The desire for justice (Romans 2:1-8)

When confronted by radical evil, or usual talk of tolerance and moral relativism slide right out the window.  Morals, we’re often told, are the products of social forces—certainly not the works of an absolute God.  But this kind of skepticism fails to equip us to deal with the sorts of evil acts that have confronted us in the news cycle even of late.

No one is calling out for mercy or tolerance of sexual criminals or drunk drivers.  Both nationally or locally, we have many people crying out for blood, for retribution, for justice.

Christianity tells us that there is true, lasting justice found in the character of God.  In Paul’s famous letter to the church in Rome, he writes:

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking[a] and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:1-11)

If you’re a skeptic or simply new to the Christian faith, you may struggle with the idea of a God who expresses things like anger and judgment.  Those of us who grew up in the self-esteem movement have been assured—sometimes from birth—that we are a unique and beautiful snowflake.  Surely you and I are worthy of God’s love?

But again, the cries for justice are right and proper when dealing with human depravity.  In recent years, one of the most popular TV programs was Breaking Bad, a show that depicted a high school chemistry teacher who starts manufacturing illegal drugs to pay for his mounting medical bills.  At first you pity him, but as the story unfolds evil takes hold of him.  Viewers watch as this ordinary man becomes a man of extraordinary evil.  Why would such a show become so popular?  The show’s director explains that it has everything to do with our innate sense of justice:

“If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished…. I feel some sort of need for Biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”[1]

Christianity tells us that our desire for justice is right and proper—it’s just not broad enough.  It’s easy to see evil in the papers; it’s much harder to see it in the mirror.

But the Bible tells us that God is a God of justice, a God who is ferociously angry at anything and everything that defies the goodness of his character and his creation.  And that includes you and me.

For those of us that trust Christ, this brings us both the relief of having escaped God’s judgment (because Jesus took our place), and it brings us the hope of future, final vindication (because there will be a final resurrection and justice).

To paraphrase something often said by pastor and author Tim Keller, even if Christianity weren’t true, we should want it to be true.  All man’s attempts at justice are little more than cause-effect types of punishments.  Only the gospel promises final, eternal justice.  Are you angry?  Hurting?  Dissatisfied by the state of our hurting world?  Then we have only to look to the cross, look to the hope of God’s future, knowing that our destiny is as secure as God’s justice is swift.


[1] Segal, David (July 6, 2011). “The Dark Art of ‘Breaking Bad'”. The New York Times. July 25, 2011.


4 thoughts on “The desire for justice (Romans 2:1-8)

  1. Great post Chris, one truth hit me between the headlights, “It’s easy to see evil in the papers; it’s much harder to see it in the mirror”. How true!

  2. There are certain scriptures in the Old Testament regarding God’s anger and wrath that are worth wading through and learning about.

    There are also certain scriptures that put certain limits around God’s wrath that are also worth looking at.

    “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” (Joel 2:13 NIV)

    “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah. 4:2 NIV)

    The next verse though (A prayer of Moses that I came across while looking at scriptures about anger) has a hint of God’s great anger. — “If only we knew the power of your anger! Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due.” (Psalm 90:11 NIV)

    Forgetting God brings consequences and punishment.

    Never-the-less I am very worried that many Christians cite the verses you referred to in Roman chapter 2 and miss a main point. I frequently see Christians latch onto and seem to be cheering on the wrath of God against others … and sometimes we lack the humility to notice that we are also condemning ourself.

    I worry that we may inadvertently be doing what is warned against here: “3 So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?
    4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?
    5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Romans 2:3-5 NIV)

    How does this play out in a negative way to religous folks and Christians?

    11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people– robbers, evildoers, adulterers– or even like this tax collector. (Luke 18:11 NIV) Continuing … 14 “I tell you that this [tax collector], rather than the [Pharisee], went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Lk. 18:14 NIV)

    The Ninevites believed that God was angry when Jonah preached and they repented.
    4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
    5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
    6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.
    7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink.
    8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.
    9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
    10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
    (Jonah 3:4-10 NIV)

    Yet, Christians need to be very careful to not be little Jonahs.
    KJV Jonah 4:1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. (Jonah 4:1 KJV)
    NIV Jonah 4:1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. (Jon. 4:1 NIV)

    Also Christians (and humans in general) really get tripped up by God’s grace that might be extended in the resurrection to those who didn’t know about Jesus in this life.

