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Faith Without Justice is Dead

In Proverbs 21:3, God clearly states that certain religious deeds are “more acceptable” than others—despite those others being the very liturgical functions He Himself required. Even during the Old Covenant, God desired justice more than the celebration of feasts and the offerings upon the altars. This is an important lesson for our time as most contemporary church controversies center around liturgy, sacrament, or some other ecclesiocentric matter. In what sense have we surpassed the Pharisees?

  • Christopher J. Ortiz
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To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.
—Proverbs 21:3

I wish I could report to you today that the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is embracing and acting on its primary calling to restore justice to a world pervasively framed in unrighteousness. I cannot. And if my email inbox is any indication, the central questions on the heart of the average Christian still focus on how to celebrate the Sabbath; what church should he attend; can he eat pork; and who was the man of lawlessness in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. Unless we’re talking about unjust taxation, justice and judgment are far from his mind.

Yet Solomon wrote that “to do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice,” and this he said hundreds of years prior to the cross of Jesus Christ. In other words, he was still living in the time of sacrifice, priesthood, and holy days, but like his father, David, Solomon saw past the elaborate—and God-commanded—liturgy of his time. He understood that the ultimate expression of worship was a world restored to justice and righteous judgment.

Justice More Than Sacrifice

In Proverbs 21:3, God clearly states that certain religious deeds are “more acceptable” than others—despite those others being the very liturgical functions He Himself required. Even during the Old Covenant, God desired justice more than the celebration of feasts and the offerings upon the altars. This is an important lesson for our time as most contemporary church controversies center around liturgy, sacrament, or some other ecclesiocentric matter. In what sense have we surpassed the Pharisees?

If we must deal with a world that is established in wickedness, then it seems strange that justice would not be our emphasis. Yet a very strange ecclesiastical pietism—a carryover from Romanism—dominates too many churchmen with their belief that properly exercised liturgy will somehow result in very real changes in society. This is a similar faith to that found in many Charismatic churches that hold spiritual warfare meetings in an attempt to “pull down strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4) over a city. They neglect Paul’s obvious meaning of “taking every thought captive” (v.5) as something achieved through Biblical preaching and correction, and instead retreat to ceremonies and spiritual disciplines.

Denominationalism has a similar premise. It’s the idea that the more visible the institutional church, the more social clout it can exercise. Therefore, church planting becomes an imperial exercise for a particular group where progress is measured by how many new congregations are planted in a given year. This is not the type of visibility that God calls for, as Rushdoony so ably notes:

The visibility of the Church is not in its institutional presence, but in its fulfillment of its calling. When the Church truly fulfills her calling, the consequences are apparent in the diffusion and enforcement of God’s law order, so that every area of life is brought under the dominion of the triune God.1

Church progress—or church growth—should be measured by the decline of wickedness and the restoration of justice. The purpose of dominion is to restore godly justice in order that the world order might glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31). Churches on every corner, or mass participation in liturgy, hardly give evidence to a restoration of justice. In fact, the average man is angered by the great pomp and visibility of the church. Why? Because for all the prowess of the institutional church, the world remains unjust—faith without justice is dead.

The sinner might hate religion, but he longs for justice, and a restoration of justice is a powerful allurement to the Christian faith. As Rushdoony describes, man’s cry for justice is basic to his nature:

However much he hates God, fallen man still echoes God’s law. As a result, when fallen, sinful man faces the wrongs wrought by sin, everything within him cries out against it. The demand for justice was no less present in Rome, Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and elsewhere than it is today. The cry for justice is as old as man. As God’s creature, man cries out against injustice, and his being longs for a just order even as the plant seeks the sun.2

It’s when the world can witness a just and holy order amongst God’s people that they will learn of the superiority of God’s law over all other systems of thought:

Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” Deuteronomy 4:6

Christian Obstruction

Justice is more acceptable than sacrifice. The restoration of God’s order is more acceptable than the questionable laboring by men over the redefining of the doctrine of justification. Even a child could understand that one is justified so that one may go and make the world just. To do that, however, a theologian must forsake his obsession with the church and the academy and reorient himself to Kingdom labor:

It is a serious mistake to see theology as an academic exercise. The word theology means God’s word; it begins with the presupposition that Scripture is the word of God, and the duty of the theologian is to understand it and to apply it to every area of life and thought.3

The Scriptures are blueprints for justice and godly order, and in the portions that speak of justice, the Scriptures are plainspoken. There’s no need for debate when it comes to caring for widows and orphans—no need to parse any verbs in that instance.

So long as we place priority on anything other than a restoration of justice, we shall find ourselves obstructing God’s way. It’s not that other religious matters are without importance; it’s an issue of priority:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Matthew 23:23

According to our Lord, the “weightier matters” (Gk. barus) of judgment, mercy, and faith are “more acceptable” than sacrifice. This was a double insult to the Pharisees, since our Lord first used the same word barus (grievous) in relation to the liturgical and ceremonial burdens placed on the people by Israel’s religious leaders:

For they bind heavy burdens hard to bear [barus], and lay them on men’s shoulders… Matthew 23:4a

The real heavy burden is the restoration of justice, not the liturgical details that identify and occupy each Christian sect. The Lord desires judgment, mercy, and faith. Without these, our faith is without works, and therefore dead.

The Doctrine of Justice

The Biblical text is so replete with the subjects of justice, judgment, mercy, and righteousness—all synonymous terms—that I contend it should be its own doctrinal category, viz., the doctrine of justice. It should have a place among the creeds and confessions and be pushed forward as the defining characteristic of what it means to build the Kingdom and glorify God.

The opposite is also true. Without a doctrine of justice that is lived out by God’s people, we are not advancing the Kingdom. Even though our sacraments, liturgy, and organizations might be highly developed, we are not glorifying God in the complete sense if we are not working for a restoration of God’s order. Israel herself maintained an elaborate liturgy, but injustice reigned instead of righteousness—they were still a guilty and bloody people:

For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue has muttered perversity. No one calls for justice, nor does any plead for truth. They trust in empty words and speak lies; they conceive evil and bring forth iniquity. Isaiah 59:3–4 (emphasis added)

Much of Israel’s history can be summarized in the first chapter of Isaiah where God rejects her sacrifices, priesthood, liturgy, and holy days because of her uncleanness and bloodiness. No doubt, the implication is that Israel trusted in her liturgical orders:

Bring no more futile sacrifices; incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting. Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; they are a trouble to Me. I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood. Isaiah 1:13–15

God offered her a solution, but it had little to do with organization, a new revelation, a change in the priesthood, or some other ecclesiastical adjustment. The solution was simple and the language was crafted with God’s typical summary of what His heart has always desired for His people:

Learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow. Isaiah 1:17

For me, Isaiah 1:17 is the simple definition of what it means to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33). Anything less is “domination” not godly dominion. Anything less is a quest for power.

The God-Kind of Fast

Yet they seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinances of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God. Isaiah 58:2

Israel thought they could garner a response from God due to their national fasting: “Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not?” (Is. 58:3). They had chosen the wrong fast, because despite their acting as if they desired “the ordinances of justice,” they actually fasted “for strife and debate” (v. 4).

God’s purpose for fasting was for far more than abstinence. The doctrine of justice served as the thesis for what Israel’s fast should typify:

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Isaiah 58:6

By destroying wickedness and ending oppression, God’s laws regarding fasting were fulfilled—this would be the direct result of an established justice. In fact, beyond fasting, God’s law in its totality is intended to restore order and justice. Israel attempted to humble herself with fasting but the end result was a continual hiding from their own flesh (v. 7), i.e., they hid themselves from the oppressed living among them. Faithfulness to God’s law should produce the opposite effect. Rushdoony describes it this way:

[T]he result of humility, and obedience to God’s law, is a morality that is God-shaped, a morality that leads to social and personal righteousness or justice.4

To “let the oppressed go free” is at the heart of the gospel, and it is good news to them that suffer under tyranny. Our Lord was anointed “to preach deliverance to the captives,” and “to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18). In this sense, true law keeping is “gospel” to the core because it has—or should have—as its end, the restoration of justice. In fact, even the blessings listed at the end of Isaiah 58 are foreshadows of the Christian reconstructionist vision:

Those from among you shall build the old waste places; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to Dwell In. Isaiah 58:12

Like the gospel, the fulfillment of the law leads to liberating the captives. However, the implementing of the law brings physical liberty—not simply the spiritual liberty touted by evangelicalism. It’s not enough to have a food pantry. We must “rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”

In this sense, the law as it is newly expressed through the gospel is a law of liberty; or should I say, “the law that brings liberty.” Law and gospel work together bringing both spiritual liberty by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and social liberty by the theocratic reign of God’s people.

James and the Law of Liberty

So speak and so do, as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. James 2:12

The above passage is actually the second instance in which James mentions the “law of liberty,” but in both cases the idea is similar: the law of liberty involves “doing.”

But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does. James 1:25

And what is the end result of the doing of the law of liberty? It is the establishment of religion5—a pure and undefiled religion:

Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. James 1:27

Widows and orphans are the Biblical example of the necessity for justice, because they represent the weakest and often most oppressed members of any social order. And because the tendency of most societies is to favor the oppressor, remaining “unspotted from the world” means keeping one’s garment clean of partiality:

My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. James 2:1

The example James uses is that of church leaders showing preference to wealthy visitors in full knowledge that those very same people oppress the poor and the faithful—those whom God ordained to be “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (2:5).

Partiality violates the “royal law” to “love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 8). The royal law is the law of the king, and the law of the King is what advances His reign. But without a more refined interpretation of how to love one’s neighbor, Christians will be ignorant of its application. James then expounds on the details of the royal law by citing the sixth and seventh commandments as examples of its direct application (v. 11).

