification and justice is completely unbiblical. “Justice and justification,” he said, “are joined at the hip. They are a seamless cloth.” He spent much of his time arguing from scripture that the doctrine of “justification by faith leads inevitably to justice.” Citing passages like Isaiah 58, Mark 12:38-40, Matthew 25, and others, Keller said that if we truly believe that we are saved by grace alone we will care about the poor.

The doctrine of justification by faith emphasizes that “God’s justice matters,” he said. We are perpetrators of wrong. We are sinners. We are poor in spirit. But God has had mercy on us. If we understand our spiritual poverty than we cannot ignore the material poor who are presented to us. If our belief in justification does not manifest itself in care for the poor, then our faith is dead as the Epistle of James says.

This is what Keller calls the “both/and” gospel…it’s about justification and justice, not justification or justice. And when we get this right, not only do we see justification lead to more justice, but doing more justice leads more of the lost toward Christ and justification through faith.

If you are familiar with Tim Keller’s work on “the gospel and the poor,” you would be familiar with his argument (in fact, I think justification and justice is just an alliterative way of making exactly the same point in his previous articles).  I believe it is precisely at this point where there is a divide among Reformed evangelicals as to the nature and implications of the gospel (and I think may have something to do with the theme “unadjusted gospel” from this year’s T4G).  In any case, Keller is forging the discussion with his new book and similar talks at conferences which is a good thing.

But I’m curious with you guys.  Do you believe the gospel is “both/and” in the sense it is about justification and justice? Is it a seamless cloth?  Is Keller mixing the nature and implications of the gospel?  Let me know what you think.

[For more on Keller’s talk yesterday, see Tim Schraeder’s notes as well.  Also, you can see some of my reflections on the relationship of the gospel to the poor here.]

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12 Comments on “Tim Keller on Justification and Justice: The Both/And Gospel”

  1. I know it’s not a popular idea in many Reformed circles, but I agree with Keller.

  2. Jared Wilson Says:

    I chalk my line where the works of my hands begin.

    If by “justice” we mean the church caring for the poor, doing “social justice” as it were, I say that’s an implication of the gospel, but not the gospel.

    But if by “justice” we mean Jesus’ making all things new, I say yes, that’s part of the gospel diamond (of which justification of sinners by God’s grace through personal faith is the sharp edge).

  3. Stephen Says:

    I agree that this is the point at which there is a divide amongst reformed evangelicals. I notice that you mention nature/implications – I think that’s the sticking point: what constitutes nature and what constitutes implications. Personally I think that making “nature” and “implication” categories is probably something of a modernist approach to understanding the gospel (and whilst helpful at times not necessarily biblical) and that what Keller is doing is trying to move past the categories to a more biblical way of thinking about the gospel.

    I think the categories need to be dropped and we need to understand the gospel as a dynamic word – its a proclamation, a declaration that makes things happen (Rom 1:16) – and its pointless to try and talk about the dynamic side of the declaration as “implication” because in the writing of the apostles the dynamic of the gospel is far more closely tied to it’s essence than to merely label it an implication. When you take the dynamic part out you don’t really have the gospel – you simply have intellectual content. When you take the declaration out you simply have system of ethical and moral behavior.

    This has been a long struggle for me because like the T4G guys I’m concerned that the proclaimed word is not minimized at the same time I want to talk about the gospel in a way that is consistent with the apostles. Keller’s approach makes the most sense to me at this stage.

  4. Jugulum Says:

    I’m not sure that “nature of the gospel” vs “implication of the gospel” is the right way to put it. But if we do put it that way, I don’t see how you can fault Keller. At least, when he said “justification by faith leads inevitably to justice”, that looks like “implication” to me.

    The important point to make again “social gospel” people is that the gospel isn’t “Good news! Look at this better way to live! Isn’t that great?”. Rather, it’s good news about what Christ has done for us, and the offer that comes from it: Forgiveness, and restored & transformed relationship with God.

    Or in other words, the gospel is how we enter the kingdom–which is a place where God’s Spirit works in us, and justice and love and goodness happen (i.e., God’s reign & God’s perfect way of justice is manifested).

    I haven’t seen a broad sample of what Keller has said about justice & justification, but the description you cited sounds apt to me.

  5. mrclm Says:

    I agree with Keller and think that as time passes he will draw more into his way of thinking on this. As has been pointed out, it is important that the “justice” comes AFTER justification. We can’t switch that around or it becomes salvation by recycling.

  6. I think the seamless cloth line might be an overstatement unless by that, one is saying that justice is just like every other work of righteousness is a seamless cloth with the gospel. Then it’s just a matter of sanctification not being divorced from justification, of which everyone would agree. But I fear that isn’t what Keller is suggesting.

  7. logsatm04 Says:

    I tend to lean towards Keller on this. Evangelism must be done in word and deed are both implications of Christ dying for our sins in accordance with the scriptures and raising on the third day according to the scriptures.

    I also think it should change the way evangelicals view “deeds”. I know growing up, my “works” were, implied at the very least, to be my avoidance of sin in culture. Evangelicalism for too long has viewed our works as mere personal holiness and while I don’t mean to downplay holiness, it is incredibly valuable, I think an accurate understanding of deeds is in justice & mercy ministries.

  8. Benji Ramsaur Says:

    I think the Bible is clear that there is a place for helping the poor, etc. Galatians 6:10, for example, can be applied in many different ways.

    My concern is “the cultural mandate”. My concern is Kuyper.

    I believe that perspective can lead to an emphasis on political engagement so that evangelism ends up taking a backseat.

    Therefore, “both/and” does not comfort me.

    Laziness and cowardice can already threaten evangelism [May God help us all starting with me]. We don’t need to add the cultural mandate on top of those two in my opinion.

    I see helping people. I don’t see helping culture. And I don’t think those two should be equated.

    If helping people helps the culture, then fine. But I still don’t see the New Testament making a big deal about culture and to try and build a case from Genesis for this is not convincing to me at this point.

  9. TC Keene Says:

    What creates the unity between justification and other things such as sanctification is that both derive from union with Christ (at least per Calvin and I think he reflects Paul very well here). So any discussion of ‘seamless’ unity between justification and justice needs to see how they relate to union with Christ. I do think that an emphasis upon union with Christ does imply a stronger emphasis upon the community aspect of salvation than justification by faith normally does (but this is a misunderstanding of justification by faith?). If the aspect of the people of God, those in union with Christ, constituting the kingdom of God is brought to the foreground, and justice is intended to be a feature of the kingdom of God, then justice will be in the foreground of the gospel

  10. Buck Says:

    “If I succeed totally in relieving poverty in this age, and didn’t solve the eternal problem, I would prove in the end to be absolutely unloving and un-Christ-like.” John Piper

  11. […] Tim Keller – The Both/And of the Gospel The 21st century church often polarizes itself into those who are culturally engaged, missionally minded and socially involved and those who emphasize the preservation and preaching of orthodox doctrine and evangelism. The former accuse the latter of truncating the story of God’s purposes in this world. The latter believe that in reaching for cultural relevance the former are letting go of Biblical truth. Both groups are right in their concerns and wrong in their response. a link… Tim Keller on Justification and Justice: The Both/And Gospel […]

  12. fred Says:


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