A just God…
My blind spot…
I’m ashamed to admit that I came to the table late on this aspect of God’s personality. Though “justice” is mentioned 134 times in the Bible, in my three decades of pastoral ministry I never gave one message on the concept of justice for the poor and powerless. In fact, until recently, I’d never even heard a message on it. (That’s not coming to the table late, as in arriving during the dessert. By the time I became aware of this, the table had been cleared and the dishes were washed, dried, and put away!]
About a decade ago I noticed that some of the new worship songs that we were singing included the term “justice,” and honestly it puzzled me at first. I didn’t know what they meant when they said: Dancers who dance upon injustice… Let justice and praise become my embrace… Great is your love and justice God… Your justice flows like the ocean’s tide…!
I’m embarrassed that I’d always thought of justice exclusively in terms of God’s approach to sin and judgment, and as such, I couldn’t figure out how it snuck into our praise choruses. It’s only recently that I’ve been catching up to this prominent theme in Scripture.
Lord, forgive me for being so tunnel-visioned, and help me recognize a few more of my many inevitable blind spots before it’s too late to do anything about them.
I’m sure that this particular hole in my holiness had something to do with the fact that, as a white middle class American male, I have had little direct experience as a victim of injustice. I’ve always been pretty comfy in my top-dog status in the world and, as a result, overlooked most of what the Bible says on the subject. Plus, my tiny diameter Christian circle has pretty much equated “social justice” with a “social gospel” and attributed it to the “Liberals” trying to work their way into heaven. (I told you I had something to be embarrassed about.)
I indicated at the beginning that what I’m writing now is not a regurgitation of systematic theologies written by experts and that though I had studied them early in my biblical training I hardly consulted these scholarly works while writing this essay. Nevertheless, for this chapter I succumbed to a cursory glance of a few of my favorites still in my possession. I wanted to see whether or not my overall recollection of their treatment of the theme of God’s “justice” was how I remembered it. Was it possible that I’d just overlooked what they’d written? Maybe they included it by I just tuned it out? Regrettably, after browsing them again I realized that I hadn’t tuned out what they’d taught on justice, because they hadn’t taught it. With all due respect to the conservative pre-postmodern scholars (I guess that would make them “modern” scholars), I propose a broader concept of God’s “justice” that’s found throughout the Bible.
I see now that my early teachers taught only half the story about justice. Their books and lectures were dedicated solely to the concept of God’s retributive justice and almost entirely omitted the notion of his distributive justice. They seemed to be more interested in bad people getting what’s coming to them than vulnerable people getting what should be coming to them! They taught that a just God is consistent in retribution and neglected to show how he is also compassionate in distribution.
Justice, I’ve finally come to realize, is the right use of power, while injustice is the abuse of power. This world would be a very scary place to live if God, who is all-powerful, were inclined to abuse it. If he abused his power in retribution and judged us arbitrarily, we would all be in a lot of trouble. It would be equally horrific if he chose to act like a self-serving despot and abuse his capability to act compassionately toward the vulnerable. I for one am glad he is just in both senses and uses his power to the benefit of whole race.
He’s consistent in retribution
I’ve taught and preached this aspect of God’s justice since the beginning of my life of service. From my first run at the Bible it was obvious to me that God is not one to shirk justice or let people off the hook for our sins against him. It’s nothing if not clear that God is a righteous Judge. Death is the wage we earn for our disobedience and the penalty that he promises for the guilty.
He’s a God of justice. He’s just as “just” as he is anything else. As he is good all the time, so is he just all the time; and his justice is a good justice, good for everyone except those under its sentence.
When someone is guilty of a crime and is equitably punished for it; we say, “justice was served.” Most of us want to live in a world where this kind of justice is the rule of thumb. We expect ours to be a society that punishes the guilty, unless of course, we’re the ones who are guilty! If we’ve been robbed, we want the thief to go to jail, and we expect to get our stolen stuff back. That’s justice, and fortunately God is just in the way he runs his world. It’s his just nature to punish what is morally wrong and reward what’s right.
So, the $99 question is: How can he be just and yet let us off the hook for our sins? The Good News answer is that though we deserve punishment for our crimes, instead of condemning us, he took all his justice out on Jesus. Jesus took on our “sinner-status,” accepted the penalty we deserved for it, and satisfied God’s justice as our substitute.
The Good News is even better than that. Because Jesus was punished for our report card full of F’s, Jesus bequeathed to us the straight A’s that he had earned; and then the Father treats us like honor students! God can show us mercy and still be consistent with himself. This is how he can be “just and justifier” (Romans 3:26). He’s “faithful and just to forgive our sins” (1 John 1:9).
He did justice to his justice and invites us to receive his righteousness on a righteous basis. We call it “Justification,” which is what I like to define as, “God’s righteous way of righteoussing the unrighteous with his righteousness.”
Awesome, right? It’s the greatest!
But there’s something else we mean – or should mean – when we say that God is “just.”