What is right? How do we determine what is just? When the words “righteousness” or “justice” appear in the Bible, they are usually some form of the Hebrew word “tzedek.” The original root idea of tzedek conveyed the idea of being stiff or straight. In a religious context, tzedek means that which is morally straight, that which is as it should be. It embodies the idea of equity, fairness, and impartiality. Justice is the application of fairness to moral situations.
Justice, when applied to God, describes the way God is. God’s justice is not something external to Him. He is infinitely righteous within Himself. When God acts justly He is not doing so to conform to some outside criteria; some law or principle or standard outside Himself. He is simply acting like Himself in any given situation. God is His own self-existent principle of moral equity. God’s perfect law comes from within His own nature.
But everything else in the universe is only just to the degree that it conforms to the righteous nature of God. It is evil whenever it fails to do so. And God rewards and punishes all moral beings on the basis of how they conform to His standard. When He punishes evil men or rewards the righteous, He is simply acting from within His own nature, uninfluenced by anything that is not Himself. Every human being will be judged fairly because it is impossible for God to do otherwise. He cannot condemn the innocent, nor can He clear the guilty. He will not turn a blind eye to moral evil in anyone. Nor will He punish with undue harshness. The punishment He metes out will always fit the crime, since there is no inequity with the Lord our God. God is always perfectly fair in his dealings with each and every person. No favoritism is ever indulged in by God (though infinite favor is extended to those who come under the righteousness of God when they are united to the Messiah). He cannot show partiality or take a bribe. He is no respecter of persons. The Lord will reward every man according to his works. He will pay back each one according to his ways.
God’s justice is foundational to the way He governs the universe and everything in it. When the Torah declares that righteousness and justice is the foundation of His throne (Psalm 89:14), it means that the Lord is always fair in His dealings and always does what is right. The universe as we know it could not exist apart from this attribute of God. Our existence would be a moral nightmare that would be arbitrary and unfair.
In fact, the gods of the other nations were often described as being unfair, capricious and arbitrary. But the concept of the God of Israel held by the prophets of Israel is one of an all powerful Ruler and King, high and lifted up, reigning with complete fairness: The Lord abides forever, King David declared, He has established His throne for judgment, and He will judge the world in righteousness; He will execute judgement for the peoples with equity (Psalm 98:9). Moses, at the end of his long life, with all his many dealings with God in a multitude of situations, could write: Ascribe greatness to our God! The Rock! His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He (Deut. 32:3-4). God is always just. He always acts uprightly. He always is perfectly fair. He always “shoots straight” for He cannot do otherwise. He must always do what is right, because that is His nature.
GOD’S JUSTICE VERSUS MAN’S INJUSTICE
God is just in all of His ways – but it must be obvious from reading the newspaper or watching the evening news that mankind is not. God is full of equity, but men of this world are full of inequity (the absence of fairness). God is a God of perfect justice, but the world we inhabit is filled with injustice. God is perfectly righteous, but man is unrighteous. None of us have lived up to His righteous standards which flow from His righteous nature. All men have offended the justice of God. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There is not a righteous man on earth who does good and who never sins(Ec. 7:20). It is the consistent testimony of the Torah and universal human experience that there is no human being that does good, not even one (Psalm 53:3).
What is even more damning is that it is not only our deeds that are unrighteous – it is our nature that is unjust as well. All of us are born with a nature that predisposes us toward injustice. You don’t have to teach a child to lie – he will naturally do it on his own. You need to constantly reinforce the moral lesson that he is to tell the truth. You don’t have to instruct your child how to steal – he will steal on his own. Good parents must consistently instruct their child to do what is right, because doing what is right goes against the natural propensity of his fallen nature.
The just God cannot tolerate any unrighteousness. He is too righteous to tolerate the least hint of any moral unrighteousness. He must absolutely reject that which isn’t 100% right (which includes us as well). Because of our unrighteousness we are all under the sentence of death, a judgement which resulted when God’s justice confronted our moral situation. Whenever God’s infinite equity encounters man’s continual, chronic, and willful inequity, there will always be a violent conflict between the two; a war which a holy and infinite God must always win. God’s perfect justice forever stands against unjust mankind in total hostility.
The Bible categorically declares that there is nothing that a person can do on his own to make himself righteous in the Lord’s sight. There is nothing that we can give that is adequate to make us right in the sight of God. No man can be made righteous on the grounds of his character or his conduct. It is impossible for God’s eternal, infinite, and perfect righteousness to come to us by any of our limited human efforts, or by any law we can keep, or by anything we can do. Even our best deeds will always be inadequate. All our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment (Isaiah 64:6). God’s righteous standards are simply too high, too holy, and too pure for us.
HOW THEN CAN GOD’S JUSTICE COME?
God loves His fallen creatures. He longs for us to be restored, but He cannot ignore our sins, nor can He turn a blind eye to them. How can God make an unrighteous human being righteous, and yet not violate His own just nature? One and only one provision has been made, and that at infinite cost, whereby fallen mankind may escape the penalties of God’s offended justice. That is through our righteous Messiah, Yeshua ha-Tzadeek; Yeshua the Just.
There is one and only one way that God’s righteousness can come to any man – through Israel’s Righteous Messiah. If there were laws or commandments or good deeds that could have brought us righteousness, then righteousness would have been based on law – but it wasn’t. If sin could have been pardoned any other way apart from Messiah’s sacrifice, then Messiah Yeshua died in vain – but we know He didn’t. If there were some human effort, some prayer, some obedience, some act of human love or charity, or some combination of them, then the Messiah’s death would have been unnecessary – but it wasn’t (Galatians 2:21, 3:21).
What we could not do, Messiah, clothed in our nature, did for us. At great cost to Himself, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sent His Son into this world to become our Justifier. From His infancy in Bethlehem’s manger to the garden of Gethsemane, from His death on the cross to His ascension high above all the heavens, He came so that we who are unrighteous and unjust sinners can be made right in the sight of His Father. He made Messiah who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God when we are joined to Him.
When by our faith we are joined to Messiah, His obedience, His sorrow, His love, His prayers, His tears, His suffering, His death on the cross, His resurrection victory, His eternal life, He Himself and all that He is, becomes ours. He belongs to us, and we sinners belong to Him. We become bone of Messiah’s bone, and flesh of Messiah’s flesh. When an unrighteous person is joined to the righteous Messiah, the moral situation is reversed. The Father sees us joined to Messiah and sees His dearly beloved Son. The Father sees us joined to Messiah and behold, we are whiter than snow! The Father sees us joined to Messiah and He sees all the beauty and grace of the Lord Yeshua.
Messiah brought in everlasting righteousness which meets all the demands of God’s righteous nature.The just penalty for sin was perfectly exacted when Messiah, our Atonement, died for us on the cross. When we are joined to this wonderful Lord, God’s justice can be perfectly satisfied, and He can declare a sinner just. When we are joined to the righteous Messiah, God’s justice confronts the changed situation and pronounces the believing man just. The Father sees us joined to Messiah and declares that we are righteous.
All those who renounce their own so called righteousness, and trust in the righteousness of the Jewish Messiah, God declares them truly righteous, and saves them forever. But most of the world, including the vast majority of my beloved Jewish people, refuse to submit to God’s one and only righteousness. For not knowing about God’s true righteousness that comes to us in the Messiah, and seeking to establish their own righteousness based on their own understanding, religious systems, and their own human efforts, they refuse to submit themselves to God’s righteousness. To reject the righteousness provided by Messiah, the one and only means by which God can without impairment to His justice forgive the sinner and extend perfect grace toward the sinner, becomes the final and all condemning sin.
WHEN WILL GOD’S JUSTICE FULLY COME?
Even though God’s righteousness is now available to all who are joined to Messiah, there is coming a day when the righteousness of God will be universally revealed: God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed (Acts 17:30-31). Those words are just as true today as they were 1900 years ago when the great Messianic Jew, Rabbi Paul of Tarsus, stood and preached them to the Greek philosophers in the midst of Athens. Of the Messiah it is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah: With righteousness He will judge the poor, and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth… righteousness will be the belt about His loins, and faithfulness the belt about His waist. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David, and over His kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore (Is. 9:6-7, 11:4-5).
GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS: JOY OR TERROR?
The justice of God will be perfectly revealed one day soon – eternal glory to those who have accepted His offer of righteousness in the Messiah, or eternal destruction to those who refuse. The Lord is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples in His faithfulness (Psalm 96:13). Does that knowledge give you comfort or a sense of foreboding?
God’s righteousness should be an encouragement to the believer, because we know that God must judge righteously. The child of God can rest securely because he is joined to the righteous Messiah, who became to us righteousness from God. Knowing that God is just should encourage every child of God because His justice requires that the saints be rewarded for their faithfulness. Every good and righteous thing that you have ever done will be noticed and rewarded.
On the other hand, God’s righteousness should be a terror to unbelievers who reject God’s provision of righteousness in the Messiah. But most people try hard not to think too much about a holy God and His righteous standards. The mushy idea that God is too kind, or too unaware, or too uncaring, or too unholy, or too unrighteous to punish the ungodly is a deadly drug for the masses of humanity.Agnosticism is the opiate of the intellectuals. It quiets their fears and enables them to practice all kinds of moral inequity while death draws nearer every day, Hell opens wide its gates, and the command to repent goes unheeded.
ADMIT YOUR SIN
Like Adam and Eve in the garden, when we sin our natural tendency is to run away from the Lord God, and avoid Him by attempting to hide in the trees of this life. We must unlearn this wrong behavior and replace it with running to God. After all, He already knows our sins. If we do humble ourselves and confess our sins, we have God’s promise that He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. But if we avoid dealing with our sin, it will only fester and get worse. When King David kept silent about his sin, he wasted away. But when he acknowledged it, he was forgiven and he experienced immediate relief and the restoration of God’s blessing.
KNOWING GOD’S JUSTICE HELPS US TO PRAY
Life in this world is full of injustice. Sometimes we have the ability and the power to do something about it. But often correcting the inequity we see is beyond our ability. When you find yourself confronted by injustice that is beyond your ability to correct, you can call it to the attention of the Just Judge, and in due time He will bring His justice to that situation. When Abraham interceded for the righteous within the city of Sodom, he reminded the Lord God that He had to act like Himself: Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly (Genesis 18:25)? God’s response to your plea for justice might not come the way you want, or in the time you want, but God’s justice will come, because it must come. You can confidently rest in the assurance that His righteousness will come. Although injustice might prevail at times, on earth, it will ultimately be righted in heaven.
Does the knowledge of the righteousness of God bring you a sense of joy, or terror? Do you know the righteous Judge? Have you joined yourself to the Righteous Messiah by faith in Him? Are you right with Him? Are you trying to do the right things?
I am indebted to The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer for this article.