Four Aspects of Divine RighteousnessBy Fred Zaspel
IntroductionPsalm 97:2 declares that God dwells in "righteousness and justice" (tsedek and mishpat). That is to say, He is Himself right and true. He is morally and ethically right, and He acts according to what is proper. This, the psalmist affirms, is God's very "habitation." Righteousness is no "accident," no incidental quality; it is essential to God's very being. He is and does only what is right and just.
This theme is common in Scripture. "The judge of all the earth shall do right." "God is a righteous judge." "He shall judge the world in righteousness." The Father is the "righteous Father," the Son is the "righteous advocate," and the Spirit was sent "to convict the world of righteousness." God is righteous, and He acts only in keeping with what is just.
This is not to say that God is bound to some rule external to Himself, that He must somehow conform to an abstract standard outside of Himself. It is His will that determines right from wrong. But what Scripture declares is that it is God's nature to do what is right; He faithfully adheres to His own perfections in all that He is and in all that He does. He acts only and always according to the very highest principles of justice.
Now this is a truth about God which we are glad to know! It is one thing to know that He is sovereign and so rules the world by His own will. But it is something more indeed to know that He rules in righteousness. For all the apparent inequities of life, for all the favors He shows the wicked, and for all the afflictions that fall upon the righteous, it is necessary that we know that God is just and that He will do what is right -- however difficult it may be for us to see it at the moment. Or again, it is one thing to know that He is the Judge of all the world. But it is something more indeed to know that He judges according to what is right, that He will not condemn the innocent or clear the guilty. Unlike the "gods" of the heathen, God is not whimsical or capricious. He is righteous. Always righteous.
As the older theologians studied the ways in which God's righteousness is presented in Scripture, many of them tended to speak of it in various theological categories. And these categories are very helpful as we seek to understand this very basic and important attribute of God.
Rectoral RighteousnessGod's "rectoral" righteousness is that aspect of His nature which demands or requires righteousness of all His creatures. This is perhaps what we normally think of when we speak of God's righteousness. It has to do with the imposition of laws and standards. God is not only righteous in Himself; He requires the same of all His creatures.
One important word in this connection is the word "lawgiver." God is the One Who imposes laws. He determines right from wrong, and He legislates accordingly. In fact, Scripture speaks of God as the ultimate source of all justice. "He establishes equity and executes justice and righteousness" (Ps.99:4). Any given device designed to promote fairness in business -- weights, scales -- is from God (Prv. 16:11). And so "A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight" (Prv.11:1). So also God abhors any who would "justify the wicked and condemn the just" (Prv. 17:15). He despises those who steal or defraud others, not because this is a violation of some abstract standard but because it is an affront to God Himself Whose very nature demands what is right.
Furthermore, all the things that God requires of us are themselves just. His laws are a reflection of His righteousness. They are not unfair; they are right and necessary as expressions of His nature.
So God is Himself righteous. As such He imposes laws, and those laws are righteous. And His laws are binding, for all are accountable to Him as the righteous Judge.
This, of course, is precisely what our society refuses about God. The world wants a God who conforms to their standards, and it violently refuses any idea of a God Who would dare impose His will on others. But this is the true God, and no denial of Him can alter the reality.
Retributive RighteousnessGod's "retributive" righteousness is that aspect of His nature which punishes all unrighteousness in His creatures. It has to do with the infliction of penalties for failure to conform to His righteousness. "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord" (Rom. 12:19) and "It is a righteous thing with God to render tribulation to them that trouble you" (2Th. 1:6) are familiar sounds to anyone who reads the Bible.
Nor is the idea that of reformation or rehabilitation. The goal is not that of reclaiming the offender, to reshape his character. The idea is that of punishment, retribution. Its perspective is not forward but backward, to the evil that has been done. This is the whole purpose of the casting down of the angels that sinned, the flood of Noah's day, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and so on. And when John speaks of the awful sight of the wicked being cast into the lake of fire "to be tormented for ever and ever (Rev.20:10-14; 14:10-11), the only possible object in view is just retribution upon sinners.
Nor is the idea here that by the threat of retribution sin may be avoided, even should that become the experience of some. The issue is that of the maintenance and the vindication of God's righteousness and the serving of His justice. All of the horrible things we read of hell are with this view: those who have violated God's righteous law must be punished. God's righteousness will be vindicated.
Now if our society refuses the idea of God's recotral righteousness, this idea of retributive righteousness they despise even more. But the one very naturally flows from the other. We are accountable to God to act in keeping with His righteousness, and any failure to do that demands retribution (cf. Gal. 3:10). If there is a God and if He is righteous, then all unrighteousness will one day be punished. And as before, no denial of the facts will alter the reality. It is one horrible prospect that awaits the sinner.
Redemptive RighteousnessBut all this presents a very real problem. God reveals Himself as a righteous God Who demands the same of us all and condemns all who do not conform. He will "by no means clear the guilty" (Ex. 34:7). The problem is obvious: how can any of us ever escape God's wrath? How may any of us ever enjoy any blessing from God at all? There is that aspect of God's righteousness which causes Him to faithfully reward all righteousness on the part of His creatures, and we will see that in a moment. But how can that be a realistically happy thought to any of us? Even if we could turn over a new leaf and from here on live in perfect conformity to God's law, we still stand condemned for our past sins. And if God must condemn sinners, there is, it would seem, no hope at all.
Nor can we imagine that God will in the end somehow overlook our sins. This is the idea most seem to have about God, that He will eventually let bygones be bygones and all will be well. But if salvation is to come at all, we may be sure that it will never come at the sacrifice of God's righteousness. This is His very nature, and He cannot deny Himself.
So here is our predicament. God demands righteousness and will surely punish all unrighteousness. He cannot do any less. We have neither produced righteousness nor could we by doing so make up for past sins. We stand condemned.
It is just here that we come to learn of God's "redemptive" righteousness -- that aspect of His righteousness by which He provides righteousness for His offending creatures. It is a curious thing that the inspired apostle describes the Christian gospel as the "revelation of the righteousness of God" (Rom. 1:17). We might expect that a message of salvation should be a message of leniency or of a waiving of the sentence. And never would we expect a message of Divine righteousness to be "good news"! But this is precisely the beauty of the gospel. It provides righteousness for the sinner by means of a perfect Substitute. God the Son has come to bear the punishment of His law in the place of sinners, and He provides His own perfect righteousness in exchange. God has "made Him Who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him." "For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God" (1Pet.3:18). Christ has not only done what is right and given the attending benefits to us, but He has suffered for the evil which we have done and given these benefits to us also. This is what has often been referred to as Christ's "active and passive" obedience. He actively performed for us all that was our responsibility to perform, and in our place He suffered the full penalty due us for our sin.
It is in this way that God's righteousness is revealed in the gospel. God has not sidestepped His justice. He has not saved us by overlooking our sin. He has saved us by doing for us all that was required of us. The Lord Jesus Christ "is made unto us righteousness" (1Cor. 1:30). And in this way God's righteousness is perfectly upheld. So righteous is God that He would not spare even His own Son as He took the sinner's place; the punishment was administered fully. And righteousness is freely provided. God, then, is "both just and the justifier of Him that believes in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26).
We must say, then, that the gospel reveals much more than God's righteousness. It reveals His grace.
Remunerative RighteousnessGod's "remunerative" righteousness is that aspect of His righteousness by which He rewards His creatures for the righteousness which they have done. It has to do with the distribution of rewards according to justice. "God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love" (Heb. 6:10). "Whatsoever good thing a man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord" (Eph. 6:8). This is also the point in several of our Lord's parables. God rewards righteousness.
Now this aspect of Divine righteousness is more startling than any. That God would be so gracious as to provide righteousness for the undeserving, and that at His own expense, is grace enough. But why go any further? What need is there to then reward us for the good we have done? Indeed, the good that we have done is but our duty (Lk. 17:10). We are what we are "by the grace of God" (1Cor. 4:7), and we do good only as a result of His workings in us (Phil. 2:13). It is not necessary to God's righteousness to reward anyone for anything.
But that is not the point. The point is not that God is obligated to us, but that He has obligated Himself by promise.
Now think about this. Imagine looking back over your life and measuring up whatever degree of faithfulness there has been, and then strutting into God's presence and demanding repayment. The whole idea is so wrong! We know that we are deserving of only punishment and that the righteousness we possess is only by grace. Still, God has said it is a righteous thing for Him to do this. He has pledged Himself to it, and He will perform it. Perhaps I can illustrate this better than I can explain it. Christmas at our house is a very happy time. We go all out. Gifts are exchanged in the extreme. One Christmas when my daughter was very young, we were opening our presents; and she just couldn't wait for me to open her gift to me. I waited until I thought she might burst and then picked up the package and read, "To Daddy, From Gina." Taking my time, I began to guess. "Is it a new car?" "No, Daddy." "Is it a new motorcycle?" "No, now Daddy open it!" "Ok." So I opened the gift, and there was a nice new pair of gloves. I took her up in my arms, gave her a big hug and kiss, and thanked her many times over for what she had given me. And I told her, in terms she could understand, how good it was to have such a generous daughter.
Now question: who do you think paid for the gloves? Where did she get the money? Curious, isn't it -- there I was rewarding her for the things that my own money had purchased!
It a way much like that God has promised to reward us, His servants, for the very thing that He has purchased and freely provided. No wonder we find the twenty-four elders in heaven removing their crowns and throwing them back at Jesus' feet: "Thou art worthy!" (Rev. 4:10). And no wonder the prophet asks in searching challenge, "Who is a God like unto thee" (Mic. 7:18).
The truth of God's righteousness is a frightening one for sinners. But when this righteousness is wedded to grace (Ps. 85:10), it is a happy truth indeed.
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