Saturday, February 16, 2013

God's Justice

I've been doing a lot of thinking about (among other things) different views on atonement--ways of thinking about how Christ's sacrificial death saved us from sin--recently. The most common view in much of Protestantism is the "penal substitution" view of atonement (PSA): in a nutshell, that we are innately sinful; God, being perfectly just, cannot tolerate or ignore sin and must punish it with death but, out of love, so as to be "just and the one who justifies" (Romans 3:26), He gave His son to pay the penalty of death for sin in our stead so that we can live in union with God. This blog post by Derek Flood less charitably describes what the doctrine of penal substitution might sound like to non-Christians who are learning about the gospel and wondering why Jesus had to die:
You have broken the law because it is impossible to keep it, and so you must have broken it. And because you cannot keep this impossible to keep law you will be charged with death because "the penalty for sin is death" and those are just the rules. God must have blood because the law requires it; there must be a penalty paid. The only payment that would have been enough is sacrificing someone who was the "perfect law-keeper", someone who could live a perfect life without sin. So God decided to kill his own Son on the cross to appease his legal need for blood. Now that Jesus has been sacrificed God is no longer mad at us for not doing what we can't do anyway, so we can now come and live with him forever - as long as we are grateful to him for his "mercy" to us.
The basic assumption behind PSA is that God's justice and His mercy/love/kindness are in tension. God wants to have mercy on us, to forgive us and be in unbroken relationship with us, but being just He cannot overlook our sin and must punish it. As John Calvin, the former lawyer and one of the main theologians responsible for the modern understanding of PSA, says:
--sinners, until freed from guilt, being always liable to the wrath and curse of God, who, as a just judge, cannot permit his law to be violated with impunity, but is armed for vengeance. But before we proceed further, we must see in passing, how can it be said that God, who prevents us with his mercy, was our enemy until he was reconciled to us by Christ. - Institutes 2.16.1-2
 This has implications for our view of God's justice and what it entails. The Calvinist explanation of why God does not elect everyone to salvation is that by His justice, we all deserve death for our sinfulness and God would be just to execute this punishment this instant; it is a miracle of His mercy that anyone is saved or even takes their next breath (so quit your whining!). Justly, God owes us nothing and anything good we receive from Him is mercy, not justice. Then I was hit by these verses:
And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:7-8)
So clearly God's justice is here supposed to be a good thing. The elect, who according to Calvinism are those who have been spared God's justice, are supposed to look forward to receiving it.
Hear my voice according to your steadfast love; O LORD, according to your justice give me life. (Psalm 119:149, ESV translation)
 According to your justice, not mercy. Don't we justly deserve death? How can God give us life according to His justice? You could argue that this refers to God being just by crushing His son and giving us life, but again, in this scenario Christ receives the justice and we receive the mercy. There isn't supposed to be anything good (beneficial or desirable) about justice for us, is there?

In fact, doing a simple search for Biblical uses of the word "justice". In the Old Testament, justice most often appears not as punishment administered by a holy God but as something desirable that we are called to give to everyone, especially the socially outcast or marginalized. Ancient Near East cultures did not share our modern conception of justice as simply restitution of wrongs. Their conception of justice was intricately tied in with wisdom, the ability to make wise decisions to restore parts of life to the good, orderly state, the "way things should be", which in the OT is the Hebrew concept of shalom.

