The Justice Of God

Adapted From A Sermon By

George Burder

Just and upright is he.

Deuteronomy 32:4

As we continue to consider the attributes of God, adapted from sermons by George Burder, we come this morning to The Justice of God.

Justice, among men, is giving to every one his due; and the importance of doing so is acknowledged by every honest man. It is easy to see that there could be no safety nor happiness in society, if justice was disregarded. If there are any who do not approve of the administration of justice, it is probable that they themselves are unjust. The character of a judge may not be very amiable in the eyes of a criminal prisoner, and he may not look forward to the approaching court date with any degree of pleasure; he would perhaps be willing to dispense with the whole system of justice in our laws, because he is exposed to the punishment which those laws require; but honest and virtuous men highly approve of the execution of justice. They regulate all their affairs, in their dealings with men, by a regard to justice; and they wish to be treated in the same way by their neighbors.

This general regard to justice, this tribute of mankind to its excellence, leads us naturally to conclude that it must have the endorsement of divine authority, and that it must be a perfection of the divine nature; and we could as easily conceive of a God without power, or a God without goodness as of a God without justice. We are not left, however, to the mere conjectures or conclusions of reason; we have the fullest authority from God’s own word, to assure us that he is perfectly just. The assertion is made in the text, which is taken from the song of Moses; not that which was sung immediately after the passage of Israel through the Red Sea, but that which he uttered just before his death, and solemnly delivered to the people. He begins the sacred ode by ascribing glory to God; first, the glory of his greatness; and then, in our verse, the glory of is justice and righteousness.

By the justice of God, we understand that universal uprightness of his nature whereby in his government of the world he does all things with perfect righteousness giving to every one his due.

1. We are to consider God, not only as the Maker and Preserver of men, but as their Governor also.

He who made man, and endowed him with all his wonderful powers, has an undoubted right to prescribe laws for his conduct, and to enforce the laws which he prescribes by sufficient penalties, by rewards and punishments, as in his infinite wisdom he sees fit; and in so doing he takes into account the good of his creatures, as well as his own glory; for as the peace and order of society cannot be maintained without the proper enforcement of human laws, so we cannot conceive of the preservation of the divine government, without laws worthy of a wise, holy, and just God.

This right seems to have been exercised towards Adam at his creation. Besides the moral law, the substance of which is love to God and man, and which was written on his heart, a positive law was given to him as the test of his obedience. One particular tree, though as pleasant to the eyes and as good for food as the others, was forbidden, and that on pain of death; for this positive law was armed with a dreadful penalty—“for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17)

In similar ways, God has given laws to all mankind. For many ages they were handed down from father to son, and afterwards renewed to the Jews (and through them to a great part of the world) in an awful way at Sinai; and where men do not have this written law, they have, as the apostle Paul assures us, a law in themselves, “the work of the law written on their hearts, while their conscience (more or less informed) accuse or even excuse them,” according as they observe it or break it. (Romans 2)

Now the law which God has given to man, is worthy of himself. It is said, in Romans 7:12, to be “holy and righteous and good;” it requires nothing but what God may justly demand of man; nothing but what we ought to pay: for can anything be more reasonable, than that we should love the supreme good in a supreme manner; and, loving him, should abstain from what he forbids, and perform what he requires; especially when both would be for our advantage, our safety, and our happiness; and when disobedience would only lead to our everlasting destruction? And so, as the apostle wrote “the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.” (Romans 7:10) Words that should ring in our own ears. For now, sadly! man is a fallen creature: fallen in Adam, the first sinner; and is no longer able to obey the law as he ought. God, however, has not lost his right to command. His law, like himself, is unchangeable; and if not obeyed, exposes the sinner to his just and awful displeasure.