Law and Gospel are for Liberty

The church leaders to whom James writes could certainly claim to have faith, but his argument is that faith is useless without corresponding works of righteousness—works that bring justice:

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? James 2:14

We cannot believe that James is in contradiction to Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith, and Rushdoony points out that James is not dismissing the theological discussion but is rather pointing out the end result of a limited faith:

James is not anti-theology; what he is against is the separation of theology from life, the reduction of faith to easy-believism, and the negation of action as the expression of faith. Neither valid faith nor valid works can be separated one from another. How can any man demonstrate a valid faith without works? Faith is shown by works.6

This is an accurate description of our present time, for our own generation has limited the faith to belief only without a corresponding application to every area of life. We believe in the gospel of liberty (Luke 4:18), but not in the law of liberty. We are anxious to liberate men’s souls with gospel preaching, but we won’t apply God’s law to the larger social order to liberate their earthly lives. We have great church services and precise doctrine, but everywhere we look, we are fettered with statist chains.

Therefore, faith without works is dead, and the works James has in mind are the care of the oppressed and impoverished and the destruction of established wickedness. They are works that restore order. In short, they are works of justice. James can be better understood in our time if we said that faith without justice is dead.

The Establishment of God’s Throne and Our Rage of Righteousness

Works are faith in action, faith made manifest.7

James wrote that we were born of the word of truth so that “we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures” (1:18). For that reason, he goes on to say, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (v. 19–20).

Through Jesus Christ, God has introduced a new humanity into the world. This is an incredible truth that should humble us. To hear that God has called us as first fruits of His new creation should inspire us to be swift to hear and slow to speak. We are to be swift to hear the law that brings liberty and learn to speak that word to a world in need of reconstruction. Anything less will “not produce the righteousness of God,” and that is what we are to be seeking:

But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness … Matthew 6:33

To seek the Kingdom and His righteousness equates to faith in action, and faith in action is justice in action. Whether it is faith, knowledge, wisdom, or understanding, they all result in justice and godly judgment:

To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding; to receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity. Proverbs 1:2–3

The center of all things is the throne of God (Rev. 22:1), and from the throne of God comes justice and mercy. Therefore, as James states, our faith must lead to acts of mercy, justice, and judgment. If we are not passionate about the restoration of justice, we cannot claim we are passionate about either God’s reign or His throne:

Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face. Psalm 89:14
Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. Isaiah 9:7

And so God condemns the wicked rulers who perpetually judge in favor of the ungodly against the widow and the orphan. This is why James is direct in his admonishment against showing partiality to the wealthy—he accuses the church leaders of becoming “judges with evil thoughts” (James 2:4). Surely, James has Psalm 82 in mind:

God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods. How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Selah. Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked. Psalm 82:1–4

God sought to reverse the order of history by introducing a new creation of godly rulers—a kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2:9)—through the advent of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This eternal purpose was revealed as a Kingdom of salvation and safety because it would be established upon justice and judgment with a King whose very name would be righteousness:

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. Jeremiah 23:5–6, emphasis added

Justice and righteousness are a great calling from God, but too much of the faith being taught has little to do with these tenets. So long as we speak more of politicians and economics than justice for the widow and orphan, our religion is impure, power-driven, and materialistic.

We lack a rage of righteousness that seeks to overturn the establishment of wickedness in our present social order. We must first believe and embrace our calling to dominion and then understand that the objective is liberty, not political power. We are here to make the world right through the power of the Holy Spirit, the sword of gospel preaching, and the legislative storehouse of God’s law. We preach to make men spiritually free, but we apply God’s law to free them in history, and the freedom they need is from the oppression of wicked rulers.

Are Your Eyes a Flame of Fire?

Christ rides the white horse in history in order to conquer (Rev. 6:2), and the imagery of the book of Revelation is meant to encourage us to conquer in His name. If you want to understand the type of “attitude” you should take towards your role in history, I’ll leave you with this uncompromising description of the attitude and action of the One you call Lord:

Now I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. Revelation 19:11–16

He strikes the nations because they are unjust, and He grants us faith that we might establish His righteousness. To place our focus too much upon the ecclesiastical and the liturgical—without a corresponding emphasis upon justice—leads to a dead faith. We are like a body without the spirit:

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. James 2:26

Let us then truly pass from death unto life, for our life and spirit are found in our works of righteousness. The present world order is in need of the power of His resurrection (Phil. 3:10), because its sinful wages have brought death (Rom. 6:23). If faith without works (justice) is dead, then faith with justice is life.

1. R. J. Rushdoony, The Foundations of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1998), 151–152.

2. R. J. Rushdoony, Salvation and Godly Rule (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1983), 56.

3. R. J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology in Two Volumes (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1994), xv.

4. R. J. Rushdoony, Hebrews, James & Jude (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2001), 156.

5. Christopher J. Ortiz, “The Establishment of Religion,” Faith for All of Life, September/October, 2009.

6. Rushdoony, Hebrews, James & Jude, 164.

7. Rushdoony, Hebrews, James & Jude, 165.

  • Christopher J. Ortiz

Christopher J. Ortiz is a freelance writer and independent communications specialist servicing churches, ministries, and publishers.

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