Is God strictly just or is He equitable?

Justice_EquityIs God strictly just or is He equitable? Does it matter? This is a 1,000 year old debate between the Eastern and Western churches.

In the West, we say God is strictly just so He must punish sin in order to forgive us. In the Eastern Orthodox church, they say that God is equitable and His justice is restorative.

As Aristotle said a little over 2,300 years ago, “Equity is just, but not what is legally just. It is a rectification of legal justice. ” I would say it this way: God’s justice is not that of a legalistic lawyer but of a loving Father.

Why do I bring this up? Is it that important? I do so to point out that we have an untenable contradiction with our view of God that we don’t seem to want to consider, and it has devastating implications about our view of Him.

I bring this up because, in my view, our Western idea of the atonement is one of the most broken things about evangelical Christianity. It’s something we’ve inherited from a Medieval paradigm, not the Bible. It’s a totally pagan idea that’s not much different than appeasing an angry god by throwing innocent children into the fire so he won’t burn our village.

I said this here before: our Western idea of God’s justice started in the eleventh century with Anselm with his satisfaction theory of atonement, but Calvin added that God’s justice demands punishment almost 500 years later. The following is from Theopedia: “Satisfaction theory of atonement”:

The Protestant reformers shifted the focus of this satisfaction theory to concentrate not merely on divine offense but on divine justice. God’s righteousness demands punishment for human sin. God in his grace both exacts punishment and supplies the one to bear it.

There are some serious problems with Calvin’s innovative “shift” in our ideas about God’s justice. I will address them in the form of questions:

Does the Bible actually teach that punishment is required in order for God to forgive sin?

If a sin must be punished or a debt repaid, can that be even be called forgiveness?

Can the idea that “God in his grace both exacts punishment and supplies the one to bear it” actually be called grace?

Is punishing an innocent person so the guilty can go free ever considered justice? Is there any court of law in the universe that would call this justice?

If we were honest, we would have to say “no” to all of these questions. This is not grace or justice, it’s a gross travesty of grace and justice! And this is precisely the argument that skeptics of Christianity have made against this notion. I would have to agree with them.

Thankfully, it’s not biblical either. In fact, it can be argued that the idea that the innocent must be punished so the guilty can go free is diametrically opposed to the principles taught in the Bible.

Also, to punish the righteous is not good, nor to strike princes for their uprightness. (Prov.17:26 NKJV)

He who says to the wicked, “You are righteous,” him the people will curse; nations will abhor him. (Prov.24:24)

So does God contradict Himself? Would it be just for Him to strike THE “innocent Prince” so He can call the wicked good? Hardly.

The idea that God’s justice demands that all sin be punished also stands in direct contradiction to the biblical evidence. We know that Jesus was the exact representation of God (John 14:7; Heb.1:3). He spent a lot of His time on earth explaining what His heavenly Father was like. So, did Jesus ever teach that God must punish sins in order to forgive? No, quite the contrary…

The prodigal son (Luke 15:11-24). The sinning son is forgiven and restored by his father with no punishment or payment in view.

The woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Jesus acquits the woman when the Law demanded her to be stoned to death.

The creditor and two debtors (Luke 7:40-42). No mention of the debt being collected from another source.

Jesus heals the paralytic (Matt.9:1-2). Jesus forgives the paralytic’s sin with no mention of punishment or repayment.

Parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt.18:23-35). Here it was unforgiveness that was punished. So, if God cannot forgive unless He punishes someone, is He any better than this unforgiving servant?

There are more, but you get the idea….

My question boils down to this: was there ever a parable or description of our heavenly Father by Jesus that depicted Him not being able to forgive unless someone is punished?

Can we just say, no.

Indeed, if Jesus taught us that we must forgive without payment, bless those who curse us, love those who hate us, can our heavenly Father be any different? (Matt.5:44-45)

Maybe you don’t like my probing questions. Maybe we would prefer to go on parroting these horrendous ideas about God that make Him out to be a vindictive, unforgiving, child-abusing monster. I certainly don’t. I really don’t think you do either. So lets’ stop hiding our head in the evangelical sand about these awful medieval doctrines of men and deal with them head on, because the world Jesus came to save is asking them.

Again, thankfully, this is not the God of the Bible, so we have nothing to fear.


About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 41 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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27 Responses to Is God strictly just or is He equitable?

  1. Heidi Viars says:

    What about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11?

    • Mel Wild says:

      Although this is not directly related to my point about forgiveness, it’s a good question, Heidi. But I don’t think we can answer it conclusively. We better hope that God is not still killing people in the church for lying! There are far worse things that Christians do everyday than lying about selling a property.