2. We observe then, in the next place, that God is just in punishing disobedience to his holy law.

As he armed the law of Paradise, with that dreadful threatening, “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) so he arms the moral law with a terrible curse, as it is written “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Galatians 3:10) Notice who is referred to: one who does not perform all things, one who does not continue to perform them all, without omitting one, without a single failure in thought, word, or deed; and, that this is the meaning of the passage, appears from another text in James 2:10 “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”

The law, has not relaxed its demands because of the fall and frailty of man. Some have pretended that now sincere obedience is all that is required instead of perfect obedience; but this notion has no foundation in Scripture, and has a strong tendency to encourage sin; for most men, however sinful, flatter themselves that they are sincere, though imperfect. It is not by reducing the demands of the law, that a sinner is entitled to entertain the hope of salvation; but by looking to him whom the Gospel sets before us as “the end of the law for righteousness,” (Romans 10:4) who has “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” (Galatians 3:13)

But the law itself gives no hope: it may convince; it must condemn; and it leaves everyone who seeks salvation by obedience to it under its fearful curse. The apostle Paul therefore justly concludes that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse;” (Galatians 3:10) and, “that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God... since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” It is by the Gospel, and not by the law, that we obtain the knowledge of Christ, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood; so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:19, 20-26)

3. If we consult the Scriptures, we will find that God has displayed his justice, in many awful instances, by the punishment of sinners.

The rebel angels were expelled from Heaven; they are awful monuments of his justice already; and will be made visibly such in the judgment of the great day. What a dreadful change did sin bring about in our world! See Adam cast out from Paradise; the earth cursed for his sake; the man doomed to severe labor; the woman to multiplied sorrows; the creature “subjected to futility;” (Romans 8:20) and trouble, sickness, and death, like a mighty flood, overwhelming all mankind.

When men had multiplied on the earth, sadly sin seems to have increased in proportion to their numbers: and wickedness rose to such a daring height, that Justice could no longer stay silent, but opened the windows of Heaven and poured universal destruction on a guilty world.

At another time, fire from Heaven consumed the wicked inhabitants of Sodom; and the sword of Israel was the instrument of divine justice in the destruction of the wicked Canaanites. Israel herself, highly favored as she was of God, could not escape his chastising hand, but always suffered when she sinned. It was divine justice that armed the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans, and made them the severe punishers of an ungrateful and backsliding nation. In the same way, nation after nation, in their turn, having filled up the several measures of their iniquities, have declined and perished. Men ascribed their fall to the ambition of a neighboring conqueror; but the real cause was predominant sin, punished by the sword of divine justice.

It is true that God does not always execute immediate justice on every transgressor; but this is no stain on that perfection, although it be abused by some: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.” (Ecclesiastes 8:11) It is possible that the freedom with which some outrageous rebels seem to sin, may stumble even believers themselves; who cry, in the perplexity of their spirit, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper!” (Jeremiah 12:1) “O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult!” (Psalms 94:3) But they should remember that the Judge of all the earth will certainly do right. Sometimes the wicked may be spared as instruments of public good. Contrary to their intentions, they may eventually bring about the purposes of Heaven. Besides, the present is a state of probation. God is giving them “time and space for repentance,” (Revelation 2:21) and if they do not repent, his arm that delays to strike, will fall with a heavier blow in the future; and patience abused, will aggravate their future punishment.

Often, however, the great God convinces the world that he has not relinquished the government of it. His vengeance falls heavily on some notorious rebels. Violent persecutors have sometimes been remarkably cut off. Evildoers have often been surprisingly found out. Liars, and those who have called God to witness their falsehoods, have been suddenly destroyed; and Conscience, awakened and terrified, has frequently taken on the role of accusers, witnesses, judge, and executioner. And indeed, “The Lord has made himself known; he has executed judgment.” (Psalm 9:16) “Surely there is a God who judges on earth.” (Psalm 58:11)

