But He is Also Just: The Simplicity & Complexity of Biblical Justice
The Bible talks about justice a lot.
In the abstract, Biblical justice is really straightforward. But the manner in which Biblical justice plays out is complicated.
That’s because justice — that is, “equitable recompense for behavior” — is not just about “following rules,” as if rules are the basis of all moral decisionmaking.
Rather, things like rules and deals and deserts (what is “deserved”) are strategies under a purpose-driven plan.
That is to say, these things are very useful, which is why we see them used. But they’re not “home runs” every time.
Imagine that your child misbehaves. There are many different ways you could respond in equity to that infraction.
- You could pull them aside and give them a time out.
- You could take away a privilege for a while.
- You could threaten to take away access to some future event.
- (And more.)
Each of these might be, individually, equitable to the infraction. They’re not so excessive that they feel arbitrary and give your child anxiety issues. But they’re not so light that they affect no change of behavior. Not too hot; not too cold; just right.
Notice that equity is defined according to purpose on both ends.
So, which method should you apply?
Let’s look at more purposes to help answer that question.
Earlier, you told your children that if they misbehaved this morning, they would lose access to video games. You “laid down a law.”
It makes a ton of sense to go by that law, even though you have several equitable responses before you.
- First, it feels less arbitrary because it seems “objective” (even though you came up with the law yourself). This is great, because objective references feel both stable (less anxiety) and immovable (less “b-b-but!” push-back).
- Second, it’s an effective display of your seriousness; it teaches your children that you make good on your warnings.
Boom! Two more purpose-driven considerations.
But there may be even more purpose-driven considerations, depending on the circumstance.
- Was your earlier law tailored as a general broadcast to all of your children, but may not be best-suited to the child who ended up disobeying?
Ouch. That one’s not so easy.
- Is the disobedient child now showing genuine remorse and proof of regret? Should you reduce the punishment? To what degree (remember, the other kids are watching)?
- Let’s say they’re not showing regret; is positive punishment even helpful in this particular instance? Would positive punishment only incite resentment, due to the child (as she currently is) and the circumstance (as it is)? If you took a self-sacrificial approach — bearing the burden of the infraction in a different but compelling way — would you powerfully evoke empathy? Would that prove to be better in terms of purpose?
Notice that with each of these questions, you’re considering something other than equitable recompense — in the familiar sense — for the infraction. (You’re considering violating a previous law in the first, you’re considering mercy and forgiveness in the second, and, in the third, you’re volunteering for injustice to provoke a needed change of heart from a hardened person.)
And why are we considering these things?
Purpose is — in the moral hierarchy — supreme.
That is, justice (“equitable recompense for behavior”) is
- tailored to purposes when many responses would qualify as equitable, and
- can even bow-the-knee entirely to purposes, when purposes demand.
Sedeq & Mispat
As we see above, what starts out looking relatively simple — “equitable recompense” — is very soon complicated by the supremacy of purposes, leading to all sorts of twists, turns, and surprises.
This is what makes the topic complicated in Scripture, even though Biblical justice has a clear definition in the abstract.
First, we have the concept of Heb. sedeq — what is correct and true, especially according to expectations between people, and between people and God.
“You shall have sedeq balances, sedeq weights, your ‘ephah’ (a unit of dry measure) shall be sedeq, and your ‘hin’ (a unit of liquid measure) shall be sedeq.”
(There are numerous verses along the same lines.)
Second, we have the concept of Heb. mispat — which is an administered judgment with overtones of sedeq (and especially when it’s God’s judgment).
Job 34:10-12 (Elihu, speaking on God’s behalf)
“Therefore, listen to me, you men of understanding. Far be it from God to do wickedness, and from the Almighty to do wrong. For He pays a man according to his work, and makes him find it according to his way. Surely, God will not act wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert mispat.”
Scripture explodes with vivid articulations of mispat, and how mispat is perverted: Through equity (sedeq) failures.
(The concepts are not synonymous, but so interrelated that they are paired together dozens and dozens of times.)
Sometimes these failures are due to favoritism, like preferring one person over another with no warrant.
“You shall do no iniquity in mispat; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor with sedeq.”
Other failures can be through excess or recklessness.
For example, Abraham appealed to God not to destroy Sodom because of collateral damage against some hypothetical number of good people — and how this would violate mispat.
