Justice of God
JUSTICE OF GOD
The concept of God's justice is discussed here as it evolved in the Bible and as it has been developed in Christian theology.
In the Old Testament. In ordinary usage one thinks of the "justice of God," as either vindictive justice, that is, the justice whereby God punishes sinners, or as distributive justice, that is, the justice by which he both punishes sinners and rewards the just. However, the Hebrew concept of justice must be clearly discerned lest one read modern notions into it. Therefore we must examine the Hebrew word ṣedâíâh (justice or righteousness) and its relationship to ḥesed (loyalty) and ‘ĕmet (fidelity).
The use of parallelism in the Old Testament poetry makes it often quite clear what words these writers considered to be synonymous. Thus, the consoling message of Deutero-Isaiah (40–66) justice (ṣedâíâh ) and salvation (tešûcâ ) appear quite frequently together. God is said to be "a just and saving God" (Is 45.21) or "I am bringing on my justice, it is not far off, my salvation shall not tarry" (Is 46.13, also 51.5). In the Psalms God's justice is often paralleled or associated with his salvation, his truth or fidelity and his mercy (Ps 35,36.6–7, 39,40.11, 70,71.15, 102,103.17). In both Deutero-Isaiah and the Psalms God's justice, equivalent by parallelism to his salvation, is described as something to be revealed (Ps 97,98.2). This understanding is important for the interpreting the Letter to the Romans.
In the Old Testament the justice of God is often bestowed on the just man, whereas the wrath of God is reserved for the sinner. Thus Mi 7.9 states: "The wrath of the Lord I will endure because I have sinned against him. He will bring me forth to the light; I will see his justice." In Ps 84 and 85 such terms as wrath, anger, vexation (v. 3–5) are opposed to such terms as kindness, truth, peace, salvation and justice (v. 9–11).
In the Old Testament, then, the justice of God is neither vindictive nor distributive but salvific, and it is founded upon God's covenantal commitment to Israel. God is just in that he is abidingly faithful to his freely made promises of salvation and deliverance. Hence such terms as justice, salvation, fidelity and truth are easily interchanged in the Old Testament (Ps 97,98.2–3, Dt 32.4).
In the New Testament. Within the Old Testament the messianic era was foreseen as the establishment of God's perfect salvific justice (Is 9.6, 11.3–9; Jer 23.6). Yet, within the New Testament, it is limited, almost exclusively, to the Letter to the Romans (see Mk 1.15 with Is 40.13). While Paul discusses a common theme in both Galatians and Romans, the concept of justice does not appear in the former. Because Paul was writing to the Galatians within the polemical atmosphere of the Judaizers, he probably avoided the term "justice" since, within contemporary Jewish thought, it had come to assume the connotation of the impartial distribution of rewards and punishments in accordance with legal norms. Instead he uses ἐπαγγελία (promise) (see Gal 3–4) for the basis of the gratuitous gift of salvation. Nonetheless, from within the Old Testament environment one can readily equate "promises of God" (Galatians) with "justice of God" (Romans). There are five principal texts to be considered in Rom 1.17; 3.5, 21–22, 25–26; 10.3. Luther interpreted Rom 1.7 to denote that attribute of God whereby he is just and punishes the sins of the unjust. However, such an interpretation is dubious.
Rom 1.17 is placed within the context of God being faithful to his covenantal promise of salvation, whereby God vindicates his justice. In this verse the justice (δικαιούνη) of God is revealed in the preaching of the gospel. Moreover, in Rom 1.18 the "wrath [ὀργή] of God" is likewise "revealed." In accordance with the Old Testament this places Rom 1.17–18 in continuity with the distinction of justice as salvific deliverance and wrath as God's justice against "all ungodliness and wickedness."
Rom 3.5: "But if our wickedness shows forth the justice of God … is God unjust to inflict wrath on us?" This verse is again placed within convenantal theology. Even if Israel does not remain faithful, God will not break his bond. Israel's infidelity will serve only to make God's fidelity even more merciful. Thus Paul establishes three antitheses: infidelity – fidelity (3.3); injustice – justice (3.5); and falsehood – truth (3.7). Once again the justice of God is his fidelity and truth to his covenantal promises despite the infidelity of man, which, of course, begets his wrath.
