When you think about justice, to where in the Bible do you turn? To Jesus, or the Prophets, or the law of Moses? But what about Paul? In his new book, Douglas Harink believes Paul’s most famous letter—Romans—is “a message of justice,” which emphasizes that will radically affect our ideas of justice (2). It is “the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus [that] makes all the difference in our thinking about justice” (x).
Romans not only changes how we understand justice but, according to Harink, it should reshape how we understand Old Testament justice. Romans makes demands upon us—our minds are to be renewed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Harink offers not a technical commentary but a reading of Romans that attempts to follow Paul’s line of thinking about justice. It is interested in “how the text shapes our contemporary understanding,” and it also allows for more loose ends to be left as they are. Harink divides the book in two parts. Part 1 covers what God does by revealing his work of bringing justice into the world through Jesus; Part 2 covers the ways we as followers of the Messiah model Jesus.
Harink observes that the reason we miss the “justice” language is because our English translations have righteous and righteousness language, which we understand as having “an almost exclusively individual, moral, and religious meaning” (2). But other translations (like the early Latin) use the word “justice.” This makes sense because in Greek, dikaios means “just,” dikaioō means “to justify” or “to make just,” and dikaiosynē means “justice.” In Greek, these words just general included both personal and legal-social-political meanings. They could be used to refer to a righteous person, justice in a criminal case, or do no justice (3).
These dik- words occur over 60 times in Romans, making it hard for the original hearers to miss the language of justice and it being carried out into all parts of life. In fact, all matters of life were interwoven into religion in the ancient world (see this review where Nijay Gupta writes about how “sin” was viewed in Rome). Terms like justice, lord, son of God, savior, grace, and peace took on a deeper fullness of expression when they were “evangelized”—that is, when they were “conscripted into proclaiming the good news of God’s justice in Messiah Jesus” (7).
Throughout the book Harink uses different definitions from what we are used to. Since apocalypse means to reveal, he uses the word apocalypse when referring to how God revealed the good news. God has brought the new reality of the new creation into our lives now, a new reality that we can live and walk in. It is “something alongside yet beyond our ordinary physical vision” (14).
As well, Harink refers to Christians as messianics. It’s not that he disagrees with the first term, but it is just to help draw us to the idea of living after the Messiah while you read this book. I first thought this would make for an odd reading, but I did agree with Harink that reading the messianics (instead of Christian/s) helped me focus into thinking of believers as followers of the Messiah. Again, Harink doesn’t intend to replace or overturn the use of “Christian.” Instead, many can become almost blind to what the word “Christian” means because they are so accustomed to the word. Harink uses a word that is a fitting descriptor of Christians while helping readers focus on how messianics should live.
Harink shows how these ideas would have been understood by the first hearers. For example, Rome does not offer “the good news” under its caesars who were considered to be the sons of the gods. Paul wanted to go to the Christians in Rome to remind them about the true good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Rom 1:13–15).
Psalm 97:1–2 (in the LXX) reads, “Sing to the Lord a new song; because the Lord did wonderful deeds. His right hand and his holy arm have wrought salvation for him. The Lord has made known his salvation; he has revealed [apekalypsen] his justice [dikaiosynēn] in the sight of the nations [ethnōn].” Harink writes that we might imagine Romans as a commentary on this text. Justice “is the very quality, form, and content of that [God’s] saving power” (28). He adds, “The saving God is the just God who reveals justice among the nations, who makes right what is wrong” (28). This God who saves is revealed/apocalypsed in the gospel. The good news of the gospel “is the power of God working salvation” (28).
Harink points out that in Romans 1:16–17, justice happens in a “circle of God’s power, divine and human faithfulness, and human faith or trust” (30). Paul makes no mention of enforcing laws or obeying laws, punishment or reward, equity or fairness, or all the things we should fight and strive for. When God redeems, “he creates justice in those who share in the faithful [death] of Jesus” (p. 34, see p. 32 also).
As Harink writes, this book is for all Christians. It is for the scholar as well as “ordinary, thinking Christians” who want their thoughts on justice to be shaped by the gospel itself. I found this book both easy to read and really interesting. Not just on the last few chapters of Romans but throughout his entire book, Harink offers good examples of applying the Bible in our modern day. That is, how we live out the text and instructions of God’s Word.
With the revelation of God in the good news, it interrupts “our sense-making schemes” as it calls our idea of the world into question (162). We in the west don’t think much about God. We have scientific truth, “democracy… market economy, global communications. technology,” and everything else that fills our time. These things “define the ‘real world’ for us” (163). The gospel shows us that these things merely enslave us into thinking they give us power and well-being.
Paul intended his first eleven chapters “as a fundamental redescription of the real, a revolution in how we think and practice God and all things in relation to God: sovereignties, powers, gods, allegiances, law, justice, trust, Sin, Death, Grace, life, bondage, liberation, suffering, love, creation, Israel, and the nations” (163). Paul received this knowledge through a divine revelation—an apocalypse—which meant the death of the old world as he understood it and the “resurrection of a new reality defined in relation to the one God and God’s Messiah” (163). Knowing God’s will means knowing the gospel as it really is.
Though I wish Harink would have written more about the various interpretation of to justify/righteousness and why his interpretation should be preferred (though perhaps I missed it), I think Harink’s book makes for a good read and a helpful way of getting a handle on the text of Romans and it’s practical application to believers’ lives.
- Author: Douglas Harink
- Paperback: 248 pages
- Publisher: IVP Academic (September 29, 2020)
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Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.