From Personal Righteousness to Public Justice (pt. 2): Five More Truths from Psalm 101

cloud05Yesterday, I began to walk through Psalm 101, observing the ways that verses 1–4 teach us about personal righteousness. Today, we will return to that psalm in order to see what verses 5–8 tell us about public justice. As I defined it in my sermon on Psalm 101, public justice can be defined as actions that promote the well-being of others, based upon the righteousness of God. 

The two words “promote” and “based upon” are where the action is in this definition. As I explained yesterday, personal righteousness is necessary for justice to endure, thus explaining how I understand the relationship between God’s righteousness and justice. Today, I will explain what it means to promote the well-being of others. As Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert (The Mission of the Church) note, there are times when the word justice, and “social justice” especially, are unhelpful. One reason is that acts of charity might be better described in terms of compassion and loving opportunities for service rather than justice and moral responsibilities to correct the world’s problems.

I agree. Yet, when defined appropriately—in terms of impartial processes and not equivalent outcomes—I do believe it is possible to speak of justice in terms of promoting the well-being of others, in the sense that justice protects the vulnerable, assists the needy, and looks for ways to improve opportunities for others to enjoy God’s blessings—especially eternal blessings.

In what follows, I will attempt to show what public justice looks like, as we consider five truths from Psalm 101. But first let me summarize all that we have discovered about God’s justice in Psalms 97–101.

20 Truths about God’s Righteousness and Justice from Psalms 97–101

From Psalm 97, we find three truths about justice in God’s kingdom. You can see them detailed here.

  1. Kingdom justice (i.e. justice in God’s kingdom) begins with God and comes to us when God brings his kingdom from heaven to earth.
  2. Kingdom justice grows among God’s people when we understand the fundamental divide in humanity and stop trying to play God.
  3. Kingdom justice runs on the joyous love of God.

From Psalm 98, we find five truths about justice and the righteousness God grants to his people. You can see them detailed here.

  1. Salvation is an act of God’s judgment, which means God’s salvation demands and provides ‘justification.’
  2. Justification must pass the test of all onlookers.
  3. Justification fulfills God’s word.
  4. Justification is not liberation from oppression, but redemption from sin.
  5. Justification is the source of true justice on the earth.

From Psalm 99, we find three truths about justice that is mediated through his justified saints. You can see them detailed here.

  1. The justice of God proceeds in a logical order from kingdom, to temple, to priesthood.
  2. The justice of God is sufficient for God’s people.
  3. The justice of God is carried out by his royal priests.

From Psalm 100, we find at least three truths about justice in the presence of God. ** I did not preach Psalm 100, so I don’t have notes on that psalm (yet).

  1. God’s justification of sinners leads to worship in his temple.
  2. God’s justification unifies sinners in thanksgiving before God.
  3. God’s justice is best seen in the people he has justified.
  4. God’s work of justification comes before any command to do justice.

From Psalm 101, we find five truths about personal righteousness. You can see them detailed here.

  1. Personal righteousness is fueled by passionate worship.
  2. Personal righteousness grows as we delight in what is truly right.
  3. Personal righteousness is personal, not just principial.
  4. Personal righteousness begins with doing right, not just undoing wrong.
  5. Personal righteousness precedes public justice.

Five Truths about Public Justice

With those 20 truths in place, let’s consider five more.

1. Public justice is directed by and delimited to one’s location and vocation.

This truth is vitally important for discerning the level of responsibility we have in situations that confront us. In our social media age, where we carry the plights and injustices of the entire world in our pockets, we can feel as though we must respond to everything we see. Yet, Scripture lays no such burden upon us. Only God can address the whole world.

We are not responsible, therefore, to address everything. Instead, we must faithfully respond to those opportunities that come closest to us. In their chapter on social justice, DeYoung and Gilbert speak of this as “moral proximity.” In my sermon on Psalm 101, I made the same point. We possess concentric circles of responsibility, where we bear a greater burden to care for our own children than the children of others, our local church rather than the church universal, and our local school system, not the education of the whole nation.

Psalm 101 helps us to navigate our area of responsibility when we recognize that this psalm of David speaks of what the king—and only the king!—could do in Israel. In Israel, not every person was responsible for destroying the wicked in the land, but the king was. A faithful reading of this psalm, therefore, recognizes the unique position of the king. It was his vocation to establish laws in the land, and if he did not, he would be unjust. However, it would be equally unjust for anyone else in the land to do the things committed in Psalm 101.

