Essay 6

The Scandal of God's Justice
Part 1

Robert D. Brinsmead


·        Introduction

·        The Linguistic Superiority,
The Importance and the Meaning
of the Word "Justice".

·        Resolving an Apparent
Anomaly in God's justice.

·        Notes and References




"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways", declares the Lord. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." --Isa 55:8,9. Perhaps nothing illustrates this passage of Scripture better than the biblical concept of justice.


The justice of God is so contrary to man's idea of justice that God's justice repeatedly takes man by surprise. God's justice is so amazing that it often leaves even his own people profoundly embarrassed and offended. Luther acknowledged that he could not understand Paul's gospel at first because he did not understand what the apostle meant when he said that the gospel revealed God's justice (Rom. 1:17).


The Reformer's concept of Gods justice was so influenced by Latin or Western thought that he could not understand why God's justice should cause him to sing and shout for joy. The Reformation was born when Luther began to understand the surprisingly kind face of God's justice. In the subsequent four hundred years Protestantism did little to develop Luther's path finding concept of God's justice.


Traditional Protestant theology was controlled more by Western views of Justice than by the Justice which God revealed in the gospel of his Son. Rather than allowing God's justice to radically redefine our understanding of justice, we have generally distorted the Bible with our own ideas.


In this investigation into the meaning of justice, we are not concerned with theological side issues. We are striking at the heart of the theological systems of Western Christianity. Such questions as the character of God, the meaning of the atonement and the nature of Christian ethics hinge on the biblical concept of justice.


The Linguistic Superiority,
The Importance and the
Meaning of the Word "Justice".


The English language has the word group righteous, righteousness and right-wise, and another word group just, justification and justify. The first group is derived from the Anglo-Saxon, while the second is from the Latin. The word righteousness is generally reserved for church and "God-talk". Justice is used to discuss concrete social and political issues on earth.


These linguistic differences tend to obscure the fact that the Bible does not use one word for righteousness and another for justice. And furthermore, neither do most other languages today. The Old Testament has one word-sadaq-for righteousness and justice. New Testament Greek also has one word dikaiosune. Thus,"justice is righteousness and righteousness is justice".


The Roman Catholic Douay Version of the Bible generally translates the Old Testament sadaq and the New Testament dikaiosune as "justice," while the Protestant King James Version usually translates them as "righteousness".


The word justice never appears in the King James Version of the New Testament, while the word righteousness is seldom found in the Douay Version.


Catholic dictionaries of the Bible generally prefer to discuss sadaq and dikaiosune under the heading of "justice", while Protestant dictionaries prefer "righteousness".


For the following reasons, we suggest that the word justice is preferable to the word righteousness when translating from the biblical Hebrew and Greek:


1. Righteousness has become too "churchy" and other-worldly. Justice is a word which ordinary people understand and use in their concrete earthly existence. The Bible speaks in the language of the common people rather than in the esoteric vocabulary of the scholar.


2. Righteousness tends to convey a heavenly piety which misses the earthy, robust call for concrete social ethics found in the Old Testament prophets.


3. When the word justice is substituted for righteousness, familiar texts often have more impact. Some become quite startling. For example, the psalmist's appeal for forgiveness on the ground of God's justice (Ps. 51:14) seems to contradict our association of God's justice with giving a person what he deserves. The word justice tends to be more shocking than righteousness-but the shock is often needed to bring the Bible to life.


4. When we use the word justice rather than righteousness, we are not so apt to miss the obvious fact that the biblical words justify and justification are simply grammatical variations of the word justice. As A. E. McCrath has said, "The concept of justification is inextricably linked with that of justice, both linguistically and theologically".


5. In the Hebrew, for example, justify is simply the verbal form of the word sadaq (justice), i.e., it means doing justice or having justice done to or for an object. The Importance of Justice (sadaq) is arguably the most important Old Testament word which describes the character and activity of God (see 2 Chron. 12:6: Neh. 9:8: Ps. 7:9: 103:17: 111:3; Jer 9:24; Dan. 9:14: Zeph. 3:5; Zech. 8:8). It is also the most apt single word which distinguishes God's people from the rest of mankind. There is absolutely no concept in the Old Testament with so central a significance for all the relationships of human life as that of [sadaq-justice]


6. Righteousness [justice] .. is for the Hebrews the fundamental character of God.


7. Justice is the heart of biblical theology. It is central to the message of the Bible. Our understanding of God's justice will therefore affect our view of the atonement, the last things, the church and the nature of Christian existence. If we radically change our concept of justice--and that is the purpose of this essay we must radically change our concept of the atonement, the church and Christian life. The Basic Meaning of justice, while the biblical concept of justice has many facets, we intend to isolate the basic meaning of the Old Testament word sadaq. Most scholars today warn against reading the Western idea of justice back into the Old Testament word sadaq. The equation of Hebrew and Western understandings of justice is frequently implicit in theological works: however, this assumption is utterly untenable, and is to be rejected.


