Righteousness and Justice
I suppose that much of the time "justice" is what we’re given or hope to be given. When we use it like that we’re asking to be treated fairly, to be given what is due to us (within the context of the social contract). We want our "rights". Slogans on walls here in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the world say things like: "We don’t want charity—we want justice!"
But the word "justice" is also used in a retributive (punitive) sense when a criminal gets "what’s coming to him in light of the wrong he has committed". That use of the word involves a sense of fairness, of course, but it is fairness expressed in punishment. In such cases we would say the verdict and the sentence were "just". When we want "justice" we want what is right and fair as it expresses itself in our rights being met; but when we want a criminal to get "justice" we want fairness to express itself in punishment. In the case of the criminal, if punishment doesn’t take place we think justice has not been done. In our case, if we are not benefited by getting what is due us we think justice has not been done.
Linguistic custom has been established and in those two settings we’d almost always use the word justice (and not "righteousness"). Theological wars (mostly, I’ve concluded, between Catholic and Protestant thinkers) and Greco-Roman practice have created some confusion here. In any case, we usually distinguish between "justice" and "righteousness" in a very sharp way but the Bible wouldn't make such a sharp distinction. In the Bible a just person is a "righteous" person and a righteous God is a just God but even our established linguistic custom need not keep us from seeing that there's a richness that lies behind the usual use of the words.
For example, if a rapist is imprisoned his punishment is "just". But his loss (of freedom), which is justice in a retributive sense is also justice in another sense to the person he has raped. Society (if we put the best face on it) is in favour of the person raped and wants her to feel that she matters and that her rights are of central concern to society so when it punishes the criminal in that punitive act it is keeping its commitment to the sufferer. The point to be noticed is that the same act is punishment to one and blessing to the other.
This is true in God’s dealings with the human family. For the believer God himself is the source of all that is right as well as the model of doing what is right. There is no law outside of God to which God must conform if he is to be considered good or righteous—he is the "law" (so the speak). He answers to no one and to nothing. When he does what is right he is abiding by his own will and character. When the OT writers speak of God as "righteous" they mean, of course, that he does what is right but they mean he does what is right in the sense that he is faithful to himself and to his commitment to his creation.
God does not jump through hoops made by the creature—he keeps his word and is faithful to his commitments because he is what he is. In truth, then, biblically speaking, "justice" is not some eternal abstract principle that is built into the fabric of reality. It begins with the personal God who enters into a relationship with his human family. In turn, justice or righteousness as the human family is to understand and express it, is to live in the image of God. To be just or righteous is to keep one’s word and fulfil one’s commitment to God and the neighbour.
God made an overarching covenant with the human family (compare Genesis 9) but he also made covenants within that covenant (Abraham, Israel, Levi, David and so forth). These more specific covenants all serve the overarching covenant. God made a covenant with the house of David (see Psalm 89) for the nation of Israel (and through them, to other nations). He made a covenant with Abraham that was to benefit all nations (see Genesis 12).
The people with whom God made these covenants were expected to respond to God within the terms of those covenants. If they did, they were "righteous". When God kept his side of the bargain (covenant) he was said to be just and righteous and when he acted to deliver his covenant people this action was seen as his "saving righteousness"—his covenant faithfulness.
Behind God’s covenant-keeping righteousness was his eternal character and will. Of course! So that it’s perfectly legitimate to say that God is "righteous" independent of the covenants he chose to make and keep. Still, what you read in the OT (and in the NT) is mainly about God’s righteousness/justice in being true to his covenant commitment. The righteousness of some godly Israelite would involve his heart, of course, but his/her righteousness was their (heartfelt) response to the covenant of which they were a part. Their covenant relationship was not only with God because being covenanted with God meant they were also covenanted to their neighbor. Biblically, everything has that personal element; there is nothing abstract about righteousness or sin. Righteousness was relational fidelity just as sin was relational infidelity.
God had a peculiar (but not exclusive) relationship with Israel and this relationship was expressed in a covenant that was exclusively made with Israel (see Exodus 19:4-6 and Amos 3:2). He committed to relate to them in the covenant and to make their friends his friends and their enemies his enemies (see Genesis 12:1-3 and the first fourteen chapters of Exodus as illustrative).
This meant that when he delivered Israel from Egyptian captivity or brought them through the wilderness into the promised land he was keeping his covenant commitment to them—that is, he was being righteous or just. His "deliverance" was his justice/righteousness made visible.
When a psalmist asked God, "deliver me in your righteousness" (31:1) he was asking God to remember his commitment and to live up to it. "Vindicate me in your righteousness" (Psalm 35:24, and elsewhere) is the same plea. When in 71:17 the psalmist says he will tell of God’s righteousness shown in salvation from enemies, he is talking about God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises; it is God keeping his word. See Isaiah 46:13 and elsewhere for the same thing. It isn't surprising then that we often find God's actual deeds called his "righteousness". [See Deuteronomy 6:25 for a similar use of the word in regard to humans keeping their word toward God. And compare Matthew 6:1 where being benevolent is included in "acts of righteousness".]
Now, God loved Assyria and cared what happened to her (the entire book of Jonah insists on that) but he also loved the nations Assyria was crushing (the entire book of Nahum insists on that). When God moved to crush the Assyrian empire he was keeping his word to Israel and the other oppressed nations—he was being righteous/just. He punishes Assyria (retributive justice) but in the act of punishing Assyria he is keeping his promises (he is being righteous) to Israel and others. So that punishment andsalvation is God exhibiting his justice/righteousness. Assyria and Israel experienced God’s faithfulness differently. They experienced God’s justice/righteousness/faithfulness but the one experienced it as punishment and the other experienced it as salvation. Let me say it again, this one act of God is "retributive" and "saving" justice.
But these are not different kinds of justice or righteousness. Punishing Assyria and delivering Israel (or whoever) is one act that comes out of one heart and will. All the actions are related because they all stem from one faithful heart and with one overarching purpose in mind.
We need to remember that when Assyria ravaged wicked Israel that it was God chastizing Israel for her wickedness [Isaiah 10:5ff]. But Assyria was not intentionally acting on God's behalf; she was acting out of her own sinful desires.
Neither nation was ethically innocent or superior to the other. When Israel appealed to God for "justice" she was seeking salvation and she wasn't basing her appeal on her moral superiority over the nations (at least she shouldn't have been), she appealed to God's faithfulness [justice]. She wanted his saving justice. God often called Israel to walk justly [Isaiah 1.17; Micah 6.8, Jeremiah 22:3 illustrate] and by that he included providing for the poor and the defenseless and keeping their covenant commitment to their neighbors. God delighted in "just" weights that were designed and used to deal out fairness to whoever came to buy. Israel appealed to God to keep his covenant commitment [to be "just"] and in dong that to deliver them from their oppressors and this he did to Israel as a nation though they were faithless.
We need to keep this in mind when wrestling with Romans 3:25-26. In dealing with Satan God is dealing with the power that is destroying his children, the human family, and he goes to their rescue. He goes to their rescue not because they are morally fine people or that they have been faithful to him. He went again and again and again to Israel's rescue though Israel had been faithless. He goes/comes to their rescue because he has made a commitment to them and he is faithful. When he sets forth Jesus as an atoning sacrifice, as the way to deal with humanity's Enemy he is being just. In being just in this context he is destroying the enemy and rescuing his children.
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, theabidingword.com