      We should really be asking, why isn’t God still killing Christians everyday around the world for doing the very same thing that they did, or worse? Why did Ananias and Sapphira get judged so harshly and everyone else gets a free pass?

      There are many reasons that people give for Ananias and Sapphira. Some preachers use the story to try to manipulate and scare people toward God, but this is NOT the gospel. Fear is a poor motivator, which involved torment, not godliness (2 John 4:17-18). God compels with His love and kindness (2 Cor.5:16; Rom.2:4).

      The bottom line is, if we are to conclude that God was the one killing them for lying then we are creating a major contradiction in the Bible. Not only is this an exceptional case, and there’s nothing else like it in the church account in Scripture, it flies in the face of the fact that God “doesn’t punish us as our sins deserve.” (Psalm 103:10), and that He is “not counting our sins against us.” (2 Cor 5:19b). So we dare not make any doctrines from one passage. The point is, both cannot be true, so there must be another reason for Ananias and Sapphira’s demise in light of the full weight of Scripture.

      So my answer is that I cannot say dogmatically why this happened. It is an exception, so to conclude anything is pure speculation, at best. One thing I do know with certainty: it doesn’t prove that God must kill before He can forgive. I hope that answers your question. Blessings.

      • Heidi Viars says:

        But He had to kill His Son before He could forgive us!

        • Lance says:

          Heidi, I’d read the post again. I could be wrong because words on comments are like email without a voice…We sometimes miss the heart behind the message…but I think the point of the post is Jesus didn’t have to die for God to forgive us. You don’t have to accept it or believe it but the burden is to prove otherwise.

        • Heidi Viars says:

          Acts 17:11 … my heart seeks the truth. While I understand that God in many ways will remain a mystery to us, and we, in our finite mind have such little understanding, I also know that He has given us One Spirit. In that Spirit I am praying for clarity and peace… and thank you for caring enough to comment 🙂

        • Mel Wild says:

          Amen. I’m with you there. 🙂

        • Heidi Viars says:

          please see my detailed response to Mel below

        • Mel Wild says:

          I understand what you’re trying to say, Heidi, and I used to believe that, too. I taught it for many years. But the Bible doesn’t actually say that God killed Jesus. Scripture is actually pretty straightforward about assessing the blame. First, Jesus Himself said that He would be betrayed into the hands of men (Matt.17:22-23), specifically, His own Jewish leaders, who would hand Him over to the Gentiles (Matt.20:18-19). Furthermore, Peter laid the blame on the Jews (Acts 2:22-23, 36). But we also know that even Peter himself denied Jesus three times and the rest of Jesus’ disciples fled. Since Jews and Gentiles are pretty much everybody, we killed Jesus. I wrote about this in my “Saving Easter” series here.

          I understand that my position is controversial, but only so because we’ve been saying that God killed Jesus for so long that we think it’s scriptural. But, after doing a lot of research on the subject, I’m finding that the Bible says a different story. Not to mention, that theory turns the Father into a monster, as I already pointed out. That’s why I cannot abide to it, even though I do so in contradiction to long-held traditional evangelical dogma. I really think we need to honestly re-look at this.

        • Heidi Viars says:

          I will take a look at this question. Thank you for standing in your convictions and being a Truth-seeker. Please know that I appreciate these honest discussions very much. Thank you for making your place a safe place 🙂 Now, off to the Word I go!

        • Mel Wild says:

          Thanks, Heidi. The church community should always be a “safe place” to discuss these kinds of things in the spirit of love and grace. I really appreciate your honest questions, too. In seeking truth, we shouldn’t be afraid to miss it or even be wrong. God’s pretty good at steering us the right way. 🙂 Blessings to you.

        • Heidi Viars says:

          Dear Mel,
          I do not want to continue to argue but want to make a couple of points. First, I want to thank you for allowing for honest discussion of matters that are difficult to understand (but nonetheless have a real answer with God, namely the Truth). I honor and respect you for the pursuit of the truth and for the questions you pose, for they probe deep within my own heart and stir my faith.

          I had a discussion with my husband this morning and we both agreed that the western, evangelical church has many flaws. With that, I also believe that there is great hope for the Body of Christ (Universal Church, of which the evangelical church is just a small part), for our Head is Christ Himself. He will eventually work it all together for good according to Romans 8:28 (and that’s my honest belief, not cliche).

          Here are the Scriptures I have come across this morning … (I did not go digging for Scriptures to prove my point, but simply read)

          I was reading in Mark 8:31-33
          Look at what Jesus said to Peter in verse 33: “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
          When Peter tried to rebuke the Lord, after Jesus said that He had to be “rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed”, Jesus very clearly said that this was of God.

          Isaiah 53:10 clearly speaks of “it pleased the LORD to bruise Him”
          Acts 4:27-28 says
          “For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together,
          For to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done.”

          That just seems so clear to me, that God Himself did this.

          Mel, while this may pose a huge problem in your understanding, I have absolutely not one single issue with a God who does that. I don’t see Him as a monster. It actually propels me to think the opposite. I DO see grace in His actions as a just God. I long for a just God who will one day set the World right. I tremble in fear and awe at my Father, Who in the most loving ways has drawn my sinful heart toward Him. (Proverbs 9:10)

          He has shown me, in the most amazing and intimate ways, how He loves me. But nowhere more clearly than in the cross, the most horrendous evil. He Himself holds the entire knowledge of good and evil and He, and HE only, knows to discern what is justice.

          In Jesus all things come together. He Himself knew about it before the foundations of the earth were laid (Ephesians 1:4)
          It’s not God who is a monster, because He is just, but Satan. He is a liar and a thief, and was so from the beginning.

          I actually have to answer “YES” to every question you posted in your blog. And I have not a single problem with it, for it is only in Jesus Christ that all these questions then make sense.

          Thanks so much for the discussion, Mel.

          In Christ and His love,

        • Mel Wild says:

          Thanks, Heidi, for taking the time to respond to my post and search these things out for yourself, and thanks for the scriptural references (in your response this morning). Since you brought them up, I will treat them in a separate post. I have dealt with Isa.53:10 before in my “Saving Easter” series. There is a translation problem there. I will deal with it again in a separate post. I don’t do it to argue either, but to clarify. People can make up their own minds.

          I would agree with your points if you’re saying that God allowed it, Satan is behind it, and that man was his accomplice. I would not agree that God Himself did it. There’s a big difference between God allowing something to fulfill His purpose and actually doing it Himself. The former is used to reveal the character and nature of the ones actually doing it, the latter would reveal God’s own malicious character and nature. Which, to me, is unacceptable. This is not splitting hairs. There is a big difference, and it gets to the heart of why the idea that God killed Jesus in untenable in my view. This is also why it’s important to look at with fresh eyes, even though it does disagree with popular doctrines.

          I understand that you don’t have a problem with what I see as contradictions. While it does endear us to Jesus, it’s creates devastating implications and contradictions about God Himself. It may not pose a problem for you, or even me, because we already love God, but for many others who hear these things and aren’t Christians have a huge problem and are turned away from the gospel. This is an unnecessary consequence in light of what I believe is better biblical understanding. That’s why it’s worth talking about.

          Blessings to you, Heidi. Again I appreciate your heart to interact with something controversial in the spirit of love and grace. I hope you continue to do so. 🙂

  2. Lance says:

    Mel, there you go stirring up the evangelical bees nest. Sometimes some bees get upset when there is honey calling. Love you bro. Your awesome. Imagine a God who forgives without a payment (the definition by the way) and still lets us kill Him so we will know His heart to save us. Wow. Yay God!

    • Mel Wild says:

      Well, I only stir up the bees so we can get TO the honey! 🙂 Appreciate your encouragement, Lance. I debated whether to even take a swat at the nest right now without doing it justice by covering all the bases, Scripturally. But I’m currently researching this subject for a future book so I’m a bit “too full” not to let some of this honey slip out in my blog posts. LOL! Blessings.

  3. Saskia Hart says:

    Heidi, I read a post once about Ananias and Sapphira, challenging me to ask some questions that I hadn’t dared to ask before. At first I thought it was crazy. . .and maybe even a little frightening [to ask questions], but the more I see Jesus, the more I realize that He is ok with our questions. . . It’s not frightening at all, in fact, it’s very very freeing and God welcomes our questions. So, great question about Ananias and Sapphira! Here’s the link for the post I read about them that brought a lot of freedom to me. Hope it helps!

  4. Saskia Hart says:

    Oh.. oops, I posted my comment with an un-refreshed browser so I hadn’t seen any of the other answers.. .sorry if there is any overlap or redundancy!

  5. Jonah says:

    Hey Mel,

    This may be beyond the scope of your post, which deals primarily with the Father’s forgiveness and whether or not He needed payment to give it. I love everything you said.

