Feb 28, 2024

What Does It Mean That God Is Righteous?

5 Min Read

“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25). Abraham asked this rhetorical question of Yahweh when punishment was threatened against the inhabitants of Sodom. These words are rooted in the universal conviction of God’s people that all the works of His hands are truth and justice (Ps. 111:7; Deut. 32:4). The God of creation and redemption is a righteous God.

Divine righteousness refers first and foremost to the perfection and uprightness of the divine nature. For God to be righteous principally means that God measures up to Himself and is always all that He ought to be as God. While righteousness usually implies conformity to a standard, God simply is the righteousness or justice by which He is righteous and just. This is not so much conformity as it is identity. We might even say that in willing His own being as His highest good, God gives Himself His due. This is the original and uncreated justice of divine self-love.

Righteousness is not a state of being God acquires through long practice or exercise, such as a habit. Neither is it merely a relative attribute we ascribe to God based on His just dealings with creatures. Rather, righteousness denotes the essence of God itself apart from any consideration of His faithful dealings within the created order—that is, God being true to Himself. It is not a separate quality of being within Him that is distinct from His essence, as it is in angels and humans.

Yet this perfection of the divine nature also ensures that all God’s ways toward the creature are just. It is because He is righteous that His judgments are just (Ps. 119:137). Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne (Ps. 89:14; see also Ps. 9:8). In other words, God’s providential rule over the world is rooted in His essential uprightness.

Philosophers and theologians have noted a distinction between commutative justice and distributive justice. Commutative justice refers to the fairness of exchange in a business transaction. This is properly denied of God since He is not engaged in a give-and-take relationship with His creatures such that He would be indebted to the creature on account of some good or gift received. Who has first given to Him that He should repay (Job 41:11; Rom. 11:35; see also Job 35:7)? Distributive justice, on the other hand, means giving to each his due and can be ascribed to God in several respects. John Owen characterizes this broadly as “the justice of government or judgment.”
Here are four things that we should understand about God’s righteousness.

1. God shows His righteousness in giving to each creature what its nature requires.

He gives food to the birds of the air and beauty to the flowers and grass of the field. For man He provides food, clothing, and much more. This should teach us to seek our daily bread from our heavenly Father who knows all our needs and, furthermore, to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:25–33). This does not mean God is obliged to give an equal distribution of goods to all creatures. It is His prerogative to make one differ from another (1 Cor. 4:7). Nevertheless, whatever we possess—life, breath, and all things (Rom. 11:36)—is supplied to us by the just government of God who gives us all things richly to enjoy (1 Tim. 6:17).

2. God’s works and words are righteous since they are true.

God’s commandments are just since He commands of creatures only that which gives Him the glory due to Himself. God’s intellectual ideas are the rule and measure of all things, thus, the truth of these things consists in their conformity to God’s intellect. Since He works all things in accord with the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11), His ways are true and just. His commandments are just in that the rules He gives to angels and men are ordered to the glory of His own divine nature. Further, glorifying God is the chief end of all intellectual creatures. A just command is one that orders a subject to its proper end and good, and God’s commands accomplish that purpose.

3. God’s retributive justice renders to each one according to his deeds (Rom. 2:5–6).

God’s retributive justice pertains especially to punishment meted out to the wicked (Ex. 34:7). The Westminster Confession states that God is “most just and terrible in His judgments; hating all sin” (2.1). This should not be confused with the chastisements that are meant to reform and rehabilitate the sinner (Heb. 12:6). Rather, retribution is the maintenance of God’s righteousness against those who oppose it. His righteousness, which is His perfect love of His own goodness, requires His holy opposition to all that opposes His goodness. This is manifested against transgressors in the form of wrath and vengeful torments executed upon them (Ps. 34:16; Amos 9:4). The final punishment of hell is eternal and so cannot be remedial; neither is its everlasting duration disproportionate inasmuch as the creature’s sin is against an infinitely holy God and actively continues forever in defiance of God.

4. The righteousness of God is also demonstrated in His rewards to the righteous (Ps. 58:11; Rom. 2:7; 2 Tim. 4:8; Rev. 22:12).

God’s eyes search the whole earth that He might strongly support the hearts that are completely His (2 Chron. 16:9). Fittingly, the Westminster Confession maintains that God is “the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him” (2.1). We should hasten to note the good that He finds in creatures and upon which He lavishes rewards is itself His own gift to the creature. He rewards His own good work in us. There is no such thing as strict merit by which the creature offers something to God that is not first received from God or offers something to God that is genuinely commensurate with God’s own boundless worth. Yet even so, in His justice He recompenses those who are pure, righteous, and clean (Ps. 18:20, 24). It is just that the creature’s good be rewarded, even if we have no good apart from God (Ps. 16:2). In one sense, when God rewards the righteous, He is doing justice to His own work within them.

A Word about God’s Mercy

Finally, a word about God’s mercy is appropriate. In whatever ways justice and mercy may be distinguished, we must not conceive God’s mercy to ill-deserving sinners as the forfeiture or truncation of divine righteousness. Indeed, this is the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that in it the righteousness of God is revealed (Rom. 1:17; 3:21–26). His retributive justice is satisfied by the death of His Son and God thus maintains Himself, so to speak, against the wicked. But in that this satisfaction is made for us by a substitute whom God Himself graciously provides, God is free to justify the ungodly without injury to His own justice. In the gospel, “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Ps. 85:10). God is both just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26).