In the fulness of time, Christ fulfilled this psalm. As the king on Zion’s throne he alone has the right to judge all flesh (see John 17:2). And all those who seek to usurp his place, even applying this psalm directly to themselves, set themselves against the LORD’s anointed. By contrast, those who take refuge in Christ will find that they are invited by him to carry out his works on the earth (cf. 1 Corinthians 6). Because the keys of Christs’s kingdom are given to the church, members of local churches have a role to play in cutting off the wicked. This occurs through a faithful application of Matthew 18:15–20 in church discipline.

By extension, every pursuit of justice will be in accordance with the authority that we have been delegated. Again, Psalm 101 applies directly to Israel’s king, but it teaches us that in the places where we live, work, play, worship, etc. we have a responsibility to seek good and overturn evil. Furthermore, the measure of our responsibility will be determined by the role we have in any one of those spheres. Thus, our vocation will largely determine our moral proximity and ability to exercise justice.

Thankfully, we are not called to solve every problem or to address every injustice. But when we find injustice in proximity to us, we are morally responsible for addressing it. Indeed, Christian maturity would even lead us to prepare ourselves to go into new and challenging environs where we seek to do good and confront injustice.

While we cannot demand that everyone fight sex trafficking, abortion, or crime, some should. And when Christians enter those vocations, they should bring with them all that they have learned from God and his perfect Word. This is how our calling as a royal priests intersects with the world around us.

2. Public justice matches the character of God himself.

If you look closely at Psalm 101, the king who devoted himself to praising and pondering God (vv. 1–2) begins to act like God in his rule of the nation (vv. 3–8). In verses 5–6, the very center of the psalm (according to Konrad Schaeffer), we find these words:

Whoever has a haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not endure.
I will look with favor on the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me;

To those who lead lives consumed with exploitative pride, the king must oppose them with the full weight of his royal authority. But to those whose lives are marked by faithfulness, born from trust in God, the king will support with equal measure. Such a proper distinction between the wicked and the righteous is the mark of true justice, because this is the division that stands before God himself.

In Proverbs 3:33–35 we find these words, “The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked,
but he blesses the dwelling of the righteous. 34  Toward the scorners he is scornful,
but to the humble he gives favor. 35 The wise will inherit honor,but fools get disgrace.”

While the Lord is impartial, he is not ignorant of the ones to whom he is dealing. To those who humbly trust him, he longs to give them his full support (see 1 Chr. 16:9). But to those who trust in themselves and rage against him and take advantage of others, he will punish them accordingly. As James and Peter cite the words of Proverbs 3:35, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5).

This just distinction between the righteous and the wicked is what the king of Israel promises to do in Israel. Imitating the wisdom of God, he is called upon to wield the sword against evil and to protect the innocent (cf. Rom. 13:1–7). And when he does so, the people flourish, because he is mediating God’s blessing on the earth.

By contrast, the wicked king “justifies the wicked” and “condemns the righteous”; both of these judgments are an “abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 17:15). But the king, or judge, or alderman, or county supervisor who makes their decisions to resemble the justice of God is displaying God’s righteousness to the world, even as they are being conformed into the image of God through their decisions. In this way, the eternal justice of God is reflected on the earth—not perfectly of absolutely, but in proportion to the way that a people and their rulers mirror their laws upon the law of God.

3. Public justice is Godward in orientation.

If the king’s righteous actions mirror the LORD’s, they also lead people to God. Remember, the commitments of Psalm 101 spring forth from the soil of worship in Psalm 100. And not surprisingly, the king who loves the LORD and longs to be with him (see v. 2), will lead his people to God, the One who is the source of his justice and joy. As he says in verse 6, those whom he has favor will dwell in his house—his house which stands in proximity to God’s house.

Put negatively, all those who continue to do evil will be cut off from the land. But those who seek refuge in the king’s house, the king will favor and even permit to stand and serve in his presence.  This ministry of the elect (v. 6) would offer a particular royal blessing to those in David’s day. But in our day, we find an even greater fulfillment in Christ Jesus.

Jesus is the king and heir of David’s house. Yet, as God the Son Incarnate, his house is also his Father’s house. As Jesus says in John 14:2, “In my Father’s house are many rooms, and I go to prepare a place for you.” Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one enters the Father’s house apart from God (v. 6). But for those who have Christ, Jesus gives the access and the privilege to serve in his Father’s house. John 13–17 describe this in full detail, but here we can simply say that those priests in God’s kingdom (cf. Psalm 99) will not only mediate God’s justice into the world, but as servants of God, they will also explain the way of justification.

Indeed, Christians who pursue every form of good work do so as children of God. Taught by God to walk in the ways of righteousness and justice, Christians should be salt and light wherever they go. As ambassadors of Christ, we should be ever ready to explain the source of our light and saltiness. Because every good work Christians do is derivative from the Lord (cf. John 15:1–5; 1 Cor. 4:7), any righteous pursuit of justice will always give credit to God and provide a way to the Father, through the Son.