And the operation of conscience itself, in general, is striking evidence of the Justice of God. Why else is it that one feels pleasure when one has performed a good action, and pain when one has committed a bad one? Conscience, like the grand jury in a court of law, examines the accusation that is afterwards to be publicly tried, and frequently anticipates too the fatal results of the trial. And although there are instances in which good men are exercised with heavy afflictions, and others in which bad men enjoy abundant prosperity, yet it is certain that, that which is good tends to good, and that which is evil tends to evil. Wisdom’s ways are ways of pleasantness; (Proverbs 3:17) “godliness is great gain;” (1 Timothy 6:6) “Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.” (Proverbs 3:16) A life of virtue and religion tends to health, wealth, and long life; while, on the other hand, vice and ungodliness as powerfully tend to disease, poverty, shame, and death; and this wise distribution of things is a standing evidence of the justice of God.

4, But the most moving display of divine justice was made in the sufferings and death of our Savior Jesus Christ.

In fact, this was the main purpose of the death of Christ. When all men had “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God;” (Romans 3:23) when they had dishonored his holy law by their disobedience—in what way could the honor of God be restored? If justice alone takes its course, the sentence of death must be executed, and every transgressor receive the wages of his sin; but if mercy steps in, and spares the guilty, what becomes of the justice of God?

Here divine wisdom steps in, and provides equally for the glory of justice and of mercy. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son" (John 3:16) —“He did not spare his own Son;” (Romans 8:32) “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities... the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5) And why was this done? The apostle Paul says, it was “to show his righteousness;” and so to convince all the world that he is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:26) And so in this way a just and holy God “condemned sin in the flesh” (of his own Son) “that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.” (Isaiah 53:5; Romans 3:25; and 8:3)

On this ground, God will appear to be just, as well as merciful, in pardoning and justifying the believer in Jesus. On this ground it is said, concerning the penitent and believing sinner, “Deliver him from going down into the pit; I have found a ransom.” (Job 33:24) In this way Grace is exalted to the highest degree, but not at the expense of justice; both are exalted together; as the apostle says we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24)

If pardon for the greatest of sinners could not be obtained, how would it appear that God is infinitely merciful? But if pardon were bestowed without any accounting for sin, how would it appear that God is infinitely just? But when God is pleased to punish sin in the person of his dear Son, and in consequence of the honor done to his law thereby, he is pleased to pardon and save the guilty: abundant provision appears to be made for the glory both of justice and mercy; and so, “Grace reigns,” but it “reigns through righteousness,”—through the justice of God in punishing sin, and the righteousness of Jesus Christ, the glorious sufferer. (Romans 5:21)

On this foundation, the vilest sinners, the greatest offenders, being penitent, may hope for mercy; for “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins;” not for the merit of repentance, as some falsely conclude, but because “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin,” as the apostle John says (1 John 1: 7, 9) and as he affirms immediately after, “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 John 2:1) And he tells us on what grounds this powerful Advocate pleads for our pardon; this immediately follows: “He is the propitiation for our sins,” (1 John 2:2)

He does not, therefore, plead for mere mercy: he pleads the price paid, the ransom laid down, the death endured; and the covenant, the promise, and the oath of the Father made with and to him, in behalf of all who were given to him, redeemed by him, and who apply to him for salvation. “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory.” (John 6:37, John 17:24)

And so we have seen that God is infinitely just. Let us then “ascribe righteousness to our Maker.” (Job 36:3) His ways may sometimes appear to be mysterious, but never let his justice be suspected. “Is there injustice on God's part? By no means!” (Romans 9:14) “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25) Beyond doubt. When he corrects his children, when he punishes his enemies, we ought to say, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations.” (Revelation 15:3)

If God is just, we may certainly conclude that there will be a day of judgment. If God is just, “it shall be well with the righteous; it shall be ill with the wicked.” (Isaiah 3:10, 11) If God is just, then “whatever one sows, that will he also reap,” (Galatians 6:7) and every man will receive according to his works. If so, there must be a day of judgment—the day of “wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Romans 2:5)

