The Biblical statements about God’s grace find no peer among all the religions of the world (cf. Rom. 5:6-8; Eph. 2; Titus 3:4-7). Holy Scripture portrays a God of grace, who desires the salvation of every soul, who has done and will do His part to make that salvation available to all (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Yet Scripture also portrays a God of swift and severe justice, a “consuming fire” who will “devour the adversaries” (Heb. 12:29; 10:27). The full impact of such justice will only be truly seen “when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 1:7-8). Many sincere people have difficulty harmonizing the grace of God with the justice of God. They read, “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God” (Rom. 11:22), and find what they believe to be irreconcilable attributes.
The justice of God troubles people. Some hear the Gospel’s warnings about judgment to come, and assert that such violates their sense of what is right. Some make such statements as “I refuse to believe in a God that would condemn people to an eternity of hell.” Some even go so far as to aver, “If any of my loved ones are going to be in hell, I want to be there too.” They claim that the justice of God is too strict and too severe to be righteous.
Justice is defined as “the giving to every person that—and all of that, and only that—to which he is entitled, whether good or bad, and that without partiality or favor.”1 In clear distinction to the modern “justice” (or failure to achieve thereof) often displayed by the American court system, God’s justice matches this definition. It is a self contradiction to say that God’s justice is not righteous—even the Biblical words translated “judgment” and “justice” can also be translated “righteousness.” God will vindicate those worthy of vindication. As Solomon observed, “Also to punish the just is not good, nor to strike princes (“the noble,” American Standard Version) for equity” (Prov. 17:26). God cannot punish the guiltless, for He is infinitely good (cf. Matt. 19:17). Contrary to the blasphemous doctrine of “original sin,” and its subsequent “total hereditary depravity,” God will hold no one guilty for sins that person has not committed himself (cf. Ezek. 18:20). But there are times when punishment must be administered. It is then, and only then, that God punishes—and He will never fail to do so at such times. This is regardless of one’s social status, influence in government, or stockpiles of riches. God’s impartiality in justice is certainly praiseworthy; whether seen in His verdict of guilty or innocent, whether seen in His administration of punishment or reward. God is described as, “Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:7).
In the courts of this country, the accused or accuser in a trial is occasionally able to “pull the wool over the eyes” of judge and jury. The defendant and his attorney may be able to persuade the judge that the defendant is truly penitent, and that he does not require the punishment that meets his crime. They may be able to convince the jury that the defendant is not guilty of something that he actually did. Conversely, an accuser is sometimes able to convince a jury that the defendant is guilty of a crime that he did not commit. Such lies make a mockery out of a court system designed for the welfare of society. But such mockery will not be made of God’s justice: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting” (Gal. 6:7-8).
Notice from the aforementioned passage that God has the responsibility of pronouncing eternal sentences. This is because sin is an eternal offense. Once sin has been committed, one cannot wish or wash it away of his own doing. Since sin separates man from God (cf. Isa. 59:1-2; Hab. 1:13), one who enters eternity having a soul fouled with sin must be punished by eternal separation from God (cf. 2 Thess. 1:9). This means eternal separation from all things that are good, for “Every good and perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (Jas. 1:17). Where God has removed His presence, there can be nothing good. And as “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), the sentence for entering eternity with sin can only be an eternal punishment of death.
It can be difficult to see the grace of God’s justice when His potential punishment involves oneself or one’s loved ones. When a convicted criminal is put to death or sentenced to life in prison, that criminal and his family members are not usually among the ardent supporters of the punishment being carried out; the criminal’s deserving the punishment notwithstanding. But as much as some might wish for God to lay aside His law on the day of judgment, God can only do right (cf. Psa. 92:15; Jer. 9:24; Rom. 9:14). One who is honest can see the righteousness of God’s punishment, whether administered to one’s own self or to another. The “angel of the water” said of the severe judgment of the Lord, “Thou art righteous, O Lord, which art, and wast, and shalt be, because thou hast judged thus” (Rev. 16:5). The psalmist realized, “I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right; and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me” (Psa. 119:75). Perhaps only on the day of judgment will we fully appreciate God’s justice and the necessity of the punishment of the sinful.
But as certain as is the punishment of the sinful, so is the reward of the righteous. God does not have uncertain nebulous law, which can be interpreted one way by one judge and completely differently by another. In spite of the horrendous atrocity that sin is, God has provided through Jesus Christ the means of forgiveness for all mankind from sin (cf. Rom. 3:23-24; Acts 2:38). There need be no doubt for the faithful Christian that he will receive the reward: “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8).
It is by the wonderful grace of God that every man and woman can enter judgment knowing that he will be judged by the righteous Judge. None has to be in doubt as to what his sentence will be. Each person will “receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). No one will be punished more than what he deserves; and each person who has availed himself of God’s grace while on earth shall reap life everlasting. May God be praised for His gracious justice!
1 Rex A. Turner, Sr., Systematic Theology (Montgomery, AL: Alabama Christian School of Religion, 1989), p. 50