Divine Justice

I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom;
~ 2 Timothy 4:1

For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner? What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God;
~ Romans 3:7, Romans 6:1, Romans 2:5

See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal: neither is there any that can deliver out of my hand. For I lift up my hand to heaven, and say, I live for ever. If I whet my glittering sword, and mine hand take hold on judgment; I will render vengeance to mine enemies, and will reward them that hate me. I will make mine arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh; and that with the blood of the slain and of the captives, from the beginning of revenges upon the enemy. Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people: for he will avenge the blood of his servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people.
~ Deuteronomy 32:39-43

O LORD God, to whom vengeance belongeth; O God, to whom vengeance belongeth, shew thyself. Lift up thyself, thou judge of the earth: render a reward to the proud. Who can stand before his indignation? and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger? his fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him. The LORD is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him. But with an overrunning flood he will make an utter end of the place thereof, and darkness shall pursue his enemies. That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? Doth God pervert judgment? or doth the Almighty pervert justice? Shall even he that hateth right govern? and wilt thou condemn him that is most just? Is it fit to say to a king, Thou art wicked? and to princes, Ye are ungodly? How much less to him that accepteth not the persons of princes, nor regardeth the rich more than the poor? for they all are the work of his hands. And he shall judge the world in righteousness, he shall minister judgment to the people in uprightness. Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
~ Psalm 94:1-2, Nahum 1:6-8, Genesis 18:25, Job 8:3, Job 34:17-19, Psalm 9:8, Acts 17:31

For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
~ Romans 3:23-26

A Dissertation on Divine Justice: or, The Claims of Vindicatory Justice Vindicated; Wherein That Essential Property of the Divine Nature is Demonstrated from the Sacred Writings, and Defended against Socinians, Particularly the Authors of the Racovian Catechism, John Crellius, and F. Socinus himself; Likewise the Necessary Exercise Thereof; Together with the Indispensable Necessity of the Satisfaction of Christ for the Salvation of Sinners is Established Against the Objections of Certain Very Learned Men, G. Twisse, G. Vossius, Samuel Rutherford, and Others, By John Owen, Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford. 1653.

But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? (I speak as a man) God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world?
~ Romans 3:5-6

Chapter XVIII.

The conclusion of this dissertation — The uses of the doctrine herein vindicated — The abominable nature of sin — God’s hatred against sin revealed in various ways — The dreadful effects of sin all over the creation — Enmity between God and every sin — Threatenings and the punishment of sin appointed — The description of sin in the sacred Scriptures — To what great miseries we are liable through sin — The excellency of grace in pardoning sin through Christ — Gratitude and obedience due from the pardoned — An historical fact concerning Tigranes, king of Armenia — Christ to be loved for his cross above all things — The glory of God’s justice revealed by this doctrine, and also of his wisdom and holiness.

Let us at length put an end to this dispute; and as all “acknowledging of the truth” ought to be “after godliness,”195 we shall adduce such useful and practical evident conclusions as flow from this truth, which we have thus far set forth and defended, that we may not be thought to have spent our labour in vain.

First, then, Hence we sinners may learn the abominable nature of sin. Whatever there is in heaven or in earth that we have seen, or of which we have heard, whatever declares the glory of the Creator, also exposes this disgraceful fall of the creature. The genuine offspring of sin are death and hell; for “sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.”196 That the heavens cast out their native inhabitants, namely, “the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation,”197 etc; that the earth is filled with darkness, resentments, griefs, malediction, and revenge, — is to be attributed entirely to this cankerous ulcer of nature. Hence “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven;”198 — the earth, lately founded by a most beneficent Creator, is “cursed.”199 Hence, the old world having but just emerged from the deluge, “the heavens and the earth which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.”200

Yea, forasmuch as, in this state of things which we have described as being permitted by the will of God, “the creature was made subject to vanity,”201 there is none of the creatures which, by its confusion, vanity, and inquietude, does not declare this detestable poison, with which it is thoroughly infected, to be exceeding sinful. This is the source and origin of all evils to sinners themselves. Whatever darkness, tumult, vanity, slavery, fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation to consume the adversaries, oppresses, tortures, harasses, vexes, burns, corrupts, or kills; whatever from without, penal, grievous, sad, dire, dreadful, even the last unavoidable calamity itself, — is all to be attributed to this prolific parent of miseries. Some one, perhaps, will wonder what this so great a plague is, which perverts the course of the creation; what crime, what kind of inexpiable wickedness, that it hath procured to creatures so very highly exalted, and created in the image of God to share in his glory, after being banished from heaven and paradise, an eternal deprivation of his glory, punishment to which no measure or end is appointed; what hath so incensed the mind of the most bountiful and merciful Father of all, and imbittered his anger, that he should bring eternal sorrows on the work of his own hands, and “kindle a fire that should burn to the lowest bottom, and inflame the foundations of the mountains.” I will tell him in one word.

