By George W. Sarris
If I had a nickel for every time someone made the comment – God is not only loving. He is also just! – I would be a wealthy man.
People say that so often, and with such confidence and sometimes even condescension, that you would think that this one statement suddenly provides the final answer to all the questions, objections, and ethical dilemmas that result from a discussion about how God deals with mankind. The problem, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post, is that this idea suggests that God is somehow internally conflicted – that the loving and just elements of His character are somehow in conflict with each other.
However, God is not conflicted internally. The loving and just elements of His character are not at war with each other. His love is not in opposition to His justice. It was His justice working together with His love that led to Christ dying on the cross for our sins.
The concept of justice is often misunderstood. We tend to think of it as “getting even” or “making things even.” If someone does something bad to us, we will “get justice” by seeing that person punished. If we don’t have what we would like to have, we will “get justice” by making others pay their fair share.
Leviticus 24:19-21 is often brought up in support of this idea of justice -
If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution . . .
Punishment for sin and making restitution are definitely a part of the Biblical concept of justice. However, the purpose of that Levitical injunction was not to tell people how to “get even” – it was instituted to restrict excessive punishment or penalties at the hands of either an avenging private party or the state. Requiring a life for an eye, or a hand for stealing a loaf of bread, for example, is not just.
But the Biblical idea of justice actually goes much deeper. The Bible doesn’t just talk about “getting justice,” it talks about “doing justice.”
In Genesis 18:19, the LORD says of Abraham, “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice …” In Psalm 82:3, we are admonished to “Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.” Isaiah 56:1 – “Thus saith the LORD, Keep ye judgment, and do justice . . .”
Justice is not simply getting even or making things even. It is making things right. It is restoring things to what they should be.
Most people have never heard of George MacDonald. But, they have heard of someone whose life was deeply influenced by him.
George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish author, poet and minister. He is not as well known as CS Lewis, JRR Tolkein or Madeline L'Engle, but his fairy tales and fantasy novels were inspirational to those later writers. In fact, CS Lewis published a book of extracts from MacDonald's writings entitled, George MacDonald: An Anthology.
In the introduction to that book, Lewis wrote,
This collection, as I have said, was designed not to revive MacDonald's literary reputation but to spread his religious teaching. Hence most of my extracts are taken from the three volumes of Unspoken Sermons. My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another, and nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced it acknowledge that it has given them great help - sometimes indispensable help toward the very acceptance of the Christian faith. . . . I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself . . . . I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him my master, indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.
MacDonald approaches the issue of God's justice from a completely different perspective than most other writers. He uses an example of someone stealing a watch. If the thief is caught, dragged into court and convicted of his crime, MacDonald asks,
Have I had justice done me? The thief may have had justice done him – but where is my watch? That is gone, and I remain a man wronged. . . . Punishment of the guilty may be involved in justice, but it does not constitute the justice of God one atom more than it would constitute the justice of a man.
MacDonald understood that justice and restitution must go hand in hand. But, he went further. He was convinced that God's justice is intended to bring about a complete victory over sin and death - not simply to punish sin, but destroy it. He wrote:
Primarily, God is not bound to punish sin, he is bound to destroy sin. . . . For evil in the abstract, nothing can be done. It is eternally evil. But I may be saved from it by learning to loathe it, to hate it, to shrink from it with an eternal avoidance. The only vengeance worth having on sin is to make the sinner himself its executioner.
. . . Sin and suffering are not natural opposites, the opposite of evil is good, not suffering; the opposite of sin is not suffering, but righteousness. The path across the gulf that divides right from wrong is not the fire, but repentance. . . . The notion that the salvation of Jesus is a salvation from the consequences of our sins, is a false, mean, low notion. The salvation of Christ is salvation from the smallest tendency or leaning to sin. It is a deliverance into the pure air of God's ways of thinking and feeling. It is a salvation that makes the heart pure, with the will and choice of the heart pure.
The Power of Grace
The apostle Paul is an excellent example of what MacDonald was talking about. The “chief of sinners” became the “apostle to the Gentiles.” He was not simply punished. He was transformed by the grace of God. In his case, judgment led to transformation.
Some time ago, math textbook editor Diane Castro shared a profound insight into God’s grace. She asked, “Why shouldn't we believe that Jesus' redemptive work is more powerful and effective than Satan's destructive work?”
She went on to say:
Several years ago as I was working on a math book, I thought of an analogy that illustrates the verse ‘Where sin did abound, grace did much more abound.’ When I think about sin, it is so vast and overwhelming that its magnitude is on the scale of a googol – 10 to the 100th power, more than the number of elementary particles in the universe. A googol is a number that is so inconceivably huge that our minds cannot begin to grasp it.
But the magnitude of grace is like a googolplex – 10 to the googol power, 1 with a googol of zeros after it, a number that dwarfs a googol into nothingness. As I imagine God's grace extending to every human being and defeating all the effects of sin and restoring every relationship – that is a heaven I can get excited about!
That is ultimately what God’s justice is all about.