We’re thinking today about God’s justice. In our church’s Shorter Catechism we say that God is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his justice. And he is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his justice because he himself is infinite, eternal and unchangeable and there’s no difference between what he is (his divine nature) and the way that he is (his attributes).
The Hebrew and Greeks words in the Bible which are translated ‘justice’ can also be translated ‘righteousness’. And I think you can see the connection between the two, because the person who is just is the person who does what is right. The just judge judges rightly, whereas the unjust judge judges wrongly. The Hebrew and Greek words can also be translated ‘lawful’. Again, a just judge is the one who judges according to the law. That is, he submits himself to the law and follows it, whereas an unjust judge disregards the law. An unjust judge bends the rules, whereas a just judge adheres to the law. And a person who obeys the law is in the right and does not need to worry when there’s a policeman about, whereas another person who breaks the law is in the wrong and wants to keep away from the policeman. So, there’s clearly a connection between justice and righteousness and lawfulness.
The Bible makes clear that the Lord is righteous in all his ways and he’s a righteous judge who judges justly. However, there is no law above God. Human judges must always submit to the law of the land and render decisions which are based on it. But there is no law above God to which he must submit himself, because he is the one who is above all other things. Nevertheless, this does not mean his judgment is arbitrary so that one day he judges one way and another day he judges differently. No, God judges according to his own good and holy nature, which is unchangeable. And because he is unchangeably good and holy, then his judgments are unchangeably good and holy.
The Bible bears witness in many ways to God’s justice and righteousness. Back in Genesis 18:25, Abraham referred to God as the judge of all the earth and Abraham was confident that God would do right. In Exodus 9:27 Pharaoh said that the Lord was in the right, whereas the Egyptians were in the wrong, when the Lord sent the plagues upon them. In Deuteronomy 10:17 Moses makes clear that the Lord does not show partiality or accept bribes the way a human judge might do. His judgment is impartial. And in Deuteronomy 32:4 Moses sang about the Lord that his works are perfect and all his ways are just. He is a faithful God who does no wrong, and he is upright and just. In Ezra 9:15, when confessing the sins of the people, Ezra confessed that God is righteous. In Nehemiah 9, the people were confessing their sins before the Lord and they confessed that God kept his promises, because he is righteous.
Psalm 7:11 tells us that he is a righteous judge. Psalm 9:7+8 tells us that he reigns for ever and has established his throne for judgment and he will judge the world in righteousness and will govern the peoples with justice. The psalmist in Psalm 36:6 declares that God’s righteousness is like the mighty mountains and his justice is like the great deep. Psalm 96:10–13 tells us that the Lord reigns and he will judge the peoples with equity. And the creation is summoned to rejoice because the Lord is coming to judge the earth in righteousness and in truth. Psalm 119:137 says that the Lord is righteous and his laws are right. Whereas we may complain that the laws of the land are not right, and from time to time they are changed, we cannot say that God’s laws are ever wrong.
Isaiah 5:11 tells us that the Lord will be exalted by his justice and the holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness. Daniel, in Daniel 9:14, confessed that the Lord did not hesitate to bring disaster on the Israelites when he sent them into exile, because the Lord our God is righteous in everything he does.
In Acts 17:31, Paul announced to the people of Athens that God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice. And in Romans 2:2–5, Paul says that God’s judgment is based on truth; and he goes on to refer to the day of God’s wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed and he will give to each person according to what he has done. In Romans 3:5+6 he imagines someone concluding that God’s judgment is unjust and he immediately dismisses the idea. And in 2 Thessalonians 1:5–7 Paul declares God’s judgment to be right and he says that God is just. And in Revelation 16:5 an angel said about the Lord that he was righteous when he judged the wicked. This is a just a sample of what the Bible says about God’s justice and righteousness.
Throughout the Bible, it makes clear that God himself and all his works and ways are just and right. What we also find in the Old Testament Scriptures is a longing among God’s people for the day when the Lord will come to judge the earth, because when he comes he will punish the wicked and deliver his people from all their troubles. God’s people in Old Testament times were oppressed in many ways by their enemies; and the poor and the widows and orphans and aliens in Israel were often denied justice. Human judges accepted bribes and perverted justice and the weak and vulnerable were routinely oppressed and persecuted. And so, the people looked forward to the coming of the Lord to put right what was wrong. Indeed they looked forward to the coming of the Lord’s Righteous Branch. For instance, in Jeremiah 23, the Lord spoke of his Righteous Branch who will rule wisely and who will do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this Righteous Branch will be called ‘the Lord our Righteousness’. In Isaiah 11, he will be known as the Shoot who will come from the stump of Jesse. And he will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, but with righteousness he will judge the needy and with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. Righteousness will be his belt.
