Justice is often associated with the meting out of law: giving the guilty man, or the righteous man, what he deserves in proportion to the quality of his deeds. You stole your neighbor’s pencil and broke it? You’ll have to give him four of yours in return. You finished all of your chores? You can do what you want now. Justice, in this sense, is about keeping the social order harmonious. In a just society, good laws are the vehicles for good order.
For Augustine, however, justice does not begin with the social order, but with the soul of each man. Justice, in this sense, is about keeping the soul’s order harmonious. In a just man, reverence for God is the vehicle for good order, for Augustine says:
For though the soul may seem to rule the body admirably, and the reason the vices, if the soul and reason do not themselves obey God, as God has commanded them to serve Him, they have no proper authority over the body and the vices. For what kind of mistress of the body and the vices can that mind be which is ignorant of the true God, and which, instead of being subject to His authority, is prostituted to the corrupting influences of the most vicious demons? It is for this reason that the virtues which it seems to itself to possess, and by which it restrains the body and the vices that it may obtain and keep what it desires, are rather vices than virtues so long as there is no reference to God in the matter. (City of God, XIX, 25, italics mine)
David is a fine illustration of Augustine’s claim. When Nathan confronts David concerning his unjust killing of Uriah after having stolen his wife and adulterated their marriage, Nathan appeals to David’s sense of justice: the story he tells so obviously mirrors David’s own, but David has suppressed his conscience so far that he does not see himself properly. Yet the pressure of guilt is so great that when David hears Nathan’s story, his conscience bursts forth in righteous anger, allowing Nathan to simply insert David into the story and complete the confrontation by pointing to the ingratitude exhibited by David’s actions:
Thus says the LORD God of Israel: “I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more!’ Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight?” (2 Sam 12:7-9, NKJV)
David sees himself rightly, and repents of his sin against the LORD. David acknowledges the root of his transgression was forsaking proper reverence for God.
Granting the Holy Spirit His primary role as bringing about conviction, I submit that David’s repentance over his social injustice was possible in the way it occurred because David had been feeding his soul upon God’s Word: “how can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word” as he wrote in Psalm 119. As human beings in a world characterized by sin’s corruption of God’s good Creation, and especially sin’s corruption of man, we will inevitably receive unjust treatment, and each of us will be, at times, inclined to commit injustice; the bonds of social order will fray. If any of us would bind them back together we must fill our hearts now, and continually, with reverence for God by filling our minds with the knowledge of God found in His Word; confessing with David, “Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You! Blessed are You, O Lord! Teach me Your statutes!. . . .I will meditate on Your precepts, and contemplate Your ways. I will delight myself in Your statutes; I will not forget Your word.”
Then, and only then, can “justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” flowing freely and fully in our homes, in our churches, and in our society. If we would see such justice, let us give ourselves over to the Word of God and be transformed by the renewing of our minds.