8. Righteousness [justice] as it is understood in the OT is a thoroughly Hebraic concept, foreign to the Western mind and at variance with the common under-standing of the term.


9. A TWENTIETH-CENTURY reader encountering the word righteousness [justice] in Semitic texts must always be careful to adjust his thought and not to place this term in the categories to which our word righteousness has accustomed us.


10. There seems to be a consensus among Old Testament scholars that sadaq has two basic meanings (which are two aspects of one idea): 1. Sadaq has to do with relationships. Most scholars now follow von Rad, who says that sadaq "is out and out a term denoting relationship,"


11. i.e.. loyalty to a relationship. Thus, E. R. Achtemeier says: Righteousness [justice] is in the OT the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship, whether that relationship be with men or with God. Each man is set within a multitude of relationships: king with people, judge with complainants. priests with worshipers, common man with family, tribesman with community, community with resident alien and poor, all with God. And each of these relationships brings with it specific demands, the fulfillment of which constitutes righteousness. The demands may differ from relationship to relationship: righteousness in one situation may be unrighteousness in another. Further, there is no norm of righteousness outside the relationship itself. When God or man fulfils the conditions imposed upon him by a relationship he is, in OT terms, righteous.


12. When a party fulfils the demands of a relationship, that party conforms to what ought to be. Then a state of sadaq (justice) exists. Thus, sadaq "concerns the 'right order of things' -- i.e. the correct ordering of the world according to the divine intention."


13. Thus, some scholars say that justice is conformity to the created order of things. When even weights and measurements are true to what they ought to be, they are said to be sadaq, i.e., just (Lev. 19:36: Esek. 45:10). When sacrifices are what they ought to be, they also are said to be sadaq (Ps.4:5: 51:19). Justice in the Mighty Acts of God The special revelation of God does not take place in nature -- his created works- nor in abstract propositions about himself, nor in diffuse mystical experiences of the divine.


As far as the Bible is concerned, the special revelation of God takes place in history. History is the stuff of revelation. God is revealed by his mighty acts in history. The Old Testament is a record of God's mighty acts. The most dominant event in Israel's history was the Exodus. As far as Israel was concerned, God was "whoever it was" who brought Israel up out of Egypt.


The mighty act of the Exodus showed who God was and what he was like in the past, in the present and for the future. In the Old Testament the true worship of God--i.e., giving God his worth consists in reciting or rehearsing the mighty acts of God, especially recounting what God did in the Exodus. Thus:


Shout with joy to God, all the earth! Sing to the glory of his name; offer him glory and praise! Say to God, "How awesome are your deeds! So great is your power that your enemies cringe before you. All the earth bows down to you; they sing praise to you, they sing praise to your name." Selah Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works in man's behalf! He turned the sea into dry land, they passed through the river on foot -- come, let us rejoice in him. -Ps 66:1-6.


The biblical word which most adequately and most frequently sums up God's mighty acts is the word sadaq (justice). In these acts God's justice is published for all to see.


My mouth will tell of your righteousness [sadaq -justice], of your salvation all day long though I know not its measure I will come and proclaim your mighty acts. O Sovereign Lord; I will proclaim your righteousness [sadaq-justice], yours alone. Since my youth, O God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Ps.71:15-17.


Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise: his greatness no one can fathom. One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts. They will speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty, and I will meditate on your wonderful works. They will tell of the power of your awesome works, and I will proclaim your great deeds they will celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness [sadaq-justice]. Ps. 145:37: see also Judges 5:11; 1 Sam. 12:7; Ps. 19:24: 48:10: 71: Isa. 51:5-12: 56:1: Micah 6:4, 5.


As one reviews these and many other passages which witness to the justice of God in his mighty acts, one fact is made prominent by its remarkable repetitiveness:


God's justice is associated with his acts of salvation and deliverance, and with his deeds of mercy and forgiveness.
Justice = Salvation.


Deliver me in your [sadaq-justice].Ps. 31:1


My mouth will tell of your sadaq [justice], of your salvation all day long. Ps 71:15.


I am bringing my sadaq [justice] near; ...and my salvation will not be delayed. Isa 46:13.


My sadaq [justice] draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice [sadaq] to the nations. Isa. 51:5


For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of sadaq [justice]. -Isa. 61:10.


In 1 Samuel 12:7-12 God's justice plainly means his saving deeds in the deliverance of Israel (see also Judges 5:11). Justice = Mercy and Forgiveness Have mercy on me, O God,... blot out my transgressions. .. Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me, and my tongue will sing of your sadaq [justice]. Ps. 51:1, 14


Justice = Deliverance of the Oppressed Perhaps the justice of God is most prominent in those passages of Scripture which speak of delivering the oppressed. For example:


The Lord reigns forever; he has established his throne for judgment. He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice. The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed. A stronghold in times of trouble. Ps 9:7-9


The Lord is King for ever and ever; the nations will perish from his land. You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth may terrify no more. Ps. 10:16-18


You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them." -Ps 35:10.


The Lord works sadaq [justice] and mishpat [judgment] for all the oppressed Ps 103:6. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous.


The Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. Ps 146:79.


The Old Testament never tires of reciting God's deed in delivering the oppressed Hebrew slaves from Egypt. This event forever stamped God's justice as that which executes deliverance for all that are oppressed (Ps. 103:6).


If we may anticipate the New Testament gospel here, we would simply indicate that the resurrection is the preeminent event which proves that Gods justice works deliverance for all that are oppressed. Jesus was the most oppressed man who ever lived. The oppression of every son and daughter of Adam was summed up in him. But God's justice raised him from the dead in the real exodus of human history. (Luke 9:31)


Resolving an
Apparent Anomaly
in God's justice.


In Western thinking it is difficult to see that deeds of salvation and deliverance toward sinful people could be called an exercise of God's justice. We can readily understand that the overwhelming kindness toward undeserving people could be called "mercy," but to call it "justice" seems very strange. The consistency of biblical thought, however, will become clear if we relate God's saving acts to the basic meaning of sadaq.


Fundamentally, justice means faithfulness to a relationship, or being true to what God intended one to be. When justice is applied to God, it therefore means:


1. God is faithful to his covenant promise. God's covenant is not a conditional contract bilaterally concluded by two parties. It is a unilateral commitment or promise on Gods part to act toward his chosen covenant partner with overwhelming kindness and generosity.


From the beginning God has had a purpose of grace toward mankind (2 Tim. 1:9). He has had a commitment to fulfill this gracious purpose at any cost to himself. Thus, when God exercises his saving mercy toward sinful people, he is simply fulfilling his covenant promise.


Justice is God faithfully carrying out just what divine love had pledged to do. He is faithful in all he does.


The Lord loves sadaq [justice] Ps. 33:4, 5.


Will their [Israel's] lack of faith nullify Gods faithfulness?... Our unrighteousness brings out God's righteousness more clearly Rom 3:3-5.


It is not as though God's word had failed --Rom 9:6.


In these and many other passages Gods faithfulness to his covenant promise and his justice are equated. In both the OT and Paul, therefore, the primary meaning of divine justice is Gods merciful fidelity to His promises of eschatological salvation for His people despite His people's sins. The justice of God meant His fidelity to His covenantal promises.


2. Justice is the ordering of things according to the divine intention. Part of this "right order of things" is violated by the very existence of the poor and needy and especially of the oppressed: therefore, if sadaq [justice] is to be established God must deliver these unfortunates from their plight; for this reason, God's justice comes to be associated with God's liberating acts of salvation.


God's justice is even biased in favor of the poor and oppressed. This does not imply any unjust partiality. Justice would teach us that people who have suffered special deprivation should have special attention.


A mother of a large family was once asked which of her children she loved the most. She replied, "The one who is sick, until he is well: the one who is away, until he is home; the one who is disaffected, until he is reconciled. This is how it is with God's justice.


3. Another way to show that Gods justice is equated with his saving mercy is to show that justice is God's being true to himself. From the beginning God pledged himself to be overwhelmingly kind to undeserving people. He would be this because his love called him that way. Wherever human misery and need would exist, even though self-inflicted.


God would be irrevocably committed to the wretched. As Paul said, “He will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself. (2 Tim. 2:13). God's justice may therefore be defined as Gods acting for the sake of his name which is a biblical way of saying that God remains God. John Piper cites such passages as Psalm 143:1, 2: Isaiah 43:25: 44:23; 46:13; 48:9-11 and Daniel 9:7. 13-19 to show that God's justice is his absolute faithfulness always to act for his own name's sake and for the preservation and display of his glory."


Contrasting God's Concept of Justice and the Western Concept of Justice we are now ready to contrast the biblical concept of justice and the Western or Latin concept of justice. This will demonstrate the truth in E. R. Achtemeier's claim that the biblical view of justice is "foreign to the Western mind and at variance with the common understanding of the term."


