In his new book Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, Rev. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manhattan, defines what justice really means. Keller describes our duty to all those who bear God’s image. He explains how the gospel affects our view of the poor. He discusses the relationship between word and deed ministry, the balance between evangelism and social justice, and the priorities of the local church versus those of individual Christians. ByFaithOnline spoke with Keller about the impact he hopes the book will have.

What compelled you to write Generous Justice?

I think there’s a fair amount of confusion—especially in our relatively small, Reformed, and evangelical circles—about the relationship of word and deed, both in the Christian life and in church ministry. The confusion actually goes back quite a ways. The Modernist Fundamentalists split about 100 years ago between mainline churches and conservative churches; that split, to some degree, has been over the role of social justice.

The debate continues even today, as to whether we should be engaged with culture, and whether we should try to change society. So I thought I would speak to it.

You define justice as “caring for the vulnerable.” That’s a different definition than most of us have. How does it square with our ideas about righting wrongs or punishing evil?

If you want an umbrella definition of justice here it is: Giving people what they deserve.

Now, that’s negative. But there’s a positive aspect to it as well. On the negative side that means we find evildoers, and we stop them. On the positive side, we’re to look to the vulnerable—to people made in the image of God—and ask ourselves: ‘Are they getting the kind of care they’re due? As beings made in God’s image, are they being cared for properly?’

That means that every person comes into your presence with certain claims on you. For example, you’re not supposed to kill them; it says that in Genesis 9. Instead, you have the obligation to care for them and protect them—that’s your job. How do we do that? By giving them what they, as God’s image bearers, are owed. That’s what justice is—giving people what they’re due. So, we punish evildoers, and we care for the vulnerable.

A few pages later you add to this definition. Justice, you say, is “right relationships.” What’s the correlation between our personal relationships and doing justice?

When we define justice as giving people what they’re due, we’re actually saying, live with people in right relationship, we’re saying, relate to people as God would have you relate to them. That’s probably the ultimate, biblical definition, and it’s certainly the meaning of the [Hebrew] word tzadeqah, which appears scores of times in Scripture, and is translated ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice.’ It means to live in right relationship with those around you.

It’s interesting, in Job 29 and Job 31, Job makes a list of the things that God requires of him in his relationships with others. At one point it occurs to him that if he keeps his food and his fleece--in other words if he doesn’t share with the poor--that violates God’s will. In God’s eyes, being generous with the poor is part of what it means to be rightly related to others.