Four Aspects of Divine Righteousness, Part 2 (Fred Zaspel)
God’s “rectoral” righteousness is that aspect of His nature which demands or requires righteousness of all His creatures. This is perhaps what we normally think of when we speak of God’s righteousness. It has to do with the imposition of laws and standards. It is “the rectitude which God manifests as the Ruler of both the good and the evil. In virtue of this He institutes a moral government in the world, and imposes a just law upon man, with promises of reward for the obedient and threats of punishment for the disobedient.”1 God is not only righteous in Himself; He requires the same of all His creatures. Vos calls this “the righteousness of cognizance. . . . By this we mean that Jehovah is held to take notice and keep account of all moral conduct. . . . All conduct falls under the divine jurisdiction.”2
One important word in this connection is the word “lawgiver.”3 God is the One Who imposes laws. He determines right from wrong, and He legislates accordingly. In fact, Scripture speaks of God as the ultimate source of all justice. “He establishes equity and executes justice and righteousness” (Ps.99:4). Any given device designed to promote fairness in business – weights, scales – is from God (Prv. 16:11). And so “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight” (Prv.11:1). So also God abhors any who would “justify the wicked and condemn the just” (Prv. 17:15). He despises those who steal or defraud others, not because this is a violation of some abstract standard but because it is contrary and an affront to God Himself Whose very nature demands what is true and right.
Furthermore, all the things that God requires of us are themselves just. “The righteousness of Your testimonies is everlasting” (Ps. 119:144). They are not unfair; they are right and necessary as expressions of the righteousness of His own nature.
For this reason, theologians have emphasized that this aspect of divine righteousness is a necessary one. God is God, and we are His creatures. It would be unrighteous, inconsistent with His own being, were He not to require us to live to glorify Him. Just as it is “necessary” for God Himself to maintain His righteousness, so it is necessary for Him to require it of man made in His image; this rises “naturally and necessarily from the relation of all things unto himself. . . . [I]t followeth naturally and necessarily, not as a new thing in God, but as a natural and necessary respect which his nature and being hath unto all creatures upon their production.”4 “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness” (Hab.1:13).
So God is Himself righteous. As such He imposes laws. Those laws are righteous. And His laws are binding, for all are accountable to Him as the righteous Judge.
This, of course, is what our society despises about God. Our society wants a God who conforms to its standards. This is precisely the indictment on the world by the apostle Paul in Romans 1:18ff. What men have known they have suppressed. Their problem, their wickedness, lies not in an ignorance of God’s law; it lies in their rebellion against it and the one who gave it. They “disapproved God” (edokimasan ton theon, v.28). Natural man violently refuses any idea of a God Who would dare impose His will on others. This is our generation’s cry for “freedom.” A God who would be more cooperative, more flexible, they would have, but not a God Who imposes His law. But this is the true God, and His very nature demands that we live to glorify Him. And no denial of Him can alter the reality that He is the righteous Lawgiver and Judge.
God’s “retributive” righteousness is that aspect of His nature which inflicts punishment for all unrighteousness in His creatures. It is variously referred to as His “punitive” or “vindictive” or “avenging justice.” It has to do with the infliction of penalties for failure to conform to His righteousness. It was first expressed in the Garden of Eden: “In the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Gen.2:17). It is reiterated in the law: “Cursed is every one who continues not in all things written in the law to do them” (Deut. 27:26). It is echoed in the Writings: “He shall judge the world with righteousness” (Ps. 96:13). It is echoed again in the prophets: “The soul that sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). It is reaffirmed in the apostles: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). In reference to sin and sinners, “God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). These are familiar notes to anyone who reads the Bible. Nor is it merely threatened. From the Garden to the flood to Babel to Sodom and Gomorrah to Egypt to the Canaanites to the captivity to Ananias and Sapphira this threat has proven to be a real one. “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18) and has been so since the beginning.
Neither is reformation or rehabilitation the only intended goal. God’s acts of retribution may well have this effect at times (Ezra 9:15; Lam. 1:18), and this is always good. But the goal of God’s vindictive righteousness is not that of reclaiming the offender or reshaping his character. It is on this score that Vos criticizes Ritschl who denied the idea of God’s righteousness as punishment anywhere in the OT. According to Ritschl, God’s purpose in exercising His righteousness was a benevolent one, “safeguarding the structure of society.” Vos rightly points out that this is but a part of the whole, and he rests his case on Amos 5:24: “Let justice roll down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Against the backdrop of Israel’s apostasy this is hardly a call to abundant expressions of goodness on Israel’s part; it is a call for retribution against sin, and this “from the supreme motive of giving free sway to the infinite force of His ethical indignation.”5 The idea is that of punishment, retribution, and the goal is the vindication and “demonstration of the righteousness of God” (Rom. 3:5), “the maintenance of right and justice.”6 The perspective is not forward but backward, to the evil that has been done. “It’s first object is requital.”7 This is the whole purpose of the casting down of the angels that sinned, the flood of Noah’s day, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and so on. And when John speaks of the awful sight of the wicked being cast into the lake of fire “to be tormented for ever and ever” (Rev.20:10-14; 14:10-11), the only possible object in view is just retribution upon sinners. It is the “just penalty8 of eternal fire” (Jude 7).
