Dr. Richard L. Strauss
December 9, 1979
"One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Justice for all. That statement from the pledge of allegiance to our flag expresses this nation's desire to give every human being—regardless of race, color, creed, sex, or social standing—fair and equal treatment. One of the purposes for the US Constitution as stated in its preamble is to "establish justice," that is, to provide every individual in our country with equal rights before the law, without partiality or favoritism.
Some people feel that we have failed to achieve that goal. They point to the blatant inequities and injustices such as people with money, power, or position securing more favored treatment before the law than the poor, the friendless, and the obscure. Or they enumerate examples of discrimination against minorities and against women that they feel persist in our society.
Most all of us believe that we have been treated unjustly at times, and some with good reason. Maybe we have been blamed for things we haven't done, denied things we feel we deserve, overlooked when we should have been recognized, or have otherwise suffered unfairly.
Lt. Peter Chmelir (pronounced Ka-mill-er) knows about that. His story appeared in Reader's Digest (October 1979, p. 152). He was about to be discharged from the Navy as unfit for duty by virtue of drug abuse, yet had had not taken any drugs. While he had all the symptoms, he insisted that he was innocent. His wife finally had a lab analysis done on some clothing that had been saturated with a mysterious substance while he was traveling by plane from San Diego to Pensacola. He had noticed the substance on his suitcase when he lifted it off the conveyor belt at the airport, but decided not to lodge a complaint because an old friend was waiting for him in a limited parking space.
The substance proved to be PCP—angel dust—a deadly drug that affected him whenever he wore the clothing, even after several washings. The Navy doctors accused him of lying, ignored his lab report, and recommended his discharge. Only the last minute intervention of an Admiral who looked into the case saved his career. Authorities surmised that the angel dust leaked from an illegal shipment in the airplane baggage compartment. The seven-month nightmare of agony and depression was over and justice was finally served.
Some have not been quite so fortunate, however. They have lost their jobs, their friends, their spouses, and in some cases, their lives—unjustly. Some have languished in prisons for crimes they never committed. Others have starved to death in crowded refugee camps, or died of diseases they contracted through no fault of their own? Where is the justice in all of that?
We believe in a sovereign God who controls all things. On one occasion He said, "There is no other God besides Me, a just God and a Savior" (Isaiah 45:21b, KJV).
He says He is a just God. How can a just God allow injustices to exist?
We read on in our Bibles and learn that people who have not trusted Christ as Savior from sin are condemned to eternal separation from God—even if they have never heard the message of Christ. And we may protest rather indignantly, "How can a just God allow that?" Maybe we need to find out what God's justice is all about.
1. The Meaning of God's Justice
The most common Old Testament word for just means literally "straight" (tsaddiq), and the New Testament word means literally "equal" (dikaios). But in a moral sense they both mean "right."
When we say that God is just we are saying that He always does what should be done, what is right. And He does it consistently, without partiality or prejudice. You may be surprised to learn that the word just and the word righteous are identical in the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Sometimes the translators render the original word "just" and the other times "righteous," with no apparent reason (see Nehemiah 9:8 and 9:33--same word). But whichever word they use, it means essentially the same thing. When applied to God, it has to do with His actions.
God's actions are always fair and right.
God's righteousness (or justice) is the natural expression of His holiness. If God is infinitely pure, then He must be opposed to all sin, and they opposition to sin must be demonstrated in His treatment of His creatures that He created. When we read that God is righteous or just, we are being assured that His actions toward His creatures are in perfect agreement with His holy nature.
Moses taught his people the correlation between these two great truths about God:
“He is the Rock, His works are perfect, and all His ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is He” (Deuteronomy 32:4).
In the same sentence, God is shown to be both just and without iniquity. Those words are crammed right up against each other because they go together. Because God is holy, He's going to treat His creatures in accordance with that holiness.
The prophet Zephaniah warned the sinful nation of his day:
"The Lord within her is righteous; He does no wrong. Morning by morning he dispenses His justice, and every new day He does not fail, yet the unrighteous know no shame" (Zephaniah 3:5).
The same truth is evident. God's holiness and His justice are closely related attributes.
Because God is righteous and just, He has established moral government in the world, laid down principles which are holy and good, then added consequences for violation those principles which are fair and just. Furthermore, He is totally impartial in administering His government. He doesn't condemn innocent people or let guilty people go free.
Peter says He is a God "who without respect of persons judges according to every man's work" (1 Peter 1:17).
Illustrations abound in Scripture. For example, when Ezra the scribe returned to Israel after the Babylonian captivity, he was distressed to find that the people had intermarried with the unbelieving inhabitants of the land. He was appalled at their sin and proceeded then to lead them in a great prayer of confession enumerating the discipline they had experienced. He concluded his prayer like this:
"O Lord God of Israel, You are righteous," [there is our word, right there] "for we have been left an escaped remnant, as it is this day; behold, we are before You in our guilt, for no one can stand before You because of this" (Ezra 9:15, NASB).
God is fair. His discipline is never more severe than the sin deserves. He allowed them to remain as an escaped remnant in spite of their disobedience.
Turn now to the book of Daniel. While Ezra ministered to the people who had returned from exile, Daniel ministered during the exile. He knew from Jeremiah's prophecy that the captivity was to last 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11), but he was concerned lest the nation's disobedience prolong it. He also offered a great prayer of confession and he made this statement:
"The Lord did not hesitate to bring the disaster on us, for the Lord our God is righteous” [there’s our word] “in everything He does; yet we have not obeyed Him" (Daniel 9:14).
All calamity is not necessarily discipline for sin, but we can be sure that if it is, it will be uniquely tailored to our particular situation by an infinitely wise God to teach us the lessons we need to learn. God is perfectly fair. What He does is right.
As the Psalmist put it, "The Lord is righteous in all His ways, and holy in all His works" (Psalm 145:17, KJV). We can never accuse God of injustice. Everything He does is fair.
2. The Requirements of God's Justice
If God is truly just, and always acts in harmony with His holy nature, then He must show His displeasure with and opposition to sin. He’s got to. He must punish sin wherever it exists. He cannot enact a law, threaten a penalty, then take no action when the law is broken. He can't do that if He's holy and just. The Bible makes that quite clear. God "will by no means clear the guilty" (Exodus 34:7). "The soul that sins, it shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4). "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23).
God promises, "indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that does evil" (Romans 2:8-9). That's a promise. And any violation of God's infinitely holy nature demands an infinite punishment. So eternal condemnation can be the only just penalty for sin. Eternal. That is, punishment to an infinite degree.
But God takes no pleasure in punishing the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). It is simply the necessary response to what is contrary to His holy nature. It is His wrath. Now His wrath is not anger like ours. God's wrath is simply the calm administration of His justice. But because He loves sinners and finds no delight in punishing them and exercising His wrath against them, He has devised a plan by which they can be delivered from the just penalty of their sin. That plan is the punishment of a substitute.
You say, "Well, that doesn’t sound very just." Well, think about it. Justice would allow one person to substitute for another so long as no injustice is done to the rights of any person involved (Shedd, I, 373). And there wasn't. God the Son (Jesus) voluntarily offered Himself to die in our place; God the Father didn’t make Him do it. And when He did, God's justice was forever satisfied.
I'd like you to turn to Romans 3, where this doctrine is clearly defined for us. God's justice was forever satisfied.
"Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed" (Romans 3:24-25, NASB).
A "propitiation" is a sacrifice that satisfies a justly-pronounced sentence. Christ's death on the cross completely satisfied God's just sentence on our sin. The penalty has been paid. Now God can forgive the sins of those who will accept His payment, and still maintain His justice. That is what Romans 3:26 says.
"For the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:26, NASB).
How can God declare Himself to be righteous, and not punish us for our sins if He's a holy and just God? He did it by punishing His Son in our place. So He can maintain His own justice and still declare us righteous.
And by the way, justice demands that when the penalty has been paid by one, it never needs to be paid by another who has accepted that payment. There can never by any condemnation for the person who has trusted Jesus Christ as Savior from sin (Romans 8:1). If you have accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior from sin, then there is no way that God can ever punish you. He can't. The penalty has already been paid. He's a just God.
When my children were little they used to listed to a record of stories by Ethyl Barrett. One of those stories was about a wise and just king who ruled over a nation of wicked people. In order to curtail their wickedness, a law was passed stating that anyone breaking the law of the land would have two eyes put out. A young man was apprehended for violating the law and was brought before the king. To the king’s horror, it was his own son. What would the king do? If he were merely a just king, he could exact the punishment and forget about the incident. If he were merely a loving father, he could forgive his son and forget about it. But he was both a just king and a loving father. So he said, "You have broken the law and the punishment is the forfeiture of two eyes. That is what it shall be—one of your and one of mine." And the appearance of the king or his son from that day on reminded the people of the king's justice and his love.
That is essentially what God did, but instead of making us pay some of the penalty like that king did, He paid it all. The death of His sinless Son was sufficient to pay for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). Now those who accept His payment can go free.