Rom 3.21-22: "But now the justice of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the justice of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe." Thus God's justice is manifested negatively "apart from the law" and yet positively "through faith in Jesus Christ." In3.20 Paul alludes to Ps 142,143.2 where justice is used in the sense of salvific deliverance, for it is parallel to fidelity and opposed to divine judgement. Once again, then, Paul uses the term in its foundational Old Testament sense of divine covenantal fidelity for salvation.
Rom 3.25–26: "… Christ Jesus, whom God has put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's justice, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is just and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus." This text has always caused exegetical difficulties, especially because of the enigmantic phrase that God "had passed over [τὴν πάρεσιν] former sins." The Old Testament usage elucidates the phrase and its context. God and man were bound together in a covenantal bond, but man broke his side of the covenant by sin and therefore nullified the entire relationship. Yet God did not allow man's sin to free him from his own commitment. Rather, he "passed over" these sins, not in regard to punishment, but in regard to covenant nullification. He himself remained faithful and even merciful. His fidelity showed the greatness of his own justice in bringing man the promised salvation even after man's repudiation of its advent by the sins of covenant infidelity. Such salvation, indeed, is precisely to give man a share in the divine justice so that man himself now remains in an eternal covenant with God through Christ. God's justice was manifested through the expiation of sin through the blood of Jesus and so believers are justified, that is, acquire the justice of God, through faith in him.
Rom 10.3–4: "For, being ignorant of the justice that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's justice. For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified." Again, the Old Testament meaning of God's justice is evident in these verses. The Pharisaic attempt to obtain salvation by works of the Law showed that they did not understand the salvation (the justice of God) offered to them by God, that is, salvation initiated only by the gratuitous gift of God and accepted through faith. Therefore they did not submit to the justice of God, that is, his salvific deliverance now made manifest in Christ and accepted in faith.
In both the Old Testament and Paul the primary meaning of divine justice is God's merciful fidelity to his promises. This finds its culmination in Jesus Christ through whom the justice of God is revealed and through whom the believer is made just. However, for those who refuse the justice of God through Jesus Christ, God's just wrath will come upon them at the end of time (Rv 16.5–7;19.2).
See Also: justification; redemption (in the bible); retribution; grace (in the bible).
Bibliography: r. adamiah, Justice and History in the Old Testament (Cleveland 1982). r. b. hays, s.v. "Justification," The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York 1992). s. lyonnet, "De 'Iustitia Dei' in Ep. Ad Rom," Verb Dom, 25 (1947) 23–34, 118–121, 129–144, 193–203, 257–263. j. piper, The Justification of God (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1983). j. ruwet, "Misericordia et Justitia Dei in V.T.," Verb Dom, 24 (1947) 35–42, 89–98.
[d. m. crossan/
t. g. weinandy]
In Theology. Within systematic theology there are four interrelated notions of the justice of God. The first pertains to God's perfection in that he is perfectly just in himself. Thus the justice of God is the absence and impossibility of any moral disorder within himself. God's justice is thus equivalent to his infinite holiness and perfect goodness (Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I.21.1.ad 3 and 4). (see holiness of god).
Secondly, the justice of God in himself is the foundation and cause of the justice or righteousness within sinful humankind. Augustine states that as God shares his wisdom with humankind, because he is wisdom itself, so also he, who is just in himself, gives to humankind justice "when he justifies the godless (Rom 4.5)" (De Trin. 14.15). The Council of Trent, quoting Augustine, declares the same: "The only formal cause [of our justification] is 'the justice of God, not the justice by which he is himself just, but the justice by which he makes us just"' (Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 1529). Or again: "The justice that is said to be ours because it inheres in us is likewise God's justice because he has put it in us through the merit of Christ" (Denzinger 1546) (see justification).