1. It Is Not Distributive Justice. The Latin concept of justice was called justitia distributiva (distributive justice). This meant giving every man exactly what he deserves or merits. This became the standard Western idea of justice. It influenced the way the Western church read the Bible and interpreted many of the great doctrines of the Christian faith.


The justice of God's mighty acts, however, is not based on either the merits or demerits of people. If that were true, God's acts could not be called acts of justice. God's justice is based on his being true to what he has promised in his gracious covenant. If God is to be just, he must be true to his commitment to help and to save wretched, undeserving people.


This biblical idea of justice, first presented in the Old Testament, is beautiful and powerful in its utter simplicity. Nevertheless, Western theology insists that justice must somehow be related to what man deserves (distributive justice).


In order to preserve this supposed justice of God, Western theology has had to resort to legal manipulation in an act of atonement in which God is forced to respect the principle of distributive justice.


Or even worse, God becomes a celestial Shylock so passionately committed to the principle of distributive justice that he must have his pound of flesh (this is called (satisfying God's justice") before he can forgive.


2. It Is Not Justice in Tension with Mercy. In Western theology justice is the opposite of mercy. The classical Latin theory of the atonement--generally regarded as orthodox in the Western church-is based on a supposed tension between justice and mercy. It is said that this tension between justice and mercy was overcome by Christ, who reconciled the prerogatives of both by his death on the cross.


But it is not difficult to show from the Old Testament that sadaq often has the meaning of mercy A.E. McGrath, for example, shows that the translators of the Septuagint were repeatedly forced to use the Greek word eleemosune (mercy) to translate the Hebrew word sadaq. When the Bible was translated into Latin, this became misericordia-meaning mercy. Because the force of the original Hebrew was lost, there was a tendency to set justice and mercy in opposition. McGrath says: It is clear that a considerable misunderstanding of the Old Testament text could result at this point, perhaps resulting in the setting up of a tension between God's misericordia [mercy] and iustitia [justice] where no such tension is warranted by the text itself. In light of this evidence, we need to rethink the traditional ideas about the cross "satisfying God's justice." The great emphasis in the New Testament is on fulfilling his ancient promise concerning mercy and salvation. There is no tension between justice and mercy here. God satisfied justice by doing for poor, lost, sinful humanity everything he had planned from the beginning.


3. It Is Not Primarily a Punitive justice. Justice which is distributive (i.e., giving to every man his due) and which is the opposite of mercy inevitably becomes equated with God's act of punishing men for their sins. If forgiveness is extended to them, it is only because the punishment fell on Calvary substitutionary victim.


What fell on Christ is called "justice" (according to the traditional interpretation of Romans 3:25, 26), while the pardon granted the believer is called "mercy". This classical Latin theory of the atonement reinforces the idea that God's justice is primarily punitive. No wonder Luther trembled when he read in Paul that God's justice is revealed in the gospel!


Later, Luther came to see from the Old Testament evidence that God's justice is primarily saving and liberating. McGrath states that "the Hebrew [sadaq] cannot bear the sense 'to punish' or 'to condemn'.


E. R Achtemeier says: Yahweh's righteousness is never solely an act of condemnation or punishment There is no verse in the OT in which Yahweh'S righteousness is equated with his vengeance on the sinner, and not even Isa 5:16 or 10:22 should be understood in such a manner.


Because his righteousness is his restoration of the right to him from whom it has been taken, it at the same time includes punishment of the evildoer; but the punishment is an integral part of the restoration. Only because Yahweh saves does he condemn. His righteousness is first and foremost saving. He is a "righteous God and a Savior".


While same scholars argue (on the basis of such texts as 1 Kings 8:32; 2 Chronicles 12:6: Isaiah 5:13-17: 10:22; Lamentations 1:8 and Daniel 9:13-19) that God's sadaq can sometimes be equated with God's vengeance on the sinner, it is still true that God's sadaq generally has the positive meaning of deliverance, help and salvation.


Yet deliverance of the oppressed implies destruction of the oppressor. As Stendahl declares: When God's judgment falls, it is mercy to those wronged and doom for those who have done wrong or perpetuated and profited from the wrong of others. 


4. It Is Not a justice Which Is Primarily Associated with Gloom and Doom. Distributive justice--justice which is the opposite of mercy, justice primarily concerned with the punishment of sinners inevitably has overtones of gloom and doom. The faithful may sing of mercy, but even angels are supposed to tremble at the thought of justice. In the tradition of the Western church, justice and judgment primarily carry the connotations of gloom and doom. In the Bible, however, the justice of God is something to sing and shout about.


