“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
-- St. John
Have you ever paused to wonder what John is saying here about our salvation when He says God is “just to forgive us”? How is this just? Don’t we deserve punishment as sinners? Isn’t it only by God’s grace that we are saved? What does this verse tell us about God?
Many of our struggles in understanding God come because we attempt to artificially separate the attributes of God without recognizing their radical unity in Him. God’s justice and mercy (or grace) are two which we have a hard time reconciling. We do not know how God can be both just and gracious. In a way this is a great mystery to us, but we often make it more difficult than it need be. We confuse the issue even further by trying to explain God as just or merciful without recognizing that He must be both.
Some choose to ignore God’s justice in its temporal application. They do not want to interact with the judgmental side of God. They see His justice only as a future contingency of judgment if people will not choose His grace in salvation. The fear of God’s justice provides an impetus to find salvation, but that is really as far as they will go with it. They prefer to focus their time on the fact of God’s love and grace to men.
Others try to see a more complete picture of a God both just and merciful, but they end up in a similar error by splitting the attributes apart in God. They see God as just in some situations and merciful in others. Then they think they understand that He has both justice and mercy. They see God’s justice (without room for grace) only in his righteous judgment of wicked men. They also see God’s mercy (without room for His justice) only in His gracious salvation of men. In taking this view of God, they wrongly apply human limitations to God’s nature, and they limit their own understanding of God, whose justice and mercy are one. If God’s attributes are not unified in His nature, He becomes arbitrary and denies Himself as He has revealed Himself to us. To allow for disunity in God essentially annihilates Him.
The unity of God’s attributes provides a beautiful picture of the whole which allows us to more clearly see the beauty of the parts. Essentially separating God’s attributes clouds His beauty.
Justice, God’s justice, has saved me from God’s judgment that I deserve death. God’s justice gives me life. I use salvation as my example because it is the most radical act of grace which any man can experience. If any act of God would seem to be exclusively an act of grace rather than justice it would be salvation. In salvation, God has provided the means to and actually brought people into reconciliation and relationship with Himself complete with eternal blessings through the humble sacrifice of His own Son. Here though, God’s justice is at work with his mercy to make salvation effectual. If we can see how God’s attributes work in unity in salvation, we can gain a greater appreciation for the radical unity all God’s attributes. I do not make this claim to say that God did not save me by his grace, but rather I will demonstrate salvation from the perspective of God’s justice to see how it operates alongside God’s grace in salvation. Grace is primary, but God cannot be broken into parts, and his whole essence comes through in salvation. Grace working in terms of justice. Justice in terms of grace.
First, we must recognize what Scripture means when it speaks of God’s justice. There is no denying that God is revealed as just. This term is used repeatedly to describe God’s nature. His actions and judgments are called just. Writers in both Testaments appeal to the justice of God in explaining important points or to make various claims. The word though that we have as “just” or “justice” in our English translations of the Bible is the same word as “righteous” or “righteousness.” This point bears emphasizing again and again. God’s justice and his righteousness are one. These two terms are one.
God is just because He is righteous. He is righteous because He is just. We can trust wholeheartedly in the justice of God’s actions and claims because He is totally righteous. His claims cannot go awry or come from other motivations; rather, they proceed from who He is as perfectly righteous. He is righteous, that is, he is perfectly in tune with what is right. He is therefore totally just. In His justice, God punishes men for their unrighteousness. He must punish them to uphold the rule of justice that is a revelation of Himself and His righteousness. As sinners, we continually fail to abide by this rule of life, and God is just to provide the proper judgment for us.
For salvation though, we know that God has provided the way for salvation through Christ. This way is only opened up by Christ coming to earth and living a perfectly sinless life and then dying as sacrifice so that His perfection could be counted for us. Without His living a life totally without sin, Christ’s sacrifice could not be effective for our salvation because God would not be able to accept it. Rather, God’s justice would judge the sacrifice unworthy and condemn it as unrighteous. Christ had to provide a life and sacrifice of perfect righteousness. They had to align perfectly with God’s revelation of righteousness.
Christ did this by being perfectly righteous. As the second person of he Trinity, Christ lived in this life without sin in accordance with His perfectly righteous person. This righteousness is His justice. Christ provided the perfect sacrifice by way of His justice as God. When Christ died, His perfect righteousness can then be applied to me. Christ’s righteousness becomes my own when I turn to Him in faith. It is only in Christ’s righteousness, His justice, that the way of salvation is made. Here resides my only hope.
Lastly, salvation is only made effective for me when God looks at me and judges that I am righteous and should be taken into His family. As seen earlier, God’s justice demands that He pronounce and carry out judgments in terms of His rule of righteousness that He has revealed. God judges me, and in myself I am judged unworthy. We also saw that God graciously applies Christ’s righteousness to us though faith. It is this specific part of salvation that Paul refers to when he says we are saved by grace through faith. As far as God looks on me in salvation, He sees only Christ. In Christ, I am perfectly righteous.
God’s justice then necessitates that He complete the act of salvation and welcome me into His family and provide to me all the benefits of salvation including everlasting life with Him. God cannot judge or act otherwise. Because of His perfect justice (or righteousness), He must judge that which is perfectly righteous, as I am in Christ, worthy of His salvation. God’s perfect justice acts in terms of His righteous rule, which I have perfectly met in Christ. For God to judge otherwise would violate his nature as righteous, it would violate justice.
This is the source of great hope for me. If God’s justice were not at work in my salvation, that is, if God’s justice and grace were not one in His nature, then I could not be certain of my salvation. God could decide arbitrarily to judge me unworthy and cut me off despite Christ’s sacrifice and righteousness for me. On the other hand, with His justice at work in salvation, He must carry through on what His grace has begun, and I can rest assured in it.
When we attempt to explain salvation only with God’s grace in view, we limit God. By seeing the vital role of God’s justice in salvation, we gain a better understanding of Who God is. We can better see the unity of God and strengthen our faith in this understanding. Finally, we are provided with hope and assurance of God’s faithfulness. God is faithful and just to forgive us, as John points out. In fact, He is faithful because He is just.