Who then can accuse God of injustice for condemning people to hell? He would be just if He assigned everyone to hell. Yet He satisfied His own justice and provided forgiveness for all. Those who refuse His forgiveness choose His wrath of their own volition. Nobody makes them do it. They have expressed their desire to live apart from God and He simply confines them in their choice. That can hardly be labeled "injustice."
But what about those who have never heard? The Apostle Paul assures us that God has not left Himself without a witness in the world (Acts 14:17), and that lost men have willfully rejected that witness (Romans 1:19-32). Maybe that doesn't satisfy your mind. But whether or not we can explain every problem and answer every objection, we accept God's revelation of Himself as a just God, and believe Him when He says He will not do wickedly nor pervert justice (Job 34:12).
3. The Expression of God's Justice
We should be observing by now that Biblically, God's justice does not relate primarily to the suffering we observe in the world around us. That suffering is the natural consequence of the sin which Satan introduced into God's creation, and God allows it. He doesn't bring it to pass but He allows it. And He allows it to exist ultimately to accomplish His own perfect purposes, as unfathomable as that may be to our natural minds. That’s what we learned when we studied God's sovereignty. In a sinful world, where sinful men have the will to choose their own sinful ways, injustices are going to exist. There's no way to avoid that. So long as God does not pull strings and make us do one thing or another, men will make some choices that are sinful and injustices will exist.
a. Punishment for Unbelievers (Revelation 20:12-13)
There is a coming day when the infinitely just Son of God will return physically to the earth and rule with a rod of iron, when no open sin will be tolerated and the effects of the curse will be removed. Zechariah predicted that the king would be just (Zechariah 9:9), and Jeremiah said He shall execute justice on the earth (Jeremiah 23:5). We can expect no injustices to exist in that day—during the Millennium when Christ rules on the earth (see Isaiah 11:3-5). All wrongs will be made right. Meanwhile, we can count on many wrongs.
God wants us to do what we can to reduce them. He shows a concern for social justice throughout the Bible (see Exodus 23:6), right treatment of the poor, the orphans, the widows, the hungry, the needy, the underprivileged of all kinds. The needs of other people should move our hearts to compassion, and motivate us to make some personal sacrifices for their good. Do the Vietnamese boat people bother you? Does it bother you that those people are dying on the water because no one will let them into their countries? Does it bother you that a whole race of people in Cambodia is being exterminated today? They are starving to death—does that bother you? That concerns God and it ought to concern you. Concern about those kinds of things is a major evidence of true faith in Christ (1 John 7:17-19). But try as we will, we are not going to eliminate all injustices from the earth. They are the natural by-product of living in a sinful world.
God's justice relates not so much to the suffering in the world as to His attitude toward and treatment of the sin that causes the suffering. And He will deal with all the sin with perfect justice, without a trace of partiality or favoritism. He says He will render to every man according to his deeds (Romans 2:6).
That almost sounds like salvation by works, doesn't it? Actually, it has nothing to do with salvation. It establishes again the principle of God's justice. Entrance into heaven is dependent solely upon faith in Christ's sacrifice at Calvary. But God is going to treat every person in accord with the quality of his life and the works that he did, believers as well as unbelievers. Unbelievers will be punished in hell on the basis of their works. And believers will be rewarded in heaven on the basis of their works. God will render unto every man according to his works.
The Bible clearly teaches degrees of punishment for unbelievers. I'’ve talked about this periodically on Wednesday nights as we’ve studied the life of Christ because most of these references are in the gospels. I don’t ever remember addressing this on a Sunday morning. I'm astounded that most Christians are unfamiliar with this doctrine. Many Christians who study their Bibles are still unfamiliar with this doctrine.
"Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you" (Matthew 11:21-22, NASB).
Jesus goes on to say the same thing to Capernaum in verse 24. "More tolerable." If it will be more tolerable, more bearable, more endurable for some than for others, then obviously there are degrees of punishment for unbelievers. And the issue here is the light they received. Those who saw the greater demonstration of God's power through the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ and rejected it, will experience greater punishment than those who saw less demonstration of God's power and rejected it.
Some of our Lord's most scathing denunciations were reserved for the scribes and Pharisees—men who enjoyed some of the greatest spiritual privileges, yet exhibited some of the least of God's love.
"Who devour widows' houses, and for appearance's sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation" (Mark 12:40, NASB).
Greater condemnation can mean nothing less than degrees of punishment. They are all unbelievers; none of them has accepted Jesus Christ as Savior. And yet some will receive greater punishment.
To illustrate this truth, Jesus told a story about a master who delayed His return home, and two servants, one who knew his master's will and didn't do it, and one who didn't know his master's will and didn’t do it.
"The servant who knows the master's will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked" (Luke 12:47-48).
Again we have a clear reference to degrees of punishment—many blows and few blows. And again, the issue is their response to the knowledge they had. You see it? It’s clearly there.
That would imply that a native in the jungle who never heard the gospel does not have the same degree of responsibility as an American who can hear the gospel any day of the week, and that native will not receive the same degree of punishment. A person raised in a secular home, taught to be non-religious from his earliest days, may not have the same degree of responsibility as a person raised in a Christian home, who was taught the truth of God's Word from his earliest days but rejected it, and that less privileged person will not receive the same degree of punishment (see also 2 Peter 2:20-21; Hebrews 10:29).
When unbelievers—no Christians here, just unbelievers—when unbelievers stand before the great white throne, they will be judged "according to their works" (Revelation 20:12-13). Unbelievers are condemned to hell because of their unbelief, not their works, so why does God keep track of their works? It makes no sense unless those works make some difference in the degree of their punishment. I cannot tell you what the difference will be, but the justice of God will be expressed by different levels of punishment. And there will be justice for all.
b. Rewards for Believers (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)
How about believers? On the other hand, believers will be rewarded in heaven on the basis of their works. Works will have nothing to do with their entrance into heaven. That is based solely on their acceptance of the merits of Jesus Christ and His provision of eternal life. But the believer's works shall be tested by fire at the judgment seat of Christ to determine their quality.
"For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man's work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire" (1 Corinthians 3:11-15, NASB).
Everybody knows the difference externally between gold and hay, but the fire reveals something the eye cannot see: motivation and enablement. Were the works performed for the glory of God or to fulfill some personal need? I could stand up here and preach this message for my own personal need of glory—the acclaim I get for standing up here. If that’s my motive, there isn’t going to be any reward for it. The fire will determine the motivation for the works, and by what power. Were they performed by the power of the Holy Spirit or in the energy of the flesh? Those done for the glory of the Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit will become the basis for our reward. And obviously, everyone's reward will be different.
We're not told here in this context what the rewards will be, but several things are mentioned in other passages. There are crowns, not that we wear but that are cast before the throne of God (see 1 Corinthians 9:25; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; James 1:12; 2 Timothy 4:8; 1 Peter 5:4; Revelation 4:10). Those crowns are a probable reference to our capacity to glorify Him. Maybe that doesn't mean too much to you now, but when you get to heaven, friend, nothing will bring you greater satisfaction than your ability to exalt Him.
In addition to crowns, there is the ability to shine (see Matthew 13:43; Daniel 12:3), a probable reference to our capacity to reflect the glory and radiance of the Lord, another source of great pleasure in eternity. Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost likened it to a great chandelier containing some 25 watt bulbs, some 50, some 75, and some 100, each shining to the peak of its ability.
Jesus told a parable in Luke 19 that implied different levels of governmental authority in God's kingdom. A nobleman leaving for a far country entrusted the same amount of money to each of 10 servants, which they were to invest for his benefit. When he returned, he called them into account.
The first one came and said, "Sir, your mina has earned ten more." "Well done, my good servant!" his master replied. "Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities." The second came and said, "Sir, your mina has earned five more." His master answered, "You take charge of five cities" (Luke 19:16-19).
Our rewards will not be trophies to put on a shelf, but greater responsibility and authority, and a greater capacity to glorify Jesus Christ and reflect His radiance.
There will be no jealousy between us, but there will clearly be differences—a different number of crowns, a different capacity to shine, a different level of authority throughout eternity.
Now God's justice does not require Him to reward us. Everything worthwhile we ever accomplish is by His grace and power, and so the rewards He gives us will also be of His grace. At best we deserve nothing, and He doesn't owe us anything. But since He has decided to reward us, He will do it in perfect justice, in accord with our works. Not just what shows on the outside, but what is in the heart. Not just what we did, but how and why we did it. And there will be justice for all.
How will you fare, Christian? What we do with our lives here and now is going to affect our eternal reward. We are building now for eternity. And we will not be able to question God's evaluation of our lives. He is a just God, absolutely fair and impartial.
Christian, let's dedicate ourselves to do His will, by His grace and power, for His praise and glory.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
Unbeliever, you will not be able to question His judgment either. He’ll say, "You never put your trust in Me as your Savior. You thought your good works were enough." There will be no argument. He is a just God.
But He did make a provision for your salvation. Won’t you trust His Son Jesus as the substitute payment for your sin?
God Is Just
He is the Rock, His work is perfect; for all his ways are justice; a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is He.
Deuteronomy 32:4 NSRB
Continue to AT-12: God Is Love