One of the main areas that have led many to believe that God must punish sin is the subject of “God’s justice”. It is said, “God must punish sin to satisfy justice”, but is justice a person that is above God? Do you agree with these words?
“Every sin must meet its punishment…and if God should remit the punishment of sin, He would not be a God of truth and justice.” (GC, 761)
But yet, contained within the ” …” of this sentence are 2 critical words!
“Every sin must meet its punishment, urged Satan; and if God should remit the punishment of sin, He would not be a God of truth and justice.”
Of course, some would say that on the Cross Jesus took that punishment directly from God which is what allows God to forgive and to still be a God of truth and justice – the Cross will be the subject of the next article.
This expresses the reality of things so well:
“We are not to regard God as waiting to punish the sinner for his sin. The sinner brings the punishment upon himself. His own actions start a train of circumstances that bring the sure result. Every act of transgression reacts upon the sinner, works in him a change of character, and makes it more easy for him to transgress again. By choosing to sin, men separate themselves from God, cut themselves off from the channel of blessing, and the sure result is ruin and death.” (Letter 96, 1896)
So how do we understand the meaning of “God’s justice” and how is punishment involved in God’s justice?
Several years ago I gave a lecture about the woman caught in adultery, and I discussed how remarkable it was that Jesus said to her (though she was caught in the act), “I do not condemn you”.
And, at some point in the discussion I quoted the famous words in 1st John, “God is love”. But after this talk a man came up to me with a gentle rebuke. He said, “It’s true that God is love, but don’t forget, God is also just.”
The phrase “God is love, BUT he is also just” could suggest that God’s justice is in some way separate and distinct from His love. Is that true? In fact, what words come to your mind when you consider “God’s justice”? If you had to substitute the word “justice” for some other word, what would you choose?
Did the word punishment immediately come to mind?
I will not share the reference for this quote, but it expresses a common sentiment about God’s justice: “God is love, but God also punishes the sinner and hates all who do iniquity. God is not one sided. He is not simply an infinitely loving God. He is also infinitely just. He must deal with sin. He must punish the sinner.”
Ultimately, of course, what we need to do is to let the Bible speak for itself on the subject of God’s justice. I would like to suggest up front that our contemporary understanding of “justice” is very different than the Biblical concept of justice.
For example, in our society’s criminal/legal system, justice equals punishment. You do the crime, you do the time. You do the time, you’ve paid your debt to society and justice has been done. Justice has been satisfied. Our contemporary meaning of justice is primarily in legal terms and with an appropriate punishment that fits the crime.
When we hear George Bush say, “We will bring the terrorists to justice”, his meaning is clear to everyone – that they will be punished appropriately.
But, is our current understanding of justice, which we derive primarily from our legal system, the same as God’s justice – as described in the Bible?
God’s Justice in the Old Testament
Surprisingly, the Old Testament, which sometimes gets a bad reputation as we struggle to reconcile gentle Jesus with his violent Old Testament, is the key. We must understand the Hebrew concept of justice and lay that as a foundation.
When we turn to the Old Testament, God’s justice (his justice in action) is described in a much different frame of reference. To our surprise, we find that God’s justice is something that we would actually like to be on the receiving end of. For example, notice who God administers justice to in this verse:
“Defend the poor and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and needy.” (Psalm 82:3)
The Psalmist is obviously not suggesting that the afflicted and the needy should be punished in this verse? Rather, his command is that we should help them: justice in this verse refers to the actions of mercy and love.
“Wash yourselves clean. Stop all this evil that I see you doing. Yes, stop doing evil and learn to do right. See that justice is done— help those who are oppressed, give orphans their rights, and defend widows.” (Isaiah 1:16-17 – GN)
Once again, the justice involved here is to do good to the outcasts of society by correcting the injustice that has been done to them. In fact, we will notice as a theme all the way through – that God is not the one acting by methods of violence when he administers justice. Rather, God’s justice is to compassionately intervene against the violent actions done by others.
“This is what the LORD says to the dynasty of David: ‘Give justice each morning to the people you judge! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors.’” (Jeremiah 21:12 – NLT)
God’s justice, in example after example, is ultimately to do what is right and to make things right by pouring out loving compassion to those who have been treated unfairly:
“The LORD is waiting to be kind to you. He rises to have compassion on you. The LORD is a God of justice.” (Isaiah 30:18 – God’s Word)
What is God’s justice in this verse? It is to be kind to his children and to have compassion on them.
“For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘Enough, you princes of Israel! Stop your violence and oppression and do what is just and right.* Quit robbing and cheating my people out of their land. Stop expelling them from their homes, says the Sovereign LORD.’” (Ezekiel 45:9 – NLT)
* “Execute justice and righteousness” (NKJV)
Once again, God’s justice here is to make things right by stopping the violence, not by executing violence on others. The injustice is to rob, cheat, and mistreat people. “Justice” then is to begin treating people in the right way – to treat people the way God would treat people.
There are additional abundant examples of this, but notice again that the Old Testament concept of “justice” is manifested in positive acts of mercy and compassion to the mistreated and the outcasts of society who have been denied real justice.
To “bring justice” in the Old Testament does not mean to bring punishment, but to bring healing and reconciliation.
Justice means to make things right by correcting injustice
Justice then is ultimately an expression of mercy. It is mercy in action.
This mercy in action is described in Proverbs as a path that we are to follow. It is a way of life.
“I walk the way of righteousness; I follow the paths of justice.” (Proverbs 8:20)
In verse we see Hebrew poetry, which is not based on rhyme but on repetition – where the second line of the verse adds meaning and depth to the first line. The path of justice then is the way of righteousness. It is the path of right doing. It is the path of mercy.
Once again in Proverbs:
“He guards the paths of justice, and preserves the way of His saints. Then you will understand righteousness and justice, Equity and every good path. (Proverbs 2:8-9 – NKJV)
What is the path of justice? It is to make things right through compassionate intervention in the world.
In fact, we are somewhat familiar with this kind of “making right” justice, for what is it you are doing when you justify a word document? You’re not punishing your computer or the document – you are aligning or “making right” your document.
And so, with this foundation laid, these familiar words in Micah perhaps now have added meaning:
“What shall I bring to the LORD, the God of heaven, when I come to worship him? Shall I bring the best calves to burn as offerings to him? Will the LORD be pleased if I bring him thousands of sheep or endless streams of olive oil? Shall I offer him my first-born child to pay for my sins? No, the LORD has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God.” (Micah 6:6-8 – GN)
Micah is not contrasting here. To do what is just IS to show constant love and only when we live in humble fellowship with God are we even capable of administering God’s style of justice!
The Hebrew concept of justice then is ultimately to make things right by manifesting the love of God through acts of kindness and mercy and by revealing God’s constant love. To walk in the path of justice is to respond to the evil and injustice in this world by returning goodness and real justice in its place. This kind of justice is the foundation of God’s kingdom:
This conception of justice is not lost in today’s world. A Hebrew word for justice (t’sedeka) is a familiar one to many Jews. To Jewish people today, this is still associated with acts of charity and to bring healing and reconciliation, to make thing right and to bring loving restoration. Today, a number of Jewish charities are in some form named after this Hebrew word t’sedeka which to them is synonymous with charity. For example, here is a description I found of t’sedeka in the company description from one of these Jewish charities:
“The gist of Tsedaka is charity, the giving of your time or money to help someone else, without expecting something in return. It is one of the cornerstones of the Jewish religion.”
This is beautiful and it harmonizes perfectly with the Old Testament concept of justice!
What about Punishment?
But now, some may be wondering, “is this a bit one-sided?” What about punishment?
We often associate God’s justice with God’s punishment but thus far we’ve shown that the Bible relates justice to a compassionate making things right, and a loving restoration. Is there no dimension of punishment to God’s justice?
How does God punish? Does sin need to be punished? I believe that this question is ultimately answered at the Cross. For this reason, please read the article on the Atonement which will further address this question.
Sin Pays the Wage
Sin carries its own punishment. God does not need to add on additional painful penalties – sin does that just fine on its own.
Listen to the very clear words in Jeremiah:
“You have brought this on yourself by abandoning the LORD your God when he led you on his way… Your own wickedness will correct you, and your unfaithful ways will punish you. You should know and see how evil and bitter it is for you if you abandon the LORD your God…” (Jeremiah 2:17-19 –GN)
“Judah, you have brought this on yourself by the way you have lived and by the things you have done. Your sin has caused this suffering; it has stabbed you through the heart.” (Jeremiah 4:18 – GN)
God is like a physician and we are his sick patients who are infected with sin and selfishness. Let’s say that you see a physician for a cough and fever. After examining you and running some tests, including maybe a chest x-ray, suppose that the doctor ends up diagnosing you with pneumonia. You are informed that antibiotics are necessary to cure this condition, but suppose you get home and refuse to take them. Does the doctor need to sneak into your home at night to worsen your pneumonia (because he is angry with you) or does the pneumonia do its own punishing?
If you refuse to brush your teeth, do dentists get angry and insert additional cavities into your teeth?
If you step off a cliff, does God need to set in motion the process of gravity so that you fall and hurt yourself?
Sin carries its own punishment and the Biblical concept of God justice has nothing to do with adding on additional pain to settle the score.
And so, once again, how does the Old Testament define God’s justice?
“This is what the LORD of Armies says: Administer real justice (again, what does real justice look like?), be compassionate and kind to each other.” (Zechariah 7:9 – God’s Word)
Mercy in action; compassionate, kind, and loving intervention – this is what God’s justice looks like.
Justice – Jesus’ Style
So, with that background, we come to the New Testament. And the question is, did the meaning of God’s justice change? Not at all – it is the same meaning. What I’ve noticed though is that we sometimes don’t rely on the Old Testament as a basis for understanding God’s justice in the New Testament. We sometimes rely on our modern day understanding of justice, which again, causes us to view any reference to justice predominantly in legal terms: Quid-pro-quo payback justice, retributive justice, legal justice, and justice that primarily involves a punishment that fits the crime.
