In English, the terms righteousness and justice are different words, but in both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament there is only one-word group behind these two English terms. In the Old Testament, the terms primarily translate forms of the tsedek word group, and in the New Testament members of the dikaois word group. Therefore, these two terms will be considered together, speaking of one attribute of God.
God’s righteousness means that God always acts in accordance with what is right and is, Himself, the final standard of what is right. Speaking of God, Moses says, in Deuteronomy 32:4, “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” Abraham successfully appeals to God’s own character of righteousness when he says in Genesis 18:25, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” God also speaks and commands what is right in Psalm 19:8, “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.” And God says of Himself in Isaiah 45:19, “I the Lord speak the truth, I declare what is right.” As a result of God’s righteousness, it is necessary that He treat people according to what they deserve. Thus, it is necessary that God punishes sin, for it does not deserve reward; it is wrong and deserves punishment.
When God does not punish sin, it seems suggest that He is unrighteous, unless some other means of punishing sin can be seen. “Whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25-26). When Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins, it showed that God was truly righteous, because He did give appropriate punishment to sin, even though He did forgive His people their sins.
With respect to the definition of righteousness given above we may ask, “What is right?” In other words, what ought to happen and what ought to be? Here we must respond that whatever conforms to God’s moral character is right. But, why is such a thing true? It is right because it conforms to His moral character! If indeed God is the final standard of righteousness, then there can be no standard outside of God by which we measure righteousness or justice. He is the final standard. Whenever Scripture confronts the question for whether God Himself is righteous or not, the ultimate answer is always that we, as God’s creatures, have no right to say that God is unrighteous or unjust. The creature cannot say that of the Creator. Paul responds to a very difficult question about God’s righteousness by saying in Romans 9:20-21, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”
In answer to Job’s questioning about whether God has been righteous in His dealings with him, God answers in Job 40:2 and 8, “Shall a fault-finder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it…Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?” Then God answers not in terms of an explanation that would allow Job to understand why God’s actions were right, but rather in terms of a statement of God’s own majesty and power! God does not need to explain the rightness of His actions to Job, for God is the Creator and Job is the creature. Job 40:9 states, “Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?” Likewise, God questions Job in chapter 38, verse 12, ““Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place,” and continues in 38:34-45, ““Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts or given understanding to the mind? Who can number the clouds by wisdom? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods stick fast together? Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in their thicket? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help, and wander about for lack of food?” Finally God asks Job (39:19; 39:26; 40:4), “Do you give the horse his might? Do you clothe his neck with a mane? Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars and spreads his wings toward the south? Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth.”
Nevertheless, it should be a cause for thanksgiving and gratitude when we realize that righteousness and omnipotence are both possessed by God. If He were a God of perfect righteousness without power to carry out that righteousness, He would not be worthy of worship and we would have no guarantee that justice will ultimately prevail in the universe. But, if He were a God of unlimited power, yet without righteousness in His character, how unthinkably horrible the universe would be. There would be unrighteousness at the center of all existence, and there would be nothing anyone could do to change it. Existence would become meaningless, and we would be driven to the most utter despair. We ought, therefore, to continually thank and praise God for who He is, “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deut. 32:4).
Righteousness is revealed in His law, God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice are never abstract ideas but are exercised in concrete relationships with covenant creatures. God’s moral commands are never arbitrary, but reflect the proper relationships that His eternal character demands of human beings—in relation both to Him and to each other.
God can no more relax His holy justice than He can suspend His love, omniscience, or any other attribute in the cosmic courtroom; God must be true to Himself by punishing sin. Here, as in the other attributes Christ—especially at the cross—most fully displays the holy love and the holy justice of God.
This article first appeared in Theology for Life Winter 2016 Issue. To download the rest of the issue click here.