I recently attended a conference of Christians whose strong bent was toward social justice, especially of the political activist kind. Their banner verse was from the beatitudes:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness …” (Matthew 5:6).
Later, when doing my devotions in my French Bible, I noticed that in every place where the English versions translate the Greek “dikaios” as “righteousness,” my French version uses “justice.” It caught my attention because the words “justice” and “righteousness” strike me so differently. To put it woefully imprecisely, for me the word “justice” invokes social causes, whereas the word “righteousness” invokes personal morality. Perhaps my confusion becomes obvious at this point: When Jesus calls down blessing on those who hunger and thirst for “righteousness,” does He have in mind the pursuit of involvement in the righting of large social wrongs, or does He have in mind the pursuit of personal holiness and obedience? Or both?
Other verses with the same word “dikaios,” rendered “righteousness” in my ESV and “justice” in my French Bible, include Matthew 3:15; 5:10; 5:20; 6:33. Reader, what do you think Jesus has in mind when He says the following: a social cause definition or a personal love for God definition?
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for dikaios’ sake …” (Matthew 5:10).
“… unless your dikaios exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his dikaios, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
So I emailed Vern S. Poythress at Westminster Theological Seminary and asked him whether dikaios means social justice or personal holiness and obedience. He replied:
“I’d say it includes both. In the Old Testament you can definitely see a broad concern that covers both. As for the people concerned for social justice—they are right to be so concerned, for there is much amiss in corporate and social and governmental dimensions of life. But frequently people with such concerns do not ask themselves whether civil government is the main channel to correct the problems. For example, Obamacare was supposed to help people with medical expenses. But, among other things, it is also destroying religious liberty by mandating inclusion of abortifacient drugs.”
Then Dr. Poythress recommended two books: When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, and The Tragedy of American Compassion, by Marvin Olasky.