God’s Righteousness and Justice
The righteousness of God may be defined as the intrinsic, immutable, moral perfection of God, from which He commands all things, in heaven and earth, and declares as good that which conforms to His righteousness and as evil that which deviates. “God’s righteousness (or justice) is a moral attribute; as such, it is intrinsic to God (and extrinsic to creatures). Being an infinite and unchanging Being, God is infinitely and immutably righteous.”
Though related to holiness, righteousness is nevertheless a distinct attribute of God. Holiness relates to God’s separateness; righteousness, to His justice. Righteousness has to do with law, morality, and justice. In relation to Himself, God is righteous; i.e., there is no law, either within His own being or of His own making, that is violated by anything in His nature. In relation to His creatures He is also righteous; i.e., there is no action He takes that violates any code of morality or justice.
Righteousness and justice are related words. The former speaks of God’s moral character, whereas the latter speaks of the actions that flow out of His character. Whatever God’s righteousness requires, His justice executes; either to approve or reject, to bless or condemn. God is righteous by nature (Deut. 32:4; Ps. 119:137, 142; Isa. 45:21; John 17:25) and in all His ways (Ps. 145:17; Rev. 15:3). “God’s righteousness is sometimes expressed through His judgment on sinners and vindication of the innocent (Ps. 7:8–11). But because God is righteous, always measuring up to the standard of His holiness, we may trust His decisions. He will be completely just and fair in His dealings with us.” Theologically, the justice of God is observed in several categories: rectoral justice, retributive justice, remunerative justice, redemptive justice, and restorative justice.
The rectoral justice of God (also called legislative justice) “recognizes God as moral ruler who, in imposing His moral law in the world, promises reward for the obedient and punishment for the disobedient (Ps. 99:4; Rom. 1:32).” David writes, “For the kingdom is the LORD’S and He rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:28) and “The LORD has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all” (Ps. 103:19). And Isaiah states, “Pay attention to Me, O My people, and give ear to Me, O My nation; for a law will go forth from Me, and I will set My justice for a light of the peoples” (Isa. 51:4).
Retributive justice means that God will administer just punish to the wicked for their actions. The Lord told Moses, “Vengeance is Mine, and retribution, in due time their foot will slip; for the day of their calamity is near, and the impending things are hastening upon them” (Deut. 32:35). And Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica concerning their suffering and plainly tells them that God not only provides relief to those who are afflicted, but He will also deal out retribution to those who reject the gospel message.
For after all it is only just [δίκαιος dikaios] for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, 8 dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, 10 when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed– for our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thess. 1:6-10)
The remunerative justice of God pertains to the distribution of rewards for those believers who have been faithful to walk in His ways. “The distribution of rewards is called remunerative justice (Deut. 7:9–13; 2 Chron. 6:15; Ps. 58:11; Matt. 25:21; Rom. 2:7; Heb. 11:26).” David wrote, “The LORD will repay each man for his righteousness and his faithfulness; for the LORD delivered you into my hand today, but I refused to stretch out my hand against the LORD’S anointed” (1 Sam. 26:23; cf. 2 Sam. 22:25); and elsewhere he states, “The LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands He has recompensed me” (Ps. 18:20).
God’s redemptive justice is His forgiving and justifying a sinner because Christ has redeemed him/her by paying the price for their sin. The price for the sinner’s redemption is the blood of Christ that was shed in our stead (1 Pet. 1:18-19). The believer is “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (Rom. 3:24-25a). God’s redemptive justice saves us from the eternal penalty of sin, guaranteeing “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). God’s redemptive justice is motivated by His love for sinners.
God’s restorative justice is the familial forgiveness He gives to His children who confess their sin to Him. When we sin, we break fellowship with God, and when we confess our sin to Him, He forgives and restores us. David wrote, “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD’; and You forgave the guilt of my sin” (Ps 32:5). David was a believer, and when he sinned he broke fellowship with God. David’s sin did not mean he was in any danger of forfeiting his salvation; however, he was in danger of divine discipline if he did not humble himself and confess his sins and return to a walk with the Lord. “Confessing involves acknowledging that what one has done violates the will of God (cf. 1 John 1:9). The Old Testament saint had the same responsibility to confess his sins to God that we do, and he also enjoyed the same promise of forgiveness we do (cf. Lev. 5:5; 16:21; 26:40)” The forgiveness extended to David was familial in that it restored fellowship with the Lord. In the Old Testament, forgiveness was predicated on confession of sin (Lev. 5:5; 16:21; Ps. 32:5; 38:18) as well as animal sacrifice (Lev. 4:20; 5:6; 6:6-7). In the New Testament, God requires confession alone (1 John 1:9), which rests on the once for all sacrifice of Christ at the cross (Heb. 10:10-14). Concerning confession of sin, John wrote, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous [δίκαιος dikaios] to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
The forgiveness John speaks about here [i.e. 1 John 1:9] is parental, not judicial. Judicial forgiveness means forgiveness from the penalty of sins, which the sinner receives when he believes on the Lord Jesus Christ. It is called judicial because it is granted by God acting as Judge. But what about sins which a person commits after conversion? As far as the penalty is concerned, the price has already been paid by the Lord Jesus on the cross of Calvary. But as far as fellowship in the family of God is concerned, the sinning saint needs parental forgiveness, that is, the forgiveness of His Father. He obtains it by confessing his sin. We need judicial forgiveness only once; that takes care of the penalty of all our sins—past, present, and future. But we need parental forgiveness throughout our Christian life.
Concerning God’s justice, it should be noted that where people display the fear of the Lord and humility, God may exercise grace and forgiveness toward those who deserve punishment. For example, Aaron led the Israelites into idol worship (Ex. 32:1-6), but there is no record of Aaron being punished for his sin. It’s likely that Aaron was among the Levites who repented after the event (Ex. 32:26). Another example is David who had an adulterous affair with Bathsheba and had her innocent husband Uriah murdered. Both adultery (Lev. 20:10-14; 21:9; Deut. 22:20-22) and murder (Ex. 21:12-14; cf. Gen. 9:6) warranted the death penalty; however, when David was confronted concerning his sin, he openly declared, “I have sinned against the LORD”, and Nathan told David, “The LORD also has taken away your sin; you shall not die” (2 Sam. 12:13). David was disciplined for his sins (2 Sam. 12:10-11, 14); however, because of his honesty and humility, David was not strictly punished for what he deserved.
The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. (Ps. 103:8-12)
In summary, the righteousness of God refers to the intrinsic, immutable, moral perfection of God, from which He commands all things, in heaven and earth, and declares as good that which conforms to His righteousness and as evil that which deviates. The righteousness and the justice of God work together. Whatever God’s righteousness requires, His justice executes; either to approve or reject, to bless or condemn. The various theological categories of God’s righteousness include rectoral justice, retributive justice, remunerative justice, redemptive justice, and restorative justice. The next article shall consider the righteousness of God in the Old Testament.
Steven R. Cook, D.Min.
- The Righteousness of God
- Biblical Righteousness: A Word Study
- Righteousness Exalts a Nation
- Choosing Righteous Friends
- Restoring Fellowship with God
- The Gospel
 Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Two: God, Creation, 323.
 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth, 48.
 Charles R. Swindoll and Roy B. Zuck, Understanding Christian Theology, 188.
 This last category makes sense, although I’ve not found it in any of the theological works I’ve read.
 Paul P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, 196.
 Henry Clarence Thiessen and Vernon D. Doerksen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, 85.
 Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Ps 32:5.
 William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. Arthur Farstad (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 2310-11.