In other words, righteous justice is always Godward in orientation. This means it doesn’t just do good; it also seeks to glorify the goodness of God in all that we do (see Matt. 5:16). Those whose lives find their source in Zion cannot take credit for their good works. Instead, the Spirit which leads them, impels them to share where true justice and life is found.

4. Public justice is impartial.

More practically, God’s justice is always impartial. As Psalm 101:5 puts it, “Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly I will destroy. Whoever has a haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not endure.” Notice the “whoever.” A just king does not play favorites, but will treat others based upon the standards of the law.

As noted above, impartiality does not mean that the outcomes of decisions will all be the same. Rather, impartiality describes the process by which justice is achieved. This principle stands in the center of a just legal system. In the Law of Moses, judges could not render decisions based upon one’s standing in society. The poor and the rich, the son of Israel and the foreigner all received the same treatment. Likewise, elders were chosen based on their reputation as being implacable towards bribes. And God himself is described as impartial with respect to Jew and Gentile (cf. 3:30; 9:24; 10:12; 15:9).

Without detailing every way this truth works, we must affirm that public justice rises and falls on impartiality. Where laws favor one group over another, there is a need for adjustment. Yet, direct and reactive dismantling of favoritism instantiated in the law will only ensure that another impartiality occurs.  For those who look at history through the lens of Hegel’s dialectic, this might not be a problem. But for Christians, we have a better way forward.

The reason why the Law of Moses could be called holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12) is because it came from God himself. Just the same, if we are going to enjoy just laws, they must be impartial. And the only impartial judge in the world is the one seated in Zion. Thus, to approximate impartiality on the earth it must come from God himself.

To put this into practice in our racially-charged day means that impartiality will be approximated when we see that all humanity is made in the image of God. To prefer, even as a corrective, one group over another will only tip the scales in a direction that opposes the former partiality. Such an approach will never balance them.

Therefore, with the king of Israel, we should seek true impartiality, and as Christians we must affirm that the only place where impartiality can truly be found is from God. Again, this means that the church, which stands on the word of God, will have a unique position on the topic of justice. But it is God’s impartiality, as explicated in the gospel, that both confirms the justice of God and inadequacies of the world.

5. Public justice is consistent.

Finally, we see that the king arises every day with the promise to stamp out evil and establish good. Verse 8 says, “Morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land, cutting off all the evildoers from the city of the Lord.”

Such consistency is what a just nation needs from their ruler(s). Yet, such consistency is never possible from fallen and finite governors. Because of sin and the curse of death, no good king has ever been able to arise each day and do justice.

Thankfully, Jesus Christ is a king who reigns eternal and who, because he is God, never slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121). In other words, Jesus alone can provide the consistency we need to walk in righteousness and justice.

That being said, we should strive to be consistent. We should make decisions based upon God’s unchanging Word, not our ever changing world. Our emotions and the pressure of others should not determine our views of justice. Rather, God’s truth and the facts of his world should lead us in our pursuit of justice. Consistency, therefore, should be our aim.

Nevertheless, our attempts at consistency will also prove how elusive justice is. Without perfect knowledge, infinite wisdom, and untainted holiness, our best attempts at justice will suffer. We will let ourselves down, and we will let others down. I think this is one of the reasons why Psalm 101 is followed by a psalm of lament and affliction (see Psalm 102). Every human endeavor to pursue justice reveals the frustration inherent in a sin-cursed world.

Yet, in that Ecclesiastes-type of disappointment, there is created in us a greater longing for the true king to establish his kingdom, his righteousness, and his justice. This does not mean that we give up the fight on earth to oppose evil and seek good. But it does mean that those who are most wise and winsome in their pursuits of justice will also be most desirous of God’s coming kingdom.

In truth, those who pursue justice most consistently in their respective vocations should also be the ones who are most adamant that the gospel alone can bring the peace that we long for. Peace is the precious fruit of righteousness and justice. Yet, everlasting peace will only come through Christ. And thus we conclude where this series began—God alone is the source and standard of justice.

And this is not bad news. It is the foundation of the good news! And thus, as we seek to live righteously and do justice, we must continue to come back to God through Christ. He is our source of all righteous justice. And thankfully, he is even now working to bring his perfect justice in to our world.

With that mind, let us continue to worship him, abide with him, and go into the world proclaiming the gospel of his kingdom. For indeed, it is in that kingdom that righteousness and peace are dawning and will last forever as Christ rules heaven and earth. Until then, we are called to fix our eyes on him, that we might become like him and be ready for his return.

To that end, let us pray, labor, and hope.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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