Tim Keller has strong words for people who do not care about the poor: "All I know is, if I don't care about the poor, if my church doesn't care about the poor, that's evil." The head pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church and author of Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just (Dutton) spoke with New York-based writer Kristen Scharold about why helping the least of these should be every Christian's mission.
Why do you think generosity is crucial to biblical justice?
I used the term "generous justice" because many people make a distinction between justice and charity. They say that if we give to the poor voluntarily, it's just compassion and charity. But Job says that if I'm not generous with my money, I'm offending God, which means it's not an option and it is unjust by definition to not share with the poor. It's biblical that we owe the poor as much of our money as we can possibly give away.
What do you hope readers will learn about the relationship between God's grace and justice?
Cause and effect: God's grace makes you just. The gospel is such that even though you're not saved by good works, you are saved by grace and faith—and it will change your life and lead to good works. According to the Bible, if you really have been changed by the grace of God, it will move you toward the poor.
Many Christians hear "justice" and think about issues like sex trafficking, HIV/AIDS, and so on. Would you include those in your definition?
My definition of justice is giving humans their due as people in the image of God. We all agree that everyone deserves not to be enslaved, beaten, raped, or killed. We are not just talking about helping the poor but helping people whose rights are being violated. What people are due is not an easy thing to determine from the Bible. I'm urging Christians not to be so certain that they know how the Bible translates into public policy.
Many Christians say that the best way to do justice in the world is to be a Democrat, others say to be a Republican. I'm trying to shake people loose and say that you need to be involved in your political party without that kind of triumphalism.
Can you elaborate on the relationship between preaching and justice?
The heart of what I'm supposed to do is preach the Word, win people to faith, and then disciple them. But I can't disciple people without telling them, "Help the poor." To believe in Jesus is to obey all he commanded, which means helping the poor.
There is a division between evangelicals. Some feel that doing justice is not what the church is supposed to be doing; on the other hand, there is an overreaction to that among many younger evangelicals who would say the job of the church is word and deed equally. I want people to remember that the impetus for helping people comes from the experience of grace.
What part do you see Generous Justice having in the conversations that people like Ron Sider and Tony Campolo have had for several years?
Tony and Ron have been writing great stuff for years, but they're assuming that their readers basically agree about the importance of the church's involvement with justice. My book is trying to move people forward and inspire them without leaving behind folks who have questions about the mission of the church and the relationship of social justice to evangelism.
In Counterfeit Gods, you wrote about the cultural idolization of money, romance, and power. What idols might prevent us from doing justice?
First, race. People look at people who are different and see them as inferior and deserving of their problems. It's a way of feeling better than others, because our hearts don't want to rest in the gospel of grace. Power is another idol, because justice requires being involved with people of other races and sharing power with them.
Another idol would be money, which serves the idol of security. In Deuteronomy 15, God says that if you care for the poor, he will provide for you. God knows that the reason people aren't generous is that they are afraid. They say, "I need a lot of savings." But God is saying, "That's distrust. You're looking to money to give you a feeling of confidence that I should be giving you."
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Generous Justice is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
Previous CT articles about Tim Keller include:
American Idols | Tim Keller explains why money, sex, and power so easily capture our affections. (October 20, 2009)
How Tim Keller Found Manhattan | The pastor of Redeemer Church is becoming an international figure because he's a local one. (June 5, 2009)
Tim Keller Reasons with America | The New York pastor explains why he's taking his ministry model on the road. (June 20, 2008)
Keller has also contributed articles and excerpts to CT and sister publications, including:
The Advent of Humility | Jesus is the reason to stop concentrating on ourselves. (December 22, 2008)
The Gospel in All its Forms | Like God, the gospel is both one and more than that. (Leadership Journal, May 23, 2008)
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