Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology—Chapter 11



By justice is meant that rectitude of character which leads to the treatment of others in strict accordance with their deserts.

The justice of God differs in no respect from this attribute as seen among his rational creatures; except that his justice must be perfect while theirs is imperfect, and his must be impartial, while theirs is partial. These differences, however, exist in the exercise of justice, and not in the thing itself. They arise from the limited knowledge, reason, and perception of right and wrong among men, and from the extent to which they naturally yield to their prejudices and passions. In the all perfect being, however, justice has none of these deficiencies, and must be exercised according to its strictest nature, and in every conceivable from of perfection. To all, therefore, he must deal out the most absolute justice, whatever they deserve, only what they deserve, and the full measure of their deserts.

Inasmuch as the justice of God may be considered as it exists in himself, or as it is manifested towards his creatures, a distinction has been made in it as viewed in these aspects, into the absolute and relative justice of God.

By absolute justice is meant that rectitude of the divine nature, in consequence of which God is infinitely righteous in himself. This rectitude is essential to him, and existed before there was a creation in which to exhibit it.

By the relative justice of God is meant that justice, as exhibited towards, and exercised upon, his creatures in the dispensation of the universe. It is seen in the nature of the laws he gives, in his impartiality in dealing with those subjected to them, and in his maintenance of right and virtue, by the threats and promises he attaches to them, and his punishment of those who violate them. To this form of justice is often applied the name of rectoral justice, inasmuch as it is justice exercised by a ruler, in the form of government, and by means of laws.

There is a form of justice, known among men as commutative justice, which consists in giving to each one his due in the barter and exchange of commerce, or in any other of the mutual relations of life. As it is based upon the ground of mutual obligation, and, therefore, is not suited to a being entirely independent of others, it cannot properly be ascribed to God. The blessings given in consequence of his promises to man, are not matters of obligation, but of grace. The only aspect, in which this could be connected with God, would be as between the Father and the Son, in conferring upon his people those blessings which the Son had purchased through his sufferings. It is in this sense that the Scripture says, that God is “faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9.

In the administration of the affairs of his creatures, God exercises distributive justice. By this is meant, the rewarding and punishing his subjects, according to the sanctions of his law. His justice is here evinced in the maintenance of punishment, if the law be broken, but not in the bestowment of rewards, since these are given graciously as further inducements to duty. While, therefore, God gives all the rewards promised, they are given because promised, and not because due. These punishments further show forth the justice of God as they are impartially inflicted.

The ground upon which the offenders against God’s law are punished, is not simply the fact that a law of God has been broken, but, that, in the breaking of that law, essential right has been violated and wrong committed. It would be sufficient to authorize punishment, that the law of the ruler is broken. Still it might appear that the will of the ruler might remit a punishment due to a mere violation of his will. But the law of God is based upon the immutable distinctions between right and wrong, and sin and holiness, as they exist in the nature of God. Its violation, therefore, is sin. It is a destruction of the right. Hence, that which impels God to punish, is not his rectoral character, but his holy nature. It is when justice is regarded in this respect, that it is called punitive or vindicatory.

But punitive justice is not admitted by all, nor that God punishes sin in any other respect, than as a violation of his will; nay, it is even disputed whether he even punishes the violations of his will.

Three questions, therefore, arise here.

1. Does God punish the violations of his will?

2. Does he punish them, because they are mere violations, or because they are sin?

3. Is this done because of anything essential in his nature, or because it is expedient for governmental or other purposes?

Upon these questions there have been several opinions expressed.

1. The Universalists and some of the Socinians deny that God punishes even the violations of his law. They regard the precepts of morality and duty set forth in his word as merely intended to guide us in this life. When this life is ended, there may be no dealing with man for such violation. They are only for a temporary purpose, and having accomplished that purpose, will have no further effect. God looks now only to the good of his creatures, and if the same method of dealing be extended beyond this life, it will be only for a time, and only for the good of those who suffer. According to this, these are not punishments, but chastisements, and God is moved by goodness and not by justice.

2. A second theory is, that the laws given by God are merely exponents of his will; that the ground upon which he commands is simply his sovereignty; that, looking at the universe as a world to be created and to be occupied by his moral creatures, he selected such a system of laws as seemed to him best to secure the welfare of those creatures, and that these laws while seeking the happiness, not of the individuals, but of the mass, are such as are really best fitted to that end; and that the justice of God is seen in so administering these laws, by rewarding those who obey, and punishing those who disobey, as to maintain his government, and thus secure the welfare of the whole. God punishes sin, therefore, under this system, but he punishes it, not because of its heinous nature, but because it is best that men should not sin, and thus the best interest of all is secured by preventing by punishment the commission of sin. The end he has in view, therefore, is rather to furnish a spectacle which shall restrain sin, than to perform an act demanded by the inherent nature of sin. It is his rectoral justice, therefore, rather than his vindicatory justice, that is thus shown.

This theory embraces four points.

(1) God punishes offences or sins.

(2) The object is thus the better to secure the welfare of his moral creatures.

(3) The laws of his government are based entirely upon his mere will.

(4) Consequently he punishes sin, not because of its inherent desert, but because the general happiness of his creatures, and not his own holiness demands it.

3. The third theory is different in all respects, except the first of these points.

(1) It agrees, that God punishes sin.

(2) But it makes his object the maintenance of the right.

(3) His laws and actions are based upon the immutable principles of right.

(4) He punishes sin, because, from its nature, it demands punishment from him.

The great difficulty in attaining a correct result in this matter, is that whatever might have been the origin of these laws, they would have been the same. Hence, no conclusion can be drawn from the nature of the laws themselves. It is manifest, that God, in the establishment of the government of the world for any purpose, will not give to it laws contrary to his nature.

It does not follow, however, that because the same effect may be produced by either of these causes, it is, therefore, unimportant to which of them it is assigned. There may be, and in the present case it is believed that there are important reasons, why only one cause should be assigned, and that it should be ascertained to exist in the nature of God. Matters of great moment, in connection with the atonement especially, but also with other parts of the plan of salvation, demand the true answer.

But this fact is not to be allowed to warp our judgement or lead us away from the truth. It is only mentioned to show the importance of the subject now under consideration.

As to the first of these theories, it need only be said, that the objections to it are partly involved in those to the second and that those peculiar to it, are too plain to need presentation here. They will more properly be considered in connection with the subject of future punishment.

As to the second, it may be objected:

(1) “That it makes happiness, and not holiness and virtue, the great end of God. The dictates of nature teach us all plainly, that happiness does not occupy this place.” Dr. Charles Hodge: manuscript lecture.

(2) “It destroys the essential difference between right and wrong, which conscience teaches us.” Dr. Charles Hodge: manuscript lecture.

(3) It supposes, that God might have made a world, in which precisely opposite moral laws might have prevailed by his command; and that thus it would by his duty, in this world to reward, in that world to punish, his creatures for the same action.

(4) It is opposed to the relation of the true will of God to his nature. It ascribes the laws of God to that will. It recognizes those laws as flowing from it alone. They are as God pleased. Now, it is not denied that they come from the free will of God, and are such as please him. But they have a higher basis even than his will. That will is influenced by his nature, and is its exponent. Now, whether that nature is itself the basis of good and right, or whether good and right considered as distinct from it in the nature of things simply accord perfectly with that nature, the result is the same; the will is influenced by the nature to establish the moral laws for the government of his creatures according to the immutable principles of right and wrong.

(5) This theory is also opposed to the independence of God, who is thus forced to punish sin, not by any law of his own nature, which would still maintain that independence, but from a regard to the government of his creatures, which could not be otherwise maintained. (Altered from Dr. A. A. Hodge’s Outlines.)

(6) The instinctive sense of justice in man testifies to the ill desert of sin. This is the universal testimony of conscience. But conscience speaks for God, and, therefore, testifies to the fact that, independent of the evil to society, the wrong-doer deserves punishment proportioned to his offence.

(7) Dr. A. A. Hodge, in his Outlines, thus argues this from the love of holiness and hatred of sin in God: “If the reason for God’s punishing was founded only in God’s arbitrary will, then he could not be said to hate sin, but only to love his own will, or, if his reason for punishing sin rested upon governmental considerations, then, he could not be strictly said to hate sin, but only its consequences.” But both conscience and Scripture teach that God does hate sin, and love holiness.

