justice and grace

There is a passage in the epistle to the Romans which states that the provision of redemption in Christ Jesus, and the setting forth of Christ to be a propitiation, is emphatically something which shows God to be just, as well as the justifier of those that believe in Jesus. Two comments on this passage are as follows.

In The Apostles’ Doctrine of the Atonement, George Smeaton says this.

“The allusion is to the concurrence or harmony of these two attributes of God. The word just, applied to God, means that he asserts just claims and inflicts just punishment. …
This determines the character of the atonement. Such language would be unmeaning, if it were not admitted that the atonement is in the proper sense of the word a satisfaction of divine justice. … And when the apostle adds, ‘that he might be just, and the justifier,’ he alludes to the fact that these two apparently conflicting perfections, justice and grace, meet in full harmony on the cross: justice suffers no violence, and grace has full outlet.”

Matthew Henry in his Commentary says this.

“He declares his righteousness, first, in the propitiation itself. It appears [or is made apparent] that he hates sin, when nothing less than the blood of Christ would satisfy for it. Finding sin, though but imputed, upon his own Son, he did not spare him, because he had made himself sin for us. Secondly, [he declares his righteousness] in the pardon upon that propitiation. It is now become not only an act of grace and mercy, but an act of righteousness, in God, to pardon the sins of penitent believers, having accepted the satisfaction that Christ by dying made to his justice for them. He is just, that is, faithful to his word.”

Two things need to be borne in mind in considering God’s justice in the scheme of vicarious atonement. One is what the puritans spoke of as the exceeding sinfulness of sin, which the whole discussion makes no sense without. The other is the concept of imputation, and the reality of the transaction that that term describes. Neither of which I’m in a position to develop right now, but it’s worth putting the markers down.

NB: I’m unlikely to be back online now until Wednesday at the earliest. Feel free to carry on, but I might not read it till Thursday.

7 thoughts on “justice and grace

  1. A question that occurs to me when reading this is whether an act is just because God has declared that such an action is just (A), or is it just by its own nature (B).

    Is God the arbiter of the meaning of justice (A), or is the meaning independent of God (B)? (Equivalently, is God just because he’s God (A), or because he acts in a particular way(B)?)

    Your posts seems (to my non-religious eye) to mix these two possibilities. In the opening, it sounds like you are attributing an independently-defined property “just” to God (B). The Smeaton passage seems to use the same sense. The Henry passage, particularly in the phrase “He is just, that is, faithful to his word,” seems to imply that God’s word defines justice (A). In your closing, the term “God’s justice” could (I think) be read either way – either as Smeaton or as Henry uses it.

    Is this an intentional or an accidental mixture? Or is this distinction not all that important in this context?


  2. (The philosophy that underlies pretty much all Protestantism is nominalism, (certainly Lutheranism, and I would be mildly surprised if not Calvinism) in which, pretty much, x is good because God says so. Obviously in a certain sense this is true, because x is as it is because God wills it to be thus, and so insofar “as it is” includes goodness, i.e. perfection in its kind, and indeed its kind, it is good because God says so/wills it. But it’s never going to be good for a cat to have a worm infestation, because cats, by God’s say so (yeah, including evolution and all that), are healthier, and better, when they don’t have worm infestations. Ditto humans and torturing little old ladies etc.)


  3. ( I agree with “x is good only because God says so, not God says so because it is good” in the “certain” sense I tried to sketch out, and not in the nominalist sense, in case that wasn’t clear!)


  4. Nominalism – if God had said that torturing little old ladies is good, it would be good
    Realism – it is impossible in itself that God should have said torturing little old ladies is good
    Am I right in this?


  5. I’d avoid saying anything that would imply that there is a standard of goodness or justice which is somehow apart from (or above or independent of) God himself – so i’d say that the good is good because God says it is. Or (i suppose) because of who and what God is.


  6. Cath, there ain’t anything that “is” apart from God. (You need to read that with “apart” as an adverb going with the verb “is”.)

    I need to think about how to put this. I have put it on my Officially Declared To-Do list for this week.


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