“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.”
I have devoted my Thursday posts recently to an examination of the four basic attributes of God that form the basis for our understanding of the gospel. So far we have seen that:
Today, I would like to look at the third major attribute of God— He is Righteous or Just. In English the terms righteousness and justice are different words, but Wayne Grudem points out that in the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament, “there is only one word group behind these two terms.” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p.203) He goes on to say that “God’s righteousness means that God always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the final standard of what is right.” (p.203)
The word “righteous” often invokes negative feelings in people. We all know people who are self-righteous and look down on others. Most of us also know people who try to impose their own standards of righteousness on other people. We often refer to these kinds of people as being “self-righteous.” Thankfully, the righteousness of God has nothing to do with either of these kinds of people. When we say that God is righteous, we mean that He cannot make a rule or a promise and then not keep it. In other words, God is always faithful to do what He says that He will do. This attribute of God helps us to understand the penal or legal aspect of the gospel. To see what I mean it may be helpful to read Genesis 2:16-17 and 3:1-24.
In Gen 2:16-17 God gave Adam permission to eat from every tree that was in the garden except for one, which is called “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” This is a simple and straightforward command. At the end of v.17, God established a penalty for breaking this command, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” This is a simple and straightforward command; don’t eat of this one particular tree because if you do you are going to die. For God to be righteous, He must carry out the penalty that He attached to this law. In other words, Adam and Eve had to die after they ate the fruit or God would not be righteous. God cannot simply overlook or ignore the rule. God’s righteousness compels Him to carry out the penalty for sin and this is exactly what He does in Genesis 3:13-19 when announces the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin.
A.W. Tozer points out that God’s righteousness would seem to “destroy the hope of justification for the returning sinner.” (The Knowledge of the Holy, p.94) This raises the age-old question that can only be answered by the gospel “How does God spare the wicked and yet maintain His own righteousness?” To answer this question we must look to the cross of Jesus Christ, where the full measure of God’s righteousness and justice was poured out upon Jesus as He bore the full penalty for our sin. In the cross, we can fully see both the righteousness and grace of God being displayed. This is what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Come back next week, when we look at God’s grace.