Recently, we discussed the authenticity of God’s justice in the exercising of his grace and mercy. There is much more to be said, I think, on the justice of God over all, and so that will be where we will continue to dwell. Coincidentally, my own devotional Bible reading has led me to a passage – one I think of often – which can potentially cause a lot of issues for someone with a weak theology of the justice of God. There’s honestly, so much that is misunderstood about God’s justice, as we examined in no small amount of detail in the last post. All the time, I read in forums or hear in evangelistic conversations with people that God can’t actually be just, because of this reason or that. It’s a favorite argument of those who are prone to aggression against the Christian faith. Assaults on God’s justice have become so prevalent, I believe, because many Christians have a poor understanding of how the scales work. What I mean is, God outlines his justice in Scripture, but that outline is often not faithfully taught because it is a hard theology. This is the same kind of hard theology that led those ancient Jews to walk away from Jesus saying, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” Remember Jesus’ response, “Do you take offense at this?” Not all theology is easy to digest. Not all theology is warm and cuddly. I don’t say this out of some misguided desire to sound edgy, but rather I say it in the spirit of a wonderful older woman in my church, who declared during our Sunday School class about hard theologies, “We have to stop lying!” I pray that you too have folks in your churches with the same zeal! She is absolutely right. Some theology is uncomfortable. Some of it is messy, soaked in blood and wrath. Some of it comes right at the filth in the universe and digs it up into full exposure. A great example is sin. There is arguably nothing on a cosmic scale more repugnant than sin, and yet the Scripture spends an immense amount of time detailing and exploring it; both its nature and ramifications. Yet to study sin is to remind us who we really are beneath the lie of innocence that we live under. Such a reminder is unwelcome and uncomfortable, and so we like to avoid the topic all together. To ignore these theologies is incredibly dangerous. To ignore sin is like a diabetic ignoring a splinter in their toe. It may at first seem like nothing, but given time it could consume everything.
Our uncomfortable topic of the day is God’s justice. You may be thinking, “Justice isn’t uncomfortable, it’s good! The justice of God is beautiful.” You’d, of course, be correct in calling it good and beautiful, but often when we use such labels we are confusing God’s justice with our own self-vindicating flesh. Does the word “wrath” conjure up warm and fuzzy feelings? Do “condemnation” or “judgement” spur on comfort and rest? To love everything about God, including his wrath, is right and wonderful, but from a human perspective, I’d probably be concerned for your lack of compassion and love for your fellow man if you got too excited by “wrath.” Regardless of my feelings, God does love his wrath, and his judgement, and his justice. It is important to realize these things, to chew on them, and even say them out loud. Make them real in your life. As much as God loves his mercy and grace on sinners, he so loves his just administration. As a holy God, he must. This truth has to be at the foundation of your theology if you are to have a strong understanding of the justice of God. God is perfect and self-fulfilled in his grace, and God is equally perfect and self-fulfilled in his wrath.
Let’s first read a verse, then look at a case study. Isaiah 45:7: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” A massive tsunami hits a remote island and crushes the society, leaving hundreds dead immediately, many more deaths from the after effects, and people destitute in the wake of destruction. While side by side, it isn’t hard to see how our case study fits into Isaiah 45:7. God says, “[I] create calamity,” and the tsunami is certainly a calamity. Yet, when discussing such an event, we often say things like, “We live in a broken world,” which isn’t wrong, or “God didn’t do that,” which is certainly wrong in light of Isaiah 45:7. See the lie? In a misguided attempt to shelter our fellow man from uncomfortable truth, we introduce a lie. A terrible crack in what ought to be an indestructible foundation. Hear what God says about this in Isaiah 45,
“Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles?’ Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’ Thus says the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him: ‘Ask me of things to come; will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands?’”
Are you uncomfortable yet? I am. The God of salvation, the God of love, the God of grace, the God of mercy, the God of hope, the God of peace, the God of rest, and the God of redemption, he is taking credit for it all. The good and bad, he declares in Isaiah 45, to be under his sovereignty and then asks who we are to question him. This doesn’t sound like the God we learned about as kids in Sunday School. It just doesn’t seem right. The people of Judah who first heard this prophecy probably thought similarly. Here is a prophecy from God, in which he names a pagan king as his meshiach, his messiah, and that this king would be given victory over the nations and restore Judah. This is wild. The anointed one of God in this prophecy came not of God’s covenant people, but of the nations. Perhaps this would be like learning that Kim Jong Un had been chosen by God to rebuild the church. Essentially, God is granting prosperity and blessing on what is effectively an evil man. We remember Cyrus as a pretty good guy, because the Bible focuses how he treated the people of Judah, but history tells us that the other nations didn’t fare so well. God declares that all of this is within his sovereignty, and according to his will.
That terrible crack we talked about earlier is particularly exposed when discussing the relationship between the omniscience and sovereignty of God. If one asserts that God does not cause bad things to happen, then his omniscience still demands that he at least knew about it and allowed it to happen. It also demands that there are things, then, that remain outside his control, which calls into question how absolute his sovereignty really is. It is necessary for God to have absolute sovereignty, for if there were indeed things outside his control, then those ought to be considered god’s in their own right, since nothing apparently controls them and they have their own sovereignty. Christian theology, however, asserts that God is sovereign over all, and so Isaiah 45:7 is necessary to seal that terrible crack. There is nothing outside the knowledge, power, and authority of God. The words of Abraham Kuyper ring true, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
Your argument in this discussion at this point should be, “Then God is capricious!” That is entirely wrong. Let us explore why, though. Often the word “capricious” is used to describe one who acts at their own whim. To this extend, the Christian God is indeed capricious. However, Merriam-Webster defines “capricious” as “impulsive, unpredictable.” Under this dictionary definition, God is absolutely not capricious. On the contrary, God is unchanging. The unchanging nature of God is referenced all over Scripture, in the Old Testament and New, but perhaps the most concise statement comes from Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Oddly, as I’m thinking about this, I’m realizing that verse could be considered a statement equating Jesus with God; another important theology for a different time. The unchanging nature of God means that his nature as he has revealed to us through his revelation can be relied on. Take God’s reassurance to the people of Judah, who have once again broken their covenant with God, through his messenger, “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Judah, are not consumed.” God himself uses his unchanging nature to comfort his people, and so we can turn to it as a reliable prediction of future action.
Speaking back, though, to the vernacular definition of “capricious,” it is correct and good to say that God does as he wills, being accountable only to himself. However, does this mean he can still be just? According to human society, to act only out of one’s self-gratification is seen as a vice, and that would be correct in application to humans. However, the requirements of human justice do not match those of God’s justice. We spoke at length on this in our previous discussion on God’s justice in forgiveness, and if you missed that discussion, I encourage you to backtrack to it for my proofs on some of these points. To see how the juxtaposition of these two types of justice plays out, let’s examine some parallels. If I act only in my own interest, then I will often do so at the expense of my fellow man, who as an equal to me has just as much right to exercise their own interests. So, by acting at the expense of my fellow man, I deny him the ability to exercise his own right. The result of this conflict of interests is the social contract. Rousseau’s line of thinking is that everyone can be free by everybody giving up the same amount of rights to each other and imposing on one another the same duties. Moreover, rather than just acting among equals, the Christian worldview has human beings acting under a God. Should the will of man conflict with the will of a sovereign God, this is certainly a breach of universal order.
On a worldly lever, this is simple matter of food chain dynamics, with an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God at the top. On a theological level, the will of God is superior to the will of man because he is Creator and man is contingent on him. However, God has no equal, and in the free exercise of his rights, he does not deny the same of any else. Therefore, God is not bound by the same social contract that human beings are. Certainly, the persons of God give up certain rights to one another, for example Christ’s active obedience, but that should be left to a discussion specifically on the Trinity. Suffice it for now to treat the Godhead as a whole and conclude that God has no equal. Since he has no equal, and is higher than all things as their Creator, it is proper for God to act according to his own will. As with the sovereignty of God, if there were anything to which God submitted some part of his will, we should worship that thing as God instead, since it is evidently high enough for he who we call God to submit to. However, there is no such thing, and the universe exists in proper order as God acts only according to his own will.
So, the first parallel shows that myself acting strictly in my own interest is to deny both my equal man and superior God, but God has no equal nor superior and is free to act at will. Second, is jealousy. It is wrong for me to covet, because I am not superior to anyone, and so I have no right to demand of my fellow man. However, God has no equal and all are beneath him, so it is proper for him to be jealous. Take the obvious example from Exodus 20,
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Here is a discussion on worship, but the concept can be applied broadly. To worship else but God is to deny what is God’s, namely his status as God, and is out of proper order. See how this concept is visited in verse 17, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” This closing bookend to the Ten Commandments shows a prohibition against coveting what does not belong to me. However, God covets what he pleases because all belongs to him. We can then conclude the same as Spurgeon, who said, “The passion of jealousy in man is usually exercised in an evil manner, but is not in itself necessarily evil.” It cannot be ignored, however, a further argument against God’s sovereignty that our opening bookend presents; that is the generational curse. The argument is expanded in the general as thus: if God is sovereign over all things, then is he not the progenitor of sin, and so cannot be holy” Or if he has not created sin, then there exists something outside his creation, and is he not sovereign?
To answer this is necessary for understanding the justice of God, and for sound theology in general. The answer lies first with the original sin in Genesis chapters 2-3. God plants the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the midst of the garden and commands that the man not eat of it. First, we here see that God, in his omniscience, must have already known the man’s inevitable failure to uphold this command, and in his wisdom determined the future glory resulting from the following events worth the man’s disobedience. This is the ultimate conclusion of Paul in the book of Romans, saying in chapter 15 verses 5-6, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Also, remember Paul’s words in Romans, that with the law brings the knowledge of sin. So, to mirror Paul’s argument in Romans 7:7-8, if it had not been for God’s command, Adam would not have known sin. For he would not have known what it is to disobey God if God had not said, “you shall not eat.” Still, Adam did not yet have full knowledge of sin, only that he was to not eat. Full knowledge of sin came with the eating of the tree. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil made the man and his wife “like God,” in that they knew the difference between good – that is, obeying the will of God – and evil – that is, disobeying the will of God. Obviously, this knowledge in itself is not evil, for God himself possesses it, but the way in which it was gained, as well as what Paul refers to in Romans as the weakness of self-vindicating flesh to give into sinful nature, meant that Adam, Eve, and all after them were enslaved to sin. Therefore, God did not create sin, it was the product of the weakness of a non-divine will. Certainly, with the case study of Satan’s fall, it can be seen that angel’s suffer similar weakness, yet whereas all humans are descendants of Adam, and so bear his sinful nature, the angels are not descended from Satan, and so retain their original natures as long as they obey the will of God. God did, however, in having a will, create the knowledge of sin.
Scripture places the responsibility to obey the will of God solely on the agent acting, which is in our case human beings. Beginning in Genesis 3, God declares Adam responsible, saying, “[you] have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it.’” Perhaps there is room in the case of Adam to argue that Adam’s responsibility comes from the fact that he chose to sin without the influence of a sin nature. This would be true, if not for the fact that the Bible does not remove that responsibility from man even after a curse. We began looking at the origins of sin because of the generational curse of Exodus 10. This curse is picked up on in Ezekiel 18, with the Israelites arguing their innocence before God. Apparently, a proverb has cropped up in the culture, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” This proverb says that the children are judged for what the father has done. Think back to the generational curse, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.” The logic is that a father’s sin carries judgement that is reaped by his children. The people of Israel in Ezekiel 18 have twisted this into blaming God for their sin, because they are trapped in an eternal cycle of sin begetting sin. However, God assures them that the blame lies on each one’s own shoulders. He says, “the soul who sins shall die.”
“Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be on himself.”
He explains further, saying, “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die.” In these verses, we remember the caveat of the generational curse, “of those who hate me.” Should one obey God, they are not counted as guilty, as they are only responsible for their own action. As a result, even in this, sin does not come from God but rather from the heart of the sinner. Even so, God is sovereign because he rules over the hearts of those he has created. We will see later, that it is his patience that allows us to sin for now. Unfortunately, our sin nature is such that David declares in Psalm 51, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” We totally depraved. Our sin nature has permeated us to the fullest extent. This is the result of the cosmic fracture caused by Adam’s sin. If like begets like, then we are all doomed.
Returning from that corollary, the third parallel is relative to human life, specifically the taking of human life. If I kill another human being, I take their life. That life is not my own, and I have no right to it, but I have taken it regardless. I have denied my equal fellow human the right to her own life. Furthermore, in the Christian worldview, it is God who created and granted that life, and I have taken it. So, in killing another human being, I have denied both she and God their rights, and that is called unjust. However, when God takes a life, he is taking what is already his. Furthermore, the Bible describes a condition of the universe in which all have sinned against a perfect and holy God, and so deserve death. For a further look at how sin deserves death, look back at our previous post. So, no matter the life, God has the indictment and condemnation to exercise the just sentence of eternal execution. No human maintains their right to life before our holy God. They all give up that right upon their first expression of their sin nature. Therefore, while my killing of a person is horrible and wrong, God taking a life rests perfectly within just exercise of wrath on a condemned world.
These parallels illustrate further how human justice does not bind the justice of God. What is wrong for me is not necessarily wrong for God, because he acts in proper order. The sovereignty of God has massive implications for what is just or unjust with God. Looking back to our case study, that island nation, so crushed under that tsunami, is not denied justice in their death or suffering. Rather, such things are actually what sinful man deserves according to Christian theology. It is actually cosmically just that they are wiped out. In fact, this could be expanded to the extreme. If today, in an instant, God decided that all would be not, that would be justice. The words of the author of Hebrews echo through the ages, saying, “For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” In this, Edwards was right:
“The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood. Thus all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether unexperienced light and life, are in the hands of an angry God.”
Do you, O man, desire justice? That is wrath and eternal damnation for you yourself. Yet, in the tension of Edward’s bowstring, there is hope. For Peter speaks to the coming fire, saying,
“But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”
It is the mere pleasure of God that prevents our undoing, and it certainly pleases him to postpone that day. Not that the day of judgement is being pushed back, for we know that “he has fixed a day on which he will judge the inhabited world in fairness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given proof to all by raising him from the dead.” Nevertheless, with every second that we remain, God is patient and has been patient. Paul describes his pleasure in being patient in Romans chapter 9, saying, “Now, if God, desiring to show his wrath and make known his power, has endured with much long-suffering vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, then he endured in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy which he has prepared beforehand for glory.” It is the will of God that by the mercy of God we partake in his grace, and this is for our glory and his.
At this point in the discussion, it is useful to stay in Romans, and follow Paul’s argument. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodly and unrighteous men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth (1:18).” Who are the unrighteous and ungodly? “No one is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God (3:10b-11).” As to their coming condemnation, “There is no fear of God before their eyes (3:18).” That condemnation is from the Law, because, “whatever the law says it speaks to those who are in the judgement of the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held guilty to God. For by works of the law no human flesh will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin (3:19-20).” So then, the wrath of God has been revealed,
“But the righteousness of God has been manifest apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – even the imputed righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and lack the glory of God, even though having been justified by his grace freely through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God publicly put forward as a mercy seat by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to publicly show God’s just administration, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to publicly demonstrate his just administration at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (3:21-26).”
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (5:1-2).” God was pleased to do this because of his love for us.
“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a generous person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, though whom we have now received reconciliation (5:6-11).”
The result is, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (8:1).”
“So then, brothers, we are obligators not to the self-vindicating flesh, to live according to the self-vindicating flesh. For if you live according to the self-vindicating flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoptions as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him, we account that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed (8:12-18).”
This future glory is the culmination of everything God has done; from making man, knowing that they would sin against him, to enduring the existence of sin, to sending Jesus Christ to die, suffer the wrath of God for sin, and be resurrected to defeat death, and to the continuing wait for the judgement day. All of it so that, “together you may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (15:6).” Creation itself waits eagerly for that glory. We too wait with bated breath. Maranatha! Come, Lord! So here we are. We have waded through the rocky waters of uncomfortable theology. We have seen how what we call calamity, God is still sovereign over, and is just even so. We have gazed into our own damnation and seen how doomed and rotten we are. We know that all we deserve is death, so it is just when it comes, and mercy when it doesn’t. We have seen God, for a moment, deny himself his righteous vengeance so that we may live. Do not lie to yourself or others, Christian, even if the world hates you and God for it. Indeed, we are promised it already hates God, and will hate you too. Do not try to explain away unfortunate events because you are uncomfortable with the reality of God’s sovereignty. Ask for the faith to trust in God’s will and promise of future glory. If you can, you will find a peace to stand on, a firm theological foundation: that God is just in all things, and his unchanging nature demands that he will always be. And let this promised judgement and looming condemnation stir in your heart compassion for lost humanity. Do not callously watch a dying world get what it deserves, but mourn sin. When calamity comes, mourn the loss of souls who have rejected their Creator. God was patient so that you could come to salvation, and there are others still that he desires. We, then, must win as many souls as we can. Knowing the judgement that awaits, we should feel a pit in our stomach and a fire in our bones. Woe to us if we do not preach the gospel!