CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On God’s Justice

Mar 6, 2011

It is a bit risky to speak about God’s justice today, and here I especially have in mind talking to other believers about it. We have had such wishy washy views of God enter our churches that few want to even discuss such a concept. We prefer instead to carry on about God’s love.

Now properly understood, the love of God is of course a wonderful theme and a most notable attribute of the God we serve. But sadly the biblical notion of love has been watered down and misrepresented. Indeed, it has been torn asunder from the other attributes of God, such as his holiness and his justice.

Thus many believers today understand divine love to mean that God simply winks at our sin, is unmoved by our lifestyles, and rubber stamps whatever we happen to be doing. It is an utterly unbiblical representation of his love, one in which God effectively becomes a divine yes man, affirming anything we want him to approve of.

Given all this, Christians get squeamish when talk of God’s justice is raised. I sometimes will get rebuked when I declare that justice is fundamental to who God is, and that we can all look forward to the day when he rights every wrong and rewards every right. Some believers think this is not a proper way to think about God.

They prefer to think about God in sentimental, mushy terms, and not as a divine being who is holy and who must always punish sin and promote righteousness. There are countless passages of Scripture which speak to this theme. Since my daily reading was in 2 Thessalonians this morning, let me offer just one text from there. Paul is encouraging his readers to persevere in the face of persecution and says this:

“All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you” (1:5-10).

Here we find the concept of ‘payback’ if I can put it that way. Paul is seeking to comfort these persecuted believers with the knowledge that God is just and he is not unaware of their various sufferings. One day these persecutors will be paid back for what they are doing. That is meant to be good news, and to help those under tribulation to keep going.

And this theme is found elsewhere in Scripture. As D. Michael Martin comments, “In the New Testament as a whole the present suffering of the godly is often balanced by a celebration of the glories to come and/or by an assurance that God will punish the persecutors of the righteous (Luke 6:21-23; Rom 8:17; Heb 12:1-2; 1 Pet 1:3-9; 4:12-19; Jude 10-13).”

Or as Gene Green remarks, “God is all about just outcomes. Over and over biblical and extrabiblical literature declares that God’s judgment is in accordance with his justice. . . . The author claims that it would be unjust for God to allow the persecutors to escape their deserved judgment.”

I recall a discussion I had with another believer many years ago on the issue of justice. We were talking about an entire genre of films in which a good guy seeks to give some payback after some gross injustices took place. You know the films: a guy has his family or wife or loved ones viciously tortured and killed or kidnapped or some such thing. The rest of the film involves this guy tracking down and bumping off these evil doers.

Often the law is unable or unwilling to implement justice, so this guy figures he has to take the law into his own hands. My Christian friend thought these films were terrible. I said I actually found something in them which deeply resonated with me: a strong sense of justice.

The bad guys in the end always get what they deserved, and one felt that justice had prevailed. I told him that we live in a universe which demands justice, so we all have in us a dislike of evil, and a desire to see it punished. We are made that way because our creator is a just God.

Now I am of course not advocating taking the law into our own hands, or seeking personal vengeance. God has ensured that he will ultimately deal with every wrong doing, in at least one of two ways. First, he has established the state for this very purpose (see Romans 13:1-7 for example).

Also, there will be a final judgment of God in which every wrong will be punished and every right rewarded. So no one will get off lightly, or escape ultimate justice. If evil doers are not meted out justice in this life, they certainly will in the next.

All this is not to say that grace and mercy are unimportant. They most certainly are, but we must see them in God’s light, not our own. In God we find complete mercy as well as complete justice – simultaneously. Justice is never watered down, and God’s holiness is never compromised, even though he is rich in mercy and abundant in forgiveness.

As Martin says, “This is not a repudiation of the mercy of God in favour of a law of retaliation. Mercy is not only available to the church but also to the persecutors of the church, as Paul’s own life illustrated. But the existence of mercy does not nullify the validity of justice, for those who reject God’s offer of mercy in the gospel will receive justice at the hands of a just God.”

In God we have the perfect combination of love and wrath, mercy and holiness, grace and justice. Perhaps the best way to see how these attributes cohere in the one true God is to close with a passage from theologian Miroslav Volf, in one of his important books, Free of Charge (Zondervan, 2006). This is what he says:

“I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the blood bath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”

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10 Responses to On God’s Justice

  • Brilliantly written Bill. You have certainly been gifted with the ability to make statements that are so clear and that ‘nail’ it. Really appreciate your commentary, God bless you Bill as you continue to speak out against the stream.
    Ryan Foley

  • Many thanks indeed Ryan for your kind words.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill, I heartily agree with Ryan.

    Although God’s throne is surely established in love and mercy, its foundation is righteousness and justice (Ps 89:14; 97:2; Is 16:5).

    Love and mercy are not possible except they be founded on righteousness and retribution for sin. Love without ultimate judgment against sin is a denial of divine justice and faithfulness, and an everlasting endorsement of universal rebellion and depravity: What’s more, it makes God out to be an liar (Deut 32:35, 43; Rom 12:19; Rev 20).

    Much encouragement,

    John Heasman

  • Right on again, Bill. It always stymies me when Christians get all worked up when it is pointed out that something is wrong. They think that it is wrong in some way not to emphasise mercy over justice. But God has His natural order. The Bible says that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. The Word also tells us not to fear men who can kill the body but to ‘fear Him Who can destroy both body and soul in Hell’. It’s extremely unpopular to talk about that, but it’s only when we meditate upon the fact that the lost are going to a damned eternity where they will never, ever be free, that we can begin to put things into perspective. In my opinion, it’s far more compassionate to point to the awesome majesty of a God who cannot be trifled with than to pat people on the back and make them think that ‘she’ll be right, mate’.
    Dee Graf

  • Thanks Dee

    Yes quite right. And in this regard, a quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer is quite appropriate here: “Nothing is so cruel as the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • This is an excellent article Bill, and clearly shows God’s wrath is an intricate part of His love. Justice must be delivered as a boundary or we will never know His ways and endeavour to keep to them.
    I would love to keep this and use it for all the emails that I view at my work place that say, “But what about God’s love…?”
    Well done!
    Dianne Johnson

  • I absolutely agree, maybe with a tiny, tiny qualification.
    Since I have learnt to leave the retribution to God, I have lost the desire to see the perpetrators punished. Isn’t there a verse in the old testament that says God does not rejoice in the destruction the wicket? It doesn’t take away from the point of your article, I am just so glad I know perfect justice will be done by my just Lord and at the same time I can pray for those who persecute me or others, in remembrance of the amazing grace shown to me, without which I might have been one of those.
    I always end to lean towards the side of truth and often without love, so I am glad that the scriptures put the “truth in love” right there together.
    Without love, truth becomes a hammer to destroy from the outside. Without truth, love becomes the means by which a soul takes on the poison of lies. Well done
    Many blessings,
    Ursula Bennett

  • Hello Bill

    Whilst your article hits the mark in most areas of this topic I think that you could have included what the very concept of justice is in our society. That is, for an offence there has to be a punishment dealt out in proportion to the crime. Thus, when an offence is committed say, against an individual then not only is it a crime against that person but a crime against society as well. Even if that person does not wish for punishment to be carried out then justice must done for the offence committed against society and its law.
    From what I have studied about Muslim society punishment can be abrogated for crimes – even serious ones – with a payment from the perpertrator to the victim to obviate the punishment by the state. Clearly this practice takes into no account of the very concept of justice in the classic Western Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed it puts justice and the law itself into the hands of the individual expecting them to make decisions on behalf of the state and the law.
    Bill Spence

  • “God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”

    Amen.

    Conor Ryan

  • I was listening to a song of Jeremy Riddle this morning (Sweetly Broken) which I thought gives a humbling reminder of God’s love and justice, and the impact that should have on our own lives.

    To the cross I look, to the cross I cling
    Of it’s suffering I do drink
    Of it’s work I do sing
    For on it my Savior both bruised and crushed
    Showed that God is love
    And God is just

    At the cross You beckon me
    You draw me gently to my knees, and I am
    Lost for words, so lost in love,
    I’m sweetly broken, wholly surrendered

    Peter Baade

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