Divine Justice And The Retributive Duty Of Civil Government -- By: Stephen A. James

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 06:2 (Fall 1985)
Article: Divine Justice And The Retributive Duty Of Civil Government
Author: Stephen A. James


Divine Justice And The Retributive
Duty Of Civil Government

Stephen A. James

Columbus, Ohio

By justice and righteousness we mean the transitive holiness of God, in virtue of which his treatment of his creatures conforms to the purity of his nature,—righteousness demanding from all moral beings conformity to the moral perfection of God, and justice visiting nonconformity to that perfection with penal loss or suffering.

Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology, 290

This statement by Professor Strong expresses the biblical truth that we live in a moral universe only because it is governed by a moral God who judges all people for their deeds. Divine justice may thus be described in terms of an obligation-response-response relationship. God obligates people to act in certain ways and forbids others, people respond to God’s obligation howsoever they please, and God responds to their actions with an appropriate reward or punishment to each individual.

This concept of justice taught in the Bible is correctly known as retributive justice. In retributive justice, a fit and measured response of good or evil is distributed among human beings in accordance with what their own actions deserve—good for good and evil for evil. The reality and necessity of retributive justice has been recognized by orthodox theologians throughout the history of the church, and was very well expressed by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1109 A.D.), who wrote that

… it is not right to cancel sin without compensation or punishment; if it be not punished, then it is passed by undischarged If sin be passed by unpunished … with God there will be no difference between the guilty and the not guilty; and this is unbecoming to God.1

The study of divine justice or retribution can be approached from several perspectives: e.g. time of punishment (present age or future), duration of punishment (temporal or eternal), agent of punishment (God personally, or some other means), and subject of punishment (individuals, groups of individuals, or nations). These perspectives are interrelated.

In much modern evangelical preaching and teaching, there is an emphasis on the future, individual, and permanent judgment to befall people—the judgment commonly known as the “last judgment.” This emphasis is biblically sound and vital to all true Christian preaching with regard to justice and the individual’s relationship to God. Regrettably, often

it has not been balanced by solid biblical preaching concerning another major aspect of divine retribution.<...

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