Interpreting Jesus and Atonement: Practical Issue #7 – Atonement, God’s Character, and Economic Justice (A Critique of Wayne Grudem)


In this post, I will explore the relationship between economic justice and atonement theology by discussing Wayne Grudem’s chapter on economics in his 2010 book Politics According to the Bible.  In the next post, I will engage in an appreciative critique of Timothy Keller’s 2012 book Generous Justice:  How God’s Grace Makes Us Just.  Grudem might be taken as representative as the majority of white Protestant evangelicals who tend to sympathize with the political right, including the Tea Party, on economic issues.  Keller might represent a smaller but growing evangelical camp which leans to the political left on economic issues.

Wayne Grudem is a five point federal Calvinist and a best-selling author in the field of systematic theology.  He vocally advocates penal substitution.  I believe that, in part because of his commitment to penal substitution, he draws ill-formed conclusions about economics from Leviticus 25 and other biblical passages.

‘Justice’ or ‘social justice’ is something many people – Christian and non-Christian alike – talk about but seldom think about systematically.  I can identify at least four major principles of justice.  First is retributive-meritocratic justice.  Instead of experiencing favoritism or nepotism, you should get the reward or punishment you deserve based on your actions.  This type of justice is also called procedural justice, because it focuses on procedures to ensure fair evaluation and rewards.  Second is distributive justice, which I’m defining here as ensuring some baseline level of equity for everyone, such as clean air and water, public education, factual information, universal health care, etc.  This type of justice is associated with human rights.  It is also called substantive justice, because there is a substance (food, water, a service, etc.) that needs to be distributed to people.  Third is libertarian justice, a European Enlightenment idea where individual liberty is justice.  The assumption here is that we were born free in the state of nature.  So, the less the government constrains people, the more just a society is.  And fourth is restorative justice, where you start not with the individual, but with a vision of what relationships we ought to have.  The concern then is how to maintain or restore that type of relation, for example, by cultivating personal virtues or setting up practices by which relations can be honored and developed.

The problem is as follows:  There is nothing in secular thought that tells us how to order or organize these four types of justice.  My understanding, after talking with many people, including people involved with law and policy, law school students and graduates, is that there is no sure intellectual way to organize the four types of justice from a secular foundation.  In my assessment, this is why Republicans, who stress libertarian justice and meritocratic justice, are unable to talk to Democrats, who tend to stress distributive justice more than Republicans, and vice versa.  Public debate is not just failing at civility or character, although many people interpret it that way.  It is a fundamental limit of human rationality.  Within any secular intellectual foundation, any organization of these four types of justice is arbitrary.  American politics, therefore, has become (and always has been?) fundamentally irrational and reduced to emotional appeals without substantive debate.

What about a Christian foundation?  As I discussed previously, there is a connection between one’s atonement theology and one’s ability to think and speak about social justice:  Is God trying to undo all human evil; is God morally implicated in human evil; is God the foundation of the human dignity of each person?  But I wish to go further.  I believe there is a connection between one’s atonement theology and one’s ability to actually do social justice.  For if penal substitution is the correct atonement theory, then the highest form of justice within the character of God is retributive-meritocratic justice.  The reason is that penal substitution offers, as the reason behind Jesus’ atonement, the idea that God must deal out retribution to sinners, either upon them in hell directly, or upon Jesus as a substitute for them instead.  On the one hand, He carries out some kind of ‘infinite justice’ in hell against those who reject Jesus in this life, because sinning against an infinite being requires infinite retribution.  On the other hand, God gives an infinite blessing to those who believe in Jesus, because Jesus has merited for them a blessing from an infinite being.  Is this what we see in Wayne Grudem?  Absolutely.

Grudem begins by quoting the prohibition on coveting (Ex.20:17) as assuming private property.  He immediately condemns communism, or public ownership, on the grounds that it seeks to abolish private property.  He cites Leviticus 25:10 as an example of how God returns land and property to individuals, not governments.  He quotes 1 Samuel 8:10 – 18 (the warning of Samuel to Israel that a king will tax, take, and enslave) as evidence that big government power is an evil.  Grudem affirms the Bible’s concern for the poor but critiques government attempts at alleviating poverty.  He believes government should encourage businesses.  He believes taxes should be as low as possible for all individuals, and lower than 20% for corporations.  He comments on capital gains taxes, income tax rates, and eschews a higher tax rate on the rich.  Based on his highly selective reading of Scripture, Grudem believes that God gave people the unlimited right to pass on economic inheritance to their children (Pr.19:14; Num.27:8 – 11) and that government should not interfere with that (Ezk.46:18).  He says, ‘The Bible clearly takes the side of individual ownership of property.  My conclusion is that the estate tax should be permanently repealed.’[1]

Grudem is essentially saying is that libertarian justice and retributive-meritocratic justice are the highest forms of justice found in biblical ethics.  He is clearly influenced by European Enlightenment individualism and the European-American political tradition stressing individual liberty, which results in a combination of libertarian individualism and meritocratic justice.  My deep disagreement with Grudem should be obvious.  For the moment, I’ll set aside the fact that American wealth is, to a very significant degree, built on stolen land (from Native Americans, Chicanos, and Mexican Americans), stolen life and labor (from African Americans), stolen wages (from underpaid immigrant strikebreakers to today’s migrant workers, with underpaid women throughout), and stolen health (from people affected by pollution, toxins, harmful products, workplace injuries, etc. who went without legal defense).  I will only address Grudem’s misuse of various Scriptures which undergirds his thinking about economics and private property.

I am incredulous and grieved that Grudem can read Leviticus 25 and say, ‘My conclusion is that the estate tax should be permanently repealed.’  How can he wrench the idea of ‘private property’ out of its context and foundation in Leviticus 25?  For people to have the unlimited ability to accumulate wealth and pass it on to their children is precisely the opposite of what Leviticus 25 says.  The Law of Sinai’s arrangement of Israel’s land and wealth in ancient Israel stands in principle again all that.  In Israel, an adult did not have the ‘right’ to pass down advantage – even if it was land ‘earned fair and square’ – to his or her children and grandchildren.  Meritocratic justice did not extend so far.  It was checked by the demands of distributive justice and restorative justice, which were rooted firmly in the relational vision God had for His people.  And that relational vision can be understood as being derived from God’s Triune nature.  God wanted a relationship with each person that mirrored the relationship of the Father and the Son in the Spirit.  That is, God wanted to bless each human person with a life-giving context in which to live and thrive.  That mirrors the role of the Father wanting to bless the Son in the life-giving context of the Spirit.  The relationship between God and each human being in the material creation is patterned after the relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit.  That is how the character of God within theology proper results in a relational Christian vision for human life, which in turn results in a high level blueprint for how to institutionalize those relationships in public policy.

Quoting Proverbs or any other Old Testament passage about ‘hard work’ is not responsible.  That is because every other Old Testament passage about Israel’s wealth takes Leviticus 25 as the starting point and foundation.  Proverbs 23:10 – 11 recalls the laws of family and land:

Do not move the ancient boundary, or go into the fields of the fatherless.

For their Redeemer is strong; He will plead their case against you. (23:10 – 11)

The ‘ancient boundary’ refers to the family-based land boundaries (Lev.25) that started with Israel’s career in the Promised Land under Joshua.  The ‘fields of the fatherless’ refers to the orphan’s right to glean in another’s field (Dt.24:19 – 22).  But a field harvested once by the apparent ‘owner’ becomes the orphan’s field.  This was not ‘charity’ but legality.  Indeed, although the tone of Proverbs is that of ‘advice wise and good,’ the subject matter is the very commands of God to Israel in the Sinaitic Law on relational and economic matters (Pr.1:8).

So ‘inheritance’ in Proverbs includes God’s ‘reset button’ of land redistribution to its original intended ‘ancient boundaries’ and nothing beyond it.  It most certainly does not imply that parents should have the ability to pass down unlimited amounts of wealth and property to their children, especially when they gained it at someone else’s expense, but even when they gained it ‘fairly.’  God defines what is ‘fair.’  He says He owns the land (Lev.25:23).  He distributes a basic level of wealth and work to each generation.  If Adam and Eve had never fallen into corruption, their unfallen children would have shared the created world in a dynamic manner that bore some resemblance to this pattern in Israel.  Israel knew that God intended their life in the garden land to be a partial restoration of Adam and Eve’s life in the original garden.

Imagine if the United States followed a policy of land restitution to Native Americans, African Americans, and Chicanos.  We would have a very different situation to say the least!  Or, imagine if we could design a social system such that the children and grandchildren of parents who fell on hard times would not be punished for what happened in the generations before them.  Instead, our social system forces children of lazy and criminal parents to swallow their parents’ choices, as if we could safely assume that children of those people will share their parents’ characteristics.

Grudem completely overlooks an important historic injustice which keeps plaguing the U.S.  After World War II, through the G.I. Bill, white elites who controlled the levers of power sponsored white flight into the suburbs, and denied blacks through bank redlining and restrictive, racially motivated residential covenants.[2]  This pattern of residential segregation laid the foundation for vastly different experiences of life.  White suburban families could watch their home equity appreciate while black families by and large could not.[3]  Wealthy neighborhoods enjoyed well-resourced public schools while poor neighborhoods did not, because public school funding depended primarily on local property taxes.[4]  Crime and policing were experienced very differently, especially during the so-called ‘war on drugs.’[5]  Health levels became quite different because poorer areas were exposed to toxins and industrial waste, from pesticides in poor farming communities, to asthmatic children in Harlem exposed to the New York City trash truck route, to people in the Appalachian region devastated by coal mining and cancer.  Bank financing was either not available to people in poorer neighborhoods, or banks became predatory and offered adjustable rate mortgages to eventually repossess their houses.  Banks built an entire credit-debt cycle geared to transfer wealth system from the poor to the banks’ coffers.[6]  And so on.  Even people who claim to be without racial prejudice, which might be the case on a personal level, fail to see how the economic and legal system perpetuates injustice by forcing children and grandchildren to bear the brunt of all their ancestors’ misfortunes and choices.  From 1979 – 2007, the income gap in the U.S. tripled.[7]  In roughly the same period, the racial wealth gap between white families and black families increased by fourfold.[8]

God has never withdrawn His claim of ownership over the world and its resources, and the relational vision in which He intended for people to live.  In fact, when Jesus said, ‘All authority has been given to me’ (Mt.28:18), he reasserted it.  No domain remains untouched by Jesus, and his relational vision.  The ‘individual liberty to accumulate unlimited wealth’ is not part of that vision.  Even for those people who have ‘worked hard’ to ‘deserve it’ according to the blindspot-riddled vision of American culture.  Contrary to Wayne Grudem, on principles of biblical ethics and justice, I see many reasons to view land and labor as not reducible to capital, to support a progressive income tax, and so on.  But perhaps Grudem is being held captive by the logic of penal substitution to elevate meritocratic-retributive justice to the highest form of justice in God, and therefore, in human relations.

In the next post, I will examine whether Tim Keller, another advocate of penal substitution, is able to put forward a coherent Christian vision for economic justice.  I find his vision much more attractive.  Has he somehow broken free from elevating the principle of meritocratic-retributive justice to the highest place?

[1] Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), p.309

[2] Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1993); Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Ghetto is Public Policy,” The Atlantic, March 19, 2013; Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Racist Housing Policies that Built Ferguson,” The Atlantic, October 17, 2014; Emily Badger, “The Long, Painful and Repetitive History of How Baltimore Became Baltimore,” Washington Post, April 29, 2015; Richard Rothstein, “From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Fruits of Government-Sponsored Segregation,” Economic Policy Institute, April 29, 2015

[3] Dorothy Brown, “How Home Ownership Keeps Blacks Poorer Than Whites,” Forbes, December 10, 2012

[4] Tanner Colby, “The Massive Liberal Failure on Race, Part 1: How the Left’s Embrace of Busing Hurt the Cause of Integration,” Slate, February 3, 2014; Tanner Colby, “The Massive Liberal Failure on Race, Part 2: Affirmative Action Doesn’t Work; It Never Did; It’s Time for Another Solution,” Slate, February 10, 2014

[5] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2011)

[6] Scott Schuh, Oz Shy, Joanna Stavins, “Who Gains and Who Loses from Credit Card Payments?”, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, August 2010

[7] Arloc Sherman and Chad Stone, ‘The U.S. Income Gap Triples’, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, June 25, 2010,

[8] Thomas M. Shapiro, Tatjana Meschede, and Laura Sullivan, ‘The Racial Wealth Gap Increases Fourfold,’ Institute on Assets and Policy at Brandeis University, May 2010,

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