The Justice of God

TRANSITION: One theologian (Shedd) speaks of the justice of God as "a mode of his holiness." Another (Strong) calls God’s justice God’s "transitive holiness." Now that puts a perspective on things, doesn’t it? As we studied the holiness of God last time, now let us move ahead to focus on another essential aspect of God.

One of the most ignored asepcts of God is his justice.

Why? Was it always so? What happened?

Movie Star Tom Selleck recently made a stunning remark. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard him interviewed. He made this comment that was so out of step with modernity that I had to write it down. Selleck said, "The problem is not that we have been too judgmental; we have not been judgmental enough."

Why was this Hollywood star going so far out on a limb? One of the chief things our society has been hoping to do is to immunize itself from judgmentalism, judgment, and (knowingly or not) justice. If there is no judgment in society, justice will either soon exit or perhaps will have already left the building. The Menendez brothers don’t want to be judged; a pot smoking teenager who disrespects his mother doesn’t want anyone judging him. Nor does a young mother pregnant out of wedlock. The reaction of sinners, dating back to Adam, is to despise justice.

Justice is likely the least favorite attribute of God. If a survey was taken, I’m quite confident that the aspect of God that would be least popular would be the justice of God. People do not like the idea that God might judge them with justice. I’m not too fond of that idea myself, but it is widely and consistently taught in Scripture. That unbelievers despise God’s justice and want to ignore it in any theological system is well-known.

Similarly, A. W. Pink notes on holiness: ‘The unregenerate do not really believe in the holiness of God. Their conception of his character is altogether one-sided. They fondly hope that his mercy will override everything else. (p. 44)

However, this justophobia has also manifested itself in the church; it has crept in unawares.

This morning if you haven’t thought about this attribute of God in a while, I want you to do so with me. First, let’s see where/how it is taught in Scripture.

Deuteronomy 32:4 says, "He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he." Job acknowledged, ‘The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power; in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress." (Job 37:23). The Psalmist praises God as dwelling in justice: "Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne." (Ps. 89:14) Ps. 96:13 states, "For he comes to judge the earth; he shall judge the world with righteousness and his people with truth."

First, it may help to have a working definition of justice. Here’s a simple one: "Justice is giving to everyone his due." Justice may not treat everyone with absolute sameness, but it is treating each person with a standard of what is owed.

"Injustice lies in two things, either not to punish where there is a fault, or to punish where there is no fault." (Watson, 91)

Thus Proverbs 24:12 teaches; "If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heat perceive it? Does not he who guards you life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?" That seems to be God’s standard for justice, and to begin with such definition would be more helpful than many others.

Justice, as a theme, begins very early in the OT. We see it in the earliest commandment: "Thou shall not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge; in the day that you eat of it you will surely die." Dt. 27:26 notes: "Cursed is everyone that does not continue in all things written in the law." (This is echoed in Gal. 3:10) Ezekiel 18:4 warns, "The soul that sins shall die." God professes to be a jealous God in Ex. 20 and Exodus 34:7 affirms that God will by no means clear the guilty.

Very shortly into a discussion of this topic we find a need to make some distinctions. One set of distinctions is between the differences between God’s justice and man’s justice.

1. One difference is that God judges the cause, whereas humans often judge the person, but not the cause. That is not justice, but prejudice, or at times, malice.

Man judges the exterior, but only God judges the heart – 1 Sam. 16:7 teaches: "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."

Man judges by appearance, but Jesus warned us to avoid such standards. In Jn. 2 :23 he said, "Stop judging by appearances; make a right judgment." The Lord actually mandates judging in that saying.

Man judges based on temporary standards; God’s justice is based on eternal, unchanging standards.

"Men may act unjustly, because they are bribed or forced; God will not be bribed because of his justice; he cannot be forced because of his power. He does justice out of love for justice." (Watson, 88). Ps. 45: 7 teaches that God loves righteousness.

Another distinction is between retributive justice and distributive justice. Retributive justice refers to the penalties God inflicts; distributive justice refers to how God rewards the righteous. To see this, look with me at Ps. 58. The opening verse queries, "Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge uprightly among men?" The answer is the negative, that they do not. Human judges go astray almost from birth.

However, v. 11 affirms that a time will come when men say, "Surely the righteous still are rewarded; surely there is a God who judges the earth."

Ps. 99:4 says, "The king is mighty, he loves justice."

Another distinction is between exterior (relative) justice and (interior) absolute justice. Within himself, he is naturally just. The way he treats his creatures is an exterior expression of his justice. It, too, conforms to a standard of perfection.