    Look at the outrage that people get when someone who only works a token hour gets paid the same amount as someone who labors through a twelve hour long shift — Laboring cumulative hour after hour including during the hottest parts of the day. NIV Matthew 20:12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ (Matt. 20:12 NIV)

    We who suffer or have suffered persecution for being a Christian are going through the “heat of the day” while others may also recieve God’s mercy when they bow the knee to Jesus at the resurrection and confess that he is Lord.

    Certainly not all will be forgiven: 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will NOT be forgiven, either in this age OR IN THE AGE TO COME. (Matt. 12:32 NIV)

    31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.
    32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (Matt. 25:31-32 NIV) … he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
    42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
    43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
    44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
    45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
    46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment (Matt. 25:41-46 NIV)

    Even a number of Christians will find they have fallen short … Jesus said, — I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt. 7:23 NIV)

    I wonder if there is a correlation with being judgmental and being self-seeking and sinful? I mean God is love. If he wants us to love others (he does) then we are to have a mindset of wanting to see people repent and come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved. If we go through life with a wall of judgmentalism and don’t help others just (looking down at them) seeing them as sinful, and are angry with them, not concerned about them — are we missing the point just like Jonah did?

    Is it easy to think that God is very angry with other people (because we are very angry with other people) and if we were to have love towards all people, then could we better see that God has love towards all have people?

    God said to Jonah, “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left… (Jon. 4:11 NIV)

    I mean, Paul considered himself obligated to Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and non-Greeks to share with them the good news.

    God is the only one who can righteously judge. We need to be very careful to not get swept up in the wrath of God and then forget that it is God’s role (not ours) to judge and repay.

    As I personally remember the great struggle that I had in trying to figure out why it is OK and generous for the master to show mercy and generosity to those hired in the last hour of the day, I can fully appreciate how hard it is to fully embrace the love of God in our lives and how hard it is for us to develop that same mindset. Can we ever come to appreciate God’s grace and his love?

    Or will we be stuck opposing God’s generosity thinking he is being unfair to us if he is kind to others?

    “What a wretched man I am!” (Rom. 7:24 NIV) How hard it is to have love to all that I come across! How hard it is to even try to imagine how God can work in some people! How hard it is to even pray to be an instrument somehow for the Kingdom of God.

    How hard it is try and interpret the great glories of Jesus Christ for people today who think they have heard about him. How much harder than trying to interpret Christ’s glories for those in the world today it is to make an effort to consider how to help people relate to the risen Lord. To pray about how to make Christ clear – it is important. See Colossians 2:2-6 especially verses 3 and 4.

    2 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.

    ***** 3 And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.

    ** ***** 4 Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.***** **

    5 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.
    6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
    (Col. 4:2-6 NIV)

    How lacking in prayer I am for bringing Christ to people of the world. How lacking in prayer and practice I am in praying about speaking about Christ.

    • Well, I think we are all lacking, to one degree or another. And I think you make a good point–that sometimes it’s tempting to dismiss others as worthy of judgment and, as you point out, render ourselves “little Jonahs.” This really only reflects back on our own poor self-concept. As I wrote above, “it’s easy to see evil in the papers; it’s much harder to see it in the mirror.” If we inflate our own self-worth, we end up seeing others as inferior. Of course, we can de-value our worth, and see ourselves as inferior, which is also a form of self-centeredness, and a debilitating one at that.

      Part of what I’ve found helpful is noticing that very often there are books and passages that deal with strong language of judgment, but–if we were to place God’s actions into categories–we see a difference between what’s been called “retributive” and “restorative” justice. Retribution has to do with punishment, but restoration (like the story in Jonah) brings about repentance. Maybe it’s like this: do we, as Christians, want to see ISIS defeated through bombs, or do we desire to see them converted to Christ? Sure, it’s possible that some people balance these desires, but I’d like to think that Jesus’ example provokes us to see that the desire for restoration should outweigh a desire for mere retribution–especially since, in this example, the former seems much more miraculous than the latter.

      Thanks for the thoughts.

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