Attributes that Anchor Us: God is Just

It is a great blessing that God is just – who would want to worship a deity that cannot be trusted to act righteously and faithfully? But God’s justice leads to uncomfortable realities. For example, God commands Israel concerning the conquest of Canaan, “You shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction” (Deu 20:16-17).[1] And concerning a judgment upon anyone who rejects salvation in a future day, “he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath … and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image” (Rev 14:10-11). God doesn’t conceal these judgments in embarrassment – “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1Jn 1:5). And it is in the gleaming brightness of God’s transcendent glory that the darkness of man’s sin is exposed for what it really is. That darkness, and man’s love of it, combined with his hatred of the light (Joh 3:19-20), subject man to righteous wrath, “for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29).

The Error in Judging God

While those biblical passages cited above offend modern sensibilities, men simply are not in a position to pass judgment on whether or not God is just.[2] Admittedly, some of God’s actions are difficult for us to rationalize, but those are occasions for us to humbly confess we do not fully understand Him.[3] If He says His actions are just, we bow in meek acceptance, or we are not letting God be God. And the Bible does proclaim God’s justice, frequently and unequivocally – “All his ways are justice” (Deu 32:4), and “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne” (Psa 97:2).[4] In one of the most solemn passages of the New Testament (2Th 1:5-9), God emphasizes that His judgment is “righteous” (v5), His repayment to the persecutors is “just” (v6), and He carries out “vengeance” (v8), not “revenge.”[5] Men cannot put God on trial because men don’t truly understand justice – men love darkness.

God’s Justice Displayed in the Destruction of the Canaanites

The Canaanites loved darkness. Their debauchery included bestiality, pederasty, and abundant child sacrifice, all of which would be readily condemned by people today. Is it just to allow such activity to go unpunished? “Indeed, what would we say of a God who perpetually sat silent in the face of such wickedness? Would we not ask, where was God? …. Yet when God finally does act, we are quick to find fault.”[6] The Scripture is clear that the destruction of the Canaanites was an act of judgment, a “capital punishment on a national scale”[7] upon those people for their longstanding sin: “It is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you” (Deu 9:4).[8]

God’s verdict upon the Canaanites was not motivated by their skin color or their nation of origin – it was not a gratuitous ethnic cleansing. As another example of His justice, “God shows no partiality” (Act 10:34). Rahab (Jos 2) and the Gibeonites (Jos 9) are examples of Canaanites becoming part of God’s people. And remarkably, just as God is beginning to bring justice to the Canaanites, He halts Israel’s progress to carry out justice upon an Israelite family. Because of their idolatry, God judged Achan and his clan in a manner akin to His judgment upon the Canaanites (Jos 7). This “demonstrates that Yahweh’s righteousness is not limited by his commitment to Israel …. When they sin, he punishes them, showing the glory of his justice.”[9]

Idolatry Robs God of His Rightful Glory

Idolatry is a vile offence in God’s eyes[10] and was at the root of the Canaanites’ sinfulness and of God’s command to conquer them – “that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the LORD your God” (Deu 20:18). Don’t pass over this too quickly – what was at stake in Canaan was whether God would be worshiped or whether false gods would unjustly deny God the glory of which He alone is worthy.[11] And in Achan’s case, “it is only the majesty of Yahweh that makes this just …. The greatness of Yahweh must be such that trusting in what one can see, rather than what Yahweh has said, is a crime that warrants the forfeiture of life.”[12] Men don’t grasp the unique majesty of God. In all His judgments, God is showing that He has no rivals.

His Justice Highlights His Mercy

As crimes deserve punishment in a court of law, so sins deserve judgment meted out by the King of Heaven[13] – all sins are crimes against God. But the mercy extended to Rahab and the Gibeonites in Canaan is also characteristic of the heart of God. His judgment is just, but God also uses His justice as a backdrop to more clearly reveal the radiant glory of His mercy.

Genesis 3:15 is sometimes called the protoevangelium – it is the first (proto) glimmer of the gospel (evangelium). Tellingly, this first gospel message contains a word of judgment – the enemy’s head is bruised (and humanity will experience pain and conflict, cf. vv16-17). Yet the message is blended with surprising mercy – the human couple’s physical lives continue, and the woman’s seed will ultimately triumph. “Salvation comes through judgment.”[14] More than that, God graciously says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas 2:13).

The Cross Justifies God

If we had a better perspective on God’s righteousness, our challenge would not be understanding God’s judgment on sinners but understanding His mercy and love towards them. If God is God, He must always be just, in everything He does – and that includes declaring sinners righteous. How can that be just? The answer is in the atoning cross work of Christ, who is Himself God. “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6), and the claims of justice were satisfied by a willing, sinless, substitutionary sacrifice. This “was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).

The cross work of the Lord Jesus not only justifies God in saving sinners, but it also points us to a resolution when our feeble, fallen minds are still struggling with God’s wrath. When God judged the Canaanites, His desire was to purge the land of idolatry, that the chosen seed may fulfill its mission to represent the living God of salvation to the world.[15] Whereas the nation failed in its mission, the ultimate seed of Abraham and the true Israelite, Jesus Christ, did not. The point is, God’s judgments upon the Canaanites displayed His holy hatred of sin and were also part of His program of redemption through history – both concepts that led finally to the cross of Christ. There, God did something much more profound than merely executing justice – He took the judgment Himself, in the Person of His Son.

In light of what God has accomplished and revealed of Himself in the cross, man has no excuse for refusing God’s salvation. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Act 17:30-31). He can righteously save, and He can righteously judge. “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deu 32:4).


[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.

[2] Despite their protestations to the contrary. “For the modern man … the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.” C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 244.

[3] See Psa 131, and Isa 40:14 (“Who taught him the path of justice?”).

[4] See also Gen 18:19; Deu 10:18; Job 37:23; Psa 33:5; Isa 16:5; Mat 23:23.

[5] Vengeance emphasizes a pursuit of justice, a righteous punishment. Revenge is more often about retaliating out of personal resentment. The ESV never uses the word “revenge” in association with God.

[6] Greg Koukl,

[7] Ibid.

[8] For the interesting view that God’s judgment on the land of Canaan is linked to the presence of the Nephilim giants (Num 13:3), see “The Unseen Realm” by Michael Heiser (Lexham Press, 2015).

[9] James M. Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), Chapter 3, 2.2.2.

[10] See Mar 12:30, and recall having no other gods before Him was the first of God’s ten commandments to Israel.

[11] Likewise, in the Revelation 14 passage cited earlier, it is their choice to worship something other than God that condemns them.

[12] Hamilton, Chapter 3, 2.2.2.

[13] This title is used only once in Scripture – when Nebuchadnezzar praises God and declares “all his works are right and his ways are just” (Dan 4:37).

[14] Hamilton. This oft-repeated line reflects the essence of Hamilton’s argument: “God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment” is the central theme of the Bible. I am not convinced that is THE overarching storyline of God’s revelation, but the book is a helpful, though challenging, read.

[15] See Gen 12:3; Isa 43:10.