Justice, freedom, and love are the buzz words of our culture, but it is not at all clear that many of our neighbors know what these words mean. The Bible teaches that all three of these gifts originate in the Triune God and are only received and enjoyed through the Cross of Jesus.
“For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself…” (Gal. 5:13-23).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
True liberty is the ability to love our neighbors, through serving them lawfully from the heart (Gal. 5:13-14). The opposite of liberty (slavery) destroys community, through biting and devouring, driven by lusts and envy (Gal. 5:15, cf. Js. 4:1-3). Those who walk in the Spirit are led by the Spirit and therefore free from the lust of the flesh (Gal. 5:16). There is a battle in true Christians, where they sometimes find themselves doing what they do not want to do (Gal. 5:17). But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the condemnation of the law (Gal. 5:18, cf. Rom. 8:1). You can tell you are under the condemnation of the law because you are enslaved to the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21). The marks of true freedom are the fruit of the Spirit, against which the law can bring no charge (Gal. 5:22-23).
NEGATIVE V. POSITIVE JUSTICE
The Bible teaches that justice is primarily negative and punitive (Rom. 13:3). It is only positive in declaring innocence, affirming or praising the righteous (Rom. 13:3), but otherwise it condemns and punishes, executing God’s wrath (Rom. 13:4). Lady Justice is pictured in all the old paintings and statues as blind or blindfolded holding a set of scales in one hand and a sword in the other. Her job is simply to weigh out certain actions and demand equity – retribution and/or restitution that restores balance to the world, according to the law of God (cf. Ex. 22:1-15).
Related to the notion of justice is the notion of “rights,” and rights always imply obligations. If you have a right to life, everyone around you is obligated not to harm you. If you have a right to private property, everyone around you has an obligation not to take or damage what belongs to you. If you are a wife, you have a right to be provided for, and your husband is obligated to provide for you as himself (Eph. 5:29). Justice is called for when one of these obligations has been breached, defied, or severely neglected — eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life (Dt. 19:21). However, when someone claims they have a right to a job, education, health care, or welfare, the implication is that someone else is obligated to give it to them. But who? God has assigned the family government the ministry of health, welfare, and education. God has assigned the church government the ministry of worship in the word and sacraments. God has assigned the civil government the ministry of justice, punishing evil doers.
LOVE IS LIBERTY TO SERVE
The problem with coerced “love” from the state is like that demon-possessed guy in the tombs from the gospels – his name is Legion. First, the state is presuming to know how my resources are best used for the good of others. Second, the state is presuming to know how my neighbors will be best cared for and served. Third, the coercion of the state destroys the personalism of individuals freely giving and serving and receiving, reducing “love” to a merely material transaction or wealth transfer. Fourth, the automated provision of the state creates weak, irresponsible, immature, and ungrateful dependents. Fifth, the coercive automation of the state is massively inefficient. In all of these ways (and more), love and liberty are destroyed by the threatened violence of the state. True liberty is the room to exercise true wisdom and generosity with time and resources to care for the needs of your neighbors, and in particular, those entrusted to your care (Eph. 5:28-29, 6:4, 1 Tim. 5:8).
SINS & CRIMES
Many moderns confuse jurisdictions by conflating sins and crimes. Crimes are those acts that harm the person or property of others or are designated by God to corrupt society and therefore fall under the jurisdiction of the civil magistrates for punishment. Sins are those thoughts and acts that break fellowship with God and others, many of which fall under the jurisdiction of families and churches. True love, liberty, and justice occur when each jurisdiction submits to God’s assigned sphere. In a Christian civil order, all crimes would also be sins, but in most civil orders, there are a mix of crimes that may or may not be sins. So if the magistrate orders that meeting for worship is a crime, it would not be a sin to disobey that order (Dan. 3:18, Acts 5:29). But the other point is that not all sins are or should be crimes. So for example, covetousness is a sin and it may reveal itself in bad thoughts or words, but it isn’t a crime until it turns into overt theft or vandalism. The point is that Lady Justice deals with black and white actions, punishing evil doers upon the testimony of two or three witnesses, but she is not entrusted with matters of the heart, house rules, or matters of worship. When “justice” tries to meddle in those things assigned to the family or church, you don’t get love, liberty, or justice.
The greatest act of liberty ever performed was also the greatest act of love and justice: Jesus laid His life down freely as a ransom for sinners. No one took His life from Him, He laid it down freely (Jn. 10:18). And He had that freedom because it was obedience to His Father.
But the sinful heart of man always wants to get this backwards and upside down. The sinful, prideful heart of man wants to collapse and confuse justice, liberty, and love in order to remake the world according to its own wisdom, which always involves manipulation and coercion and demands that you must acquiesce to the demands of government thugs.
But justice only punishes or exonerates. That’s all it does. And that is what it did in the Cross. God’s perfect justice punished Jesus in our place, and then because our debts were fully paid, God’s justice exonerates all who trust in Him. That is a supreme manifestation of God’s love and liberty, but you cannot mix them up without confusing the gospel.
Those who receive this gospel really are set free, and the Spirit begins to lead them to love their neighbors freely and generously in imitation of Jesus in obedience. But slavery to the flesh is manifest and obvious. So which one are you? What characterizes your life? Is it the fruit of the Spirit or the works of the flesh? If it is the works of the flesh, then any demand for justice is only to have the law of God fall upon you with all of its fierce condemnation. But if it is the fruit of the Spirit, you are truly free, and you are a manifestation of the righteousness of God in Christ.