Leaving these considerations as to the second theory, with the statement of these objections, we proceed to establish the third theory by the teachings of Scripture. It will be seen that the Scriptures represent God as a just God, thus ascribing that character to him; that they do it in such a way as shows that his justice is not simply in his will, but is a part of his nature; that they challenge denial of the position that the acts of God are in accordance with right and justice, and that not of his sovereignty, but because of the absolute justice of his nature; that they present him as actually claiming vindicatory or avenging justice, speaking of his justice as hatred of sin, and not as a desire to maintain government; nay, that they are constantly showing us instance after instance in which God has exercised that avenging justice, commencing with the ejection of Adam from Paradise, and culminating in its highest and most signal example in the sacrificial work of Christ.

It is remarkable that all of this can be established from the Scriptures in favour of vindicatory justice, and not a passage can be given in proof that God is only active for the maintenance of his government, or the mere happiness of his creatures. Indeed, in the Scriptures everywhere, it is God’s glory and dishonor, his holiness and sin, his love and his justice, that are placed in fearful contrast.

1. Passages in which God is spoken of as having a just character, and in which this is held forth as an excellence in him. How can these be accounted for, if justice and will are the same, or even if justice is no more than the administration of human affairs according to his plan? While this is done there are no passages in which he asserts his power, or choice, or justice in changing the essential laws laid down for our rule. Deut. 32:4; Job 8:3; 34:10-12; 36:2, 3; Ps. 9:4; 11:7; 33:4, 5; 71:19; 89:14; 92:15; 97:2; 99:4; 119:137, 138; Zeph. 3:5; Rom. 2:2.

2. Passages in which God’s claim to this character is vindicated by asserting his justice and his impartiality toward all men. Gen. 18:16-33; Deut. 10:17; Job 37:24; Eccl. 3:17; 12:14; Ezek. 18:29; Acts 10:34, 35; 17:31; Rom. 2:3-6, 11; 14:12; Gal. 2:6; Eph. 6:8; Col. 3:25; 1 Pet. 1:17; Jude 15.

3. In those passages in which God’s justice is spoken of, it is never based upon his will, nor his economy, but,

(a) Judgement is always based upon his righteousness. Ps. 9:8; 50:4, 6; 96:10, 13; 98:9.

(b) His economy among the Jews is commended, not because of its setting forth his will, but because of its justice or righteousness. Deut. 4:8; Ps. 19:7-9; Ps. 119:138.

4. Passages in which God speaks of his justice as being a hatred of sin. Ps. 5:4, 5; Hab. 1:13.

5. Passages in which God is spoken of as a jealous God, exercising avenging justice. Ex. 20:5; Deut. 32:34, 35, 39, 41-43; Ps. 94:1, 2; Is. 34:8; 66:6; Heb. 10:26-31.

6. Passages in which the dealings of God with his enemies are spoken of, in connection with such words as anger, wrath, fury, &c. Num. 12:9; Deut. 32:22; Judges 10:7; 2 Sam. 22:8; Job 19:11; Ps. 2:5; 7:11; 21:9; 90:11; Is. 28:21; 30:30; Jer. 30:24; Lam. 2:3; 3:43; Ezek. 5:13; 38:18; Hos. 12:14; Nahum 1:6.

7. Passages in which angels are spoken of as ministers of such vengeance. These are not introduced as proof of the justice of God, but simply as parts of transactions, by which that justice is manifested. Num. 22:22-31; 2 Sam. 24:16; 1 Chron. 21:14-16, 27; Ps. 35:5, 6; Rev. 7:1-3; 9:15; 15:1; 16:17.

8. The instances given of the actual exercise of God’s wrath are associated, not merely with the idea of producing effect in his moral government, nor with the exercise of his mere will, but as results produced by his emotions against sin, or, in other words, his avenging justice.

Some of these are (1.) The fallen angels, (2.) our first parents, (3.) Sodom and Gomorrah, (4.) the flood, (5.) the plagues of Egypt, (6.) the punishments of the children of Israel in the wilderness, (7.) the captivity of the Jews, (8.) God’s punishment of heathen nations, because of their wicked instrumentality in the exercise of his wrath against the delinquent Israelites, and (9.) the threatened eternal punishment of the wicked.

9. Passages which point out something in the work of Christ as essential before God could pardon sin. Matt. 26:39; Rom. 3:26; 2 Cor. 5:21.

Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts