Question: "What does it mean that God is just?"
Answer: When we say that God is just, we mean that He is perfectly righteous in His treatment of His creatures. God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34), He commands against the mistreatment of others (Zechariah 7:10), and He perfectly executes vengeance against the oppressors (2 Thessalonians 1:6; Romans 12:19). God is just in meting out rewards: “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them” (Hebrews 6:10). He is equally just in meting out punishments: “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism” (Colossians 3:25). Justice and righteousness, which always work hand in hand, are the foundation of God’s throne (Psalm 89:14).
Justice is important to us. Imagine that Adolph Hitler had been found alive, hiding in Germany, and was brought before a judge. His crimes took nine hours to read, but, at the end, the judge said, “I see what you’ve done. Millions murdered. But I think you’ve learned your lesson so I’m gonna let you go.” He banged the gavel and cried, “Not guilty!” What rises in our hearts when we consider such a scenario? That emotion is outrage at injustice. We know the verdict is not just, and it feels intolerable to us. Evil requires an equivalent punishment. We inherited that sense of justice from our Creator, because He is just.
Every truth in the universe is God’s truth. Every mathematical formula and every scientific law can trace its roots to the character of God. Human knowledge is only a discovery of the truth that already exists. God has hidden nuggets of wisdom in our universe for us to find the way a child finds eggs on Easter. Justice is one such truth that doesn’t have a beginning or an explanation. If we were merely evolved bits of pond scum, justice wouldn’t make sense. Humans would have no rights, no inner moral code, no desire for the eternal. But, because we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), we have His heart in matters of morality, courage, love, and justice. He is the complete embodiment of traits we only possess in part. He is complete love (1 John 4:16). He is complete goodness (Psalm 106:1). He is complete kindness (Psalm 25:10). And He is complete justice (Isaiah 61:8).
When Adam and Eve sinned (Genesis 3), justice could not overlook it. Their crime does not seem so great to us who wear Adam’s skin. But consider it from heaven’s viewpoint. The great Lord God Almighty, unchallenged Ruler of everything, Lord of angel armies, worthy of all adoration and worship had been defied by the dust He had formed into people. He had made these creatures for His own purpose and pleasure. He showered love and bounty on them. But He also gave them free will. So He showed them their options and told them the consequences.
“Please don’t,” He said, and the pleading in His voice warned them of what He knew would result if they did not obey. “We will do as we please,” they responded, and at that moment the creature committed high treason against the Creator. Justice demanded action. For God to overlook or excuse the treason would not be just. Because God is just, He cannot make a rule, establish the penalty, and then not follow through when the rule is broken. Because God is also love, He had a way to satisfy justice without destroying human beings. Justice required the death penalty for high treason, so something or someone had to die. A substitute was brought in to satisfy the demands of justice. A beautiful, flawless animal was killed instead (Genesis 3:21).
Thousands of years later, justice was satisfied once and for all as God sent His own Son into the world to be our substitute (2 Corinthians 5:21). “Please don’t,” He has cried throughout the ages. “We will do as we please,” we have responded. God cannot merely overlook our high treason against Him, or He would not be perfectly just. He cannot retract His love, despite our rebellion, or He would not be perfect love. So Jesus became the Lamb (John 1:29) that God sacrificed on the altar of justice. Christ “died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
Because justice has been satisfied, God pronounces “not guilty” upon all those who are in Christ (Romans 3:24), those who call on His name (John 1:12). Justice now insists that, once a sin has been paid for, it cannot be brought up again. When our sins are under the blood of His sacrifice, God holds them against us no more (Romans 8:1; Colossians 2:14; 1 Peter 2:24; Isaiah 43:25). God remains just; He is not violating His own code of justice by pardoning those who deserve its consequences. Salvation IS a just consequence because God has pronounced Jesus’ death and resurrection sufficient to satisfy His wrath. The curse of the Law that we justly deserved has been taken by Jesus on the cross (Galatians 3:13).
God is just, and His justice is an indispensable part of His character in the same way that His love and mercy are indispensable. Without His justice, sin would run unchecked. Evil would win. There would be no reward for obedience. We could not respect a god who was not just. Micah 6:8 summarizes the top three qualities God wants to see reflected in us: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”