Understanding both, the Justice and Goodness of God

Righteousness or sometimes called the Justice of God

Many understand the justice of God like that of Johnny Cash, who writes,

“Go tell that long tongue liar, Go and tell that midnight rider, Tell the rambler, the gambler, the back biter, Tell ’em that God’s gonna cut ’em down.” Yet Justice does carry two sides, but it shows forth his wrath and judgment, but does include his grace and mercy as we will see.

Joel Beeke has stated that in the justice of God, “we see the moral purity in addition to God’s holiness.” As the righteous God he is, God has established a moral order for the universe.  His righteousness means that not only is he righteous and just in himself, but that he will also treat all his creatures fairly. Righteousness is associated with straightness or consistency, and integrity within relationships. In that sense, righteousness is an attribute to God and man. (Psalm 7 gives us this understanding). When it comes to God we may say that divine righteousness is the divine self-consistency within God’s own character and will.  Louis Berkhof describes this as a “strict adherence to law” but we need to understand that this is not to be conceived of in a neutral fashion. God is a law unto himself, not in a way that is given to sudden or unaccountable changes, but in a sense that is true to his own character that never changes. We cannot apply to God what was said of God’s people under the Old Testament, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes then.” God is never a law to himself in this way. God cannot deny himself, for he is faithful to himself and his holy character. The justice of God is the inherent and infinite righteousness of God. God is always straight unto himself. In the Old Testament, the basic words denoting righteousness and justice cluster around two word groups.

The Biblical Terminology of Justice

1. Misphat (mish–pawt): Comes from meaning to judge, it is the result or act of judging, giving a verdict, sentence, or decree.  It is translated often with justice, judgment, ordinances, and right. There are twenty -five passages in which this word is used in reference to God himself and his justice, ordinances and judgments. Examples; Gen. 18:25 reads “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Deut. 32:4, “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” The other word used within the Jesus’ Testament is…

2. Tsadaq ([t]saw-dak): There are various nouns associated with this verb and all of which basically speak of conformity to an ethical or moral standard of righteousness. In the Old Testament that standard is the character and nature of God himself. God is called righteous and just in himself. The Bible repeatedly indicated that forensically, his judgments and dealings with all mankind are just. In the New Testament we find a rich set of words that connote the righteousness of God. Specifically…

3. Dikaios (dik-ah’-yoce): This is the New Testament term thatmeans just, agreeably to right, uprightly, righteousness. These terms are used in a variety of ways, but commonly refer to right conduct before God, or God’s right conduct to men.  The phrase “the righteousness of God” as used by Paul speaks of a forensic transaction whereby the sinner is pardoned and justified by God.  With such a comprehensive term there is a wealth of biblical material.

The Elements of Justice

1. God’s Moral Purity: Righteousness is very close to Holiness; God does what is right, and does so while always being holy. It is a summary term in Scripture for God’s moral correct behavior or thinking. Some examples; Isaiah writes about the Lord speaking in righteousness in chapter 45, “By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness.” In the New Testament there are similar references; Matt. 6:33 speaks to “seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness.” In Romans 5:18 “so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men Sometimes Christ is referred to as the Righteous One, 1 John 2:1, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” This whole concept of God’s righteousness and moral purity is spoken of in reference to covenant. This brings us to the second area of Justice, the…

2. The Covenantal Context of Justice: This is particular in reference to God’s living relationship with his people, set again and again in this covenantal context.  It means that God’s righteousness is his total consistency with his covenantal revelation of himself and his covenantal pledge to his people. God shows his righteous acts to all the villages of Israel.  In terms of manifesting righteousness, it is expressive of divine integrity bound up in it.  God’s divine-human relationship is forged in the context of covenant.  That is the reason why the supreme revelation of divine righteousness is found in Jesus Christ on the cross, there the heart of God was revealed in covenantal righteousness, and it is a critical aspect of his dynamic relationship to us. In this context we can speak of human righteousness in the covenant creature.  Precisely because we are created in the divine image of the God who is consistent with his covenant, righteousness is both possible and required in us. When Jesus’ Testament speaks about human righteousness, it speaks of possessing integrity in our covenantal relationship with God. That is why the believer in the Old Testament who is described as righteous, is the one who is radically faithful to his covenant obligations (Deut. 24:13).  God looks upon this action as righteous in his own sight. There are two aspects vivid in Jesus’ Testament. The principle that the righteousness of God is manifested in one, terrible condemnation, and two, merciful deliverance.  This is a result of a proceeding truth, which is, the absolute integrity of God to the revelation given of himself in his covenant. If we lack either perspective which lies at the root of his righteousness we lose the full biblical picture of God’s righteousness. There is a side that speaks of his love and grace and that which speaks of his re-trib-u-tive justice.

Example:  Consider Martin Luther. Luther named the righteousness of God as retributive, viewing the idea as a thought of punishing.  He hated the word righteousness.  That righteousness is not to be equated only with punishing/retributive justice and began to understand God’s righteousness as manifested in the gospel as part of God’s mercy and covenant faithfulness.  Luther came to understand that as a righteous God he is a Savior. This moves him from seeing it in terms of justice as also manifested in grace and salvation within the context of covenant.

3. Justice &Righteousness (from the root ṣdq) in the Old Testament it is a simultaneously forensic and relational term. It is a “right relationship” that is legally verified by obedience to the covenantal stipulations. It is related closely to mišpaṭ (justice). God’s righteousness is also connected with his mercy, especially in the Psalms. “The maintenance of the fellowship now becomes the justification of the ungodly. No manner of human effort, but only that righteousness which is the gift of God, can lead to that conduct which is truly in keeping with the covenant.” God has a moral vision for his creation, which is revealed in the various covenants that he makes with human beings in history, and his righteousness involves his determination to see that vision through to the end for his glory and the good of creation.

At the same time, God’s righteousness cannot simply be collapsed into his mercy (i.e., justification by grace through faith). As the revelation of God’s moral will (i.e., law), God’s righteousness condemns all people as transgressors; as the revelation of God’s saving will (i.e., the gospel), God’s righteousness saves all who believe (Ro 3:19–26). In both cases, God upholds his own righteousness. Against Albrecht Ritschl’s view, which collapses righteousness into mercy, Barth affirms that God’s righteousness includes the concept of distributive justice—“a righteousness which judges and therefore both exculpates and condemns, rewards and also punishes.” Yet for Barth, this condemnation turns out to be just another form of love and grace. According to Barth, God’s wrath is always a form of mercy. However, in Scripture, God’s wrath is his righteous response to sin and his mercy is a free decision to grant absolution to the guilty. As we have seen, God is free to show mercy on whomever he will and to leave the rest under his just condemnation. The righteousness that God discloses in the law brings condemnation, but the gift of righteousness that God gives brings justification and life (Ro 3:19–22). Once again, it is at the cross where we see the marvelous unity of divine attributes that might seem otherwise to clash. This paradox is lost if mercy, righteousness, and wrath are synonymous terms.

The Applications of Justice

To the saved: There are much more nuanced applications for the believer of Christ than the unbeliever.

1. We should reflect God’s justice/righteousness.

2. In financial dealings we should be equitable, reflecting the fairness of God.  This is something that is not thought of as often as it should be.

3. We should revere God’s justice. We read of that in 1 Peter 1, where Peter speaks in vv. 17-19.  We understand that God judges rightly and only by Christ’s righteousness that we have been saved.  The Lord loves judgment and forsakes not his saints.

4. We also hope in God and his justice for remuneration, Isa. 30:18.  God will make things right on the Day of Judgment. We know that he will be righteous and judge even though we don’t see it here.  2 Thess. 1:4-8. We should defer to God’s justice for retribution, Rom. 12:19.  God is in control and exercises just retribution.

5. We should appeal to God’s justice; we do so in our intercessions. Example; Gen. 18:23-25, Abraham’s intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah. Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?  He appeals to the righteousness of God.  We should model that for our people too.  We should rest in God’s promises that he will perform them since he is always righteous and true to his Word.  God is always true to his word of warning and salvation and grace. He is just in his dealings with his children. He protects us and guards us and works all things together for good.  God will not forsake us nor make any mistakes with us.  God is righteous. We should bless and praise God for his righteousness, Ps.  33:4-5 reads, “For the word of the LORD is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD.”

 To the unsaved: They are called to repentance.  No one can escape God’s righteous judgment. Rom. 2:3 reads, Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?”  People need to be warned and we need to warn them in our ministry not to despise God’s goodness and forbearance.  Paul goes on to say in Romans 2:4, the unbeliever looks around and doesn’t see punishment for wrong done right now and presumes that God will not punish at all forgetting God’s timeless character. God’s righteousness stands over that and declares that God will judge without respect of person, by standards of law and gospel therefore you must repent and get right before God, you must immediately seek his face in repentance and faith.

The Goodness of God: Is one of the most familiar themes of the Scriptures when speaking about God.  He is good in an incredible diversity of ways to all his creatures. Most Reformed systematic theologians take up the attributes of mercy, grace, loving kindness, and longsuffering.  That does not mean that each of these terms are identical, but it does mean that a God who is fundamentally good expresses that goodness in many different ways like; mercy, grace, loving kindness, and longsuffering. Michael Horton wonderfully writes on this area,

“God’s knowledge, wisdom, and power are inseparable from his goodness. In fact, in the strict sense, Jesus said, “No one is good except God alone” (Mk 10:18). God’s infinite goodness is the source of all creaturely imitations. Precisely because God does not depend on the world, his goodness is never threatened. God is good toward all he has made, even his enemies (Ps 145:9, 15–16; Mt 5:45). He can afford to be, because he is God with or without them.

The Biblical Terminology of Goodness

1. Towb (tobe = tove): This is the most common word within the OT.  It is used as an adjective, sometimes as a verb, but mostly as a noun, translated good, goodness, kindness, prosperity, bountiful.  It’s specifically used of God’s goodness 84 times in the OT.  The LORD is good and does good.

2. tuwb (toob = toov): meaning; goodness, gladness, to go well with, and it is used of God at least 17 times with the OT.

3. yatab (yaw-tab): to do good and to do well; used of God 19 times in the OT; refers to God’s beneficent attitude particularly in his dealings towards his people.

In the NT we read of 2 main family words…

4. agathos (ag-ath-os): the most general word for good, what is morally proper, beneficial.  Translated as good or well, used 10 times of God’s goodness in the NT.

5. chrestotes (khray-stot’-ace): refers to moral excellence; usually translated goodness, kindness, gentleness, used 6-7 times of God of its eight times used in the NT.

All of these combined, the Scriptures speak 136 times that God is referred to as good.

The Displays of God’s Goodness

1. Creation: God is concerned about the well being of his own creation and does things to promote that well -being, but not outside of righteousness and holiness.  Rather because he does what is righteous and holy he promotes their well-being. One of the classic texts is James 1:17, “every good gift and perfect gift…no variableness or shadow of turning.” Another text is Matt. 7:11, where it refers to human beings knowing how to give good gifts to their children….It comes as no surprise to us given the inherent goodness of God that Scripture abounds with God’s goodness in a variety of ways. God declares his creative goodness when he declares his creation good.  In Ps. 136:5-9, his goodness endureth forever. Puritan Stephen Charnock, spends 11 pages on the display of God’s goodness in creation. There he expounds the idea that the world was made for man, to gratify man with all his goodness. Creation drips with God’s goodness.

2. Providence: Ps. 136:25 reads, “who gives food to all flesh, his goodness endures forever.”  God gives it to all flesh, all living creatures. He provides food for man and beast alike. His providence manifests itself in a variety of ways: in its covenantal foundation, Gen. 6:17-19 and 9:8-11.  The point is that God is good to Noah as a covenant keeping God in the realm of natural things.  God perpetuates life in our family and society. He tempers the curse that man deserves, Gen. 9:2.  He makes abundant provision to keep us alive, restrains sin in society, and calls men to repentance.  God is lavish; his providence is not only keeping people alive but he gives abundantly.  How good God is in so many ways in his providence that we often take for granted.  There is a special kind of goodness that he manifests in a special providence over those that fear him.  The Lord preserves all them that love him. It focuses particularly on his children. The Lord pities them that fear him.

3. Redemption: Preeminently God’s goodness in his redemption of us.  This is apparent in his dealings with the exodus and redemption from Egypt.  Manifested today as well in redeeming us from sin in Jesus Christ and in bringing the Holy Spirit to teach us the things of God.  Every individual believer in his path of salvation experiences the goodness of God.  We receive every spiritual blessing as believers in Christ Jesus.  That is God’s goodness. God applies his redemption to us initially (Eph. 2:1-10), but also by continuing to apply redemption to us over and over again.  Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  One day, God’s goodness will lead us into the new heavens and new earth, we will sin no more, Ps. 23:6.

One theologian wrote,

“Well my goodness gracious let me tell you the news, My head’s been wet with the midnight dew, I’ve been down on bended knee talkin’ to the man from Galilee, He spoke to me in the voice so sweet, I thought I heard the shuffle of the angel’s feet, He called my name and my heart stood still, When he said, “John go do My will!” Johnny Cash experience the goodness of God.

The Practical Applications of God’s Goodness

1. We should contemplate God’s goodness, Ps. 107:43 reads, “Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the LORD.”

2. We should hunger and plead to grasp God’s goodness.

3. We should proclaim God’s goodness. Having been forgiven much they ought to forgive much.  Having tasted of the love of God we ought to love him.  Our lives ought to reflect that goodness in our lives, imitate it, and love our enemies, Matt. 5:45.

4. We should anticipate God’s goodness.  We should not wallow in unbelief and fear the worst and we forget that God is always good, Ps. 27.  One way to not become overwhelmed in trying circumstances is to consider, when has God not been good to me?  That will take care of your problems. We should appreciate his goodness; treasure it, love it, Ezra 3:11.

5. We should show deep respect for God for his goodness, Ex. 34:8.  The goodness of God ought never to produce shallowness in us, but sacred worship.  Irreverent familiarity is an abuse of God’s goodness and doesn’t come from him.  So many say that God is good and flippantly go on their way, but a real understanding of God’s goodness makes us make haste, bow our heads and worship.



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