Traditional Legal Model
Most sources will mention one or both of two ways to understand God is just:
- “For God to be just means that he is consistent, virtuous, innocent, and right.”
- “if God is fully just, He must punish our sins fully without holding back”
The emphasis between the two concepts will vary from one source to another but both understandings are commonly held.
Biblical Healing Model
God is just in that He always does the right thing agreeing with the first definition listed above. What is right from His character of love includes honoring the free will of others allowing complete freedom of choice without force or any threat. When we choose wrong, He freely allows us to have the consequences we have (knowingly or unknowingly) chosen. “You reap what you sow.” That is the sense in which God “punishes” sin contrary to the second definition above.
From a Modern Dictionary
1 guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness
5 given or awarded rightly; deserved, as a sentence, punishment, or reward
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary
5 In a moral sense, upright; honest; having principles of rectitude; or conforming exactly to the laws, and to principles of rectitude in social conduct; equitable in the distribution of justice; as a just judge.
11 Equitable; due; merited; as a just recompense or reward.
–Whose damnation is just Romans 3:8.
Are “Just” and “Merciful” in Opposition?
Here is one statement reflecting an understanding of God being just:
“God cannot be both wholly merciful and just. If God is entirely merciful, He must let us evade the consequences of our sin, and He will not be just since sin goes unpunished. On the other hand, if God is fully just, He must punish our sin fully without holding back and that would mean that He is unmerciful! How is this possible?”
That understanding is that if God is just, He must punish every sin. He has to do it to maintain that quality of His character. An obvious question is: are we understanding the meaning of “just” correctly in this context? How does God being just relate to His character? Following is an attempt to answer these questions.
“Just” is an adjective describing a quality of God, like God is patient. The understanding “if God is fully just, He must punish our sins” (as in the quote above) could be diagrammed like this:
It is making God answerable to justice (to always do the just thing) as though justice (being just) was a higher power that He must satisfy. The Bible never makes God answerable to justice as it is often understood. Nor does it actually use the phrase “God is just.” But it does say “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).
In this case, God is not answerable to anything above Him, however He will always act consistently with His own character described by “God is love.”
So which – justice or love – is God more answerable to? Which – to be just or to be loving – can He not help doing? Here is one description of love (The KJV uses “charity” but the Greek word is “agape” – the most selfless form of love.):
“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” (1 Cor 13:4-7)
I would say that list is more in line with mercy than with justice. It is interesting to note that “thinketh no evil” in many versions is translated similar to this:
“or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.” (1 Cor 13:5, New Living Translation)
While God is omniscient and does not forget anything, He does not keep track of wrongs with the intent to impose punishment for each wrong act. That does not line up with “He must punish our sins fully.”
So what does it mean to be just?
A Just God in Scripture
“He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he.” (Deut 32:4)
“Tell ye, and bring them near; yea, let them take counsel together: who hath declared this from ancient time? who hath told it from that time? have not I the LORD? and there is no God else beside me; a just God and a Saviour; there is none beside me.” (Isa 45:21)
The word “just” in those two verses is from the Hebrew word “tsaddiyq” (H6662) which is most often translated as “righteous.” In the New Testament, “just” is from the Greek word “dikaios” (G1342):
“And he said, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth.” (Acts 22:14)
“And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints.” (Rev 15:3)
We need to understand what it means to be just, to act justly, keeping in mind that God is love. The Hebrew and Greek words translated as “just” in the four verses above are more frequently translated as “righteous” simply meaning to do what is right. The Septuagint uses “dikaios” (G1342) for “just” in both of the Old Testament verses quoted.
How does doing what is right relate to the “God is just” understanding of the Traditional Legal Model? Many think a just God must judge the legality of each act, condemn all violations of the law and execute justice (punishment) for every sin. But consider these verses:
“For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son:” (John 5:22)
“Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man.” (John 8:15)
Read “Judge Not, that Ye be Not Judged” for more about judging.
Then read the story “The Pesticides in the Garage” as an illustration of the true meaning of justice.
So “God is just” is really a reference to His characteristic of always doing the right thing and the right thing to do in any situation is determined from His “governing” quality – the attribute of love.
“Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom 13:10)
Return to the Character of God and the Gospel Glossary Index