When was the last time you sang a hymn about God’s justice? It is not a theme that we talk about, much less sing about, but the Psalms often celebrate God’s justice. Psalm 103:6: “The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.” Psalm 129:4: “The LORD is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked.” Righteousness is an attribute of God which is celebrated in the Psalms.
What is righteousness? Righteousness can refer to someone who is acquitted in a trial (Deut. 25:1 speaks of acquitting the innocent and punishing the guilty). It can also refer to someone who, outside of the court setting, is in step with the law. Psalm 15:2 describes such a person as “He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart”.
To truly understand righteousness, however, we should not look to man, but to God. Righteousness is first and foremost an attribute of God. As Wayne Grudem explains, righteousness means that God “always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the final standard of what is right”. Louis Berkhof defined it like this: “It is that perfection of God by which He maintains Himself over against every violation of His holiness, and shows in every respect that He is the Holy One.”
God’s righteousness is manifested in different ways. First, we see God’s justice manifested in his righteous rule. In Isa. 33:22 the prophet assures God’s people: “the LORD is our judge; the LORD is our lawgiver; the LORD is our king; he will save us.” God’s righteousness is revealed in the way that God governs the world, imposing a law that promises blessing for the obedient and threatens punishment for the wicked.
Second, God’s justice is manifested in his gracious rewards. We don’t think often think about rewards when we consider God’s justice, but God promises: “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9). Psalm 58:11 rejoices: "Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.” In this way God’s justice is also an expression of his love. Interestingly, this aspect of God’s justice is more prominent in Scripture than his retribution. It does not mean, however, that retribution is absent.
Third, God’s justice is manifested in just retribution. Romans 2:4 warns: “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil”. Romans 12:19 adds: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."”
Taken together we see that God will always act in accordance with his holiness. God is righteous.
How does this apply to us? If we take God’s moral perfection as the standard for true righteousness, we must confess that we simply don’t measure up. Romans 3:23 gives us the unvarnished truth: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. This means that we stand condemned before the righteous God and that we deserve punishment: “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
How can we escape the righteous wrath of God for our sins? Mercifully Romans 3 does not end with verse 23. It continues: “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:24-25). This means that we can be declared righteous through faith in Jesus Christ. How is that possible? By faith Jesus Christ has taken upon himself the righteous wrath of God for our sins and died for our sins on the cross. He died the death we deserved to die. By faith Jesus Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us: his righteousness becomes ours. In the words of 2 Cor. 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
This is how unrighteous sinners are reconciled to a righteous God: through Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 2:1).
Embrace Christ, celebrate God’s righteousness and trust in God’s enabling power to live a righteous life. Zeph. 3:5: “The LORD… is righteous; he does no injustice; every morning he shows forth his justice; each dawn he does not fail”.
Because of Christ,