Is it to be wondered at, that God should be disposed severely to punish that which earnestly wishes him not to be God, and strives to accomplish this with all its might? Sin opposes the divine nature and existence; it is enmity against God, and is not an idle enemy; it has even engaged in a mortal war with all the attributes of God. He would not be God if he did not avenge, by the punishment of the guilty, his own injury. He hath often and heavily complained, in his word, that by sin he is robbed of his glory and honour, affronted, exposed to calumny and blasphemy; that neither his holiness, nor his justice, nor name, nor right, nor dominion, is preserved pure and untainted: for he hath created all things for his own glory, and it belongs to the natural right of God to preserve that glory entire by the subjection of all his creatures, in their proper stations, to himself. And shall we not reckon that sin is entirely destructive of that order, which would entirely wrest that right out of his hands, and a thing to be restrained by the severest punishments? Let sinners, then, be informed that every the least transgression abounds so much with hatred against God; is so highly injurious to him, and as far as is in its power brands him with such folly, impotence, and injustice; so directly robs him of all his honour, glory, and power, — that if he wills to be God, he can by no means suffer it to escape unpunished. It was not for nothing that on that day on which he made man a living soul, he threatened him with death, even eternal death; that in giving his law he thundered forth so many dread execrations against this fatal evil; that he hath threatened it with such punishment, with so great anger, with fury, wrath, tribulation, and anguish; that with a view to vindicate his own glory, and provide for the salvation of sinners, he made his most holy Son, who was “holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners,” “sin” and a “curse,”202 and subjected him to that last punishment, the death of the cross, including in it the satisfaction due to his violated law. All these things divine justice required as necessary to the preservation of his honour, glory, wisdom, and dominion. Let every proud complaint of sinners, then, be hushed, for we know that “the judgment of God is according to truth against them that do evil.”203

But sin, in respect of the creature, is folly, madness, fury, blindness, hardness, darkness, stupor, giddiness, torpor, turpitude, uncleanness, nastiness, a stain, a spot, an apostasy, degeneracy, a wandering from the mark, a turning aside from the right path, a disease, a languor, destruction, — death. In respect of the Creator, it is a disgrace, an affront, blasphemy, enmity, hatred, contempt, rebellion, — an injury. In respect of its own nature, it is poison, a stench, dung, a vomit, polluted blood, a plague, a pestilence, an abominable, detestable, cursed thing; which, by its most pernicious power of metamorphosing, hath transformed angels into devils, light into darkness, life into death, paradise into a desert, a pleasant, fruitful, blessed world into a vain, dark, accursed prison, and the Lord of all into a servant of servants; which hath rendered man, the glory of God, an enemy to himself, a wolf to others, hateful to God, his own destroyer, the destruction of others, the plague of the world, a monster, and a ruin. Attempting to violate the eternal, natural, and indispensable right of God, to cut the thread of the creature’s dependence on the Creator, it introduced with it this world of iniquity.

