Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."
- Mark 1:14-15

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Holiness of God - R.C. Sproul - Ch. 6 - Holy Justice

6 – Holy Justice
Martin Luther understood how serious the problem is for unjust people to live in the presence of a just and holy God.  As Luther was a monk of monks, so Paul was a Pharisee of Pharisees.  Both were brilliant men and highly educated.  Paul had the equivalent of two Ph.D’s by the time he was twenty-one years old.  Both Luther the monk and Paul the Pharisee were students of the Old Testament law and both were consumed by the problem of holy justice.

Whoever reads the Old Testament must struggle with the apparent brutality of God’s judgment found there.  I will look at some of the most difficult and offensive passages in the Old Testament and try to make sense of them.

“Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to His command.  So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.”
Leviticus 10:1-2

If anyone in Israel had a close relationship with God, it was Moses and Aaron.  One might expect a little leeway from God in dealing with the sons of Aaron.  There was none.  The death of Nadab and Abihu was no accident.  It was the wrath and judgment of God.

The Bible says Aaron was displeased.  He had dedicated his whole life to the service of God, yet God executed his sons for what seemed to be a minor infraction of the rules of the altar.

Aaron pled his case to Moses who reminded him of God’s specific commands in Leviticus 30:9: “Do not offer on this altar any other incense.”  The instructions were clear.  Leviticus 30:10 says about the altar: “It is most holy to the Lord.”  When Nadab and Abihu offered strange or unauthorized fire upon the holy altar, they were acting in clear defiance of God.   

Built into our concept of justice is the idea that the punishment must fit the crime.  If the punishment is more severe than the crime, then an injustice has been committed.  The Bible makes it clear that Nadab and Abihu could not plead ignorance as an excuse for their sin.  God had made His instructions clear to them.  Still, this punishment seems too cruel for the crime.

Genesis declares, “The judge of heaven and earth must do right.”  God’s judgments are always according to righteousness.  His justice is never unfair, never whimsical, nor tyrannical.  It is impossible for God to be unjust because His justice is holy.

If we struggle with the story of Nadab and Abihu, we meet even greater difficulty with the story of Uzzah.

“They moved the ark of God from Abinadab’s house on a new cart, with Uzzah and Ahio guiding it.  David and all the Israelites were celebrating with all their might before God, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, cymbals, and trumpets.  When they came to the threshing floor of Kidon, Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the ark, because the ox stumbled.  The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah, and He struck him down because he had put his hand on the ark.  So he died there before God.  Then David was angry because the LORD’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah.”
1 Chronicles 13:7-11

David was a man after God’s own heart.  If God made David angry, how much more unsettled does it make us who do not know God as well?  Even more than the case of Nadab and Abihu, the execution of Uzzah stirs protests from readers who have been taught that God is a God of love.  The Bible says that God is long-suffering and slow to anger, but that sure wasn’t the case here.  Uzzah touched the ark and wham!  He was dead.

This story makes us angry just as it did David.  It offends our sense of justice.  The ark was being transported towards Jerusalem and it was a joyous day of national celebration.  Suddenly the oxen stumbled and the ark was about to fall.  It was unthinkable that this precious object be desecrated by falling in the dirt.  Uzzah instinctively reached out to keep the ark from falling in the mud.  From our perspective it seems like an act of heroism.  We think Uzzah should have heard the voice of God saying, Thank you, Uzzah!”  Instead He killed him on the spot.

What was Uzzah’s sin that caused God to act so harshly?  Uzzah was a Kohathite.  God said, “The Kohathites are to come to do the carrying (of the ark).  But they must not touch the holy things or they will die.”  Uzzah was aware of what his duties were as a Kohathite.  He understood that God had declared that the touching of the ark was a capital offense.  No Kohathite, under any circumstance, was ever permitted to touch the ark.

The ark was made with rings to put the poles into for transport.  The Kohathites were to transport the ark by carrying it on the poles.  They were disobeying God by transporting the ark on an ox cart.  God was so strict about the holy things of the tabernacle that He says in Numbers 4:20, “The Kohathites are not to go in and look at the holy objects, even for a moment, or they will die.”  Aaron and his sons were to cover the ark and the holy things so the Kohathites would not look upon them.

