The Righteousness and Justice of God

by Herman Bavinck

Closely related to this holiness is the righteousness [justice; Dutch, gerechtigheid] of God. The words צַדִּיק, צֶדֶק, and צְדָקָה describe the state of a law-abiding person. The first meaning seems to be a forensic one: צַדִּיק is one who is proved right before a trial judge and therefore has to be acquitted (הִצְדִּיק versus the הִרְשִׁיעַ; Deut. 25:1). It is also the word for a person who is right in a dispute or debate (Job 11:2; 33:12, 32; Isa. 41:26), and the substantive, accordingly, can denote the correctness or truth of an assertion (Ps. 52:3; Prov. 16:13; Isa. 45:23). Further, it means in general that a person is right, even aside from a trial or court, and hence that a person has the right on his or her side, is righteous and good, and in step with the law (Gen. 30:33; 38:26; 1 Sam. 24:18; Ps. 15:2). From here the word crosses into the sphere of religion and is applied to God. God is only twice called צַדִּיק in the Pentateuch (Exod. 9:27; Deut. 32:4). God’s righteousness is first of all manifested in history, in his government of the world, and in his providential guidance of Israel, and is therefore especially developed by psalmists and prophets. It is revealed everywhere and extends even to wild animals (Ps. 36:7). God is the Judge of all the earth (Gen. 18:25). It consists in that God repays everyone according to his or her works, treating the righteous one way and the wicked another (Gen. 18:25). It is noteworthy, however, that God’s remunerative justice is far more prominent in Scripture than his retributive justice. Diestel rightly called attention to this fact,162 and the idea has been endorsed by many, including especially Ritschl.163 

The matter itself, later known in dogmatics as vindictive or retributive justice, is not lacking. On the contrary, God by no means holds the guilty to be innocent (Exod. 20:7; Neh. 1:3ff.); he does not spare the wicked (Ezek. 7:4, 9, 27; 8:18; 9:10). He does not regard persons or take bribes (Deut. 10:17), his judgment is impartial (Job 13:6–12; 22:2–4; 34:10–12; 35:6–7). He is righteous and all his judgments are righteous (Ps. 119:137; 129:4); the punishment of the wicked is often ascribed to God’s righteousness (Exod. 6:5; 7:4; Ps. 7:11; 9:4–8; 28:4; 62:12; 73; 96:10, 13; 2 Chron. 12:5–7; Neh. 9:33; Lam. 1:18; Isa. 5:16; 10:22; Dan. 9:14; Rom. 2:5; 2 Thess. 1:5–10). It is also true, however, that the punishment of the wicked is usually inferred from God’s wrath, and that the righteousness of God especially comes to the fore in Scripture as the principle of salvation for God’s people. In Hebrew there are many words for the wrath of God: אַף, חָרוֹן, כַעַס, זַעַם, רֹגֶז, קֶצֶף, usually translated by wrath and anger; חֵמָה is usually rendered as fury; עֶבְרָה is usually translated by wrath; in the Septuagint and New Testament θυμος means internal wrath, and ὀργη extraverted wrath; the two are combined in Romans 2:8 (wrath and fury). This wrath—the basic words for which relate in part to the verb “to burn,” in part express a vehement, uncontrollable emotion—is often compared to a burning (Lev. 10:6; Deut. 32:22; Ps. 21:9), a fire (Deut. 32:22; 2 Kings 23:26; Ps. 2:11; Isa. 30:27; Jer. 15:14; 17:4), and is therefore called “hot” (Ps. 58:9; Deut. 13:17; 2 Chron. 28:11; Job 20:23; Isa. 13:9, 13) and “smoking” (Deut. 29:27–28; Ps. 74:1). It is kindled by Israel’s sins against the theocratic covenant of God: breach of oath (Josh. 9:20), the desecration of God’s service (Lev. 10:6; Num. 1:53; 16:46; 18:5), idolatry (Deut. 9:8), the sins of Manasseh (2 Kings 23:26) and David (1 Chron. 27:24), and especially the sins committed by the people, which deserve a range of punishments (Isa. 42:24–25; Jer. 7:20; 21:5; 32:31; etc.; Lam. 2:2ff.; 3:43; Ezek. 5:13ff.; 7:3; 13:1; etc.; Zech. 7:12ff.). 

This wrath is terrible (Ps. 76:7), inspires dread (Ps. 2:5; 90:7), brings pain (Job 21:17; Ps. 102:10), punishment (Ps. 6:1; 38:1; Jer. 10:24), and destruction (Jer. 42:18; 2 Chron. 29:8; etc.; cf. Job 9:5; Ps. 21:9; 56:7; 85:3–5).164 As is clear from Deuteronomy 6:15; 29:20; 32:21ff.; Job 16:9; Nahum 1:2, yhwh’s hatred, vengeance jealousy, and wrath are closely related. yhwh’s hatred almost always has sinful deeds for its object (Deut. 16:22; Ps. 45:7; Prov. 6:16; Jer. 44:4; Hos. 9:15; Amos 5:12; Zech. 8:17; Rev. 2:6), only rarely sinful persons (Ps. 5:6; Mal. 1:3; Rom. 9:13). The vengeance (נְקָמָה, ἐκδικησις) ascribed to God (Nah. 1:2; 1 Thess. 4:6) and expressly reserved to God (Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30) sometimes also manifests itself in judgment (Num. 31:2–3; Judg. 5:2 kjv; 11:36; 16:28; 2 Sam. 4:8; 22:48; Ps. 18:47; 99:8) but will only fully reveal itself in all its power in the future, in the day of wrath (Deut. 32:41–42; Ps. 94:1; 149:7; Isa. 34:8; 35:4; 59:17; 61:2, 4; Jer. 46:10; 50:15, 28; 51:11; Ezek. 25:14ff.; Mic. 5:14). God’s jealousy (קִנְאָה, ζηλος), mentioned repeatedly (Exod. 20:5; 34:14; Deut. 4:24; 5:9; 6:15; Josh. 24:19; Nah. 1:2), is provoked when Israel, yhwh’s bride, violates his rights as groom and husband by following after other gods (Deut. 32:16, 21; 1 Kings 14:22; Ps. 78:58; Ezek. 8:3, 5), and manifests itself when yhwh on his part provokes Israel to jealousy by choosing another people (Deut. 32:21; Ps. 79:5; Ezek. 5:13; 16:38; 23:25; Rom. 10:19). 

Now, in the context of all these attributes, God’s righteousness is most often conceived in a favorable sense and described as the attribute by virtue of which God vindicates the righteous and raises them to a position of honor and well-being. One can in fact to some extent trace the route by which the term “righteousness” developed in this sense in the Old Testament. Already in the law the judge and every Israelite in general is repeatedly urged to demonstrate a sense of justice by not perverting the justice due to the poor, not slaying the innocent and righteous, not accepting bribes, and not oppressing the alien, the widow, and the orphan (Exod. 23:6–9). Justice consists in not regarding the person, in hearing the small and the great alike, in not fearing a person’s face, for judgment is for the Lord (Deut. 1:16–17; 16:19; Lev. 19:15). The righteous must be acquitted and the wicked condemned (Deut. 25:1)—that was the rule for kings, judges, and every Israelite. 

The actual situation, however, was not at all in keeping with this law. Prophets, psalmists, and the writers of proverbs incessantly complain about the dreadful reality that there was no justice for the poor, widows, orphans, aliens, and the needy, even though the right was completely on their side and they were righteous and pious. Hence, frequently there was no justice for the truly faithful; in the courts and in daily life they were routinely judged wrongly, ignored, oppressed, and persecuted. Accordingly, they hope eagerly for the future, the Messiah, who will be the righteous Branch (Jer. 23:5ff.), the righteous One (Zech. 9:9), who will not judge by what his eyes see but with righteousness (Isa. 11:3–5). His judgment above all will consist in helping and saving the needy, who are now being ignored and oppressed and call in vain for justice; in having pity on the poor; and in redeeming their life (Ps. 72:12–14). Hence, the exercise of justice would especially be apparent in the redemption of the wretched. Thus, doing justice with an eye to the needy becomes an act of grace and mercy. 

All this is now applied to God; rather, it is fundamentally and originally true of him. yhwh is the true judge. He only judges justly and does not regard the person of the defendant, and therefore, the judges must judge similarly (Exod. 23:7; Deut. 1:17), and the Messiah will one day also judge in this manner. God is completely righteous and acts in accordance with justice. His righteousness (צדקה) consists especially in recognizing and bringing to light the righteousness of the just and causing it to triumph. He is righteous because he bestows salvation on the faithful. He saves them (Ps. 7:10), delivers them (31:1), answers them (65:5), hears them (143:1), rescues them (143:11), gives them life (119:40), acquits them (34:22), vindicates them (35:24), and so on, while the wicked miss being enrolled among the righteous (69:27–28). 

yhwh’s righteousness therefore is not, like his anger (69:24ff.), opposed to his steadfast love but is closely akin and synonymous with it (Ps. 22:31; 33:5; 35:26–27; 40:10–11; 51:14; 89:14; 145:7; Isa. 45:21; Jer. 9:24; Hos. 2:18–20; Zech. 9:9). The manifestation of God’s righteousness is simultaneously the manifestation of his grace (Ps. 97:11–12; 112:3–6; 116:5; 118:15–19). Even the forgiveness of sins is due to God’s righteousness (Ps. 51:14; 103:8–12, 17; 1 John 1:9). Hence, the revelations of that righteousness are acts of salvation, rescue, and deliverance (Judg. 5:11; 1 Sam. 12:7; Ps. 103:6; Isa. 45:24, 25; Mic. 6:5). This soteriological character of God’s righteousness strikingly stands out especially in Isaiah. Though Israel is a sinful people and has therefore been severely punished (Isa. 43:26; 48:1; 53:11; 57:12; 59:4; 64:5), yet over against the Gentiles, Israel is in the right. Despite all its transgressions Israel’s cause is righteous; ultimately, the right is on its side. Accordingly, when Israel has been sufficiently chastised, God’s righteousness will reawaken and recognize that right, and deliver his people from all their misery (Isa. 40:1ff.; 54:5, 7ff.; 57:15ff.; 61:1ff.). And this is how things stand with all the faithful. Personally, they are sinners; they are guilty of a whole array of unrighteous things; and as a people they are poor and miserable. But they stand for a righteous cause; they trust in the Lord and expect that he will give them justice, argue their case, and crown them with his salvation (Ps. 17:1ff.; 18:19–21; 34:15; 103:6; 140:12). 

This salvation will not consist merely in the outward blessings of prosperity and peace, but above all in the forgiveness God gives to his people, in the Spirit he pours out upon them, in the new heart he gives them, and in the law he inscribes on their heart, so that they will walk before his face in perfection. In a word, salvation consists in God’s being fully their God and in their being completely his people (Isa. 43:25; Jer. 31:33, 34; 32:39–40; 33:8; Ezek. 11:19; 36:25; Joel 2:28ff.). Yet this people—which now confesses the name of the Lord and is righteous in his cause—is still sinful and impure (Isa. 43:26ff.; 53:4–6; 59:2ff., 12ff.) and can only be redeemed from that sin by the Lord. In him alone are righteousness and strength (Isa. 45:24), not only for Israel but for Gentile peoples as well (Isa. 2:2ff.; 45:22). The Lord will give his justice to his people by the Messiah, who will bring forth justice to the Gentiles (Isa. 42:1), and the Lord will create a new heaven and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (Isa. 65:17ff.). The righteousness of the Lord vis-à-vis his people consists, finally, in giving them his righteousness. Although righteousness and salvation are thus closely interconnected, it is wrong to use them interchangeably. Righteousness is not the same as favor, mercy, or grace; neither is it something like covenant faithfulness (Diestel, Ritschl, Kautzsch, et al.); nor does it signify the positive as opposed to salvation as the negative (Davidson). Righteousness is and remains a forensic term; but in the Old Testament it was viewed as the most important task of people and the strongest proof of righteousness for them to protect the oppressed and to save the wretched from the injustice and persecution to which they are exposed. This is that in which the righteousness of God consisted, and therefore this defense of the rights of the oppressed also had to be the primary task of the judges and kings of the earth. 

Now, the concept of righteousness, thus defined, also passes from the Old to the New Testament. The righteousness of God (δικαιοσυνη θεου) consists in the fact that through and by the Messiah it proceeds to bring righteousness to his people: in Christ it offers a means of atonement, which proves God to be righteous; is able to justify the believer; and also grants forgiveness to (1 John 1:9), and bestows salvation on, his own (John 17:25; 2 Tim. 4:8). Finally, even God’s anger and jealousy, his hatred and vengeance, are made subservient to the salvation and redemption of his people. His anger is but for a moment (Ps. 30:5; 78:38; 85:5; 103:9; Isa. 10:25; 48:9; 51:22; 54:8; Jer. 3:12ff.; 32:37; Ezek. 43:7–9; Dan. 9:16; Hos. 14:4; Mic. 5:15), and his jealousy will depart from Israel (Ezek. 16:42; 36:6ff.; Zech. 8:2ff.). Then his wrath, jealousy, and vengeance will turn against the enemies of his people in the great day of anger and vengeance (Deut. 32:41–42; Isa. 13:2ff.; 26:11; 30:27ff.; 34:8; 35:4; 41:11; 59:17; 61:2, 4; 63:3ff.; Jer. 10:25; 46:10; 50:15, 28; 51:11; Lam. 3:66; Ezek. 25:14ff.; 38:19; 39:25; Mic. 5:15; Nah. 1:2; Hab. 3:12; Zeph. 1:14ff.; 2:2), and thereby provide blessing and redemption to his people (2 Kings 19:31; Isa. 9:6; 37:32; Joel 2:18; Zech. 1:14; 8:2). In the same vein the New Testament says that, though God’s wrath rests on the wicked now already (John 3:36; Eph. 2:3; 1 Thess. 2:16), the manifestation of that wrath in all its terror is reserved for the future (Matt. 3:7; Luke 3:7; 21:23; Rom. 5:9; 1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6; Rev. 6:16–17; 11:18; 14:10; 16:19; 19:15).165 

In dogmatics, as a rule, the term “righteousness” was given a much broader meaning than it has in Scripture. Sometimes its meaning was extended to include God’s perfection and holiness. Righteousness was then equated with virtue and became the sum of all virtues, existing in God as perfect harmony with himself (divine righteousness). Usually, however, theology took it in a more restricted sense, following Aristotle. The latter defined it in his Nicomachean Ethics as “the virtue by virtue of which each possesses what belongs to him or herself.”166 Justice is possible only in a society of beings who can possess a greater or lesser quantity of goods. It does not exist among the gods because there is no standard determining how much they may possess, nor among irrational creatures because they cannot be said to possess goods. Justice, therefore, first of all presupposes that there are certain rights established by a lawgiver. So we speak of “legislative justice.” Justice next presupposes that by means of treaties and contracts these rights will be respected on both sides reciprocally. This is called “commutative justice.” And finally, justice presupposes that the existing rights are maintained, which produces “distributive justice.” They are maintained either by rewarding conformity (remunerative justice) or by punishing nonconformity (retributive justice). In all cases justice is “the constant and perpetual desire to grant every person his or her due.” 

ll this was applied to God. Thus the term “righteousness” in dogmatics acquired a much broader meaning than it has in Scripture. Now there is no overriding objection to this, provided the difference in use is kept in mind, for the issues treated in dogmatics under the heading of “the justice of God” all clearly occur in Scripture. There is even an advantage in our discussing the term in the broader sense, because it affords us an opportunity to defend God’s justice in its full scope against its assailants. The Gnostics in general and Marcion in particular drew a sharp contrast between law and gospel, works and faith, flesh and spirit, and similarly between the God of wrath, vengeance, and justice who revealed himself in the Old Testament, and the God of love and grace who revealed himself in Christ in the New Testament.167 Later, in essentially the same sense, God’s justice, specifically God’s punitive justice, was denied to him by many theologians as being in conflict with his love. Now, associated with God’s justice there are many difficulties: in the case of God one cannot conceive of a law that is above him and to which he would have to conform, for his will is the supreme law. Before God creatures do not have rights or claims, for they have received all things from his hands and have not given him anything in return; they cannot claim a reward, for even “when [they] have done everything [they] were told to do,” they are still “unworthy servants” [Luke 17:10 niv]. Also, there seems to be nothing in God’s nature that would compel him to mete out punishment. Why should he who is omnipotent not be able to forgive without demanding satisfaction or exacting punishment? However, in order not to digress too far from the biblical concept of justice (or righteousness), it is better to discuss these questions later, in connection with God’s will and freedom. 

[The order of] justice, in the Bible, is not a property of God’s “absolute dominion” but rests on a moral foundation.168 Though one must grant that in the nature of the case creatures can have no rights before God (Rom. 11:35; 1 Cor. 4:7), nor put him under obligation (justitia commutativa),169 yet it is God himself who gives his creatures “rights” (so to speak). By virtue of creation every creature has received a distinct nature of its own. Laws and ordinances exist for all created things; there are “rights” structured into the very existence and nature of all existing beings. Such rights have above all been accorded to rational creatures and among them again for all the areas of life in which they function, for the intellect and the heart, soul and body, art and science, family and society, religion and morality. And when those rights have been forfeited by human sin, God makes a “covenant of nature” with Noah and a “covenant of grace” with Abraham, acts by which he again, out of sheer grace, grants to his creatures an array of rights and binds himself by an oath to maintain these rights. Thus, by the grace of God, a complete order of justice was established, in the realm both of nature and of grace, an order encompassing an array of ordinances and laws that he himself maintains and makes effective. In Scripture, however, these ordinances and laws are not derived from God’s justice—what kind of justice after all would obligate him to do that?—but from his holiness and grace. And this way of putting it is certainly better than to describe them as “legislative justice” (justitia legislativa). Still, this is not wrong provided the idea is not that by virtue of some kind of justice God was morally bound to grant all these rights to his creatures. The element of truth present here, however, is that God is the supreme Lawgiver, and that the entire order of justice undergirding every domain of life is rooted in him. All laws and rights, whatever they may be, have their ultimate ground, not in a social contract, nor in self-existent natural law or in history, but in the will of God, viewed not as “absolute dominion” but as a will of goodness and grace. God’s grace is the fountainhead of all laws and rights. 

God maintains that order of justice, moreover, in every domain of life. He who is justice in person and the author of all law is also the arbiter and vindicator of justice. His legislative justice includes his judicial justice. Law is not law unless it is enforced, if necessary, by coercion and punishment. This order of justice, of course, does not automatically include the means of maintaining it. This order would have existed even apart from sin, but it would be obeyed voluntarily and out of love by all creatures without any coercion. It is sin that forces the order of justice, in keeping with its nature, to compel respect by means of violence and coercion. Not justice as such, but the coercive character it is now forced to assume, is due to sin. This coercive character, however, far from being arbitrary or accidental, is so necessary now that apart from it we cannot even conceive of justice, a fact attested by our own conscience. The moral order, rather than being in conflict with the order of justice, upholds, demands, and supports it. Justice is an important component of morality. Justice above all is the way in which the grace and love of God are maintained and made to triumph. Those who, with Marcion, assume that justice and grace are antithetical to each other deny the connection between the moral order and the order of justice and do not understand the majesty and glory of the law. Accordingly, God’s justice by its very nature has to be judicial and hence be “remunerative,” on the one hand, and “retributive,” on the other. It is not that a creature could ever have an inherent claim to any reward or be intrinsically unable to receive forgiveness apart from punishment. But God owes it to his covenant, to the order of justice that he himself at one time established, to his name and honor, to lead his people to salvation and to punish the wicked. Thus alone can justice rule and triumph. There is truth in the saying, “Let justice prevail though the world perish.” Scripture, however, more beautifully highlights the idea that justice must prevail that the world may be saved.170 


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