“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do mispat?”
God’s mispat Judgment, of course, will be sedeq — that is, it will not be a show of favoritism, and will not be excessive.
“Let all creation rejoice before the Lord! For He comes, He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in sedeq, and the people with His faithfulness.”
Third, we have Heb. aph — furious anger, fuming through the nostrils, often described as “kindled” and “burning.” (There are other “flavors of wrath” as well, but we’ll focus on aph here.)
And here’s where it gets complicated.
We know that aph and mispat/sedeq can be expressed simultaneously — God’s “just wrath.”
Consider Eliphaz’s ranting, false claim that Job’s children must have sinned to cause their deaths:
“Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed? According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity and those who sow trouble harvest it. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of His aph they come to an end.”
Eliphaz’s buddy Bildad backs him up:
“Does God pervert what is mispat? Does the Almighty pervert sedeq? When your children sinned against Him, He sent them away for their sin.”
(When Job stands his ground, insisting that these misfortunes were not sedeq, Bildad retreats to a catch-all — ‘all people are terrible’ (Job 26:4-6), so whatever suffering befalls them is legit. Job correctly responds that this is less-than-useless; “catch-all depravity theodicy” would make God’s mispat meaningless.)
But when Elihu — speaking on behalf of God — comes on the scene, he throws a curveball, and interrupts the bickering with a fresh, revelatory picture of God’s ways. (More about Elihu.)
Elihu agrees that God’s aph brings punishment to the wicked (Job 35:15), but rightly insists that God’s loftiness makes our sins less injurious against God, not more (Job 35:6, 8).
God may express aph, but:
“God is mighty but despises no one; he is mighty, and firm in purpose.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
And this isn’t the only place we see this. In Scripture, mispat/sedeq are frequently portrayed as something “less intense” than aph, even subduing or metering aph in service of purpose and productivity.
“Lord, do not rebuke me in your aph or discipline me in your hot displeasure. Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.”
“Discipline me, Lord, but only in mispat — not in your aph, or you will reduce me to nothing.”
Notice that? Mispat for a set of infractions is explicitly juxtaposed against an excessive (beyond mispat) reaction of “ceasing to be.” You can say it’s aph to obliterate somebody for any amount of sin, but you cannot say it is mispat.
Mispat and aph don’t seem like unconditional pals anymore, do they?
“‘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 in mispat; I will not let you go entirely unpunished.'”
“‘Do not be afraid, Jacob my servant, for I am with 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 in mispat; I will not let you go entirely unpunished.'”
Here again we see that a mispat reaction — a “Biblical justice” reaction — is tailored to specific infractions.
Boolean extremes need not apply at the court of mispat.
But how can this be? Is this a contradiction? How can mispat/sedeq and aph play nicely together one moment, but mispat/sedeq be defined against aph the next?
Scripture supplies the answer: His aph lasts only for a moment (Psalm 30:5).
(We ought to have suspected something like this, since “time & circumstances” can break such apparent contradictions.)
In Scripture, God’s looming wrath is conveyed through all sorts of vivid, and often frightening, and sometimes humorous, illustrations:
- Broken bones
- Total obliteration (no corpse; all memory wiped out)
- Slaughter (corpse; memory remains, in shame)
- Weapons disarmed
- Exposed loins
But his purposes remain supreme. Any aph “only for a moment” shall not override God’s expressed “as surely as I live” interests.
Implications for Eschatology
In discussions about the nature of God’s Judgment and the Second Death, it’s really common to see folks come to the table with assumptions that act as “filters” on Scriptural imagery.
Indeed, which “road” you take at the multi-pronged eschatological “fork” is largely about buying into one set of stipulations and/or heuristics over another. Anybody who’s spent time and self-critical honesty in the nitty-gritty knows that there’s no proposal that fits “cleanly”; each proposal, if it is coherent, must relax some things and treat other things at full, face-value force.
Scripture ain’t simple on this topic. Period. Anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves (or trying to sell you their book).
But formal logic can serve as referee.
As long as we keep our philosophy “quiet” — doggedly resisting the temptations of utile ambiguity — we can derive powerful corollaries from bold Scriptural assertions like:
- God is abounding in love and mercy.
- God doesn’t ultimately despise anyone, but is firm in purpose (as such there may be ancillary disfavor, e.g., Rom. chs. 9-11).
- Mispat and sedeq are often “less than aph.”
- God’s aph lasts only for a moment.
- Even mispat and sedeq are subordinate to God’s purposes; the King can see fit to forgive debts, reinstate debts, and tailor the forms of equitable recompense to suit his plans (Matthew 18:21-35).
- God makes the sinner listen to correction.
- God’s arm is never too short.
- God’s practice of mispat and sedeq is upon and from a throne established in love.
And these bold assertions, and their direct corollaries, point to a particular set of eschatological stipulations/heuristics — one of the “big three” early Christian teachings on Judgment — as a forthright and powerful compass.
You’ve heard this hand-waving chestnut before: “God is loving, sure. But, he is also just.”
When do folks typically say this?
They typically say this when they want to rationalize a proposal that is otherwise plainly suboptimal in terms of God’s stated “as surely as I live” interests.
This only “flies” if Biblical justice is an ambiguous logical wildcard that rationalizes any old punishment at all.
The real complexity of Biblical justice — when the straightforward definition collides with purpose-driven nitty-gritty — often makes people think they can get away with this.
But mispat tells a different story.
Stanrock, would you agree that God’s justice has been satisfied or propitiated in the death of Jesus Christ ?
Do you believe there any punishment or loss that Christians will suffer in the after life ? Are Christians going to be judged for their sins ?
There are tons of layers to atonement, and I don’t know exactly how it works (and I don’t think any person does).
I don’t think the term “Christian” has a 1:1 overlap with escaping all Judgment and full sanctification. See my views on the term “Christian” here: https://stanrock.net/2014/02/27/true-scotsmen-and-true-christians/
With that out of the way, I will say this:
Even in the wake of Christ’s sacrifice, there is Judgment and equitable recompense for misdeeds. Romans ch. 2 is the clearest, in the context of judgmentalism and hypocrisy. James echoes this in the first half of James ch. 2; if a person judges others without mercy, they will be judged without mercy (full justice instead).
Other passages include 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, where believers who fail to “build” undergo fiery trial and “zemio-” loss. 2 Corinthians 5:9-10 is also informative: “So we [believers] make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
Romans ch. 2 tells us a root problem that warrants “storing-up of God’s wrath”: An unrepentant heart. And this information is extremely useful for soteriology. It tells us why Scripture says we can have confidence in our salvation from punishment, while also telling us (Hebrews 10:19+, 2 Peter 2:20-22, 1 John 3:6) that we can forfeit that salvation from punishment through unrepentant sin. It tells us why Scripture puts such urgent emphasis on sanctification and a *working* faith (Galatians 5:6, James 2:14-26), even as it also emphasizes the turning-the-corner vitality of initial confession and regeneration.
Stanrock, thanks for the reply and I appreciate your thoughts.
As for the term “Christian”, I mean it in the most genuine sense of the word as a person who is born again believing in Jesus Christ. We are Christians by birth not by performance or works. A person is either “in Christ” or “in Adam” so it is a question of spiritual geography, if you will. So a Christian is a person who is in Christ by faith. Based on this base definition I will respond to your other comments.
First on a technical note, Christ’s sacrifice does not provide atonement as in the old testament sense. Hebrews takes many chapters to describe how Christ’s one sacrifice has for all time taken away sins forever. The word atonement used in the old testament is a shadow of the offering of Christ and while I understand why one would use the word atonement to explain what Jesus accomplished, we must also give credence to Jesus’ sacrifice was once and for all and not to be repeated like the OT sacrifices of bulls and goats. The word atonement appears in the new testament only one time in Romans 5:11 and its usage there is suspect at best.
Based on the one time and all encompassing sacrifice of Jesus described in the book of Hebrews, respectfully, I don’t see the “layers of atonement” that you speak of. Rather Hebrews 7:25 says we are saved completely (to the uttermost) because Jesus forever lives to make intercession for us.
Heb 7:25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
So our salvation is not based on or faithfulness as it was in the old covenant where God found fault with Israel. The new covenant is based on God’s faithfulness and not ours otherwise we would be right back into the old covenant again and that spells doom for all of us since we cannot be declared righteous by the law and our works.
