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Village Church of Lincolnshire

Let Justice Roll Down Lesson 7: Establishing Justice (Application)

This is the final expanded guide to our live streamed study of the book of Amos. To get to the livestream click here.

Introduction

Honored members of our legislature and State government. It is time to call the people of this State to deny themselves and love their neighbors. They will do it, if we lead.

Vote to take down the flag, and replace it with a symbol that unites us all. And Mississippi can show the world what it looks like to love our neighbors and deny ourselves.[1]

 

These stirring words come from the Chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary and esteemed historian Ligon Duncan, who was asked in June 2020 to consult the Mississippi congress on whether or not to change the official state flag (which is the last state flag to convey the confederate battle flag). Duncan’s inspiring response was a rallying cry for Christians in his state to embrace the message of Jesus and deny themselves, incorporating the biblical insistence that we must love our neighbors and recognize the value of each person as made in God’s image. He realized that although the symbol of the confederate flag was often used as a reminder of “heritage,” the truth of the matter was more sinister:

However, as a historian, fully sympathetic to my people and our heritage, I have to say that the symbols of the Confederacy, represent not simply “the preservation of a way of life” and “States Rights,” but “States’ Rights to perpetuate chattel slavery, by denying Black people social and political equality” (these things are explicitly in Mississippi’s Ordinance of Secession), and then, to make things worse, especially after most of the men who actually fought the War died, these symbols have been persistently and widely used to send a message of oppression, terror, inferiority and exclusion to the Black people of the South in general, and our State in particular.[2]

To Duncan, the issue was simple. He called his fellow Christians to Christlikeness, to a self-sacrificial discipleship, and to a love for their disenfranchised neighbors. In other words, Duncan was calling his people to follow Amos’ words:

            “Hate evil, and love good,

And establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15a).

We have spent the last seven weeks unpacking the book of Amos. We’ve established his basic theme, that God holds all nations, peoples, and leaders accountable for their injustice. We’ve watched as Amos pleaded with these people to “seek the Lord and live”, to walk in repentance and faith by turning from their idols and their opulence and instead seeking to love God and neighbor. And we’ve lamented as they instead turned to slander and conspiracies, following blind guides instead of God’s law. We ended our time last week by looking at the hope of justice, the restoration of David’s just throne, and saw how this is the promise of Jesus that began when he came to earth.  

Today we survey all we have learned, with the intention to see how Amos can direct us, as followers of Jesus, to be people of justice in our own spheres of influence, our “gates” where justice is threatened daily by the pressure and deceitfulness and pleasantness of sin. We will look to three of such places where justice and righteousness should guide us: our hearts, our church, and our communities. And we will see how Amos directs us in each of these realms.

Justice as Seeking Shalom

But first, we should recap what has been said before about justice in both the book of Amos and the whole Bible. Justice, when we discuss it, often only has to do with the rectitude by which legal matters are carried out. But in the Bible, the dual term “justice and righteousness” in its fullest sense means God’s sum total will for the social realm.[3] Justice, or miš-pāt, in many contexts denotes, not just legal matters, but rather “God’s expectations for his people with regard to every aspect of society.”[4] Justice and righteousness are extensions of God’s character (Ps. 33:5; 89:14; 97:2;Jer. 9:24; Gen. 18:25). One could say that justice, in the Bible’s sense of the word, is the sum total of God’s will for how to treat his image bearers.

If justice is defined as the sum total of God’s will for how to treat his image bearers, then we should look to where that will is displayed: the law. As we have discussed, a fundamental aspect of God’s calling to Israel in the mosaic law was that they would be a light of “righteousness and justice” in a world filled with injustice and wickedness (Gen. 18:19).[5] Yet we shouldn’t miss what the goal of just actions was in both the law of Moses and throughout the Old Testament: shalom.

“Shalom” is often translated in the Old Testament as “peace,” but it is much more than an inner state of mind. In the Bible “it denotes wholeness, harmony, well-being and more specifically wealth, physical health, security, a state of satisfaction and ease, [and] relationships of friendliness.”[6] Cornelius Plantinga describes Shalom as “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight.”[7] Shalom is a state of affairs where everything is done according to God’s gracious will, and the people as a result live in harmony. Shalom is living in designed wholeness. As Nicholas Wolterstorff observes, “to dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself.”[8]

Behind all of God’s injunctions for justice is this promise of shalom. His command for justice in their cities was followed up with this promise: “that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 16:18-20). The emphasis on shalom (living in designed wholeness) is seen clearly in the blesses for obedience to God’s law in Deuteronomy 28:

 Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in and blessed shall you be when you go out.

“The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. They shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways. The Lord will command the blessing on you in your barns and in all that you undertake. And he will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. The Lord will establish you as a people holy to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways.  And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you. And the Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give you. The Lord will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands. And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you shall only go up and not down, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, being careful to do them, and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today, to the right hand or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them. (Deut. 28:3-14).

This pursuit of shalom was a motivator for them to pursue justice. If justice reigned, shalom would follow. It is with this in mind that they sought the good of the poor and needy, the foreigner and the weak, the widow and orphan. They were seeking shalom in all their relationships, and so these especially vulnerable of the population were of special concern (Exod. 22:21-27; 23:6-9; Deut. 27:19). For them to live in designed wholeness as a community, none of God’s image bearers was to be oppressed or neglected.

It is helpful for us to reorient our understanding of justice along these lines. Justice is not simply ensuring that there are no legal misgivings, but rather it includes the positive work of ensuring, as much as we can, that the people in our midst have as much a taste of shalom as this side of the second coming can afford. Justice is thus a recognition of the special vulnerabilities that the marginalized face, and a desire to bring to them the same level of opportunity (Deut. 15:12-18). When we say we are “seeking justice,” we are not merely in the pursuit of punishment for the wicked, but rather what we are really seeking is an environment of wholeness and equity, of life lived according to God’s commands (see Jer. 29:7, where shalom is translated “welfare”). “Justice” is really seeking shalom in all our relationships.

Establishing Justice in Our Hearts  

The first area where Amos would tell us to establish a proper desire for justice is really our inner world. When he tells his readers to “seek the Lord and live” (5:6) he is really directing them back toward a Scripture-informed ethic, a way of thinking and desiring that is rooted, not in nationalism or the deceit of wealth, but rather in God’s commands. The first place that justice is lost is not in law courts or even by the acts of injustice, but rather it is in the hearts of people when they turn from God’s commands and toward other ways of thinking and desiring. God’s injunction for his people to be immersed in his word (Deut. 6:1-9) comes from the danger that in their hearts there would grow “a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit,” leading them to turn from God’s commands and toward disobedience (Deut. 29:18-19).

When we look at the book of Amos, we see that this is precisely what has occurred. Instead of living out God’s concerns for a just society, they had allowed their hearts to grow dull and callous, they’d quieted their consciences with opulence and pleasure, and they’d suppressed any voices that tried to convict them of sin. That is why the antidote begins first at their hearts: “hate evil and love good.” Words like “love” and “hate” have to do with what we desire, what we pursue, and what we abhor. They are inner words, words which point beyond outer action to the conscience.

Looking from Amos, we see several such areas where hearts need to be transformed if justice is to thrive. In fact, these are all repeated biblical emphases when it comes to how to treat others. They are put in Amos’ negative/positive style, beginning with what we are to hate and what we are to love:

  • Hate the self-centered use of wealth; love sacrificial giving for the marginalized (3:14-15; 4:1; 6:1-6; cf. Luke 12:13-20; 1 Tim. 6:6-10, 17-19)
    • This means that we do not view our wealth as our own, but rather as God’s gift to be used according to his will. It means we do not make the mistake of supposing we received our wealth via our hard work (Deut. 8:17-18), but rather recognize how God would have us use that wealth for the good of our neighbors.
  • Hate any form of oppression, prejudice, and violence; love the vulnerable and marginalized (2:6, 9; 3:10;4:1; 5:7; 5:10-12; cf. Lev. 19:10; 23:22; 25:35; Deut. 24:14; Ezek. 22:29; Zech. 7:10)
    • This means that we hate any and all mistreatment of foreigners and immigrants, the unborn, women, people of color, and any others who have been traditionally oppressed in our midst. It means we hate any form of racism, gradation of human value, and prejudice against ethnic groups. It means that we recognize that the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” extends to the foreigner and the outcast (Luke 10:25-37).
  • Hate cultural/theological narratives that perpetuate injustice; love truth, even when it hurts (5:18-27; 7:10-14; 9:10; cf. Acts 6:8-14, 7:54-60)
    • This means that we don’t buy into viewpoints that combine nationalism and theology contrary to Scripture, that justify the unjust actions of a country because it is “God’s nation,” or that simply use the name of Jesus to garner our support (Jer. 23:26). It means that we are willing walk in repentance and faith, because we recognize the vast evil that our own hearts are capable of (Jer. 9:6; 17:9).
  • Hate division and bitterness and strife; love reconciliation, building bridges, and peacemaking (9:11-12; cf. Matt. 5:9; 2 Cor. 13:11; James 3:18)
    • This means that we do not let our hearts react in fear and hatred toward those outside the church, but rather seek to model Christ’s love for us to those unlike us (Eph. 2:12-22).

These are all internal shifts that we must make if we are to have hearts ready to seek shalom in our world. This is the foundation upon which any and all work of justice must be laid, for it is only when our desires are formed toward shalom for all God’s image bearers that we can truly begin to establish justice in the church and by the church in our communities.

So, the question for us is, who is forming your heart? Is your heart being transformed by Scripture, or by those who do not know Scripture? Who has the authority in your heart when it comes to matters of justice?  Have you found yourself in the place of Isaiah’s readers, who “call evil good and good evil”? Take some time, read the passages in the categories above seriously and prayerfully, and ask if those to whom you listen to daily for guidance in political and societal issues have done the same.

Establishing Justice inside the Church

While we must begin at our hearts, we cannot stop there. In fact, we couldn’t do that if we tried, for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34), or to put it another way, heart-change always leads to action. Eventually, we will do what we want to do, so we must begin at our inner lives and work from there outward.

This is vital because, as is continually the message of Scripture, people do not exist as islands but rather are deeply connected to one another. Even in the midst of the isolation due to COVID-19, we have seen how one person’s bad heart (think: the police officer who murdered George Floyd) can spark great swaths of chaos. We are reminded over and over again in Scripture that our pursuit of justice and righteousness is not merely individual buy also corporate; that, if we are to be Jesus’ people, we must pursue justice not only in our hearts but in our churches and communities as well. If our hearts are bad, so too will our churches be. But if we learn to hate evil and love good in our inner lives, we can bring that to bear on our communities as well.

This is Amos’ point continually to the Israelites of his day: justice must reign within the people of God as well as be proclaimed to those outside of the people of God. Because of our special relationship with God, the closeness we enjoy by the Holy Spirit, we have a greater responsibility to walk “as children of light” (Eph. 5:8, Cf. Amos 3:2; Isa. 2:5) in the midst of an unjust world. When people look to the Church, they should see “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world”, a community who cares about justice and righteousness because they know the God of justice (Matt. 5:13-16).

To this end, the first “gate” in which we seek to establish justice is in both the systems and the voice of the Church. While the temptation would be to see the Church’s role as simply proclaiming a “spiritual” message that slots nicely into the category of “religion,” in fact the Church is better seen as “a beachhead” of the assault of God’s kingdom on the kingdoms of the world. As Graham Cole puts it, “believers live under the lordship of Christ, not under that of any Caesar.”[9] The Church is an embassy of the kingdom, and the values and norms of the kingdom motivate and guide all its work both within the embassy and outside of it.

We seek to do this through focus on the systems/culture of the Church:

  • The systems/culture of the Church: Amos looked at the systems in the Israelite society and could clearly see ways in which they were unjust. The slave trade is one example (2:6), as was the system of sexual exploitation and idolatry (2:7-8). Their perversion of justice was shameful hypocrisy, and instead of stopping it they perpetuated cultures that privileged the wealthy and marginalized the poor (5:10-12).
    • Instead, Jesus calls the Church to be a place the recognizes the importance and vulnerability of “the least of these” (Matt. 25:31-40), always with an awareness of the human propensity to exclude and gradate others’ value (James 2:1-13). The Church, for it to truly be a place of shalom, should create systems and endorse cultures that emphasize the underrepresented and marginalized, foster equality and input across gender and racial lines, and model Christlike humility (Phil. 2:1-4). The Church should be a place where people come because they desire shalom.

As we think on what it means for a local church to establish justice inside its walls, we can ask ourselves several questions: Do we have a culture that not only tolerates but welcomes other cultures to participate? Do our systems support involvement across economic, gender, and racial lines, or inhibit it? These are heavy questions, questions for us to ponder seriously and prayerfully.

Establishing Justice in our Communities

As has already become apparent, there is a progression when it comes to applying Amos’ cry for justice. The first place that a pursuit of justice must transform us is in our hearts, and then it can move to transforming how we function as God’s people. Yet, after we’ve sought to reorient our hearts and our church communities toward justice, we must not forget the actual work of doing justice in our world.

An important Old Testament parallel to this mission for justice is the idea of the “reprover” or “advocate” for the oppressed that is lauded in Scripture. In Proverbs King Lemuel’s mother tells him to “open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8-9). Isaiah pleads with the people to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa. 1:17, cf. Jer. 22:3). Job viewed his righteousness in terms of consistent advocacy for the vulnerable and oppressed (Job 29:12-17). While the people in Amos’ day sought to silence any advocate for the vulnerable (Amos 5:10), this was continually held up as an important function of Israelite morality. The work of justice was a vital part of Israel’s mission.

Justice, in its fullest sense, is seeking shalom for all God’s image-bearers. Throughout the history of the Christian Church, followers of Jesus have seen this as a vital part of their work as followers of Christ, looking to passages like Isaiah 61: 1-2 as a guide. By the fourth century, a major distinction of Christians in pagan society was their care for the poor and marginalized,[10]and much of what is taken for granted regarding the rights of humans comes in part from the Judeo-Christian theological vision of humanity as created in God’s image.[11] When the Church has thrived in Christian history, there has never been a hard and fast distinction between what kind of help the Church is to provide to the world, but rather this work of seeking justice has been seen as a vital part of its mission.

Lesslie Newbigin, a British theologian, pastor, and missionary, reflected on this aspect of the Church’s mission as simply “the logic of the gospel.” “The call of Jesus to believe the good news of the impending kingdom,” he wrote in his fascinating book The Open Secret, “leads at once to the call ‘follow me.’ There can be no separation between believing and following, between faith and obedience. The prayer ‘thy will be done’ is in vain if it is not made visible in action for the doing of that will.”[12] The gospel presupposes that God has (and still is) working toward justice by bringing his kingdom to earth, and that such work now includes the Church as the embassy of that kingdom’s coming. We wait the appearing of the King of justice, seeking to live by his rule as we wait.[13]

As we think of the Church’s mission for justice, we can conceive of it in terms of social action in our local community, advocacy, and global missions.

  • Social Action in our Local Community: Louis Berkhof commented in 1913 that while the global missionary work of the Church had exploded, there was a serious lack of such missionary work in our own communities.[14] The same could be said today. Churches should seek to establish justice in their own “gate” as well as the “gates” of foreign lands. The “least of these” in our local counties and cities should be a vital concern for us. Social action, including the support of relief work, the creation of innovative para-church organizations, work toward reconciliation, and the financial support of community programs to under resourced communities, should be embraced as a vital part of the Church’s role in a local context.
  • Advocacy for “the least of these”: The people of Amos’ day had forgotten their role as a “light to the nations,” instead turning inward and simply taking God’s blessings for granted (Isa. 42:6; 51:4). Prophets had ceased to call out injustice, and simply avoided conflict. A similar type of preaching has been tempting in instances where justice is called for, such as the rise of Nazism in Germany and many churches in the history of the United States. The temptation is usually toward an idea of the “spirituality of the Church,” that is, that the Church should never use its voice to cry out against injustice (let alone work toward justice in the world) but should focus on a very narrow set of spiritual topics. Instead, part of a Church’s mission for justice should be a willingness to speak up and advocate for those whose voice does not carry the same weight, through the means of written statements, public pronouncements, petitions, ecumenical gatherings, and a firm apolitical stance. The Church in this sense must be a counter community, standing like Amos outside of the official channels of power and calling people to Christlike discipleship, not simply patriotism.
  • Global Missions: Part of living in a globalized world means that our actions have global consequences. The call of Jesus is indeed to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), and so we rightly should use our means to bring the message and shalom of Jesus to areas in need (but see the first point above). But we should also see many of our actions as having global impacts, including our contribution to and the impacts of climate change, how our consumerism can exacerbate near-slavery conditions in countries competing to have the lowest priced goods for our consumption, and many other such considerations. The Church should be constantly sending missionaries across the globe, but we at home should be supporting their work by being responsible global citizens.

Conclusion

In the last seven weeks, much has been said. If Amos would have us remember one thing, however, it likely would be this: God holds all peoples, nations, leaders, and individuals accountable for their injustice. If justice is seeking shalom, injustice is seeking eventual chaos and war. God’s people should be shalom-seekers, and God punishes them when they turn on that mission. The vision of the coming King of Justice in 9:11-15, and the shalom he brings, motivates us to look upward while reaching outward, to beg God to bring the abiding peace of Jesus’ kingdom, while we seek to act as ambassadors of that kingdom even now.

What Amos, and the rest of Scripture, gives to us is a vision of the Church that, while foreign to us, has always been part-in-parcel of its mission. It is a vision of a kingdom, whose pronouncements have no “safe-zones,” whose judgments are always righteousness and justice, and whose King is ruling now in the midst of his people. It is a vision of a suffering Church, a crucified Church, and a triumphant Church. It is a vision of a Church who looks to weakness instead of strength, for justice instead of power, and to Christ instead of any Caesar. It is a Church in the presence of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, gathered around Christ and committed to being “the light of the world.”

 

May we recapture that vision in our days. God’s grace to you all.

 

Footnotes

[1] Ligon Duncan, “A Statement on The Flag of Mississippi,” June 23, 2020, https://ligonduncan.com/a-statement-on-the-flag-of-mississippi/.

[2] Duncan, “A Statement on the Flag of mississippi.”

[3] J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 47.

[4] E.R. Hayes, “Justice, Righteousness,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, Black Dictionaries on the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2012), 466–72, 466.

[5] See the excursus at the end of session one, “The Biblical Definition of Justice” for a much more detailed explanation, http://evcl.org/let-justice-roll-down-lesson-one-study-guide-and-excursus/

[6] T.S. Hadjiev, “Peace, Rest,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, Black Dictionaries on the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2012).

[7] Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 14.

[8] N. Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 70.

[9] Graham A. Cole, God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

[10] Cole, God the Peacemaker, 206.

[11] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Christianity and Social Justice,” Christian Scholar’s Review 16, no. 3 (March 1987): 211–28, 221.

[12] Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Missions, Revised (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 91.

[13] See lesson five and six (http://evcl.org/ministries/sunday-school/) for more detail on this point.

 

[14] Louis Berkhof, The Church and Social Problems (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1913), 19.

Pastor Casey is the Associate Pastor at Village Church of Lincolnshire. He graduated from Trinity International University with a B.A. In pre-seminary studies in 2018, and from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Mdiv) in 2019. You can read Casey's thoughts on his blog, https://revivalrenewal.wordpress.com/.