Tuesday, September 14

God As Judge

In last week's installment of this series I posted on God's righteousness or his justice. God is righteous (or just) because he is morally pure. His morally perfect character results in all of his thoughts and actions being morally perfect, and one of the morally perfect (and morally necessary) ways God acts is as the perfect Judge of all things. He stands in judgment over everything: discerning the exact truth about every thought and action of all of his creatures, impartially pronouncing the just consequences for all actions, and then executing those judgments (Romans 2:6-11).

In our legal systems, those who make the laws, those who sentence lawbreakers, and those who execute the sentences are all separate, but in God's rule, those three functions are all carried out by one single person: the one and only Righteous Judge of all the earth. First of all, he is the one who has set the moral standards and declared them to us. They are called his precepts, his laws, his commandments, his statutes, his judgments (and there are probably more terms I've forgotten), and they are part of his revelation to us in scripture. And even those people who have had no exposure to God's word know instinctively what sorts of behaviour a righteous Judge would demand of us, for God's righteous demands for human behaviour are written on their hearts and in their consciences (Romans 2:15). This standard of righteousness is not arbitrary, but it is the perfect reflections of God's own holy character. He is morally perfect, and his standard for us demands that we "be holy as he is holy"--that we not fall short of his glory. We can't complain that this standard is an unjust one, for it's very source is in the only perfect justice there is: the justice of God.

He is also the one who determines the rightful sentences for those who don't live up to these moral standards. He is, of course, the only one perfectly suited for this job. He has the wisdom to discern the absolute truth about every situation of lawbreaking, and he knows a lie when he hears it and a cover-up when he sees it. He sees not only the actions taken, but the motives behind the actions. Everything stands in the open before his wisdom and his truth. He also loves what is good, and hates wickedness, so he has a vested interest in seeing right win out over wrong. He can be counted on, then, to never simply overlook wrongdoing: he will always pass the absolutely perfectly deserved (and therefore perfectly just) sentence for all lawbreaking.

The last of the three roles he plays as righteous Judge is that of the one who executes the sentences. He is perfectly suited for this role as well. As the all-powerful one, he has the might to enforce his judgments. There is no one with the wits or power to escape their rightfully determined sentence for breaking the moral standards set by God. This brings us to the aspect of God's activity as Judge that we often prefer not to think or talk about: the outpouring of God's wrath. It's there though, unescapeably clearly evidenced throughout the scripture--God's wrath expressed against sin and sinners as the execution of the righteous sentence for all unrighteousness.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Romans 1:18 ESV)

Those who love God will want to know all facets of him, even the less comfortable ones, like his just wrath. It something he undeniably wants us to know of him, and he wants us to know how certain his wrath is, for it is an attribute he has used to undergird an oath (Psalm 95:11). It's part of what makes him the absolutely holy God that he is; it is one of his perfections. If God had no wrath against sin, he wouldn't be true to his morally perfect (or righteous) character.

And deep down, we all know that. We wouldn't much like a God who simply overlooked the cruelty of heinous villians: of murderers and rapists and terrorists. We want God to express his wrath against what we feel is true, unequivocable evil, because we know that true justice requires that. What we have more trouble with is God expressing his wrath against the more ordinary sorts of lawbreaking--like our own, and those of people like us. It's easy for us to see that history's more evil men deserve God's wrath for their moral imperfection, but scripture tells us that when it comes to what God requires of us (Remember, he can rightly require no less than that we be "holy as he is holy!"), we all fall on the wrong side of the line. We all fall far short of his righteous requirement; by virtue of our very nature, we are "objects of God's wrath." Some are more abominable than others, and a just God will take this in account, but we are all rightly held in the box labeled "evil doers". What we deserve (what is the absolutely fair and just payment or wages) for being the kind of people we are, is the death that is the result of the expression of God's righteous wrath against sin.

Even when God mercifully spares some from the execution of this rightful sentence for their lawbreaking, he must do it in a just way. That he is morally perfect (or righteous) means that his character places certain parameters around the way he can pardon us. He can't just capriciously decide to overlook sin, but there must be a righteous ground upon which that can be done. This is what Christ's death is all about. It is God's righteous way of pardoning sinners. He displayed Christ publicly as a propitiation (a propitiation is way take care of God's wrath)
to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3: 25, 26)
Christ's propitiatory (or wrath appeasing) death proves before all eyes that God is righteous, because even his mercy upon sinners--his forgiveness of sins--is extended in a way that is in accordance with his righteousness. He justifies the faithful in a just way.

So, what should it mean to us that our God is a perfectly just judge? Why does he want us to understand that he has just wrath against sin? For one, it shows us the truly abhorrant nature of our unrighteousness. That the wrath of the only morally perfect One is called out as the absolutely excruciatingly correct--and only correct--response to what we might prefer to excuse as simply petty mistakes or small crimes of little consequence, ought to help us see those sins in a more proper light. That the one who know and sees it all as it is judges us as deserving of his terrible wrath ought to give us a whole lot of pause. It ought to stop our excuse making mouths when we stand before him, and cause us to call desperately for mercy instead.

And it ought to make those of us who have experienced his mercy extremely grateful. We have been spared something we completely and utterly deserved; and the mercy that spared us wasn't an easy mercy, for it required the death of his own Son in order for him to be justly merciful to us. It was costly, and he spared no cost. In return, let's

serve the living and true God,
and .... wait for his Son from heaven,
whom he raised from the dead,
Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
(1 Thessalonians 1:9,10 ESV)