The law calls us to give justice to everyone:
  • Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. (Exodus 23:6)
  • Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. (Leviticus 19:15)
  • Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19)
The books of history give examples of people who acted in justice or injustice:
  • But [Samuel's] sons did not walk in his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice. (1 Samuel 8:3)
  • And Absalom would add, "If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that he gets justice." (2 Samuel 15:4)
  • He [Solomon] built the throne hall, the Hall of Justice, where he was to judge, and he covered it with cedar from floor to ceiling. (1 Kings 7:7)
In the wisdom literature justice is equated with righteousness or both helping the needy and punishing the wicked.
  • The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. (Psalm 103:6)
  • He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. (Psalm 37:6)
  • Blessed are they who maintain justice, who constantly do what is right. (Psalm 106:3)
  • I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy. (Psalm 140:12)
  • Arise, O LORD, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies. Awake, my God; decree justice. (Psalm 7:6)
  • It is not good to be partial to the wicked or to deprive the innocent of justice. (Proverbs 18:5)
  • The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. (Proverbs 29:7)
  • If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. (Ecclesiastes 5:8)
What about the books of prophecy? Aren't they full of declarations of God's impending justice on sinful Israel?
  • Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
  • Zion will be redeemed with justice, her penitent ones with righteousness. (Isaiah 1:27)
  • Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.  (Isaiah 10:1-2)
  • In love a throne will be established; in faithfulness a man will sit on it--one from the house of David--one who in judging seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness. (Isaiah 16:5)
  • Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him! (Isaiah 30:18)
  • "Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm. (Isaiah 51:4-5)
  • Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. (Isaiah 59:15)
  • "For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity. In my faithfulness I will reward them and make an everlasting covenant with them. (Isaiah 61:8)
  • Correct me, LORD, but only with justice--not in your anger, lest you reduce me to nothing. (Jeremiah 10:24)
  • I am with you and will save you,' declares the LORD. 'Though I completely destroy all the nations among which I scatter you, I will not completely destroy you. I will discipline you but only with justice; I will not let you go entirely unpunished.' (Jeremiah 30:11)
  • The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice. (Ezekiel 22:29)
  • I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. (Hosea 2:19)
  • They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. (Amos 2:7)
  • Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph. (Amos 5:15)
  • But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin. (Micah 3:8)
  • Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted. (Habakkuk 1:4)
  • "This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.' (Zechariah 7:9-10)
Or in the New Testament:
  • "Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. (Matthew 12:18)
  • And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.' (Luke 18:3)
  • For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." (Acts 17:31)
And finally the Romans passage everyone likes to cite in support of penal substitution:
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished--he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:20-26)
Yes, this is a somewhat arbitrary selection of verses on justice (look for them yourself if you like), but I tried to find verses that most closely fit the penal substitution view of God's justice as a need to punish sin. But this kind of usage is surprisingly rare. Besides the Romans passage, we see it in Acts 17:31 and maybe Isaiah 61:8, but these are only a small part of the "big picture" of the justice God embodies and wants us (yes, us!) to practice as well. Biblical justice means having compassion on the poor, needy, outcast, and marginalized (this is very convicting to me too), loving what is good, hating what is evil, standing for righteousness. It is indeed closely tied in with righteousness, but it seems to have more temporal or civil connotations--it is an essential quality for kings (Proverbs 29:4), judges (2 Samuel 15:4), and for all of God's people (Psalm 106:3).

For God, who is said to be the ultimate source of justice (Proverbs 29:26), justice does not only look like pouring His wrath out on the ungodly, but in having compassion and redeeming His people--acts that are often contrasted with the justice we are supposed to deserve from Him. Yes, God's justice does also mean punishing unrighteousness, but if we make that the whole definition we not only hold a distorted view of God but miss out on the impact of His commands for us to also be just. I'm not trying to undermine the view of justice held by PSA, but to argue that it is grossly incomplete and myopic. If all God's justice means to us is that He hates sin and has to punish sinners, we miss out on most of the rich (and relevant) theology of justice the Bible has to offer.

God's justice can't be so easily separated or put into tension with His compassion and mercy for us. The crucial distinction that is so easily missed in the PSA view, I think, is that God's justice means that He hates sin, but loves us sinners. The caricature of PSA above depicts God as angry at us, even bloodthirsty, but this is not wholly inaccurate. Proponents of PSA easily slip from talking about God as angry at sin to God as angry at us. Calvin, speaking with his usual uncushioned precision, says "God, to whom we were hateful through sin, was appeased by the death of his Son." (Institutes 2.17.3) When condemning sin turns into condemning sinners (which is amazingly easy, even unnoticeable), God's justice is perverted. God's justice means condemning sin not because of "the rules" or because our sins make Him very, very angry, but because of His abiding, just love for righteousness and equal hatred for sin as the opposing force to His plan for shalom.

Speaking from personal experience, a common tactic of denial is to brush away arguments like this, that God's view of justice is less about condemning sinners and more about caring for issues suspiciously akin to the "liberal agenda", as "social justice Christianity" that is only focused on making things better here and now with no eternal perspective. But the Biblical evidence demands to be heard. People say that Jesus preached about a lot of things more than anything else, but while reading the gospels in my New Testament class this semester I think that, fundamentally, his preaching was centered around the message: "Repent, for the kingdom of God is near." Heaven is coming down to earth. He came not to put our souls on a lifeboat to heaven or bring about economic equality for all, but to inaugurate the coming of the eternal kingdom of God to our temporal world. The gospel is a message stretching to eternity, but for the believer, eternity begins here and now.

Note: My last post said my next one would be about evolution. I have not forgotten that post and am working on it; I just realized this one was nearly done so I finished it.

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