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.”