God Is Just

Todd Wilken
Friday, August 31st 2007
Sep/Oct 2007
In civil courts and in human judgment, issues about rights or debts are certain, and mercy is uncertain. But the matter is different in God's judgment. Here mercy has a clear and certain promise and command from God. (Apology to the Augsburg Confession, III, 224).

It would make a great episode of Perry Mason or Law & Order. The defendant has been caught red-handed committing murder. He has no explanation or alibi. The prosecutor has eyewitnesses, fingerprint and DNA evidence, the murder weapon, and a signed confession. The case is airtight.

Yet the defendant pleads "not guilty."

Moreover, the defendant rejects his right to counsel. He insists on representing himself and taking the stand in his own defense. But he doesn't plead the fifth; he doesn't dispute any of the testimony or evidence against him. Instead, his testimony consists of a long list of good deeds he has done, all carefully cataloged and recorded. His closing argument is bold, if not persuasive:

Members of the jury, I am not asking for mercy or pardon. I want justice. I am demanding full acquittal. Yes, I committed the murder of which I am accused. But I'm not guilty. Members of the jury, you must consider all my good deeds-not merely as mitigating circumstances-but as reason for exonerating me. The goodness of my other deeds outweighs the crime I committed. My good deeds require a "not guilty" verdict. If justice is to be done, you must find me innocent.

We would call him a sociopath, wouldn't we? Only a sociopath would believe that good deeds, even a life of good deeds, could offset the crime of murder.

But think about it: this fictional defendant is no more pathological than you or I. We often approach the bar of God's court presenting the same case and making the same argument. Call it rationalization. Call it excuse making. It is every bit as perverse and pathological as our fictional defendant's closing argument. And it all amounts to the same thing: self-justification.

Self-justification isn't a plea bargain, a plea of no contest, or a plea for leniency. No such pleas are permitted in God's court. In God's court the only pleas permitted are "guilty" or "not guilty." Make no mistake about it: self-justification is a brazen assertion of innocence.

Self-justification is the idea that guilt is cancelled by good deeds. It was a concept familiar to the sixteenth century reformers. They called it "the doctrine of works." They considered it the primary object of their reforms:

Heretofore consciences were plagued with the doctrine of works, they did not hear the consolation from the Gospel. Some persons were driven by conscience into the desert, into monasteries hoping there to merit grace by a monastic life. Some also devised other works whereby to merit grace and make satisfaction for sins. Hence there was very great need to treat of, and renew, this doctrine of faith in Christ, to the end that anxious consciences should not be without consolation but that they might know that grace and forgiveness of sins and justification are apprehended by faith in Christ. (1)

Not much has changed since the sixteenth century. The sinner's effort at self-justification is still the greatest enemy of true, divine justification.

In Contempt of Court

There is an ancient principle of jurisprudence: Cogitationis poenam nemo patitur ("no one should be punished for his thoughts"). This principle is vital in human courts of law. We cannot judge another person's thoughts, only his actions. But things are different in God's court. God can and does judge thoughts. In God's courtroom, the thinking of the accused-his conscience-is called to testify. St. Paul writes:

When Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them. (Rom. 2:14-15)

Some have taken Paul's words, "alternately accusing or else defending them" to mean that the conscience's testimony can help the sinner's case in God's court. Not so. Notice that Paul's description of the conscience is much stronger than the Sunday school clich, "that little voice in your head" or "my personal sense of right and wrong." For Paul the conscience is "the work of the Law written in the heart." What is the work of the Law? According to Paul, the work of the Law is to produce the knowledge of sin:

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. (Rom. 2:19-20)

The law always accuses. So, even when the conscience testifies in the sinner's defense, that testimony doesn't help the sinner's case. You see, when the conscience testifies for the sinner, it still does so on the basis of the law. In fact, this is how self-justification works. Self-justification is the attempt to cancel law-breaking with law-keeping.

Self-justification is an attempt to silence the law with the law. But the law is not the sinner's friend. The more we offer our law-keeping to prove our innocence, the more we affirm the law's standard, and thereby unwittingly prove our guilt. Commenting on the opening chapters of Romans, George Meisinger writes:

Chapters one and two are a terrible court room scene that leaves all men guilty, and condemned-with no help from the law. The law stands as an unrelenting prosecuting attorney saying, "You're guilty! And, your good works will not help. All attempts to keep rules and laws only compound sin, guilt, and condemnation." (2)

In self-justification, we try to cancel our guilt regarding one command by obedience to other commands. But the law isn't a series of individual commands; it is the whole, seamless will of God. "For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all" (James 2:10; also Gal. 5:2-4). The law demands perfect obedience. Therefore only perfect obedience can silence the law's accusations.

Just like our fictional defendant, the self-justifying sinner responds to the accusations of law with what the medieval church would have called "satisfactions," or guilt-canceling good works. But the accusations of the law cannot be silenced by our works. God isn't satisfied with our works, and the law written in the heart continually reminds us of that. As a consequence, our contempt for God grows. Luther's famous reflection on his conversion is a case in point:

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God. (3)

The accusations of the law produce hostility toward God. God has written this law on the heart. So, in the end, the self-justifying sinner must silence God himself. Realizing this, the reformers saw self-justification for what it really was: idolatry.

