The world is a broken mess, and everywhere we turn it can seem like wicked men are thriving. In the words of the prophet: Why does the way of the wicked prosper (Jer. 12:1). It is tempting to look at our lives and wonder, where is God? How could he let this happen? Doesn’t He care? It’s tempting as well to think, “I must do something about this.” We are tempted to seek vengeance, take justice into our own hands, and punish those who have wronged us – and when we can’t punish them directly we punish others. We wonder, sometimes aloud, “is there any justice.” The Bible tells us that there is justice, and it is found in the person of God Himself. The justice of God becomes an encouragement to hope and correction to vengeance when used rightly in counseling situations.
God’s justice refers to his character of righteous judgment. As Moses declares:
The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. (Deut. 32:4)
God makes perfect judgments. He is never casual or callous in them. He never has oversights or failed rulings. He never has to overturn His decisions. Both His moral standard and His enforcement of that standard are righteous. He condemns the guilty and pardons the righteous.
Theologians speak of God’s justice in two senses: retributive and remunerative. In retributive, He pours out wrath and punishment on the wicked. As Romans 2:5-6 forewarns:
But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will render to each one according to his works
God’s justice means that no sin will go unpunished! On the reverse side, remunerative justice refers to God’s rewarding the righteous, showing favor to those who walk according to His statutes (Ps. 84:11; 85:9, 12; Matt. 6:33). We may rightly ask how the latter part of this view of justice can be applied to us when we consider that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The answer is found in the broader context of Romans 3:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
God is “just” in the sense that He condemns sin. He is “justifier” in the sense that He declares righteous all those who have trusted in Christ for payment of their sins. Remunerative justice, then, if found only in Christ.
In counseling the attribute of God’s justice can be applied both to sufferers and sinners. His justice on the one hand, warns us that all sin must be paid for. We cannot get away with anything. God’s justice will not turn a blind eye to even the slightest infraction. We must warn and be warned that God’s justice means He takes all sin seriously. We ought, then, to take it seriously too. As “Clark” faced charges on child molestation I warned him that man’s justice was important, but God’s justice had greater weight. He would do his time and pay his penalty to society, but He would still have to answer to God one day! The weight of this began to break through his hard exterior and to concern him as much as his earthly consequences. It was at that point that real repentance could begin for this man. In this case, however, God’s justice did not just mean something for the sinner, but for his victim too.
There is no way to undo the horrible tragedy of what happened to this little girl. But God’s justice could reassure her that what happened was wrong and would be dealt with. Man’s justice gave her reminders of God’s ultimate justice. She could relinquish bitterness and hatred because God would dish it out better than anyone else. She could forgive and make strides to move forward in her own life because God would deal with the wrong. This is a particularly difficult application of God’s justice for us. Because, after all, we still experience the consequences of another person’s sin, and it is tempting to think that because we experience ongoing consequences they too must experience ongoing consequences. Of course in this little girl’s case, her violator would experience some level of ongoing consequence. But it still seems insufficient, and what about those who don’t even have legal recourse to fall back on? We ought to consider how God deals out His justice.
How does God deal with sin? In one of two ways: Calvary or hell. Either sin will be paid for by sinners in eternal hell or it is paid for, in full, by Jesus at the cross. The reality of both means of justice can be an encouragement to sufferers. On the one hand we don’t have to take vengeance into our hands. We don’t have to hold onto bitterness and hurt because God will deal with it. Sometimes in this life, but always in the next. We should always pursue appropriate legal and ecclesiological consequences where relevant – God’s justice does not mean we don’t have the right to prosecute criminal offenses – but we are free to relinquish, then, our own sense of vengeance and punishment. God will deal with every sinner.
We are also free to believe that even a wicked person can change. We are free to hope in their forgiveness from God. We don’t have to hold onto bitterness and hurt because we know that God can justly forgive even the worst of sinners. Of course, a person’s salvation does not absolve them of earthly consequences and they should still be prosecuted for criminal offenses, yet we are, once again, free to relinquish our demand for vengeance when we know that God has forgiven them.
We must remind ourselves that we all deserve God’s justice. We are tempted sometimes in this life to harbor bitterness and resentment against those who have wronged us. There is great understanding for this temptation. Bitterness is the difficult terrain that rises up between the hills of suffering and sin. It can be difficult as counselors to address this area because we recognize real hurt has been caused, and yet real sin is taking place in response to that hurt. Pointing to God’s justice is important because it humbles us all. We all deserve the retributive justice of God. But, as Brad Hambrick has written:
[God] delights more in repentance as a means to restoration (Calvary) than in punishment as a means to moral satisfaction (hell). (God’s Attributes, 28)
God desires that all would come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). He has given us that chance, and He extends that same offer to even those who wrong us. We want to be willing, then, to forgive and surrender our own sense of justice to let God deal justice in His perfect and sufficient way.
The attribute of God’s justice helps us all, as both sufferers and sinners. We are free to relinquish our demands for a “pound of flesh,” because we know that the just judge of all the universe always deals rightly (Gen. 18:25). We may not always understand the exercise of His justice, but we can count on it. Furthermore, if we are believers in Christ we have enjoyed the blessing of His justice through Jesus Christ who paid for all our sins, even our grossest ones. God is just and this holds out exquisite hope for our hurt and our sin.