Let me summarize some facts about God’s justice (Watson, p. 88):

1. "God cannot but be just. His holiness is the cause of his justice. Holiness will not allow him to do anything but what is righteous. He can no more be unjust than he can be unholy."

2. God’s own will is the supreme basis of his justice. Nothing outside of him compels or distorts justice. "His will is wise and good. God wills nothing but what is just; and therefore it is just because he wills it."

3. God exhibits his justice without compulsion; it flows from who he is.

4. God has never done wrong to his creatures in the least. It is impossible. In fact, Ezra recognized that God has punished us less than our iniquities deserve (Ez. 9:13).

In any question, if one think God is unjust, that person should think again. Paul, in Rom. 9:20 dealt with a person who questioned the justice of God. And in that rebuke, he reminded the creature not to arrogantly talk back to the Creator. Queries for information are one thing; disputation with the Almighty is another.

As early as Gen. 18:25, we see believers expressing unbelief over this: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" The answer is clearly that the Judge of all the earth cannot do other than justice.

Rom. 11:33 exclaims: "Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable are his judgments."

Justice is another flower of God’s crown. St. Augustine once said, and wisely so: "God’s ways of judgment are sometimes secret, but never unjust. The Lord never afflicts his people without a cause; so that he cannot be unjust." (Watson, 90)

Remember the justice of God along this illustration: "A cedar tree may have several branches, yet it is but one cedar. So there are several attributes of God in which we conceive him, but only one entire essence." (Watson, p. 87). Thus God’s justice is one branch, but it reveals his entire essence.

The OT prophets especially call for justice to be showed to the poor.

Justice in the NT

At Jesus’ own birth an allusion is made to how judgment would afflict the unrighteous. In the 5th chapter of John, Jesus spoke of Judgment and asserted that all judgement was given to him. Just as the Father judged, so does Jesus. (Jn. 5:22) In fact, all judgment is entrusted by the Father to Jesus: "And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. . . . By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me." (5:27, 30)

Rom. 1:18 speaks about the "wrath" of God. For some reason, many Christians don’t seem to see or like this affirmation. The wrath of God is part of, an outflowing of his justice. Here in the NT, decidedly after the ministry of grace and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus, Paul says that the wrath of God is a present tense factor in the world. This justice of God is present, continuing, and manifest. According to Paul, its origin was heaven, and it was revealed against "all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness." When a person rejects God, the wrath or justice of God falls on that person. Robert Haldane comments: "It was revealed when the sentence of death was first pronounced, the earth cursed, and man driven out of the earthly paradise, and afterwards by such examples of punishment as those of the Deluge, and the destruction of the Cities of the Plain by fire from heaven, but especially by the reign of death throughout the world. It was proclaimed in the curse of the law on every transgression . . . The same creation which declares that there is a God, and publishes his glory, also proves that he is the Enemy of sin and the Avenger of crimes . . . But above all, the wrath of God was revealed from heaven when the Son of God came down to manifest the Divine character, and when that wrath was displayed in his sufferings and death, in a manner more awful than by all the tokens God had before given." (Cited in Pink, 83-84)

Indeed, the justice of God is a thread running all throughout Scripture.

Think about this for a moment with me. How we respond to the justice of God may be a test of one’s understanding of God. It may be an indicator that tells us a lot about how we view or mis-view God. Tragically, many Christians treat the justice/wrath of God as if it is an awkward stepchild, for which we must apologize in an era of non-judgmentalism. "While some would not go so far as to openly admit that they consider it a blemish on the Divine character, yet they are far from regarding it with delight, they don’t like to think about it, and they rarely hear it mentioned without secret resentment welling up in their hearts." (Pink, p. 82). What about you: Is there some aspect of God that you do not delight in? That you despise or are ashamed of? Do you think that God is not perfect in his justice and want to ignore it? Some secretly think that God’s wrath is incompatible with his love, but that is not the portrait drawn in Scripture.

The justice of God is not a blotch on his otherwise perfect character. God is apparently not ashamed of this portion of his essence, for he has clearly revealed it in Scripture. If God himself is not embarrassed by his wrath, why on earth should we be? In fact, "there are more references in Scripture to God’s anger, fury and wrath, than there are to his love and tenderness." (Pink, 82)

Epistles

Rom. 2:5-9 is a clear passage on the justice of God. In that passage, God warns about how people are storing up wrath and punishment because of their stubbornness. Paul tells his readers that a day is coming in which God the righteous judge will reveal his wrath. In that day, God will give to each person according to what he has done, a reference to the OT standard (Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12). Then follow the two kinds. God’s retributive justice will punish those who have been self-seeking and who reject the truth. For them, God’s justice will bring "wrath and anger." (8) On the other hand, those who persevere and seek God’s glory will receive eternal life. God does not show favoritism in his standard of justice.