    I think this goes with the early Christus Victor and Ransom theories of atonement, but I had some additional thoughts about the “payment” in the atonement. There are several references from Paul and Peter of us being “bought at a price.” Back in the day I would take this to mean Jesus was paying off Dad. Thank God for freedom from that thought.

    It was when I was reading Hosea that it started to fit together. I’ve always loved the story. I noticed how God told Hosea to go and love Gomer “again” and pay the price necessary to buy her back. She already legally “belonged” to him as his wife, but he payed whatever price the pimp was asking, not because it was at all fair, but because she was worth it. It reminded me of a loving a Father bailing out His kids who got themselves in a mess. They signed on the dotted line without reading the fine print, and legally, they signed away their life to the crooked dealer. Why? Cus he promised to give em nice things and make them look really pretty, like any crafty salesman would. But the kids get scared when they find out the truth, Disneyland never comes and this guy never fulfills his promises. It doesn’t turn out to be all they thought it would be, but they can’t escape because they signed a contract, and the devilish salesman reminds them daily. So Dad pays His own life to set them free. You want to hold them to the contract? Fine. I’ll give you me.

    Kind of like the route CS Lewis takes with the White Witch demanding justice. Aslan pays the ransom that the law demands. It’s a perfect law, but is just a temporary means to lead us hom. In the end, who is the real figure who demands retributive justice? The accuser. And technically we signed up for the “works” tit-for-tat system when we ate of the second tree. We took sides with the enemy and (thought we) wanted a system where we were independently earning our rewards and punishments, based on self-righteous religion. When that fruit touched our blood, like the blood of Abel, it started to cry out for vengeance. When the enemy sold us on religion, he deceptively left out how violence would only beget more violence and it would only get worse. Self righteousness would lead us to self destruct, and we would run from and bite the only Hand truly feeding us. Moreover, we would learn to project all these nasty feelings on the Father who unconditionally loves.

    So is there a blood requirement? Is there a payment needed? Was punishment being demanded? Maybe. But let’s be clear, the Father always just wanted the son to come home, purely because He is love through and through. He’s got the party guests on call. His mission is love and life and grace. Maybe a whole lot of wrath was let out on Jesus. It seems we were the ones demanding blood, though, plus the evil one who had been fathering us illegitimately. Life for life, blood for blood, eye for eye. Maybe one part of the atonement is Jesus’ demonstration of love, by His ultimate submission to our condition, saying He’ll go throug any hell to find us, no matter how senseless it might seem. Whoever it is demanding payment, because of the mess we got ourselves into with our free choice, He will pay. Perhaps in paying, He exposes the terrible flaws in the system. Because as He pays dearly for us, His blood speaks a better word, a fresh sound to us. Forgiveness. Pure, unadulterated love, that transcends the scales and systems we got deeply entrenched in. It’s freedom, Grace, pure gift. The only reason we have to use words like “unmerited” is because of the residue in our minds of the knowledge of good and evil. But the truth is, according to our triune God of love, and therfore the very stuff we were made of, merit never had anything to do with it in the first place. To give, or forgive, is simply His nature. And here’s hoping, that in returning and rest, we remember the Rock from which we were cut, and start forgiving freely as Grace teaches us. But if we ever stumble (Lord knows I have) and find ourselves “needing payment” we might do well to remember the infinite account He set up at the cross. He covered all the bases.

    Ah well just some thoughts. I love the rich manna coming through you, Mel. This is an exciting topic to me and actually has been on my heart a lot lately. I have Floods book on my shelf, waiting for a good time to finish it. I found another great set of talks on the topic of His Goodness by Richard Murray here: Not sure where I stand on all of it, but lots of good stuff in there I think.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Jonah says:

      One more thing I thought about… I think I remember that part of the reason Anselm moved into the satisfaction theory was he could not imagine God owing the devil anything. Whether or not I have my history right, I would agree with that. God will never owe the thief anything. But the whole story goes beyond simply some kind of cosmic deal between God and satan. The crown of God’s creation is involved here, endowed with the ability to choose. Lots to be said which I know God will pour out remarkably through you Mel as He always does! I think you cover the “evil problem” quite well!

      This analogy may not play out perfectly, as with any analogy. But I work in childcare. We work at a long term home for children who have been horrendously abused and neglected, and we want them to know the Father’s love. There are always technicalities and red tape and jargon that slows down the process of taking care of them. There is all kinds of legal fine print. Sometimes we just want to be done with it, to have the kids and show them love. Sometimes they get taken and moved and it all seems so cold and unloving. Perhaps it is, and perhaps it’s totally unjust at times, too.

      Of course we want to stand for social justice and the system needs help. But mostly, I see people caring for these kids who will quietly submit to a harsh system in order to be with the children. For a chance to love them, they will say “sure, whatever” to the cold processes. No one owes anything to the system that often hasn’t cared much for these children, but we will do whatever we need to have them safe.

      Of course, Jesus simultaneously exposed our flawed sense of justice, chiefly in His dialogue with the Pharisees… while also keeping His eye on the greater prize, a bride for whom He would do anything, even submit to our chaos. He loved those who spitefully used Him. After we satisfied all our wrath on Him at the Cross, the silence we were left in as we beheld the brutality, was enough to show us how wrong we had been. And yet… He went willingly, and said “okay” … Amazing love, how can it be…

      I know there are so many more beautiful details carved into the Cross and atonement. Taking on actual death and sickness and sin, and in death, defeating them all, by resurrecting… So much awesome stuff. But your post stirred up some new things for me. The topic off Christ and Him crucified seems to be an inexhaustible treasury of glorious riches. Bless you, Mel, as you continue laboring in doctrine! You’re doing important work, for which I am very grateful!

      • Mel Wild says:

        Amen, Heb.12:2 says that Christ disregarded the shame and endured the cross for the joy set before Him. That’s the “coldness” and injustice you’re talking about. For Jesus’ crucifixion was anything but just! It was a travesty of justice. THIS is the “price” that Jesus paid, not some debt of appeasement to a pagan god who has to kill Him to forgive us! That’s an absolutely horrible view of the Cross. He took OUR shame and guilt. And the “joy set before Him” was not heaven or being with the Father. He already had that. No, the joy set before Him was perfect fellowship with us forever. That’s what made it worth it all. That’s love! It’s not love to say that the Father had to kill Jesus before He could forgive us. That’s not justice. That’s cruel and sadistic, anything but love or justice!
        Thanks again for your comments.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks for your comments, Jonah. You say a lot of good things here. I would agree with the ancient Ransom theory of Atonement, but we need to know that there were at least three versions theorized by the early church fathers. One said God paid the Devil, another said God paid Death, and the third that God didn’t pay anyone. I agree with the third (from Gregory of Nazianszus), God didn’t pay anyone the ransom because the word for ransom means deliverance. I wrote about that in my “Saving Easter” series here. As you allude to, Satan and our eating from the wrong tree is what was defeated at the Cross. The Father wasn’t punishing Jesus for us, they were rescuing us from ourselves.
      Blessings to you.

      • Jonah says:

        I do recall the “Saving Easter” series now. And I want to look back through it. I had forgotten about the three different versions of Ransom theory. Important distinctions.

        I love what you said, “They” were rescuing us from ourselves. Reminds me of an image that stuck with me from The Shack, when Papa shows Mac how all three members of the Trinity bear the marks of the Cross. They all went through the total injustice of the crucifixion in order to get us, the treasure and pearl of great price. After all our projections onto God, exhausting all our blind, false, hateful ideals in the hammering of cold nails, we are left with a picture of pure self-giving love that can never be denied. I also like what you said… the very paradigm that was created from satan/the wrong tree is THE thing that was exposed & defeated at the Cross. That’s good. Blessings, thanks for letting us in on the talk.

        • Mel Wild says:

          Yes, the Father was IN Christ reconciling us to Himself (2 Cor.5:19). They are three, yet one. This is the essence of the Trinity. PSA theory has made the Father and Christ at odds with one another. But they were united in purpose–to heal us and make us whole so that we can be adopted as His beloved sons (and daughters). This was God’s purpose from before time began (Eph.1:3-6). That’s what the Cross did.

          Because of this lively discussion, I’ve decided that my next series of posts will deal with the question of who killed Jesus. It ought to be interesting. 🙂

  6. Isaiah 53:7 NIV
    7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

    I’m not saying I don’t believe you Mel. I want to believe you. I believe that God didn’t kill Jesus just as you say. But Jesus died this way. Why? If he was killed by the hand of man why did he allow it to happen this way? Not opening his mouth to stop us from killing him?

    • Mel Wild says:

      That’s a great question! Jesus did allow Himself to be tortured and killed by us. Why did He do it? This subject has been discussed and debated since Calvary. It gets into the whole theory of atonement (there are many). My next series of posts are going to focus in on Isaiah 53, so I will give you a more thorough answer there. 🙂 Blessings.

  7. Pingback: God’s righteousness looks like Jesus | In My Father's House

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