But the Greek word here for justice in the New Testament (a single Greek word that can be translated either as righteousness of justice) has the same meaning. And this is where the Bible is so beautiful.
The Bible is internally consistent. We can use the Bible to define and explain the Bible.
For example, notice Jesus’ repeated rebuke to the Pharisees was that (even though they were religious outwardly) they were not merciful and kind to the outcasts of society.
“How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You give to God one tenth even of the seasoning herbs, such as mint and dill, but you neglect to obey the really important teachings of the Law, such as justice and mercy and honesty. These you should practice, without neglecting the others.” (Matthew 23:23)
This is the exact same concept we saw in the Old Testament and that is: “You are dealing unjustly with others. Why don’t you practice mercy and compassion to those around you? That is what God is really after. God would much rather have you treat others with love than to spend so much time tithing your herbs and spices.”
Returning again to the woman caught in adultery, who was “unjust” in that story? Was it not the self-righteous religious leaders who brought her only as a trap for Jesus? The injustice was to hypocritically sit as judge and moral authority and to wish for this poor woman to be stoned to death. Jesus administered Godly justice by the way he dealt with this situation which was to defend and to the love the person who was being abused and mistreated.
Jesus’ concept of justice would have them loving and serving their neighbors – even the outcasts of society like this woman – even their enemies! Forgive 70 times 7. Show compassion and love to all. That is the kind of justice that Jesus came to bring as described (prophetically) in the book of Isaiah and quoted here in Matthew 12:
“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice (translate “loving and compassionate restoration”) to the nations. He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice (“loving restoration”) to victory.” (Matthew 12:18-20 – NIV)
Jesus came to bring real justice, the kind that would heal the sick, the blind, and the deaf. God’s justice is making things right by eating with sinners and tax collectors; God’s justice is feeding the 5,000; God’s justice is making things right by saying to the common people who had been oppressed by a group of tyrannical and arrogant religious leaders: “Blessed are the meek – for they will inherit the earth.”
But this kind of justice was not at all what the people of that time were hoping for in their Messiah. They wanted a conquering hero who would punish their enemies. They despised his compassionate treatment of lepers and for doing such outrageous things as healing a poor man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. They despised the riff-raff of society that he seemed to be so interested in all the time.
They despised the fact that he would choose a group of fishermen to be his disciples.
They despised the kind of justice that Jesus came to bring, and so conspired to nail him to a cross.
Who exhibited violence and injustice at the Cross? In Acts, chapter 8, we read:
“He was like a sheep that is taken to be slaughtered, like a lamb that makes no sound when its wool is cut off. He did not say a word. He was humiliated, and justice was denied him. No one will be able to tell about his descendants, because his life on earth has come to an end.” (Acts 8:32-33)
At the Cross, we see no violence, no punishment coming directly from the hand of God. Who was it that exhibited violence at the Cross? What we see at the Cross is humanity, represented by a mob of religious yet violent murderers who tortured to death the Son of God.
Who deserved to be punished at the Cross? By our understanding of justice, would not the innocent Jesus have been justified to call down fire from heaven on the guilty people who brought him to a sham trial and then cruelly mocked him?
Instead, what we see at the Cross is the innocent Son of God, saying to guilty humanity: “Father, forgive them.” This returning of love and kindness in the face of our hatred is the radical restorative justice of God.
At the Cross, our desire for punishment, our violence, and our hatred, is replaced by God’s forgiveness, God’s non-violence, and God’s love.
“God’s justice is restorative and healing, not retributive. While retributive justice seeks to fit the punishment to the crime, attempting to control wrongdoing through punishment, restorative justice forgives the crime and seeks to redeem wrongdoing through a repairing of the relationship. At the Cross we see God turning away the opportunity to exact retributive justice and the demand for retribution, and instead God would choose to forgive. At the Cross we come face to face with the shameful depravity of our own sin by coming face to face with the One who has the right and the power to punish but who instead loves and forgives.” (Stricken by God?)
In the face of human hatred and hardness of heart, God still managed to redeem.
Returning violence and hatred with forgiveness and love does not often fit into our paradigm of justice, but thankfully our God is much bigger and much better than we can possibly imagine him to be!
The Robe of Justice
But now, this is God’s message about justice for us today: Live out God’s style of justice in your daily life! Prophetically, we know that God’s people in the end will live out this kind of compassionate and restorative justice. In Revelation 19:
“Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready. And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts (righteousness) of the saints. (Revelation 19:7-8 – NKJV)
As I said, there is a single Greek word that can be either translated as justice or righteousness. I checked several older versions of this text going all the way back to the Wycliffe Bible. And do you know that the robe of righteousness is also translated as the robe of justice!
But if we take the Bible as a whole, to have a robe of justice is a beautiful thing. When God’s people wear a rob of justice, the sick and outcasts of society will be cared for, the oppressed will find words of comfort and encouragement, and the good news will go throughout the world, not so much by words preached from a pulpit, but through Christ-like actions. As Christians we are called to conquer the world by breaking the destructive cycle of hatred and violence by returning the compassionate making right justice of Jesus Christ.