The people of the Old Testament often exult in songs of unrestrained joy as they experience or anticipate the manifestation of God's justice (Judges 5:11: Ps. 96:10-13: 97:6-12; 98; 99). The Old Testament especially associates justice with the coming reign of God.


In the Bible the kingdom of God and the justice of God are virtually synonymous terms (Matt. 6:33). If the Old Testament anticipates the kingdom of God-the reign of justice-with singing, what shall we say of the New Testament, which everywhere announces the actual presence of that kingdom in the person of the Messiah? Is not the inauguration of this reign of justice celebrated with great joy (Luke 2:10-14) and with eating and drinking? When Jesus continually says that the "kingdom of God is like ....." we may substitute, the justice of God is like ..."


If we read his parables and teaching this way, we will be forcefully impressed that God's justice is indeed an overwhelming surprise which completely overturns our human concepts of justice.


Notes and References


Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from the New international Version


1. See Martin Luther. "Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther's Latin Writings: Wittenberg, 1545 Career of the Reformer: 1V, ed. Lewis W Spitz, Luther's Works, American ed. 54 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House; Philadelphia: Mulenberg Press. 1955-1975) 34:336-37


2. See Sidney Rooy. "Righteousness, and Justice." Evangelical Review of Theology 2 (Oct. 1982): 260-65


3. The English language distinguishes between "justice' and 'righteousness' in the world one speaks about justice, and in the church one speaks about righteousness. Rut Hebrew, Greek, and Latin do not offer that distinction" (Krister Stendahl. judgment and Mercy in Alexander J. McKelway and E David Willis, eds., The Context of Contemporary Theology: Essays in Honor of Paul Lebmann [Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1974], p 149)


4. Rooy. "Righteousness and Justice." p 265


5. A.E. McGrath, Justice and Justification: Sematic and Juristic Aspects of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. "Scottish Journal of Theology 35, no. 5 (1982): 404-5


6. Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology vol I. The Theology of Israel's Historical Traditions, tr. D.M.G. Stalker (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1962), p70.


7. Alan Richardson. An introduction to the Theology of the New Testment (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers. 1958). P 79.


8. McGrath, "Justice and Justification," p. 405.


9. E.R. Achtemeier, "Righteousness in the OT," George Arthur Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 4:80.


10. H. Cazelles, quoted in Lester J. Kuyper, "Righteousness and Salvation." Scottish Journal of Theology 30. No 3(1977): 233.


11. Von Rad, Israel's Historical Traditions, p. 371.


12. Achtemeier, "Righteousness in the OT," p 80. See also George Eldon Ladd, who defines sadaq as "faithfulness to a relationship" (George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974] p. 440


13. McGrath, "Justice and Justification," p 407.


14. A.E. McGrath states, "Justice is essentially a theological concept, reflexing the rectitude of the created order" (ibid, p 415). Graeme Goldsworthy declares, "The order of creation is the paradigm of righteousness, not as a static or abstract idea, but as a dynamic relational structure of reality determined by the sovereign Creator." (Graeme Goldsworthy, "The Old Testament and Christian Existence." Verdict 3, no 1 [Mar. 1980]:31)


15. Art. "justice of God," New Catholic Encyclopedia (Palatine, 111.: Publishers Guide, 1966), 8:74.


16. Art. "Justice of Men," New Catholic Encylopedia, 8:75.


17. Mc Grath, "justice and Justification," p 407.


18. See John Piper, "The Demonstration of the Righteousness of God in Romans 3:25,26, "Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Issue 7 (Apr. 1980): 2-32. It seems unfortunate that Piper felt compelled to argue that God's justice means faithfulness to his name and not faithfulness to his covenant. The two definitions are not mutually exclusive but necessarily complementary, ie. Two aspects of one great reality. Piper is therefore right in what he affirms but wrong in what he denies.


19. Achtemeier, "Righteousness in the OT," p. 80.


20. The famous Greek version of the Old Testament (c.200 B.C.) was called the Septuagint or LXX because tradition suggests that is was the work of seventy Jewish translators.


21. See Ps. 24:5; 33:5; 35:24; 103:6; Isa. 56:1; Dan. 9:24.


22. McGrath, "Justice and Justification," p. 412. McGrath presents the following table to demonstrate that the Septuagint translators employed two main terms to translate sadaq: dikaiosune and eleemosune, the choice depending upon the apparent meaning of sadaq in the passage concerned (p. 410):


23. Ibid., p. 411.


24. Achtemeier, "Righteousness in the OT," p 83.


25. Stendahl, "Judgment and Mercy," p 150


Copyright © 1983-2008 Robert D. Brinsmead