Back when I was in college, during one of the later exams (maybe the final?) in a particularly challenging course, the professor announced that the test was about to begin, and instructed that all other material be put away. As he handed out the test, and the students (including me) prepared to tackle some difficult problems, we were shocked when he made an announcement: The professor told one of the students that he would receive an “F” on this test, because the student had kept his textbook open (where he could see it) during the exam. Some heated debate ensued, including a hallway conversation with the dean outside the lecture hall, and I’m not sure what the final outcome was. However, that rest of us were certainly intimidated, and I suspect that all of us mentally scanned through our immediate environment to make sure we didn’t have any prohibited material in sight.
In this case, the student was clearly in the wrong. He had broken the rules (and this was not the first time that he had violated this one), so he received the consequences. It was not a new rule. It was not something that he hadn’t been warned about. The outcome was simply enforcement of an existing policy for the class.
When we are the victim of wrongdoing (or maybe when we are just offended), we generally want the perpetrator to be punished, don’t we? We have an innate sense of equilibrium in our lives (or perhaps vengeance, at least), which makes us want to see the right thing done.
Outside of ourselves, do we want justice when the innocent are hurt or exploited? I think that this is a natural reaction for empathetic people, where injustice grates against our sense of right and wrong.
On the other hand, do we want justice to be served when we break the rules? When justice demands that we be disciplined, or obliges us to make restitution, are we still supporters of fairness? I’d like to say that I always feel compelled to accept the consequences of my actions, but I still look in the rearview mirror (to look for an officer who can enforce the law) when I drive through a yellow traffic light that is turning red.
These are just questions for reflection, though. In the universe, whether we want it or not, justice will be served. God’s holiness compels the books to be settled. His grace allows them to stay open for a long time, but every moral failure – against His perfect standard – must be punished.
Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit.
Galatians 6:7-8 NLT
God’s justice isn’t petty, like ours. We may wish for someone who just sped around us on the road to get a flat tire. We might want terrible things to be done to someone who assaulted a friend or relative. In God’s justice, though, there are only two ultimate options: perfect sinlessness, allowing us to live with Him for eternity; or, anything less than that, where our sin prevents us from being in His holy presence. (Yes, God also disciplines and punishes sins on a more temporal basis, as He sees fit, but these often seem to be means to guide people towards greater goals, like righteousness and reconciliation.)
In this light, God’s provision for human beings’ sins is even more amazing. Without compromising the justice that was necessary, Jesus willingly took on the terrible punishment that each of us deserved.
for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Romans 3:26 NASB
This is one of my favorite verses in the Bible. It shows two key things about the nature of God: His justice and His love. God did not remove the consequences of sin, which violated of the “very good” world that He created. He did not suspend justice, or create a “loophole”. Had He done so, why would anyone expect justice to be the norm throughout the rest of history? Why would we expect to see justice for ourselves, or our loved ones? How could we expect God to fairly judge between the righteous and the unrighteous, if the rules only applied “sometimes”?
Instead, though, the penalty of sin remained in force. God remained sovereign, and maintained His integrity. (Of course He did, since to do otherwise would have contradicted His very nature, at least as I understand it.) While still enforcing the mandate of consequences for sin, though, God showed His love for us by providing a payment for our sins. As a result, justice could still be served, but we could still return to a healthy relationship with Him (just as in His original creation).
So, we are right to seek justice in this world. I believe that followers of Jesus are called upon to be advocates for the innocent, the exploited, and the oppressed. However, there are times when the consequences of others’ wrongdoing just need to be absorbed by those who extend grace (just as we receive God’s grace). A debt may need to be canceled. An insult may need to be left un-returned. An offense may need to be forgiven. This doesn’t mean that the abused shouldn’t seek refuge, nor that we should continue to support sinful behavior in others. However, when we have the ability to do so, sometimes we – as the injured party – need to follow Jesus’ example, and pay the price ourselves for what justice demands of someone else. May our behavior point others to God’s superior example of being both just, and the justifier.