1 Pet. 1:17: The Father without respect of persons judges according to each man’s work.

James 4:12 notes: "There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy."

The Revelation: Look at what these verses affirm about Jesus Christ.

Rev. 1:14 - "His head and hair were white . . . and he eyes were like a blazing fire." (Get used to this; this is the Future Jesus) "In his right hand he held 7 stars and out of his mouth came a sharp double edge sword." That’s not for patting on the head either. When John saw the Jesus of Justice, he was so shocked that he fell down and had to be told, "Do not be afraid."

To the Church at Thyatira, Jesus rebukes them for tolerance, for tolerating Jezebel. Listen to his justice in the final book of Scripture: "I will strike her children dead. . . . I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to his deeds."

Rev. 6:16 depicts God’s wrath as so extreme that people are fleeing from any exposure, pleading with mountains and rocks to "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb."

Yet, amidst all this Rev. 15;3 affirms, "Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways King of the ages. Who will not fear you, O Lord and bring glory to your name, for you alone are holy." And Rev. 16:5 confesses, "You are just in these Judgments."

Rev.19: 11 ff. reports: "I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. . . . He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, . . . Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. . . . He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God almighty."

The wrath or justice of God is an attribute that we ought to return to regularly for several reasons. Whenever we consider it, it reminds us not to regard sin lightly or to gloss over its offensiveness to God or to make excuses for it. God will judge us. Meditation upon the justice of God will also engender a right fear of the Lord in our souls. We should remember as Heb. 12:28 asserts that God is a consuming fire; we should fear him. That is good for us. We also need to be reminded that there is a coming judgment in which all people will be tested. That modifies our behavior. Paul said, "Knowing therefore the TERROR of the Lord, we persuade men." (2 Cor. 5:11). Evidently, a knowledge of the justice of God is a good incentive for evangelism and preaching.

What happens if we remove "justice" from the person and work of God.

1. Absent justice, god becomes the Mush-idol deity. If God is afraid to exact punishment, if he were to fail to bring justice, then he wouldn’t be much of a god, and also the world would go awry.

Often God’s reputation gets confused with the "great grandfather-god in the sky." People like to think of God as a white-bearded, old gentleman who would not harm a flee. But this is neither the God of Scripture, nor the Jesus of Scripture. God is a consuming fire; if he is re-designed to fit our notions of nothing but an "all-accepting" god, we distort the teaching of Scripture and only fool ourselves. God is not like clay that can be mushed into whatever form we desire. That is not a god worthy of worship.

A corollary is this: When God becomes soft, so are ethics. Without justice, there are no lasting ethical standards. If there is no justice guaranteed by God, then people will do what they wish. Invariably, the bad will rise to the top. People will only do that which is right in their own eyes. They will kill, steal, and maim if they do not believe in justice. In fact, the more violence and crime a society had, the greater the indication that such culture has lost the notion of justice and the true God. Without God’s justice in a fallen world, human ethics corrode.

The Nazis defined justice in terms of what their majority party wanted. Jurgen Moltmann comments on the Third Reich: "the power of the state had itself repeatedly broken the law, without even the pretext of legality. Justice [became] what is of use to the people, and what is of use to the people is determined by the Party, and the Party follows the will of the Fuhrer, who has divine sovereignty and stands on the far side of the law."

When justice is perverted, human suffering rises.

Correspondingly, there is a rise of "entitlement" mentality, when justice decays. Our society, from its old to its young, has become dependent on expectations of entitlement. We believe that we are entitled to health, health care, a job and job security, retirement and protection from disaster. We believe that we are entitled to food, clothing and shelter if need be. We think "Someone out there" must be obligated to provide for me.

And Christians are just about as bad as the average American in these regards.

This is a result of the loss of justice. How? Justice has been improperly defined. Instead of "giving every person his due," Justice has been erroneously defined as "giving every person the same." That definition fuels an entitlement mentality. It encourages people to think that someone "Owes" them benefits. That is just not true. God, himself, does not even owe us anything other than what he has pledged by his own Word. An entitlement mentality is a corollary of perversion of justice.

And this has effected the church. Some Christians believe that God is entitled ONLY to give grace, mercy, love, and good things. That, of course, is an idol. Accordingly, those who believe such, cannot bring themselves to see how God could punish or exact justice. Even though taught in the Bible, they will not believe it.