Uzzah did two things deserving of death: he looked at the ark and he touched the ark.  This was no act of holy heroism upon further review—it was an act of arrogance, a sin of presumption.  Uzzah assumed that his hand and eyes were less polluted than the earth.  But it wasn’t the ground or the mud that would desecrate the ark; it was the touch of man.  The earth is an obedient creature.  It does what God tells it to do.  It is man who rebels against God.  God did not want His holy throne touched by that which was contaminated with evil.

There is a reason why we are offended and even angered by the stories of Uzzah and of Nadab and Abihu.  It is because we do not understand four vitally important biblical concepts: holiness, justice, sin, and grace.

There is a reason why we are offended and even angered by the stories of Uzzah and of Nadab and Abihu.  It is because we do not understand four vitally important biblical concepts: holiness, justice, sin, and grace.

As a holy God, He is utterly incapable of an unholy act.  The justice of God is an expression of His righteousness and holy character.  What God does is always consistent with who God is.  He always acts according to His holy character.

There is a consistency in God, a “straightness” about Him.  We describe man’s unrighteousness as not being straight or crooked.  We refer to criminals as “crooks.”  They are not straight.  In all of eternity, God has never done a crooked thing.  He killed Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah because of His righteous judgment.

The Bible teaches that God is the Supreme Judge of the universe.  The question we have after reading about Uzzah is this: Is God qualified for this job?  The Supreme Judge must be just.  We know earthly judges can be corrupt.  They can show partiality, they can take bribes, at times they act from ignorance, and they can make mistakes. 

Not so with God.  There is no corruption in Him.  He refuses to show partiality.  He is no respecter of persons.  No one can bribe Him.  He never acts out of ignorance.  He does not make mistakes.

Abraham wrestled with the question of the justice of God.  God announced that He was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and annihilate them totally—men, women, and children.  Abraham was disturbed by this.

“Far be it from You to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike.  Far be it from You!  Will not the Judge of all do right?”
Genesis 18:25

God was willing to bend over backwards for Abraham.  He said He would not destroy the city if Abraham could find 50 righteous people; then 45; then 30; then 10.  If Abraham could find ten righteous people, God would spare the city.     

“So it was, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, He remembered Abraham and brought Lot out…”
Genesis 19:29   

The Judge of heaven and earth did right.  No innocent people were punished.  God’s justice is never divorced from His righteousness.  He never condemns the innocent.  He never clears the guilty.  He never punishes with undo severity.  He never fails to reward righteousness.  His justice is perfect justice. 

God does not always act with justice and give us what we deserve.  Sometimes He acts with mercy.  Mercy is not justice, but it is not injustice.  Injustice violates righteousness.  We may see non-justice in God, but we never see injustice.         

Another issue is that the Old Testament seems much harsher than the New Testament.  The Old Testament lists numerous crimes that punishable by death.  However, this list is a massive reduction from the original list.  The Old Testament law is actually one of astonishing grace.

Astonishing grace?  Yes, we must go back to the beginning to see God’s original rules for the universe.  What was the penalty for sin in the original created order?  “The soul that sins shall die.”

In creation all sin is deemed worthy of death.  Every sin is a capital offense.  Our life is a gift from God.  Sin brings the loss of that gift.  The right to life is forfeited by sin.  God clearly told Adam and Eve the penalty for sin in regard to the forbidden fruit: “The day you eat of it you will surely die.

God granted mercy to Adam and Eve in terms of the full measure of the penalty.  We have a saying that “justice delayed is justice denied.”  Not always.  In this case of creation and man’s fall, the full measure of justice was delayed so grace would have time to work.  Justice was delayed, not denied, so that mercy and grace could be established.  

We will all eventually die for we are all under the death penalty for sin.  Is this death penalty for sin unjust?  By no means.  Remember that God has created us voluntarily.  He gave mankind the highest privilege of being His image bearers, to reflect and mirror His holiness, to be His ambassadors.  But we have not used the gift of life for the purpose God intended.

Sin is treason against a holy God.  It is an act of supreme ingratitude toward One to whom we owe everything, to the One who created us and gave us the gift of life.  When we sin and disobey God in the slightest point, we are saying that we are above His jurisdiction, that we have the right to do whatever we want to do, not what God commands us. 

The slightest sin is an act of defiance against God.  It is an insult to His holiness.  As God’s image bearers and ambassadors we are telling the world that God is sinful like us, that He does all of the same things that we do.

When we sin we not only commit treason against God, but we do violence to each other.  Sin violates people.  Sin dishonors God and does harm to others.  This is why God takes sin so seriously.

Hans Kung, the controversial Roman Catholic theologian says that the most mysterious aspect of the mystery of sin is not that the sinner deserves to die, but rather that the sinner in the average situation continues to exist.

The issue is not why does God punish sin, but why does He permit the ongoing rebellion of man?  What ruler would manifest such patience with a continually rebellious people?

Kung talked about the patience of God in dealing with the sinner in the average situation.  On the average, God is patient and long-suffering with us and we are given grace and mercy.  But not always.  When God does act with justice we are shocked and offended.  We have taken His grace and mercy for granted.  Instead of taking advantage of this patience by coming humbly to Him for forgiveness, we use this grace as an opportunity to become more bold in our sin.  We delude ourselves into thinking that either God doesn’t care about it or that He is powerless to punish us.  The supreme folly is that we think we will get away with our revolt.

When God does act with justice we are shocked and offended.  We have taken His grace and mercy for granted.

Far from being a history of a harsh God, the Old Testament is the record of a God who is patient in the extreme to a persistently hard-necked people who rebel time after time against God.

The Israelites conquest of Canaan is another troubling issue on the holy justice of God.  God explicitly commanded the slaughter of men, women, and children; even infants.

“You must destroy them totally.  Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.”
Deuteronomy 7:2

Why did God order such a command?  How could He be so harsh and order the slaughter of women, children, and even infants?  In fact, there is another incident even worse than this!  The Flood is actually far more severe than the conquest of Canaan.  God destroyed the entire population of the world except for Noah and his family.

The problem in our understanding of justice is our failure to understand the nature of sin.  The assumption is that God wiped out innocent people in Canaan and in the Flood.  In fact there were no innocent women or children in Canaan. 

The Bible teaches the concept of total depravity—that all men are born into a sinful nature.  Depraved means that man’s original state or form has been thoroughly twisted or perverted.  Man has fallen from his original state of righteousness and his very nature has become thoroughly corrupt.  That is why all mankind—including children and infantsis not innocent. 

Children don’t have to be taught how to lie, how to be self-centered, how to be mean-spirited and selfish.  We don’t have to teach them all these things—they already know.  We have to teach them just the opposite.  Every child that’s ever been born, no matter how precious to the parent, is living proof of what God teaches in His Word about total depravity. 

The conquest of Canaan was an explicit expression of God’s righteous judgment on a wicked nation.  God also made it clear to Israel that they themselves were not innocent.  It was not as if God destroyed a wicked people for the sake of a righteous people.

Do not say to yourself, ‘The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’  No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you.  It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of the land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations...Understand that it is not because of your righteousness…”
Deuteronomy 9:4-6

God reminds Israel three times in this passage that it is not because of their righteousness that He will defeat the Canaanites.

God explains why no mercy is to be shown to the Canaanites:

“Do not intermarry with them…for they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods…For you are a people holy to the LORD your God.  The LORD has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be His people, His treasured possession.”
Deuteronomy 7:3-6

God did not choose Israel because they were already holy.  He chose to make them holy.  Israel was called to be holy in two ways.  First, they were called to be different; to be set apart as a vehicle for God’s redemption.  Israel was also called to be holy in the sense of being purified.  Salvation was to come out of Israel and there was no room for the pagan worship of the Canaanites.  God ordered the Israelites to purge the land.

In conclusion, God’s justice in the Old Testament was neither whimsical nor unwarranted.  There is also no conflict between the Old and New Testament.  In fact, the most brutal act of divine vengeance ever recorded in Scripture is not in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament.  The most violent expression of God’s wrath and justice is seen on the cross.  If ever a person had room to complain of injustice, it was Jesus.  If we are to be astonished at the wrath of God, it should be here at the cross where God crushed an innocent Man under the weight of all the sin of the world.  If we have cause for moral outrage, let it be directed here.

In fact, the most brutal act of divine vengeance ever recorded in Scripture is not in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament.  The most violent expression of God’s wrath and justice is seen on the cross.

The cross was at once the most horrible and the most beautiful example of God’s wrath.  It was the most just and the most gracious act in history.  It was just in that God punished our sin.  It was gracious in the fact that Jesus took the punishment that we deserved.

Once Jesus Christ voluntarily took on the sins of the world, He became the most grotesque and vile thing on this planet.  With the great weight of all of our sin, He became totally detestable to God the Father, and the Father then poured out the entirety of His wrath upon the Son.  Jesus took the justice that we deserved.  At the cross was the intersection of justice and grace, wrath and mercy.  It is too astonishing to fathom.

A common accusation of God is how He can allow innocent people to suffer, such as in Luke 13:1-5 where we here of the incident where a tower fell down and killed eighteen people.  Jesus didn’t tell them that this happened by fate or accident.  He told them, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”  In effect what Jesus was saying was this: “You are asking the wrong question.  You should be asking Me, ‘Why didn’t that tower fall on my head?’”

In two decades of teaching theology, I have had countless students ask me why God doesn’t save everybody.  Only once did a student ask, Why did God redeem me?”

We tend to take grace for granted, since that is God’s usual course.  Grace no longer amazes us.  We have grown used to it.  We take it for granted.  Because we expect grace, we are surprised when God does execute justice and punishes sin.

I once had a class in which students were late turning in a paper.  Instead of giving them an F, I gave them an extension.  For the next paper, even more students were late.  Again, I relented and gave them an extension, but I told them that this would be the last time.  For the last paper, even more students were late.  This time I told them that they would receive an F.

The students were outraged.  They had taken my mercy for granted.  They assumed it.  When justice suddenly fell, they were unprepared for it.  It came as a shock. 

God shows us far more mercy than I showed those students with those term papers.  God usually showed mercy in the Old Testament.  When His divine judgment fell on Nadab or Uzzah, the response was shock and outrage.  We have come to expect God to be merciful.  The next step is for us to demand mercy and to be upset with God when we don’t receive it.

We complain, “It isn’t fair,” but we forget that with our first sin we have forfeited all rights to the gift of life.  Every breath we take is an act of divine mercy.  God owes me nothing.  If He allows a tower to fall on my head today, I cannot claim injustice.

God promises to one day deliver the believer from the injustice we suffer at the hands of people.  The injustices we suffer in this world are all of a horizontal sort.  In terms of our vertical relationship with God, we never suffer injustice.  We cannot accuse God of vertical injustice by allowing horizontal injustice.  We may be innocent before men, but we are guilty before God.

We often blame God for the injustices done to us and harbor in our souls the bitter feeling that God has not been fair to us.  Even if we know that He is gracious, we think that He is not gracious enough.  We think that we deserve more grace.

Read that last sentence again: We think that we deserve more grace.  What is wrong with that?  Well, it is impossible for anyone, anywhere, anytime to deserve grace.  Grace by definition is undeserved.  As soon as we talk about deserving something, we are no longer talking about grace; we are talking about justice. 

Suppose ten people sin and sin equally.  Suppose God punishes five of them and is merciful to the other five.  Is this injustice?  No!  In this situation five people get justice and five get mercy.  No one gets injustice.  We think that God should be merciful to all since He was merciful to the five.  God is never obligated to be merciful.  Even if God is merciful to nine of the ten, the tenth cannot complain that He is a victim of injustice.  God is never obligated to treat all men equally.  We can only complain if God is unjust to us, which He isn’t.  God will have mercy on whom He chooses to have mercy.

14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there?  May it never be! 15 For He says to Moses, ‘I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION.’"
Romans 9:14-15

We only receive two things from God—justice or mercy.  We never receive injustice. 

We must not be offended when God’s justice is administered.  We must never think that we are owed perpetual mercy.  We must not take His grace for granted.  We must never lose the ability to be amazed by His grace.

God is infinite but His grace is not infinite.  God sets limits to His grace, and once that limit is reached, He will show the dreadful power of His judgment, as He did with Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah.  While we enjoy His grace, we cannot forget His justice.  We cannot forget the gravity of our sin.  We must remember that He is holy.


  1. Coach Hoover, I like that you dig R.C. How can I reach you? I would like to ask you some stuff.

    Coach Humphreys

  2. Thank you so much for posting this.
    I am preparing a sermon on Propitiation and I knew I should talk about God's justice and holiness first.
    Thank you,

    Mark Robinette
    Foundation Church Ohio

  3. Thanks for posting, it was really useful. Wanted a soft copy of the book chapter, this served the purpose