Biblical Justice and Social Justice (Part 1)

Discussions of the subject of justice peer into the very essence of God and the relation of his creatures to him. The grand scheme of the world is the revelation of God’s goodness, the outworking of his eternal being and its overflow, as it were, into the knowledge of other beings brought into existence for the very purpose of viewing, loving, and enjoying the triune God. When Moses requested a view of God’s glory, God responded, “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (Exodus 33: 18, 19). God’s goodness was originally expressed in the freedom of the creature to enjoy everything in creation under the governance of sovereign prerogative expressed in law. The single positive prohibition revealed that the greatest enjoyment of God’s goodness would be experienced in a proper understanding of the creature/Creator relationship. Justice in this case was the creature’s recognition of the Creator’s goodness in establishing daily fellowship in the context of creaturely recognition of the transcendent excellency and consequent inviolability of divine prerogative.

Adam, however, fell. Then the elect nation redeemed from slavery in Egypt rebelled in the same moment God was revealing his just laws to Moses (Exodus 20, 32). Just before God gave the law a second time and renewed the covenant with Israel, in answer to the request of Moses for a sight of God’s glory, God expressed his goodness beginning with the words, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (33:19). God’s goodness would be displayed in the sovereign disposal of grace and compassion. Then, as Moses took two newly cut stone tablets up Sinai, God hid Moses in the cleft of a rock, passed by him so that the glory he saw, though true and pure, was not the killing vision that a full display would have brought. In this muted vision, Moses heard God’s words, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34: 6, 7).

This revelation of glory that abounds in goodness and truth presents the problem that only could be solved by the incarnation of the Son of God. How does God forgive when he will by no means clear the guilty? In the gospel we find it stated this way: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Paul said, God set forth Christ “as a propitiation by his blood, through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness (because in his forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed) to demonstrate at the present time his righteousness, that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:25, 26). The reason that God honored Moses’s prayer, “Go among us, even though we are a stiff necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as your inheritance” (Exodus 34:9) was the provision of a reconciler made in the eternal covenant of redemption. He would make a just recompense for the sin of the remnant of Israel and the elect of all nations. The necessity of the atoning work of Christ, yet future, kept Israel intact. The revelation of God’s goodness, therefore, as exhibited in mercy and forgiveness as well as fully executing a due recompense on the guilty, consummates in the full execution of justice on the covenant representative of the people to receive forgiveness. God is just and merciful and neither of these elements of goodness suffers in the manifestation of the other. The overarching reality of the divine/human relationship both prior to and subsequent to the fall is justice.

During his vicious treatment before and during his crucifixion, Jesus did not retaliate nor makes threats for behind the unjust actions of men were the just actions of God. “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:23,24). In Christ’s sufferings, God judged justly the sins of his people. Also, he will judge justly the sins of those who remain unforgiven, for he will by no means clear the guilty.

God’s law indicates the perfect holiness and righteousness of God which necessarily is expressed in justice. The relationship of the Christian to justice is one of infinite debt personally, fully paid by Christ so that if we have the grace of confessing our sins, he is “faithful” to his covenant promise “and just” in receiving the perfect ransom and redemption to “forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

God’s revelation of himself in terms of justice and his salvation to sinners in perfect harmony with that justice calls on us to consider two applications of justice. One, how do we respond personally to perceptions of injustice toward ourselves and our fellow believers; two, how do we respond to perceptions of injustice in culture in general and the world at large? A subsequent post will begin some interaction with these two important questions.

We may not have perfect answers to either of these questions, for we are dealing, to some extent, with the hidden purposes of God in both areas. But, through what is revealed, we can seek to establish principles within which we can talk and act as Christian brothers and sisters. Founders Ministries is praying that clarity on these issues can be advanced at the National Founders Conference in Louisville, May 14-16, 2019. Please join us there for Christian encouragement, edifying fellowship, and a positive attempt to be conformed to the whole truth of the gospel.

2019 National Founders Conference 

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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