An early heresy after the time of Calvin began to show early glimpses of the loss of God’s justice. A man who lived just after the time of Calvin was Socinius, the grandfather of Unitarianism. He wrote: "There is no such justice in God as requires absolutely an inexorably that sin be punished. There is, indeed, a perpetual and constant justice in God, but this is nothing but his moral equity and rectitude, by virtue of which there is no depravity or iniquity in any of his works." (Prelectiones Theologicae, chap. 16, cited in Shedd, p. 365) That was a heresy then, and is many times repeated today in different versions. But it is still a heresy.

Loss of the notion of Eternal Punishment

Along with this comes – if God does not exact justice – the idea that Hell is not real. After all, the reasoning goes, if hell is real and painful, then God must be just. In our times, we have seen a revival of Annihilationism.

Annihilationism is the belief that after death, the souls of the unrighteous are merely extinguished, or annihilated. They feel no pain, they know no suffering. The argument is: If there is no chance for later reform, how could a just God continue to punish? Even though this is contrary to numerous scriptural teachings, some theologians believe they know how God should behave better than God apparently knows. So out the window goes the teaching about eternal punishment. See how easy it is to create an idol.

Universalism is another by-product. If there is no justice, and everyone is entitled, then all will be saved. One’s view of God, distorted or correct, affects many aspects of our lives.

When justice goes out the door, so does Christianity, so do ethics, so does God, so does culture. One of the most damaging losses to society and to families and individuals is the death of justice. When people do not expect justice from the courts, or when they don’t see justice, immorality and lawlessness are encouraged.

If God is not just, then everything is appropriate.

Indeed, mark this down: "An improper view of God fuels improper views of man and society." Connection between justice and entitlement

Application

Justice is a mainstay for Christian living. We need to think of this often. While one person may be attempting to be merciful to a murderer, don’t forget about the survivors that the murderer racked. If you want to be forgiving, by all means do so; for we are called to it. But let’s don’t confuse forgiving with the death of justice. God does not intend it to be so. God wants his people to "Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before the Lord." "Do justice," is one of the commands from Micah. Seek justice in your personal relations and in all aspects you can.

Connection between loss of discernment and loss of justice? Maybe Tom Selleck is right. Maybe we do need to have more judgment. Everything is not OK. Some things are right and some are wrong.

Justice guides our daily action: The Golden Rule. Christ’s standard shows his justice: Do to others what you would have done to you."

Justice is shown in God’s law, which is a loving reflection of God’s love.

4. Sometimes God works his justice out in this life. It is uncanny at times to watch. I observe a number of times, how people seem to be bad and never get caught. But then something catches up with them. Or a person is sneaking and thinks no one will know; God sees and God brings justice. Or a Christian thinks they can harm the Body of Christ with impunity, and watch how God unleashes his fury after a while. We don’t always wait for the last day for some examples of justice.

Justice is tangible in the here and now; it is not exclusively future.

 5. Justice teaches us to yearn for the Second Coming. If things seem out of control now, they are. "Sin is rampant, saints are wronged," (Watson) and even when Christians try to serve God, we are frequently mocked or cast as evil. Justice is turned on its head often in this world. But there is a day coming, when God will set things right. Acts. 17:31 speaks of that appointed day that cannot be avoided. In that day, God will judge the world with righteousness. Christians look for this day of vindication.

Relationship to Grace: Grace embraces Justice

"What injustice is it in God to inflict a less punishment, and prevent a greater? The best of God’s children have that in them which is meritorious of hell. Does God do them any wrong, if he uses only the rod, where they deserved the scorpion? Is the father unjust, if he only corrects his child, who has deserved to be disinherited?

Learn to see your justification, God’s act of grace, as related to – not ignorant of – justice.

Illus of Judge from EE.

Many have memorized 1 Jn. 1:9; and it is a good verse to memorize. It teaches that God will forgive all the sins of those who truly repent and confess. But don’t overlook the very basis: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and JUST to forgive us all our sins." Even the forgiveness of sins is an expression of God’s justice – not so much his mercy – because he counts the righteousness of Christ’s work to us.

Remember also another memory verse in light of the justice of God. Rom. 6:24: "For the WAGES of sin is death, but the GIFT of God is eternal life. Death is the just desert for sin; eternal life is God commuting his justice to Someone else in our behalf. Justice is still preserved in our behalf, but it is awarded to a Substitute. "God by his promise," said Witsius, "has made himself a debtor to men." (cited in Shedd, 368).

Rev. David W. Hall