God’s justice, human justice, and individual ethics

In recent discussions relating to the death penalty I have discovered that I make distinctions when I speak about justice. Sometimes I am referring to God’s absolute justice, sometimes to a “common grace” form of justice revealed to humans, and sometimes I am referring to individual ethics. I think it’s important that we recognize that these three forms of justice not only stand in continuity, but are also distinct in some important ways.

God’s Justice

God is eternally just and fair. All justice flows from his character. God’s justice is absolute and universal. It springs both from his eternal love and holiness.

According to God’s justice, in our sin every person deserves death (“for the wages of sin is death”) and eternal seperation from God. Even a single sin we might call small seperates us from God and puts us under his eternal wrath. This might seem unfair to us as humans but this is both just and fair because of the eternal character of God. Thankfully that’s not the end of the story.

God sent Jesus who died on the cross for our sin. In doing so, Jesus took the penalty for our sin. God’s justice was applied to Jesus, who experienced seperation and death on our behalf. If we come to Jesus in faith God is just in applying the penalty of our sin to Jesus and Jesus’ righteousness to us. In the cross, God’s love and justice meet. In God’s justice, then, even a murderer like Paul, can find forgiveness and eternal life in place of guilt and eternal death. Again, this may seem unfair to some, but it is in line with the absolute justice of God.

Human Justice

What would happen if we attempted to apply God’s absolute justice to human interactions? I think that would be problematic to say the least. If we applied the punishment part we have justification for severely punishing even minor offenses! If we applied only the merciful part of God’s justice we would never have grounds for any punishment. “Oh, you killed somebody? Don’t worry, Jesus took your sentence, you can go free.”

So why shouldn’t we apply God’s justice to human interaction? I can think of at least three reasons. (1) We’re not authorized to take the place of God. (2) We’re dealing with a different set of relationships. God’s justice as described above relates to humanity’s relationship with God. Justice as it plays out in societies has to do with our relationship with one another.* (3) God does give us guidelines for justice and they are not in relation to God’s absolute justice.

So what guideliness does God give us for justice? This is a complex question and a probably even more complex answer. But, my overly simplistic answer is that God has revealed to us through common grace (conscience) and through Scripture a system of both rights and duties that we are obligated to uphold (in the case of rights) or perform (in the case of duties). As an example: I have a duty to feed and care for my two small children. The civil law rightly calls my failure to perform this duty “neglect.” And, I have a right to life, which means that to take my life is a deprivation of my right. The law rightly calls this deprivation of the right to life “murder.” If someone commits an offense – does not perform a necessary duty or deprives someone of a fundamental right – they are subject to just punishment and that punishment should be proportionate to the crime. Disprortionately small punishment for a major crime (slap on the wrist for murder) or disproportionately serious punishment for minor infractions (lifetime improsonment for stealing some bread) are considered unjust and unfair. Likewise, punishing someone who is not guilty, or failing to punish some who is guilty, is also both unjust and unfair. For shorthand, I refer to this system of justice “proportionate retributive justice.”

Just because something is “just” or “fair,” however, doesn’t mean we’re authorized to take action. If somebody steals stuff out of my house, it might be “fair” for me to go steal stuff from them, but that doesn’t mean it would be right for me to do that. Instead, it would be right for me to report the theft to the authorities and leave justice in their hands. This is by God’s design. Not everyone is authorized to inflict just punishment. From Romans 13, anyway, it appears that that obligation and authorization is reserved for those whom God specifically grants authority.

Individual Ethics

I need to make one final distinction, though. Individuals, especially believers, are driven in their ethics by more than justice. For instance, I would argue that there is no just duty to support a particular little girl in Indonesia to whom I am not related. Yet, I believe that I should support her in order to fulfill God’s command to generosity and caring for the poor. In other words, I believe I have personal ethical responsibilities and duties that go beyond the kind of justice described above.

Additionally, I believe that I am personally obligated to love my enemy and to, on purpose, take efforts to be reconciled to them, even though to do so would not fit the picture of “justice” above. If somebody hits me, not only am I not authorized to hit them back but I am obligated to revoke vengeance and be open to reconciliation if it is possible. In other words, I give up my right to justice because of a personal ethic.

How this plays out

Here’s how this distinction plays out. I’ll use a personal and minor infraction. Somebody stole my laptop out of our church one Sunday morning.

Personally, I should give up any vengeance against them. If they came to me asking for forgiveness, I am obligated to forgive them.

In regards to the State, if they were caught and proved guilty, it would be just for the State to impose some proportionate (probably minor) penalty.

In regards to God, their eternal destiny is only dependent on whether they accept free salvation offered in Christ. God would be just in either condemning them or saving them based on their decision. For their sake, I hope they choose to obey God and believe in Jesus.

What do you think? Is this distinction helpful? Does it make sens? Or, is it contradictory?