Again, this is a necessary and essential aspect of God’s righteousness.9 “[V]indicatory justice is the very rectitude and perfection of the Deity. . . . For if such a law were not made necessarily, it might be possible that God should lose his natural right and dominion over his creatures, and thus he would not be God.”10 It would be impossible for God not to punish sin. Without it, justice would not be maintained. It would be a denial of his veracity to impose a law with threats against disobedience and not follow through. “The Lord has sworn and will not repent” (Ps. 110:4). “He will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:7). Moreover, it would be wrong, a denial of God’s own nature to treat law breakers as if they were law keepers. He cannot do it. “Indifference to sin is a moral blemish.”11 “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness” (Hab.1:13). “It is a righteous thing with God to render tribulation to them that trouble you” (2Th. 1:6); that is to say, this vengeance upon the wicked is necessary to the satisfying of God’s justice. Punishment of sin is “just penalty” (endikon misthapodosian, Heb. 2:2). “The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked” (Nah. 1:3). In short, every sin must be punished.
In fact, so necessary is it that each sin be punished, and justly so, that Scripture goes further to speak of the punishment of sin in degrees. “Few stripes” or “many” will be given according to knowledge and responsibility (Lk. 12:47-48). It will be worse in the day of judgment for that city which rejects the gospel than for Sodom and Gomorrah (Mt. 10:15; cf. 11:20-24; Heb. 10:29-31). “Every idle word” will be taken into account and justly punished (Mt. 12:36). Man by his many sins “treasures up wrath” against himself (Rom. 2:5) in that day when God will judge “according to their works” (Rev. 20:11). Every sin must be punished and that with appropriate severity.
Wicked men want very much to discount God’s retributive justice, and understandably so! But many professing believers seem embarrassed by it also,12 thinking it unworthy of God. But both must recall that “it is a righteous thing with God to render tribulation” (2 Thes. 1:6). The punishment is a just and necessary outworking of God’s own righteous nature. It is one essential aspect of His glorious being which He has determined to “demonstrate” (endeixasthai, Rom. 9:22) and for which all the saints, with one great voice, will at the last say “Alleluiah!” (Rev. 19:1-6).
Now our society may refuse the idea of God’s rectoral righteousness, but this idea of retributive righteousness they despise still more. But the one very naturally flows from the other. We are accountable to God to act in keeping with His righteousness, and any failure to do so demands retribution (cf. Gal. 3:10). If there is a God and if He is righteous, then all unrighteousness will one day be punished. Indeed the knowledge of this aspect of divine righteousness is innate in every man. Though they deny it, still they “recognize [epignontes] the righteous judgment [dikaioma] of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death” (Rom.1:32). No denial of the facts will alter their reality. Knowing it they hate it, and hating it they deny it, but only to become more culpable. It is one horrible prospect that awaits the sinner.
(Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Reformation & Revival Journal Volume 6, Number 4, Winter 1997)
1. Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine (1933; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), pp. 68-69.
2. Vos, op. cit., p. 251.
3. Cf. Manton, who called this aspect of divine righteousness “God’s legislative justice” (op. cit., p. 440).
4. Owen, vol. XIX, 99-101.
5. Vos, op. cit., pp. 252-253.
6. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1938; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), p. 76.
7. Shedd, op. cit., p. 381.
8. Diken. Dike has in the NT only this meaning of “the punishment reserved for sinners.” Spicq, op. cit., p. 320.
9. Several fuller treatments of this are available. See John Gill, Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity (1795; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), pp. 156-157; Thomas Manton, op. cit., pp. 442ff; James P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (1887; reprint, n.p.), pp. 105-106; John Owen, The Works of John Owen, W. H. Goold, ed. (reprint; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1862),
vol. X, pp. 505ff, 522ff, 554ff; vol. XIX, 101ff.
10. Owen, vol. X. p. 505, 509.
11. Arthur W. Pink, Gleanings in the Godhead (reprint; Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), p. 76.
12. Often to the point of denying the eternality of hell.
Fred Zaspel (Ph.D., Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel.