‘That’s not fair!’ is an expression we expect to hear from little children, but is surprisingly often heard from adults as well.Mankind seems to have a standard of behaviour by which it judges whether something is fair or not. This assessment of the justice or fairness of something is made about our behaviour to one another, but it is also made about God’s behaviour. Asaph was bothered by what seemed to be unfairness in the way wicked, immoral, unscrupulous people seem to prosper in life and in business. They bend if not break rules, they exploit other people, and God appears to turn a blind eye to it all.‘That’s not fair! That’s wrong’, is the implied charge against God, Ps. 73. ‘There’s no justice in this world’.
God defines what is right/fair
But how do we distinguish between ‘right and wrong’ in this context? By what standard is something right or wrong? The standard for right or wrong is God’s unwavering righteousness, not man’s changing standards and opinions, and God’s dealings with men are just when He deals with them according to His righteousness. God says, ‘I the Lord speak righteousness, I declare things that are right’, Isa. 45. 19. ‘The precepts of the Lord are right’, Ps. 19. 8. Our Lord, speaking of Himself,once said,‘My judgment is just’, John 5. 30.We cannot decide what is right, wrong, fair, or unfair because, in the first place, our judgement is tainted by sin and, secondly,we don’t see the full picture. This is what reassured Asaph in the end.He did not understand things fully ‘until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I’, Ps. 73. 17.
God is righteous and just
In our English translation of the Bible we come across the words ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’. These are not two separate concepts in the Hebrew or Greek in which the Bible was written. They are used to translate the same word - tsedek in the Old Testament Hebrew and dikaios in New Testament Greek. These two terms really describe the same aspect of God’s character. God’s righteousness is the way in which He carries out His holy and perfect way. He does so with perfect justice. ‘As for God, His way is perfect.’ It cannot be anything else.This means He will always act in accordance with what is right. He will never be like those men whom He promises to punish who ‘call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness: that put bitter for sweet; and sweet for bitter’, Isa. 5. 20. To do that would be wrong; it would be unjust.
Because He is holy, God can neither sin nor take pleasure in sin, nor can He condone and excuse it. Being just, He must punish sin and reward good. He cannot do otherwise. ‘There is no God else beside me’, He says, ‘a just God and a Saviour’, Isa. 45. 21. Abraham wrestled with the thought that God could destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. It was not that the wicked in those cities did not deserve God’s judgement;Abraham knew that they did. He struggled with what he saw to be unjust if God destroyed the righteous at the same time as the unrighteous, saying, ‘Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?’ Gen. 18. 25. Of course He shall. He is ‘a just God and a Saviour’, Isa. 45. 21. He is ‘the just Lord’, Zeph. 3. 5, ‘faithful and just’, 1 John 1. 9. ‘Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways’, Rev. 15. 3. Speaking of the Lord Jesus, the Old Testament describes Him coming into Jerusalem on a donkey and says, ‘He is just, and having salvation’, Zech. 9. 9. The Jewish people of His day ‘denied the Holy One and the just’, Acts 3. 14. God is ‘the just Lord in the midst thereof; he will not do iniquity: every morning doth he bring his judgment to light, he faileth not’, Zeph. 3. 5.
God is impartial
God has no favourites when it comes to excusing sinful behaviour. ‘He that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons’, Col. 3. 25. ‘There is no respect for persons with God. For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law’, Rom 2. 11-12. ‘Let the fear of the Lord be upon you’, says Jehoshaphat to his judges, ‘for there is no iniquity with the Lord our God, nor respect of persons, nor taking of gifts (bribery)’, 2 Chr. 19. 7. God frequently rebuked kings of Israel and judges amongst them for their injustice and unrighteous dealings with one another. He did not excuse them, saying, ‘They are my people’. In fact, God’s standards for His people are higher, simply because they should know better. Judgement must begin at the house of the Lord. Paul writes to Christian slave owners and says, ‘Ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him’, Eph. 6. 9. In other words, God’s standard of behaviour is the same for rich and poor, slave and free. In the end, God ‘without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work’, 1 Pet. 1. 17. God, therefore, commands ‘all men everywhere to repent: because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world … by that man whom he hath ordained’, Acts 17. 30, 31. God ‘is the judge of all’, Heb. 12. 23.
God must punish sin
Many say that, because God is a God of love, He will not ultimately send anyone to hell.Yet no attribute of God’s character, no part of His make-up, should ever be emphasized above another. All of God’s attributes are held in equal tension. So though it is true to say ‘God is love’, He is also just and righteous. He must punish sin – were He to fail to do so He would not be just. So He will ‘by no means clear the guilty’, Exod. 34. 7; cf. 23. 7. Although it may be true to say it is God’s wrath or anger that will bring judgement, His wrath is brought into play because of His offended righteousness. Men and women are warned not to despise the longsuffering of God, lest they treasure up against them ‘wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God who will render to every man according to his deeds’, Rom. 2. 5-6. On the other hand, a just God must and will reward good,Ps. 17. 1.
Objection 1: How, and why, can God forgive anyone, without overlooking their sin?
How can God ‘be just’ and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus?’ Rom. 3. 26. Simply because God has found a way by which He can resolve the conflict between the necessity of punishing sin and sinners because of His justice and His desire to forgive and save sinners as a result of His love. He did this by sending His Son into the world to become a substitute for sinners. When Christ died upon the cross, God ‘made him to be sin … who knew no sin.’ Those who have believed and trusted in Christ can say ‘the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ Believers can say, He bare our sin in his own body on the tree.’ So God can forgive sinners their sins, not because He has overlooked their sins but because He has already judged their sins, and another has already borne the punishment for sins. ‘Christ has suffered, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.’ So God can be just, and still forgive sinners.
Objection 2: Is there not unfairness with God if He does not forgive and save all?
That He could is without doubt. Why does He not do so? The first answer to this is to remind ourselves that God does not owe anyone anything.He does not owe it to any sinner to save and forgive him or her. Our sins merit God’s judgement, not His forgiveness. If God sent the whole world, every single person, to judgement because of their sins, no-one could say God was either unjust or unfair. Yet, for some reason or other, He chooses to save some, and leave others to their just condemnation.
But what are we to say about that? Isn’t God unfair in saving some and not saving others? No. If God chooses to save some out of ‘the good pleasure of his will’ that is His prerogative. He does not owe it to all to save them, therefore He is not unfair if He does not do so.He has chosen some to be saved, and left the others to their just deserts.
You may say, that is unfair. Surprisingly enough, the argument is not new. When Paul taught God’s sovereign choice in the election of the nation of Israel, and from there God’s sovereign right to save whom He will today, people objected. ‘What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy’, Rom. 9. 14-16. In fact, the Spirit of God reminds us that it is not for us to sit in judgement upon God. The only answer to questions about the fairness of God is simply this, ‘Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?’ Rom. 9. 20. Job tried to question God, too, and this was God’s response to him, ‘Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him?’ Job 40. 2-4. In the end, with questions such as these, we have to rest simply on this assurance, ‘Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?’ His thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are His ways our ways, Isa. 55. 8. A just God cannot do anything that is unjust, though we may not see it yet. ‘Shall mortal man be more just than God? shall a man be more pure than his maker?’, Job 4. 17. We need to go back into that sanctuary, Ps. 73.
What of us?
If God is righteous and just, and we are His children, should we not be like Him? ‘If ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin’, Jas. 2. 9. ‘Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate’, Amos 5. 15. ‘If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him’, 1. Johnn 2. 29.‘Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous’, 1. John. 3. 7. Good and upright is He; so should we be.
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