Love: the Life of Justice

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.” -Psalm 89:14 (ESV)

Christians often talk about God’s love and justice as being in a creative tension with one another.  God loves us but must satisfy the demands of justice—hence penal substitutionary atonement.[a]  Or, God is just and loves us as more of a disciplinarian—hence God as Father or Mother.  My aim is to (re-)introduce an alternative about the relationship between justice and love, one expounded by earlier church writers and  supported by the scriptures. My intention is not so much to diminish the emphasis that Christians place on justice so much as to offer that justice, for Christians, must always point back to love. In this conception, justice is a virtue that we practice. It  finds its form and is made perfect in love, caritas or agape, which refers to a particular kind of  friendship with God.[b] This leads us to two starting points: God is just, and God is love or agape.

Beginning with justice, we generally seek to become more just by imitating God. We also recognize justice as a quality in others and call people more or less just, even if we do so reluctantly. In comparison with God, of course, these comparisons fall short, but we live our ordinary lives as though these relative, earthly comparisons do indeed matter. We avoid interactions with unjust people, and we seek the company of the just. So far, then, justice is a divine attribute that human beings share  and develop “by doing righteousness and justice.” [1]

In the Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom teaches virtues, including justice, to those who seek her: “if anyone loves righteousness, her labors are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage” (8:7). Justice, for the apocryphal writers, is a virtue—a habitual disposition toward some good end that we exercise in our daily lives.[2] Justice is not just the province of rulers and authorities, or of courts and politicians; justice is a virtue central to how every Christian lives a life in holiness and righteousness before God.

But what exactly is justice about? Justice often finds itself paired with equity throughout the scriptures, and injustice often consists in harming the poor or taking too much from others.[3] Justice requires one “not [to] be partial to the poor or defer to the great.” [4] More concisely, justice is about “the set and constant purpose which gives to every man his due.” [5] Justice, then, goes beyond laws and bears on every aspect of our interactions with other people in ways that few other virtues can. Every interaction with another person is an exercise in acting justly. On a grander scale, we live in a country with the occasional unjust law that gives people more or less than what they are due. While this article cannot do justice to this issue, fellow Christians, from Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr., to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others, have affirmed by their example that justice is central to living a life oriented around the love of God and neighbor.

Although Christian discourse often places some forms of love in some tension with justice, the scriptures present a curious distinction for agape or caritas. For hundreds of references throughout scripture about justice, they never state that God is justice. 1 John 4:8, by contrast, poetically and concisely states that “God is love.” The scriptures and tradition point us to a God fundamentally known as love, known in Trinity of persons in eternal relationship with one another: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Love, not justice, is the beginning and end of the Christian life. Yet, this runs counter to how we envision love as  a mushy feel-good emotion. We often talk about loving things—like music, dance, or  food—and contrast this love with the love that we have for people—a love we tend to call friendship. For most people, the love of friendship is the higher love, a love that elevates us and gives us meaning, one that allows us to be ourselves and to become who we are meant to be. Caritas or agape refer specifically to the higher love of friendship that we share with God.

Caritas/agape is the virtue that perfects justice.  Jesus’ words in John 15 make this explicit: “as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you … no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life  for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” We ultimately offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God in this friendship, even to physical death.[6] Christians live this life to draw others to this God, a God who was not content to witness our failings from afar but who “became flesh and lived among us” and  laid down his own life on the cross.[7] Christians baptized into the death of Christ Jesus are  baptized into His death, dying daily to deepen their friendship with God—not to serve an abstract notion of justice.[8] Martyrs’ deaths are not merely examples of dying for justice or being right, but of dying that others might find true life in friendship with God and fulfill Jesus’ plea on the cross, “Father, forgive them,”[9] and Stephen’s cry, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” [10] For Christians, the fight for justice is a valiant struggle to reconcile people to one another and to entreat all, on behalf of Christ, to be reconciled to God. Scripturally and historically, love, as agape or caritas, is not a soft thing, tempered by justice. Love is the end, the prize of the Christian life.[11] Christians  are indeed called to live justly—to render unto others their due—for that is what God requires and for in doing so we reflect God’s own concern for justice, for the poor, for the  oppressed, and for the marginalized. At all times, however, the specifically Christian concern for justice finds its life, its motivating force, in the love of agape, the love that allowed us to be reconciled to God even “while we were enemies.” [12] In the “communion of the Holy  Spirit,” to which we belong through the “grace  of the Lord Jesus Christ,” we ultimately share in  the “love of God.” [13] We love God and share the  beauty and depth and richness of that friendship with others in the hope that they, too, may see and live the same beauty in their own lives, marked by a pursuit of justice and  all good things, which come of God.[14]


1 Genesis 18:19;

2 Maccabees 1:18;

3 Exodus 23:6 and Proverbs 29:4, respectively;

4 Leviticus 19:15;

5 Justinian, Institutes, I.I;

6 Romans 12:1;

7 John 1:14;

8 Romans 6:3;

9 Luke 23:34;

10 Acts 7:60

11 1 Corinthians 13:8, 13 and 1 Corinthians 9:24, respectively;

12 Romans 5:10;

13 2 Corinthians 13:13;

14 James 1:17

a The view of Christ’s death that focuses on His sacrifice as taking divine punishment for sins upon Himself for the sake of humankind.

b Aquinas uses the Latin term caritas to talk about friendship with God (II-II, q. 23, a. 1), drawing on the Vulgate translation of 1 Cor. 13. The Greek term throughout the New Testament is agape. Agape is often used in the Bible to refer to divine love, but is not employed as exclusively or systematically in that sense as caritas is for Thomas.


Article written by Armando Ghinaglia, DIV ’18, Div in Ethics.

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