Escaping the Judgment of God? – Part 1
Introduction: I am reminded of the preacher who preached on Heb. 2:3, a text that declares, “How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” The preacher proceeded to give his congregation a “How to” list of how to go about actually escaping God’s judgment if they did ignore such a great salvation! Interestingly enough, all of his points were drawn from the four possibilities of escape for those who offend human laws. In the first place, it is possible that the offense shall not become known. Illustrations of this in human experience abound. Second, there is always the chance that the guilty person may be able to escape the bounds of the legal jurisdiction under which the crime was committed. Further, there may occur, after apprehension by the authorities, a breakdown in the legal processes. And, finally, the ultimate hope of the criminal is that he may escape from detention and live in a measure of freedom. The major problem with such a scheme is that there are no such possibilities with an all-knowing God (cf. Heb. 4:13). God’s judgment is not only real and inescapable, it is absolutely just. Divine judgment by its very nature is always right. In Rom. 2:1-16 the Apostle Paul will set forth the principles of divine judgment. He has already demonstrated the guilt of the Gentile world. He will now turn his attention to the Jew and those who think that their religiosity will somehow merit them special consideration. In this installment we will devote our attention to a theological overview of God’s justice.
I. God’s Justice – A Theological Analysis
Theologians have usually ascribed three aspects of God’s justice. When we speak of the justice of God we are first of all speaking of God’s character. Our God is a moral being. “God’s distinct moral attributes,” wrote Dabney, “may be counted as three—His justice, His goodness, and His truth—these concurring in His consummate moral attribute, holiness.”[i]
A. His Rectorial Justice: The Latin word RECTITUDO is the source for our English word rectitude which refers to uprightness. “Rectorial justice,” says Shedd, “is God’s rectitude as a ruler, over both the good and the evil. It relates to legislation, or the imposition of law. God, both in rewarding and punishing, lays down a just law. The reward and the penalty are exactly suited to the actions. Job 34:23, ‘For he will not lay upon man more than right.’ Psalm 89:14, ‘Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne.’”[ii]
B. His Distributive Justice: This refers to the rectitude by which God executes the law. He distributes justly both rewards and penalties. “Distributive justice is God’s rectitude in the execution of law, both in reference to the good and the evil. It relates to the distribution of rewards and punishments. Rom. 2:6, God ‘will render to every man according to his deeds.’ 1 Peter 1:17, ‘The Father without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work.’ Isa. 3:10,11, ‘Say ye to the righteous that it shall be well with him. Woe unto the wicked! It shall be ill with him.’”[iii] This may be explained as follows.
1. Remunerative Justice: The distribution of rewards to both angels and men (cf. Ps. 58:11; Matt. 25:21,34; Heb. 11:26). This is an expression of divine love and goodness. It is based on relative merit only.[iv]
2. Retributive Justice: This is the expression of divine wrath (cf. Rom. 12:19 and Deut. 32:35. Herman Bavinck has succinctly summarized the distributive Justice of God. “His holy nature requires also that outside of Himself, in the world of creatures, He keep righteousness in force, and, without respect of persons reward everyone according to his works (Rom. 2:2-11 and 2 Cor. 5:10). Nowadays there are those who try to make themselves and others believe that God pays no attention to the sinful thoughts and deeds of men. But the true, the living God, whom Scriptures present to us, thinks very differently about this. His wrath is kindled terribly against native and actual sins, and He wants to punish them both temporally and eternally by way of a righteous judgment (Deut. 27:26 and Gal. 3:10).”[v]
C. His Redemptive Justice: This has historically been referred to by the Latin expression IUSTITIA EVANGELICA. This has to do with God’s work of justification by faith alone in Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. Our salvation rests entirely upon the sufficiency of Christ’s satisfaction and the fullest of Christ’s active and passive obedience which is imputed to the believer.[vi]
Conclusion: All three aspects of God’s justice are dealt with by Paul in his epistle to the Romans. In Romans 2:1-16 he is unfolding God’s distributive justice. In our next study we will focus on this important theme as it is unfolded in bold strokes by the Apostle Paul who will reaffirm the truth of Numbers 32:23—“be sure of this, your sin will find you out.” The late James Montgomery Boice, pastor of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA, preached a long series of messages on Romans (which were later published in a five volume set). My wife and I were privileged to attend Tenth during a period when Dr. Boice was doing this series. In commenting on the theme of God’s justice he said, “One great problem with sin is that it leads to self-justification, so that anything that happens to us that we do not like is immediately perceived as being unjust, a reason to fault God for his ordering of the universe. The cry of the rebellious heart is always: ‘The only thing I want from God is justice.’ God forbid that you should receive justice from God! The justice of God will condemn you. And the terror of the very thought of justice is that God is indeed a just God. The God of all the earth does do right, as Abraham well knew (cf. Gen. 18:25). Sin is punished now in large measure, and it will be punished fully and equitably in the life to come. Do not ask God for justice. Seek mercy. Seek it where salvation from the wrath of God may alone be found.”[vii]
[i] R.L. Dabney, Lectures In Systematic Theology (rpt. Zondervan, 1975), p. 165.
[ii] W.G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology I (rpt. Zondervan, 1971), p. 365
[iv] The Westminster Confession (Chapter VII, Section 1) reads: “the distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.”
[v] H. Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (rpt. Baker, 1977), p. 141.
[vi] This is just the opposite of what is known as the governmental theory of the atonement (a view, by the way, that was held by Charles Finney and a growing number of present day professed Evangelicals). According to this view, there is no exact equivalent between the value of Christ’s work and the offer of salvation. Rather, God accepts the death of His Son as a payment for the sake of providing, not full satisfaction for sin, but rather an example of the divine wrath against sin. This position says, in effect, that justice is not an inherent necessity of the divine nature. See the discussion in H.D. McDonald, The Atonement of the Death of Christ In Faith, Revelation, and History (Baker, 1985), pp. 196-207.
[vii] J.M. Boice, Romans: Justification By Faith I (Baker, 1991), p.222.
In 1961, A.W. Tozer wrote in The Knowledge of the Holy that the way some Christians think about God is sinful. Dr. Arnold Frank, in The Fear of God: A Forgotten Doctrine confirms that the 21st century church, in the pew as well as the pulpit, continues to regard God as impotent and irrelevantin other words, without godly fear. As such, Dr. Frank, with a theologian’s skill and a pastor’s heart, walks us through the Scriptures, letting the Word of God speak about the fear of God.
In addition to clear, biblical exposition, Dr. Frank also weaves in the wise and timeless counsel of the Puritans to help us see how the fear of God is a most needed and practical doctrine.
Do you approach God with a godly fear? The Fear of God: A Forgotten Doctrine will be a skillful and gracious reminder of how we should regard the holy, sovereign Creator.
“The biblical concept of the fear of God is too often marginalized or ignored by the Christian church and its preachers today. The result is shallow views of sin, easy belief, and antinomianism. With the aid of Puritan preachers, Arnold Frank sounds a clarion call for a biblical and sure approach to the fear of God.” Joel Beeke (President, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary)