***Adapted from my lecture for a summer Bible study on the attributes of God.***
God is just.
What does that mean, that God is just?
If you’re like me, maybe you catch yourself wrestling with some version of this question when you watch the news, or when you scroll through Facebook, or even when you’re reading your Bible. It comes in many forms: Is God really good? Can He be trusted? Does He deal fairly? What does it mean that God is just?
Sometimes the truth of God’s justice is really hard. It’s a truth that takes wrestling—one that I’ve been wrestling with for most of my Christian walk. And sometimes, wrestling hurts.
Because the truth is that if God is just, it means He is unfair.
God is unfair.
And not only that, but if God is just, it means He is gracious.
God is gracious.
He is just, therefore He is unfair - and therefore, He is gracious.
If God is just, then God defines justice. God’s justice upholds His own standards of holiness, and bows to absolutely no other criteria besides that of who He is. It is His character itself which makes up the measure of perfection to which all of Creation is held—which is why there is no study more important than what we’re doing here, the study of who God is.
As a just God, He shows no favoritism, and His Law bears no flexibility; every sin demands a just and exact consequence that must and will be paid, no matter who you are or what explanation you could offer. There are no victims of God’s justice – there are only violators of it, and every violation of God’s perfect character will call the violator to account. Because of this, God’s justice inspires fear.
At the same time, as a just God, the payment He demands can only be paid once. If a just recompense has been made for the violation of His standard, if His wrath is justly satisfied, then no other payment will be required or accepted, even if you offer it. In this way, God’s justice gives us hope.
Ultimately, the subjective ideal of fairness that we tend to value as humans is utterly shamed beside the objective perfection of God’s justice, which has the power to make the most horrific wrongs eternally right, and makes space for Him to put His grace on glorious display.
But sometimes, if we could, wouldn’t we almost choose fairness instead?
In a fair world, no one would have less. No one would be hurt by circumstances they couldn't control. Every act of oppression would end like a good action movie: with the bad guy dead on the floor.
But some people do have less. Innocents are harmed every day at the hands of the guilty. How can God be just - let alone loving, or kind, or gracious, or trustworthy - when this world that He is supposed to be sovereign over is so terribly unfair?
Let's go to the Word for the wrestling - specifically, to 2 Samuel 12.
We open here to the aftermath of one of the most infamous and appalling sins in the Bible - to the chambers of King David, the one who was called “a man after God’s own heart,” and yet has now blotted his record with what might as well be an entire bottle of black ink. He has stolen another man’s wife, fathered an illegitimate child, and murdered her husband in a clumsy attempt to cover it up. He has sinned, hideously.
Into this darkness, this horrific unfairness in which the lives of the innocent were needlessly destroyed by the sin of one powerful man, God sends Nathan the prophet with a story to tell.
“There were two men in one city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a great many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb which he bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and his children. It would eat of his bread and drink of his cup and lie in his bosom, and was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take from his own flock or his own herd, to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him; rather he took the poor man's ewe lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
2 Samuel 12:1b-4
Every time I read this story, I'm outraged at the unfairness.
A few of you might know that I grew up raising sheep. My sister and I kept several breeding ewes as 4-H projects, and it seemed like almost every year we would have to raise a lamb on a bottle - maybe the mother had died, or maybe her milk supply wouldn’t stretch to triplets, or maybe she had just decided she didn’t want the lamb. So we would fill the gap.
And when you become a mommy to a lamb, it really does grow up like one of the family. Sheep are a notoriously helpless and needy type of livestock, so even in a normal birth they require a comparatively large amount of help with delivering their lambs, cleaning them, keeping them warm, and feeding them. I distinctly remember many cold, frog-chorused spring nights of getting up almost hourly to feed Zachary or Posyetta or Toby.
The funny thing is, when you've raised a lamb up as part of the family, they seem to spend their lives worshiping you for keeping them alive. They will follow you around like puppy dogs, they want to spend every waking moment at your side, and they become completely distraught the moment you're out of sight. The soundtrack of my childhood is the sound of lonely lambs bawling in the yard because they would much rather be in the house with us!
That was this lamb to the poor man. Like his own child. He loved her, yes, but more than that, she loved him - she adored him.
And this was the lamb that the rich man selected to slaughter and feed to his guest.
It is so. infuriatingly. unfair.
Let’s keep reading:
Then David's anger burned greatly against the [rich] man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die. He must make restitution for the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and had no compassion.”
Nathan then said to David, “You are the man!”
2 Samuel 12:5-7
In moments of such wretched unfairness, our natural sense of injustice aches to see God respond. We cry out to see Him level the playing field—to see Him take His seat as judge, and make the wrong instantly right.
Until we are the man - or the woman.
If God were fair, if God worked according to the human standard of justice and on a human timeline, then David would have been written right out of His story at this moment—and well deserved.
But God isn’t fair - God is just.
If God were fair, only David could have paid for David’s sin. He would have paid with his own life for the lives that he took, dying in shame and separation from God. He would have forfeited God’s covenant blessing on his descendants, and would have been utterly erased from the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
But God is just. And perfect justice has a caveat that fairness lacks: The one who pays the penalty for the sin doesn’t have to be the sinner, as long as the penalty is justly satisfied.
Again: The one who pays the penalty for the sin doesn’t have to be the sinner, as long as the penalty is justly satisfied.
Skipping down to verse 13,
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has taken away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die.”
2 Samuel 12:13-14
Bathsheba was shamefully used and Uriah was brutally killed by this man. Now we learn that the child Bathsheba conceived through David's sin - the most innocent, perfectly guiltless being in this entire, horrible circumstance - would also die because of his wickedness. But David himself would live – and not only live, but live blessed by God, still called “a man after God’s own heart,” an ancestor of the Messiah.
Because God is just - and in His amazing, infuriating, unfair justice, there is grace.
We read the parable of the rich man and the poor man, and emotionally we identify with the poor man. Our hearts ache for the cruelty and the pain he suffers when his innocent lamb, his beloved friend, is stolen and slain. Like David, we are outraged by the unfairness and cry out for God’s vengeance. “Surely the rich man deserves to die!”
And then God says,
You are the rich man.
But you shall not die.
The blood of an innocent has already been shed on your behalf.
The blood of an innocent has been shed on my behalf.
A thousand years after the reign of King David, another guiltless Child, another spotless Lamb would be killed as the just and unfair payment for sins He did not commit.
When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." . . . It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, because the sun was obscured; and the veil of the temple was torn in two. And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Having said this, He breathed His last. Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he began praising God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent.”
Luke 23:33-34, 44-47
Certainly this Man - this Lamb of God - was innocent.
The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
This is justice. Beautiful, bloody, unfair justice - Jesus Christ Himself.
I am the rich man. I took the sinless Lamb of God, the beloved only Son of His Father, and had Him slain for my own self-serving wickedness. I am the rich man.
But God would look on the sacrifice of His precious, innocent Child, on His bleeding hands and feet, and then look at me and say, “You shall not die.”
God is just. And because He is just – because He is unfair – I can partake in His grace.