Righteous and Just

By James M. Rochford

God is perfectly righteous and just. God “always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the final standard of what is right.”[1] He is what theologians call the “highest good” (summum bonum).[2] Because God is morally flawless, this results in justice for those who morally violate him or others.

Biblical Basis

God’s character is morally flawless. Jesus said, “Your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). He also said, “No one is good except God alone” (Mk. 10:18). The psalmist writes, “You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness; no evil dwells with You” (Ps. 5:4). He also writes, “There is no unrighteousness in Him” (Ps. 92:15). Moses said, “His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He” (Deut. 32:4).

God cannot act unjustly or unrighteously. In Job, we read, “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert what is right?” (Job 8:3) Surely not! God cannot “do wickedness” or “do wrong” (Job 34:10). Paul writes, “The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? …May it never be!” (Rom. 3:5-6). Later, he states, “There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” (Rom. 9:14). More passages could be offered, but clearly, the Bible teaches that God is morally flawless and incapable of committing evil.

God cannot be tempted by evil. James writes, “God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone” (Jas. 1:13). Unlike humans, selfishness and other forms of sin carry no allure to God. He finds all forms of sin and evil repulsive.

God’s judgment will be perfectly righteous. Abraham knew that God was the perfect judge. This is why he rhetorically asked, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen. 18:25) Consequently, God will judge with perfect justice. Moses writes, “[God] repays those who hate Him to their faces, to destroy them; He will not delay with him who hates Him, He will repay him to his face” (Deut. 7:10). Habakkuk writes, “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You can not look on wickedness with favor” (Hab. 1:13). It is almost as if God is “allergic to sin and evil.”[3] The psalmist writes, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth!” (Ps. 58:11).

Does God dictate what is good because it is good? Or does he arbitrarily decide what is good?

In the 5th century BC, Euthyphro (YOU-thuh-fro) asked Socrates, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” This has come to be known as the “Euthyphro Dilemma.” To put the dilemma in modern terms, we would ask:

OPTION #1: Is it wrong to torture an innocent person because God commands that it is wrong? If this is the case, then what if God had changed his mind and commanded it to be morally right to torture people for fun? If this was the case, then we would be morally obligated to torture innocent people! As one atheistic philosopher writes, “If God had commanded us to torture innocent children, then it would have been morally right to do so.”[4] Obviously, this doesn’t seem right. But what about the other horn of the dilemma?

OPTION #2: Does God command that torturing an innocent person is wrong because this action simply is wrong? If God commands that torture is wrong because it already is wrong, then why do we even need God for morality? If we adopt this perspective, this would demonstrate that morality exists independently of God. Yet, this doesn’t seem right either.

How then do we solve Euthyphro’s Dilemma? We can solve this dilemma by rejecting both options. Instead of adopting either horn of the dilemma, we should affirm something else entirely: God’s nature is the Good! Morality isn’t above God or independent of God. Rather, it is within God’s own nature. Since moral goodness is an essential and necessary part of God’s nature, it is impossible for him to command humans to torture innocent people for fun. It would be the equivalent of asking God to command a married bachelor to draw a square circle. It is a logical impossibility.

Critics sometimes retort, “Are God’s moral commands controlled by his nature?” Yet, just think how bizarre this question is. The critic is asking if God’s nature is controlling him. But God’s nature is him! Thus, this difficulty doesn’t hold water.

In reality, the Euthyphro dilemma is a great difficulty—but not for the Christian. Instead, secular moral theories suffer from this dilemma. Consider models for moral thinking based on evolution. Under an evolutionary paradigm, we can ask, “Were moral principles selected by nature because they are good, or are they good because they were selected?” Or consider utilitarianism: “Is something good because it benefits the maximum amount of people, or does benefiting the maximum amount of people make it good?” As a result, if the Euthyphro dilemma is sound, it would disprove all metaethical theories.[5] Fortunately, for the theist, the Euthyphro dilemma offers no difficulty.

If God wasn’t righteous and just, what implications would this have for our lives?

If God wasn’t righteous and just, we would not have a basis for forgiveness. When someone hurts you, why not hurt them back? Why would you forgive them if they will never pay for their crimes? Retributive violence makes considerable sense if there is no final judgment. Keller writes, “If victims of violence believe there is no God, or no God who will bring a final justice on the earth, they will feel justified, or at least provided incentive, to pick up weapons in vengeance.”[6] This is why one theologian who lived through the violence in the Balkans concluded that “the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance.”[7] Indeed, he is worth quoting at length:

I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.[8]

When you believe in the justice of God, forgiveness is far easier. This is why Paul writes that you should “never take your own revenge.” This is because God says, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12:19).

If God wasn’t righteous, we would become self-righteous. After all, if the highest source of righteousness was on a human level, then self-righteousness would be the default position. We would have no alternative but to look to ourselves.

But this isn’t the case when you encounter the infinitely righteous God. Meditating on God’s unlimited moral goodness will lead to deep gratitude for God’s forgiveness for you. It will also lead to a deep sense of humility when seeing other people’s problems. When you appreciate that God is vastly more righteous than you, it becomes quite difficult to compare yourself to other sinners.

If God wasn’t righteous and just, we would have an entitled attitude. You might not act like a person in a “health and wealth” church, placing outrageous demands on God. At the same time, you might develop an attitude that you deserve a certain quality of life. Without understanding the perfect righteousness of God, you might even say things like:

  • “This isn’t fair. Other people clearly have it better than me.”
  • “I don’t deserve this! Is this what I get for following God?”
  • “Honestly, I really don’t like how my life has turned out.”

These statements all presume that God owes you something. But what exactly do you think you deserve from God? What can you demand of God? What do you have to negotiate with? You should never ask God to be “fair” with you or to give you what you deserve. The only thing that you “deserve” is a one-way ticket to hell.

If God wasn’t righteous and just, we would lack objective morality. Can you get a speeding ticket when driving on the Autobahn in Germany?[9] No. The German government recommends a limit of 80 mph. But there is no law for the speed limit, and therefore, no one enforces how fast you can drive.

Perhaps you like the concept of not having speed limits. Fair enough. But that misses the point of the illustration entirely. If there is no source of righteousness, can we claim that anything is ultimately right (or wrong)? This would be about as futile as trying to enforce speed limits on the Autobahn. If there is no lawgiver, then there are no laws. And if there are no laws, then anything goes. Forget speed limits. There would be no limits to anything at all. No basis for affirming that anything is good or evil. No basis for stating that anything is right or wrong.

If God wasn’t righteous and just, we might wonder if he would be faithful in forgiving us. Yet, once Jesus’ payment for our sins was applied to us, God considers it an act of righteousness to forgive us. This is why John writes, “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Jn. 2:1). We shouldn’t picture that Jesus is our lawyer in heaven who is trying to convince God the Father that we didn’t commit any crimes. We did commit crimes. Many of them.

Rather, the imagery is quite different. We can picture Jesus as our lawyer or “advocate” in heaven defending us. But instead of arguing for our innocence, Jesus is telling God the Father that we were guilty, but justice has already been served at the Cross. Therefore, if God were to judge us, this would be an act of injustice and unrighteousness—a double payment.

This is why John writes, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). The highest conceivable judicial expense was paid at the Cross: The death of Christ. He paid for all of our moral violations and moral failings. Nothing was left unforgiven. If God demanded more justice than this, it would be unrighteous.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 204.

[2] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 70.

[3] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology., 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998), 312.

[4] Louise Antony, “Atheism as Perfect Piety,” in Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King (editors), Is Goodness without God Good Enough? (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 71. Cited in C. Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation (London: Oxford University Press, 2013), 92.

[5] Alexander Pruss, “Another Step in Divine Command Dialectics,” Faith and Philosophy 26:4 (October 2009), pp. 432-439. C. Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation (London: Oxford University Press, 2013), 93-94.

[6] Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Penguin Random House, 2015), p.114.

[7] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon Press, 1996), 304.

[8] Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 138-39.

[9] I am indebted to Greg Koukl for this illustration.