Thirdly, the theological concept of God's justice is most broadly applied to God's action towards creation and particularly towards human beings in so far as he renders to each and all their due. Aquinas designates this "retributive justice" or "commutative justice." As a ruler or the head of a family justly gives to each member what is due, "so the order of the universe, which is manifest in both physical nature and in beings endowed with a will, shows forth God's justice" (S.T., I.21.1). Aquinas approvingly quotes Dionysius: "We must need see that God is truly just in seeing how he gives to all existing things what is proper to the condition of each; and preserves the nature of each one in the order and with the powers that properly belong to it" (Div. Nom., 8.4). Thus God "exercises justice when he gives to each thing what is due to it by its nature and condition" (S.T., I.21.1.ad3). God's justice then is placed within his overall providential and orderly care for the whole of creation.
Fourthly, God's justice pertains to his response to the free moral actions of human beings. God "will render to every man according to his works" (Rom 2.6; see Mt 16.27). "For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love which you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do" (Heb 6.10). Thus, "God rewards those who seek him (Heb 11.6, see Denzinger, 2122). Paul, having kept the faith, is confident that "henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing" (2 Tm 4.6–7, see Denzinger 1545). Aquinas states: "Justice, therefore, in God is sometimes spoken of as the fitting accompaniment of his goodness; sometimes as the reward of merit" (S.T.,I.21.1.ad 3). He then equally approves Anselm's statement: "When you punish the wicked, it is just, since it agrees with their deserts; and when you spare the wicked, it is also just; since it befits your goodness" (Pros., 10). The magisterium more often refers to God's justice as the punishment due to sin than to the reward due to merit (see Denzinger, 621, 1672, 2216, 3781). Augustine states that God "can condemn no one without demerits, because he is just" (C. Julian. 3.18.35). Yet he also speaks of God's justice with regard to the retribution of both good and evil—"making good or bad use of their free will, they are judged most justly" (Spir. et litt. 33.58); or of the reward to be rendered for merits that the just judge will render (see Grat. et lib. arb. 6.14). Moreover, it should be noted that God's justice is not arbitrary. God justly rewards those who have freely cooperated with his grace and he justly, depending upon the seriousness of the sin, punishes or even condemns unrepentant sinners, for sin itself justly demands such condemnation which God justly sanctions (see Aquinas, S.C.G., 3.140). Within our sinful world the misuse of power, or greed, or lust, or hatred and prejudice cause horrendous and appalling injustice by violating the authentic dignity and just rights of human beings. Because this world's justice cannot possibly make right such injustices, Christians look then to the day when Jesus will come in glory for finally he will redress all wrongs and set all things right. All will proclaim: "Just are you in these your judgments … true and just are your judgments" (Rv 16.5–7, 19.2). God's justice will then reign forever.
God's justice does not conflict with his mercy, nor does his mercy diminish his justice. Both are part of God's absolute goodness. Aquinas states: "The communicating of perfections, absolutely considered, appertains to goodness; in so far as perfections are given to things in proportion, the bestowal of them belongs to justice…; in so far as God does not bestow them for his own use, but only on account of his goodness, it belongs to liberality; in so far as perfections given to things by God expel defects, it belongs to mercy" (S.T., I.21.3). Justice demands mercy. "The Lord does deeds of justice … He knows of what we are made, he remembers that we are dust" (Ps 102/103.6, 14). God's justice demands that he act mercifully towards sinners and his mercy is always enacted in accordance with his justice. Thus, the Father, in his loving mercy, sent his Son into the world not to condemn it but that those who believe might rightfully possess eternal life (Jn 3.16–17). In mercy God justly condemned sin through the cross of Christ so that human-kind might be justified through faith in him (Rom3.21–26). Aquinas holds that "mercy does not destroy justice, but in a sense is the fullness thereof" (S.T.,I.21.3.ad 2). God mercifully renders to humankind more than it justly merits and he mercifully punishes human-kind less than it justly deserves (see S.T., I.21.4 and ad1). (see mercy of god)
See Also: judgment, divine (in the bible); judgment, divine (in theology); punishment; sanction; sanction, divine; god, articles on.
Bibliography: t. aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I.21; Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.140. b. davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford 1992). h. kÜng, Justification (New York 1964).
[t. g. weinandy]