First, then, to address you who live, or rather are dead, under the guilt, dominion, power, and law of sin, “how shall ye escape the damnation of hell?” The judgment of God is, that they who commit those things to which you are totally given up, and which you cannot refrain from, are “worthy of death.” “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God;”204 since it is “a just thing with him to render to every one according to his works.” And who shall deliver you out of his mighty hand? Wherewith can “the wrath to come” be averted? wherewithal can you make atonement to so great a judge? Sacrifices avail nothing; hence those words in the prophet, which express not so much the language of inquiry as of confusion and astonishment: “Wherewithal shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”205 Would you attempt an obedience arduous and expensive beyond all credibility? By such dreadful propitiations, by such dire and accursed sacrifices, at the thought of which human nature shudders, would you appease the offended Deity? You are not the first whom a vain superstition and ignorance of the justice of God hath forced to turn away their ears from the sighs and cries of tender infants, breathing out their very vitals, your own blood, in vain. These furies, which now by starts agitate us within, will, by their vain attempts against the snares of death, torment us to all eternity: for God, the judge of all, will not accept of “sacrifice, or offering, or burnt-offerings for sin;” with these he is not at all delighted; for “the redemption of the soul is precious, and ceaseth for ever.”206 God cannot so lightly esteem or disregard his holiness, justice, and glory, to which your sins have done so great an injury, that he should renounce them all for the sake of hostile conspirators, unless there should be some other remedy quickly provided for us; — unless the judge himself shall provide a lamb for a burnt-offering; unless the gates of a city of refuge shall be quickly opened to you, exclaiming and trembling at the avenging curse of the law; unless you can find access to the horns of the altar. If God be to remain blessed for ever, you must doubtless perish for ever. If, then, you have the least concern or anxiety for your eternal state, hasten, “while it is called Today,” to “lay hold on the hope that is set before you.” Give yourselves up entirely to him; receive him “whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, that he might declare his righteousness.” But what and how bitter a sense of sin; how deep a humiliation, contrition, and dejection of heart and spirit; what self-hatred, condemnation, and contempt; what great self-indignation and revenge; what esteem, what faith in the necessity, excellence, and dignity of the righteousness and satisfaction of Christ, especially if God hath graciously condescended to bestow his holy Spirit, to convince men’s hearts of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment (without whose effectual aid and heart-changing grace even the most apposite remedies applied to this disease will be in vain), and207 to excite and work such sentiments concerning the transgression of the divine law, the nature of sin, or the disobedience of the creatures! A persuasion how fit and proper, those who have spiritual eyes will easily perceive.

To those happy persons “whose sins are forgiven, and to whom God will not impute iniquity,” because he hath laid their transgressions upon Christ, the knowledge of this divine truth is as a spur to quicken them to the practice of every virtue and to sincere obedience; for in what high, yea, infinite honour and esteem must God be held by him who, having escaped from the snares of death and the destruction due to him, through his inexpressible mercy, hath thoroughly weighed the nature of sin and the consequences of it, which we have mentioned before! for whosoever shall reflect with himself that such is the quality and nature of sin, and that it is so impiously inimical to God, that unless by some means his justice be satisfied by the punishment of another, he could not pardon it or let it pass unpunished, will ever acknowledge himself indebted to eternal love for the remission of the least transgression, because in inexpressible grace and goodness it hath been forgiven. And hence, too, we may learn how much beyond all other objects of our affection we are bound to love with our heart and soul, and all that is within us, our dear and beloved Deliverer and most merciful Saviour, Jesus Christ, “who hath delivered us from the wrath to come.”

When Tigranes, son of the king of Armenia, had said to Cyrus that he would purchase his wife’s liberty at the price of his life, and she was consequently set free by Cyrus, while some were admiring and extolling one virtue of Cyrus, and some another, she being asked what she most admired in that illustrious hero, answered, “My thoughts were not turned upon him.” Her husband again asking her, “Upon whom, then?” she replied, “Upon him who said that he would redeem me from slavery at the expense of his life.” Is not He, then, to be caressed and dearly beloved, to be contemplated with faith, love, and joy, who answered for our lives with his own, — devoted himself to punishment, and at the price of his blood, “while we were yet enemies,” purchased us, and rendered us “a peculiar people to himself?” We, now secure, may contemplate in his agony, sweat, tremor, horror, exclamations, prayers, cross, and blood, what is God’s severity against sin, what the punishment of the broken law and curse are. Unless God, the judge and ruler of all, after having thoroughly examined the nature, hearts, breasts, ways, and lives of us all, had thence collected whatever was contrary to his law, improper, unjust, and impure, — whatever displeased the eyes of his purity, provoked his justice, roused his anger and severity, — and laid it all on the shoulders of our Redeemer, and condemned it in his flesh, it had been better for us, rather than to be left eternally entangled in the snares of death and of the curse, never to have enjoyed this common air, but to have been annihilated as soon as born. “Wretched men that we are, who shall deliver us” from this most miserable state by nature? “Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” May we always, then, be “sick of love” towards our deliverer! may he always be our “beloved, who is white and ruddy, and the chiefest among ten thousand!”

The acknowledging of this truth has a respect not only to the manifestation of his justice, but also of the wisdom, holiness, and dominion of God over his creatures: for that justice which, in respect of its effect and egress, we call vindicatory, which, as we have before demonstrated, is natural to God and essential, and therefore absolutely perfect in itself, or rather perfection itself, this very truth, which we have thus far defended, evidently illustrates; as also his supreme rectitude in the exercise of it, “when he sits on his throne judging righteously;” and how severe a judge he will be towards impenitent sinners, whose sins are not expiated in the blood of Christ! That justice is not a free act of the divine will, which God may use or renounce at pleasure; nor is sin only a debt of ours, which, as we were unable to pay, he might forgive by only freely receding from his right: for what reason, then, could be assigned why the Father of mercies should so severely punish his most holy Son on our account, that he might, according to justice, deliver us from our sins, when, without any difficulty, by one act of his will, and that too a most free and holy act, he could have delivered both himself and us wretched sinners from this evil? But it exists in God in the manner of a habit, natural to the divine essence itself, perpetually and immutably inherent in it, which, from his very nature, he must necessarily exercise in every work that respecteth the proper object of his justice; for sin is that ineffable evil which would overturn God’s whole right over his creatures unless it were punished. As, then, the perfection of divine justice is infinite, and such as God cannot by any means relax, it is of the last importance to sinners seriously and deeply to bethink themselves how they are to stand before him.

Moreover, the infinite wisdom of God, the traces of which we so clearly read in creation, legislation, and in the other works of God, is hereby wondrously displayed, to the eternal astonishment of men and angels; for none but an infinitely wise God could bring it about, that that which in its own nature is opposite to him, inimical, and full of obstinacy, should turn out to his highest honour, and the eternal glory of his grace. Yea, the divine wisdom not only had respect to God himself, and to the security of his glory, honour, right, and justice, but even provided for the good of miserable sinners, for their best interests, exaltation, and salvation, and from the empoisoned bowels of sin itself. “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” By interposing a surety and covenant-head between sin and the sinner, between the transgression of the law and its transgressor, he condemned and punished sin, restored the law, and freed the sinner both from sin and from the law. “He hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence,” Eph. i. 8, when he “made all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God,” chap. iii. 9; for “in Christ are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” Col. ii. 2, 3.

It will be for ever esteemed a miracle of God’s providence, that he should have made the captivity or wicked sale of Joseph, by means of so many windings, perplexed mazes, and strange occurrences, issue at last in his own exaltation and the preservation of his brethren, who impiously sold him. But if any one, though endowed with the tongues of angels and of men, should attempt to describe this mystery of divine wisdom, whereby it is evident that God exalts his own name, and not only recovers his former honour, but even raises it, manifests his justice, preserves inviolable his right and dominion in pardoning sin, wherewith he is highly pleased and incredibly delighted (and unless this heavenly discovery, a truly God-like invention, had intervened, he could not have pardoned even the least sin), he must feel his language not only deficient, but the eye of the mind, overpowered with light, will fill him with awe and astonishment. That that which is the greatest, yea, the only disgrace and affront to God, should turn out to his highest honour and glory; that that which could not be permitted to triumph without the greatest injury to the justice, right, holiness, and truth of God, should find grace and pardon, to the eternal and glorious display of justice, right, holiness, and truth, — was a work that required infinite wisdom, an arduous task, and every way worthy of God.

Finally, Let us constantly contemplate in the mirror of this truth the holiness of God, whereby “he is of purer eyes than to behold evil,” in “whose presence the wicked shall not stand,” that we ourselves may become more pure in heart, and more holy in life, speech, and behaviour.
195 Tit. i. 5.
196 James i. 15.
197 Jude 6.
198 Rom. i. 18.
199 Gen. iii. 17.
200 2 Pet. iii. 7.
201 Rom. viii. 20.
202 Heb. vii. 26; 2 Cor. v. 21; Gal. iii. 13.
203 Rom. ii. 2.
204 Heb. x. 31.
205 Mic. vi. 6, 7.
206 Ps. xlix. 8.
207 From the figure of notation to the close of the paragraph, the sense of the author has been entirely misapprehended. Read, “must be excited and kept alive by such a fit and adequate view respecting the transgression of the divine law, the nature of sin, or the disobedience of the creature, — those who have spiritual eyes will easily perceive.” — Ed.