- Proverbs 17:15 He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD.
- Proverbs 24:24 He who says to the wicked, “You are righteous,” peoples will curse him, nations will abhor him.
- Isaiah 5:22-23 Woe to those…Who justify the wicked for a bribe…
- Exodus 23:7 …I will not acquit the guilty.
These Scriptures teach that it is wrong to declare a guilty person, “Not guilty.” Yet in the evangelical gospel we see God doing exactly that! He is a God who “justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5).
How can we explain this dilemma? Is God loving us at the expense of His justice?
The answer comes from Romans 3:21-26,1 which is considered by many theologians to be one of the most important passages of the Bible. There we learn that, out of jealousy for His own reputation, God vindicated Himself and “demonstrated His righteousness” through the blood of Christ, who was the propitiation for all who have faith in Him (Rom. 3:25-26). To simply “turn a blind eye” to sin, or to “sweep it under the rug” would not be just. That is what God seems to be doing when He justifies the ungodly. But that is not what God did. He poured out all of His wrath against all the sins of His people upon Christ as He carried them on His own shoulders to the cross. Now, since Jesus underwent the punishment we deserve, God can show mercy without compromising His goodness. God has done this, “so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
With that as our backdrop, let us examine the doctrine of the justice of God by asking four questions. These will help us dig deeper into those parts of the gospel which seem unjust at first glance. However, we will be able to conclude that God’s actions in justifying a sinner are in consistency with His attributes of justice, holiness, and goodness.
1. Is it right and just for God to not punish the sins of a wicked man?
The biblical answer is “No,” for justice demands that sin be punished. Most of us are familiar with Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.” In several places in Scripture God’s eternal damnation of the wicked is labeled just. Jesus Himself said, “My judgment is just,” (John 5:30, see also 8:16) in the context of many being raised “to a resurrection of judgment.” In Romans, Paul explains that one day God will judge every human according to their deeds; some to glory, others to wrath. He calls this “the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5). Paul is also clear in chapter 3 that God’s judgment of the world is just and must include wrath (3:4-8). In 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul speaks of future retribution upon the wicked, involving eternal destruction and separation from Him. Paul calls this “God’s righteous judgment” (v. 5) saying, “it is only just for God to repay” (v. 6). Finally, in Revelation 19 we see God being praised because, “the smoke of the harlot’s torment rose up forever and ever” (v. 3), and this is considered God’s “righteous and just judgment” (v. 2). Therefore, the just thing to do is send sinners to hell.
We must grapple with this first question because in the gospel God does exactly that! Because of Christ’s saving work on the cross, God does not punish sinners. This is why Romans 3:25-26 is so crucial to our understanding of the gospel. This dilemma of God justifying the wicked is solved when we see that God poured out His wrath against our sins upon Christ instead of upon us. So God does not leave our sins unpunished (which would be wrong), but justice is met in Christ’s body instead, as our sins were punished in Him. This leads us to the second question.
2. Is it right and just for God to punish an innocent man?
This question is raised because at the cross–which was no accident–Christ, a perfect man, free of guilt and sin, received God’s wrath.
In the Scriptures, God is the One who killed Jesus! Isaiah 53:10 says that, “the LORD was pleased to crush Him.” God is the One who strikes the Shepherd (Zech. 13:7 and Matt. 26:31). In Psalm 69:26 Jesus is called “him whom You Yourself have smitten,” and “those whom You have wounded.” So here we have God uncandidly taking responsibility for the death of an innocent man. Here is another seeming dilemma in the gospel message!
Was it wrong for God to do this? Jesus was “a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:19). Christ “loved righteousness and hated sin” (Ps. 45:6-7). First John 3:5 and 2 Corinthians 5:21 tell us that there was no sin in Him. At first glance, we could accuse God of wrongfully punishing an innocent man! Yet, the question of God’s righteousness is answered when we see that there were sins for which He was punished.
Isaiah 53 brings clarity to our issue. We are told in the same sentence both that Christ was sinless, and that God the Father killed Him.
“He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth. But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief.” (Isa. 53:9-10)
If this was the only verse in the Bible regarding Christ’s death, we could point the finger at God. However, we soon see that such is not the case; God was not condemning the innocent. For immediately after this we are told that Jesus’ life was a guilt offering. So His death was like the death of goats and lambs that were killed by priests for Israel’s sins. Further, in the very same chapter, just before this we are shown the grounds on which Jesus was crushed:
“He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” (Isa. 53:5-6)
Jesus had no sin of His own to die for. He died for our transgressions, our sins, the iniquity of us all. This is how God can kill the Just One and still be righteous. This leads us to our third question.
3. Is it right and just for God to punish someone for another’s sins?
This question has already been sufficiently answered by the texts already cited about Jesus’ death. However, many people are roped into the concept that God can’t punish someone for another’s sins because of two or three verses in Scripture, such as where we are told that “the soul that sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:1-32; see also Jer. 31:29-30).
It would seem that our Ezekiel text is refuting the idea of vicarious punishment. But our “problem text” in Ezekiel 18 can be easily reconciled with penal substitution when we realize God was refuting a proverb used in regards to human courts. No human judge can sent a man’s son to jail for what the father did. But even more important to note is that the son would not be punished if they turn their life around and not follow in their father’s sins. So the most we could conclude from this passage is that God will not punish a repentant sinner for their father’s sins; something both sides of the debate can agree on.
Further, if one rejects the doctrine that a man can be punished for the sin of another, then one must also throw away the doctrine of Original Sin, alter the very nature of God (Ex. 20:5-6; 34:6-7; Num. 14:18; Jer. 32:18), and ignore countless instances where this actually happens in Scripture.2 On the flip side, they would also have to deny that one can be blessed for another’s righteousness, meaning they would disregard the imputed righteousness of Christ, or the times God spared Israel because of His covenants with their forefathers.
4. Is it right and just for God to punish a man whose sins have already been punished?
No, He cannot do so. This gives us full assurance of our salvation when we trust in Christ. Romans 8:1 says, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Paul explains that God changed our verdict by sending Christ in human flesh and in Him condemned sin by putting Him to death (vv. 2-3). Now, as a result of our sins being condemned in Him, instead of continuing in our condemned state unable to please God, we are now able to fulfill God’s law by the Spirit (v. 4). Since a sacrifice has occurred and sin is condemned, we who believe cannot rightly be condemned again.
Consider an illustration from everyday life. In the public school system, when a teacher gets sick and cannot make it into work, the class has a substitute teacher. Now imagine if your class had a substitute teacher, but then as they were lecturing your regular teacher shows up and also gives a lecture! Or consider when Abraham was tested by offering Isaac in Genesis 22. Right when he was about to stab his son an angel stopped him, and then a lamb appeared nearby. Abraham offered the lamb instead of Isaac. Could you imagine if afterwards Abraham put Isaac back on the altar and killed him anyways? It is common sense: an exchange is an exchange, and sin cannot be punished twice.
Objection: Doesn’t the Bible say that God is love? Can’t He just let us go free?
Yes the Bible says “God is love” (1 John 4:8), but we ought not exalt one of God’s attributes above the rest. John wrote in that same epistle that “God is light” (1 John 1:5).
If we start ignoring all of His other attributes for the sake of His love, we don’t end up with a gospel. Suppose God’s love is not an eternal love. What if God only loved us for a thousand years in heaven, then stopped loving us and sent us to hell? Again, what if His love was not a patient love, and after a hundred thousand sins He no longer loved us and we lost our salvation? This would not be good for us! So why do we often fight the notion that God’s love is also a just love? We find clarity in a doctrine called the simplicity of God, where no single attribute overrides the others, but all work together.3
There are also several Scriptures which speak of a plurality of God’s attributes—justice and mercy together! “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; Lovingkindness and truth go before You” (Ps. 89:14, emphasis mine); “Behold then the kindness and severity of God,” (Rom. 11:22, emphasis mine; see also Ex. 34:6-7; Num. 14:18; Psa. 36:5; 89:14; Hos. 2:19; 14:4).
So then, let us not divide God. In our gospel preaching, we must relay to the lost a God whose love operates within the bounds of justice.
1 We have exegeted Romans 3:21-26 elsewhere.
2 Gen. 9:20-27; 20:7; Exo. 20:5-6; 34:6-7; Lev. 4:3; 10:6; 26:40; Num. 14:18, 33; Deut. 1:37; 23:3; Josh. 7:24-25; 22:10-20; 1 Sam. 15:2-3; 2 Sam. 3:29; 21:1; 1 Kings 2:33; 11:12, 39; 21:27-29; 2 Kings 23:26; 24:3-4; 1 Chron. 21:14-17; 27:24; 2 Chron. 29:5-9; Ezra 9:1-15; Job 27:13-14; Isa. 24:5-6; 65:7; Jer. 16:11-13; 32:18; 36:31; Lam. 5:7; Dan. 9:16; Luke 11:49-51. To this list one could also add the several places where Israel was told to wipe out man, woman, and child, or the places where miscarriages are a plague, or where infants and fetuses are killed in war as punishment like Psalm 137:8-9; Hosea 9:11-17; 13:16.
3 For more regarding the Simplicity of God and how His love and justice work together, see William G.T. Shedd Dogmatic Theology Volume II pp. 434-435; Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach Pierced for Our Transgressions p. 138; Thomas J. Crawford The Doctrine of the Holy Scripture Respecting the Atonement, pp. 453-454;G. C. Berkouwer Studies in Dogmatics: Sin pp. 99 and 399; Leon Morris The Biblical Doctrine of Judgment pp. 68-69; John Frame Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg:2013) pp. 268-276; T. E. Yates “Isn’t the wrath of God at variance with his love?” in Hard Questions ed. Frank Colquhoun pp. 70-72.