As for the other scriptures you cited, let me say for now in a general sense that it appears you take these scriptures to be written exclusively to Christians and that every verse pertains to a born again believer. For example, when you cite that “we” must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, the “we” here refers to Christians and unbelievers, i.e. everyone. This is why Paul goes on to say “we persuade men”. He would not say this without an evangelistic point of view in mind. Later in the same chapter he urges to be “reconciled to God”. Surely he is not addressing believers here since they are already reconciled to God. So in summary, the new testament letters, although written to the churches, has an evangelistic goal in mind since Paul is wise enough to realize that not everyone “hanging out” with the church are truly saved and born again. So when we read this we must understand those verses that threaten judgment to be directed at the unconverted and the unrepentant person, the unbeliever.
If the Christian is subject to judgment then we must ask what he will be judged for ? Obviously for sins. But Jesus died and took away our sins, did He not ? So are we saved by Jesus + not committing any more sins ? It is very confusing to think that we are saved from our sins unless we commit sins ? Many would think that I am advocating license to sin. However, the true born again Christian has a new heart and does not want to sin at the core. The scriptures do not teach that fear of judgement or law does not teach us not to sin, rather, grace teaches us not to sin. It is the grace of God that gives us new life and makes us completely forever righteous that teaches us that sin does not work for us. Even in Romans 6 Paul does not threaten judgment when he says :
Rom 6:1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?
Rom 6:2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
With all due respect Stanrock, a life lived under the threat of judgment is a miserable life indeed. I know I did not address all of your points but I think you can probably see where I am coming from. I am sure you can run rings around me with scripture verses. All I can say is that context is king, and not all things written in the bible is directed at us.
Peace brother !
I spent many years growing up in the Conservative Baptist church, where the zeitgeist was firmly in the “eternal security” camp. But I no longer accept the assumptions that drive this, and do not agree that this outlook is in accord with Scripture.
If someone has escaped the corruption of the world by knowing Jesus Christ, would you say that they are a true Christian, with 100% salvic security? The Bible says that this person can yet become entangled in the world and be overcome, and be subject to a greater Judgment: “If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.” (2 Peter 2)
If someone receives knowledge of the truth and is sanctified by the blood of the covenant, would you say they’re a true Christian, with 100% salvic security? Scripture says this person can yet shrink back and be slated for the apoleia (lostness/destruction): “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.” (Hebrews 10)
Notice that the latter passage is RIGHT after Hebrews ch. 10 reiterates the Messianic promise: “‘Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.’ And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.”
How can this be? How can someone be forgiven, and then by failing to persevere — sliding back into unrepentant sin –be slated for the apoleia?
See the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18, where the King forgives and then reinstates a single debt.
Sorry, as an addendum to my comment on the Bema seat of Christ.
What I did not finish saying was that Christians are rewarded for their good works and judged for their sins and unbelievers are solely judged for their sins at the judgment seat of Christ. There are no rewards for the unbeliever but a fearful expectation of judgement.
Also, what Paul describes in this passage is the same event in Revelation concerning the white throne judgment and echoes the parable of Jesus regarding the sheep and goats.
Christians …. and NOT judged for their sins….
Stanrock, thanks for your response again. I will carefully study this out.
Stanrock, let me try to take each scripture one at a time. I will look at Matthew 18 later…..
The whole context of this chapter is false prophets and deceivers so I think there is a case of context here.
The person that gets entangled again only had knowledge of Jesus Christ, it does not follow that he was saved. He found a way of escape but instead of taking it, he turned back. There are those that take an interest and even join churches but are not in Christ. I have known many people like this myself as I’m sure you have to. It’s sad to see because the way for escape seems so near yet they don’t take it.
Verse 22 is telling also as it describes the dog returning to his vomit. Notice the person is called a dog and not some other more noble creature of that day (although I love dogs !). This person signified by a dog was never born again.
I will admit that this is a tough passage but let’s start by looking at the context of the book of Hebrews. Hebrews was written to Hebrews or Israelite’s of the day. Again it is logical to assume that not everyone reading this letter was saved just because they were hanging out with the church. Our Western concept of “accept Jesus as your personal Savior” (sinners prayer) is our own invention that has been around for about 200 years or less. In reality it may take people a lot of time to come to the knowledge of the truth and actually receive Christ. I believe the book of Hebrews is a good example of this as the emphasis in the whole book is belief on Jesus Christ versus the temple sacrifices and Torah. The only sin mentioned in the entire book of Hebrews is the sin of unbelief. What you have is people flirting with the message of Christ but not committing to it but rather trusting in the law and the old testament sacrificial system. Even the book of Acts echoes this struggle of law versus grace for the Hebrews of the day. There are numerous passages such striving to enter into His rest which clearly shows that certain passages are surely addressed to unbelievers. As Christians we have entered into His rest because we have ceased from our own works (good point for later).
Heb_4:10 For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.
So with the above as a backdrop, let’s look at a couple of points from verses 26 to 29.
Heb 10:26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,
Heb 10:27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.
Heb 10:28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses.
Heb 10:29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?
As for sinning deliberately, I believe this can only refer to the sin of unbelief based on the context of the book of Hebrews. How else would we outrage the Spirit of Grace ? Only unbelief can nullify the grace of God. All other sins are taken away by the grace of God because we know as sin abounds, grace much more abounds.
Moving to verse 29, this speaks of those “sanctified by the blood of the covenant” which is what you alluded to. If we remember that there were those that were in the church but not in Christ, this could mean that these ones that were in unbelief were in a sense set apart or “sanctified” because of the company they kept. There is a similar verse in 1 Cor 7:14 which states how the unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the believing spouse.
1Co 7:14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.
So it is possible the same meaning could apply here to point out that these persons that are in unbelief were never saved to begin with although they were in a sense sanctified by the company they kept.
The only other possibility is that a regenerated person becomes unregenerate. I don’t believe this is possible and we have 1 John 2:19 as a backup as well.
1Jn 2:19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.
Aside from my explanation, the implications of losing one’s salvation based on one’s performance is unstable ground to stand on. It goes against the logic of salvation by faith apart from works. If we are to believe that we can maintain our salvation by good behavior then the gospel is not good news but a death sentence and a miserable life lived on planet earth. At what point do we know that we have not insulted the Spirit of Grace ? As for forgiveness, are we forgiven when we stop sinning ? Or are we forgiven when we repent from our unbelief to faith in Christ ? I think the whole thing is very confusing if we take this approach and we must reconcile all of the scriptures even if it’s difficult.
I think it’s OK to use some simple logic in trying to decipher the meaning of certain texts like we have dealt with here. I am not saying we should condescend to buzz words like “eternal security” and try to make everything fit, but rather take the most clear scriptures such as Romans 6:23 and use them as a foundation. What would we say of God if He would revoke His eternal gift after He has already given it to us ?
Rom_6:23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I like Jesus’ parables of the sheep and goats, and the good/bad trees. Notice that a good tree “cannot” produce bad fruit. I think He’s teaching a black and white message here. You are either a sheep or a goat, not something in between. So is salvation, you either have it or you don’t have it.
If this gospel is as great as it is claimed to be then it must be something bigger than me and greater than my frail human weaknesses. The truth will always set you free and fear of judgement is that exact opposite of that. It’s eternal security or nothing for me because I have already concluded I cannot save myself and have ceased from my own works.
Peace my friend. Sorry for the length and thanks for the discourse.
Naz, one of our hang-ups is that we have a completely different view of Judgment. I have the view of Judgment — among the “Big Three” that existed in the early Church — whereby it is NOT Boolean and straightforward, and whereby the zoen aionion isn’t synonymous with what “eternal life” means to us in English: https://stanrock.net/2015/05/20/purgatorial-hell-faq/
Another one of our hang-ups is our different perspectives about what Paul meant by “works”; I share Wright’s assertion that Paul used the term euphemistically about works of the Law. James 2 is clear that faith-alone justification (getting right with God) is inadequate, and Paul would agree. Paul says, in Galatians 5:6, “The only thing that matters is faith, through love, working (pistis di agapes energoumene).” We can call that a “living faith” or “active faith,” but it is a persevering faith that remains repentant of sin. It is not something of which we can boast, of course. Why? Not, “Because it’s not something tangible; it’s something ethereal, mental, rather than energetic.” Rather, “Because it’s a gift of God, and not of ourselves.”
Because we have these two very different premises, it may not be possible to resolve this topic of conversation, at this time.
Stanrock, yes I agree that we will not resolve this at this time. Our concepts of sin, judgment and redemption are miles apart. However, I appreciate our short discussion. Thanks.
May I save this article to my hard drive?