There is also a false worship and extreme idolatry . . . it concerns the conscience alone, which seeks help, consolation, and salvation, in its own works. This conscience imagines it can wrestle heaven away from God and thinks about how many requests it has made, how often it has fasted, celebrated Mass, and so on. Upon such things it depends and boasts, as though unwilling to receive anything from God as a gift. For it wants to earn or merit heaven with abundant works. The conscience acts as though God must serve us and is our debtor, and we His liege lords. What is this but reducing God to an idol-indeed, an apple-god-and elevating and regarding ourselves as God? (4)

Self-justification turns divine justice on its head. It turns the accused into the judge, and the judge into the accused. The law is intended to silence sinners before God. Self-justification uses the law to silence God before the sinner. The law is intended to hold the sinner accountable to God. Self-justification holds God accountable to the sinner.

Self-justification is an attempt to do away with God by the law. Yet this is the only way the sinner knows how to use God's law. It is the only defense the sinner knows against the law's accusations. Left to ourselves, we would all go brazenly before the bar of God's justice and make our perverse and pathological case, sinner after sinner, all pleading our innocence before God, seeking not mercy, but justice on our own terms. Left to ourselves, we would receive exactly what we seek-justice-in Hell forever.

We Find the Defendant Not Guilty

So, how does God deal with sinners, convinced of their own innocence, yet apparently hell-bent upon their own conviction? Luther writes:

God saw that the universal illusion of self-righteousness could not be put down in any other way but by the Law. The Law dispels all self-illusions. It puts the fear of God in a man. Without this fear there can be no thirst for God's mercy. God accordingly uses the Law for a hammer to break up the illusion of self-righteousness, that we should despair of our own strength and efforts at self-justification. (5)

God lets the law do its work. To the sinner convinced that he can prove his innocence by the law, God answers with the law: "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" (Lev. 19:2; 1 Pet. 1:16). To the sinner who offers into evidence his own law-keeping, God responds with the law: "All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the Law" (Gal. 3:10). To the sinner who says, "Yes, I have sinned, but consider the good I have done!" God answers, "By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in My sight" (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16). In the end, the more the self-justifying sinner asserts his innocence, the more he proves his guilt. God is just. His justice knows no leniency. God must acquit the innocent and punish the guilty.

True, divine justification is not leniency; it is not a suspended sentence or probation. God is just. In his court there are only the guilty or the innocent. God must acquit the innocent and punish the guilty. Divine justification is God's justice. Paul writes:

There is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:22-26)

God set forth Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for sin "that He might be just."

In divine justification, God punished the guilty. "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us" (2 Cor. 5:21; Isa. 53:6). God imputed the sin of the whole world to Jesus his Son. God made Jesus responsible for our crimes. Not only that, but Jesus pled guilty to those crimes by bearing the punishment for them. Jesus willingly accepted the verdict and sentence against us at the cross.

In divine justification, God acquits the innocent. Paul writes:

What the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us. (Rom. 8:3-4)

The same act of divine justice that condemned sin in Jesus, fulfilled the righteous requirement of the law in us. The same act of divine justice that made Jesus sin, made us the righteousness of God in him. Divine justification is not divine make-believe; it is real, complete divine justice. In divine justification, God punished the guilty and acquitted the innocent. In divine justification, God punished Jesus and acquitted us.

The forgiveness of sins is not leniency; it is not a suspended sentence or probation. The forgiveness of sins is nothing less than the unequivocal "not guilty" verdict in God's courtroom. It is full acquittal, exoneration and vindication. Again, Meisinger writes:

Justification involves more than a mere pronouncement of innocence. It includes imputed righteousness. God credits to our accounts perfect righteousness and pronounces believers to be acquitted, forgiven, forever made right in His eyes. On the one hand, then, God does a negative thing: He takes away our sin. On the other hand, He does a positive thing: He adds righteousness to our accounts in the bookkeeping system of heaven. Thus, every accusation Satan brings against us in court, the Lord throws out. Satan's prosecuting efforts are futile. He has not won even one case against God's elect and never will. (6)

Isn't this exactly what Paul says in Romans 8?

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? (Rom. 8:31-35)

As in human courts, in God's court there is no double jeopardy. Since our acquittal in Jesus Christ is absolute, no charges of any kind can ever be brought against us.

Our sinful efforts at self-justification turn divine justice on its head. We demand acquittal on the basis of our works. True justification is God's justice. God freely gives us full acquittal on the basis of Jesus' works. The self-justifying sinner demands that God be just on the sinner's terms. But God is just on his own terms, and he justifies sinners on his own terms.

In justifying the sinner, God is just. The guilty is punished; the innocent are acquitted. In exercising such justice, God is merciful to sinners. His mercy to sinners is certain, because mercy is founded in the cross-God's justice.

The gavel of God's courtroom falls at Calvary. With every hammer blow that nailed Jesus to the cross, God pronounces his verdict against sin, and pronounces us "not guilty."

1 [ Back ] Augsburg Confession, Article XX.
2 [ Back ] George Meisinger, "Grace and Justification," Chafer Theological Seminary Journal, vol. 5, no. 1, March 1999, p. 29.
3 [ Back ] Martin Luther, Career of the Reformer, IV, vol. 34, Luther's Works, eds. Helmut T. Lehmann and Lewis W. Spitz (St. Louis: Concordia, 1960), pp. 336-337.
4 [ Back ] Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, I.22-23.
5 [ Back ] Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (1535), trans. Theodore Graebner (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1949), p. 142.
6 [ Back ] George Meisinger, "Grace and Justification," Chafer Theological Seminary Journal, vol. 5, no.1, March 1999, pp. 47-48.
Friday, August 31st 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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