The people longed for the day when God will come to judge the world justly by this righteous Servant who will save God’s suffering people. And that means that in the Old Testament God’s righteousness and justice are often associated with his salvation.
The theologians — as we have seen before — like to make distinctions. And so, when they write about God’s justice and righteousness, they distinguish between the way God is infinitely just and righteous in himself; and the way in which he displays his justice and righteousness in the world. And he displays his justice and righteousness in the world by giving to us according to what we deserve. This is the distinction between being right and doing what is right. God is both righteous in himself; and, because he is righteous in himself, then he always does what is right.
And then, when the theologians discuss the ways that God displays his justice and righteousness in the world, they make further distinctions. Firstly, he’s the great Lawgiver who has given us his law to keep with the promise of reward for the obedient and with the threat of punishment for the disobedient. He has imposed this law on the whole world and all of us are duty-bound to keep it. That’s one way he displays his justice and righteousness. But then he displays his justice and righteousness by distributing his rewards to the obedient and by inflicting punishment on the disobedient. In other words, he administers his justice or he puts it into action in the world.
Of course, those who have been obedient and who have done his will do not deserve any reward from him, because who deserves a reward for merely doing his duty? God is under no obligation to reward the obedient, but he does it out of his goodness and love. And that means the obedient have no rights over God or claims on him. They cannot demand anything from him, because they don’t deserve any reward and remain his unworthy servants. On the other hand, the disobedient deserve to be punished for what they have done wrong. And therefore, when they are punished, they cannot complain that God is unjust and he has punished them unfairly. They deserve what they get, because they have broken his law. And when God punishes the disobedient it’s with a view to maintaining his justice and righteousness. He upholds his justice and righteousness by punishing the wicked.
Just and the justifier
Perhaps now it might be dawning on you that there’s a problem. A massive problem. The Bible is clear that all of us have sinned and we’ve all come short of the glory of God. There is no-one righteous, not even one. All have turned away from God and his ways. We have together become worthless. There is none who does good, because even our best deeds are spoiled by sin. We all like sheep and have gone astray. The Bible is clear that we are sinners by birth and we share in the guilt of Adam’s first sin; and every day we sin against the Lord in thought and word and deed. And therefore: What do we deserve from God? What we deserve from God is condemnation and punishment. That’s what we deserve. God’s justice and righteousness means that we should get what we deserve; and what we all deserve for our sins is to be punished by God. Some of us are guilty of big sins; some of us are guilty of only small sins; but all of us are guilty before God. And so, we can all echo the words of Psalm 51:
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
That is, I know I’m a sinner who has broken God’s law. And therefore I also know that God would be just and right to punish me. And yet, the same psalm begins with a prayer to God to show me mercy and to blot out my transgressions and to wash me from my iniquity and to cleanse me from my sin.
So, how can God be just and yet forgive me? How can God be just and yet blot out my transgressions? He can’t just ignore them or dismiss them or sweep them under the carpet. He can’t shrug his shoulders as if my sins don’t matter. He can’t disregard my sins, because he is just and righteous; and it would not be just or right for him to disregard them. So, how can he be just and yet forgive me? Or in the words of Romans 3:26, how can he be just and at the same time be the one who justifies? That is, how can he be just by punishing my sin and at the same time be the one who pardons me and accepts me as righteous in his sight? How can he do it?
He can do it because he presented Christ as the sacrifice of atonement. Christ’s death on the cross was the sacrifice which satisfies the justice of God and turns away his wrath from me. The wages of sin is death. That what my sin deserves. That’s what your sin deserves. And Christ died in our place. He took the punishment we deserve for our sins when he offered up his life in our place. And by faith in him, sinners are pardoned by God and accepted as righteous in God’s sight. Though we may have done everything wrong, God treats us as if we’ve done everything right, because of Christ our Saviour who gave up his life for us.
And so, do you remember how John puts it in his first letter (1 John 1:8+9)? If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God is what? God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. Since Christ has paid for our sins in full with his life, it would be unjust of God not to forgive us now. And so, since Christ has paid for our sins in full, it is only just and right and proper for God to forgive us and no further payment will ever be demanded from us.
And that means we can look forward to the day when God will come to judge the world, just as God’s people in the Old Testament looked forward to it. We can look forward to the day when God will come to judge the world by his righteous servant, Jesus Christ. We can look forward to that day, because on that day we will be acquitted of all charges against us, because of Christ. And though we do not deserve it, God will bring us in to enjoy everlasting peace and joy in his presence for ever. And so we will rejoice before him for ever and for ever for being just and for being the one who has justified us.