At present, wicked men may escape punishment, for this is the day of God’s patience, and our trial. But such are the inconsistencies of the present state of things, that there has to be a day of settling, a day of retribution. The daring offender should not flatter himself that he will escape. If the young man “rejoice in his youth, and he walk in the ways of his heart, and in the sight of his eyes,” let him know this—that “for all these things God will bring him into judgment.” (Ecclesiastes 11:9) Awake then, fear God and cease sinning, for he will bring every work and thought into judgment, whether it is good or bad. If sinners would escape the punishment of their sin, let them believe the Gospel, and take refuge in Christ. There is no way to safely approach this just and Holy God, without a Mediator; but through him, who has glorified divine justice by his obedience to death, the greatest sinners may be accepted.

If God is glorious in his justice, it will be our honor to imitate him. “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.” (1 John 2:29) If justice requires us to give every one his due, let us endeavor to be just both towards God and man. Let us “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” (Mark 12:17) He who gives us all our powers, requires that we should give him our hearts. And so constrained by the mercies of God, let us present to him our whole selves, body and soul, time, talents, and influence, a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is our reasonable service.

Let us also be just to men. The great, the golden, the divine rule of conduct is, “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” (Matthew 7:12) “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” (Romans 13:7) God hates dishonesty, deceit, and oppression; “Unequal weights are an abomination to the Lord;” (Proverbs 20:23) but “to do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to him than sacrifice.” (Proverbs 21:3) God rejected the fasts of the Jews, as solemn mockeries, because they did not “loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free.” (Isaiah 58:6) Nor would he accept of their offerings, until “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) In vain do tradesmen and workmen, white-collar and blue-collar workers, profess a regard to the Gospel, unless they adorn the holy doctrine by a holy life; a leading characteristic of which is to act uprightly and conscientiously. Let no man then “transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things.” (1 Thessalonians 4:6)

Finally, let us rely on the justice of God. The justice of God is engaged on the behalf of believers, as well as his mercy. By the righteousness of Christ, justice is fully satisfied, and has no demands to make on the believer; and if we confess our sins, “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) He is pleased to bind himself by his own free promises, and will assuredly be just in fulfilling them. Therefore it is written, “God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name.” (Hebrews 6:10) He will do right. There is now much evil and injustice and always has been in the world. But every wrong, private, domestic, or public, will be exposed in the great day. Then no wrong will be thought too small to engage his attention, none too great to escape his justice. Let this encourage the oppressed to be patient under their wrongs: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19) He will “work righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.” (Psalm 103:6) He will “avenge blood” and “not forget the cry of the afflicted.” (Psalm 9:12)

Let the justice of God reconcile his people to all their afflictions. The King of Heaven can do no wrong; “the Lord does no injustice.” (Zephaniah 3:5) Are we punished or chastised? Let us say with holy Daniel, “To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame: the Lord has kept ready the calamity and has brought it upon us, for the Lord our God is righteous in all the works that he has done, and we have not obeyed his voice.” (Daniel 9:7, 14) He is “justified in his words; he is blameless in his judgment.” (Psalm 51:4)

From the justice of God, let his people expect a full accomplishment of all the gracious promises on which he has caused them to hope. “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;” (Psalm 58:11) —a reward of grace, not of debt. None will ever be losers by him. If they “suffer for righteousness’ sake;” (1 Peter 3:14) if “men revile them, and persecute them, and say all manner of evil against them, falsely, for his sake, blessed are they; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:11) If they pray in secret, if they fast in private, if they give but a cup of cold water to a disciple of Christ, they will by no means lose their reward.

Take courage, then, humble followers of Christ; be patient until the coming of our Lord; “do not grow weary of doing good;” (Galatians 6:9) “fight the good fight;” (1 Timothy 6:12) persevere in your course; keep the faith; for “henceforth there is laid up for you the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award you on that day;” (2 Timothy 4:8) and then will an assembled world be constrained to say, He is “the Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” (Deuteronomy 32:4)