Why did Jesus die? Part 3: Justice

If you have ever been in a court of law, then you will know that the design is intended to exude authority. Everyone sits only where they are authorised to sit, can only speak if they are permitted to do so, and must show reverence and respect to the judge who sits at the highest point and commands proceedings. Once everyone is in place, the judge is last to enter, with all rising in silence until the session begins, then defendants are escorted, under guard, to a dock where they face the prosecutors, court officials, and the judge. There are strict protocols and processes that must be followed — literally, to the letter of the law. At this point, pretty much everything is out of the hands of the defendant and is at the mercy of the authorities who will determine the outcome of the arraignment or sentencing.

In this third part of our series exploring the subject, ‘Why did Jesus die?’ we turn our attention to the metaphor of the courtroom where God sits as judge and we are the defendants, for it is in this courtroom that the penalty is paid, we are acquitted of our sins, and justice is done. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God demonstrates justice and pronounces a verdict of ‘not guilty’ for those that have faith in Jesus. Justice is served and we are justified.

“In his patience (God) left previous sins unpunished to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, to be both just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25b-26)

Before we explore what this means, we need first establish that God is both merciful and just. A God who was only merciful would turn a blind eye to wrong-doing and let people get away with doing whatever they liked, and a God who was only just would ensure that every wrong-doing was punished with little or no regard to the needs or welfare of the victim or perpetrator. Yet, God is both consistently merciful and just, not swinging between the two, and demonstrates both perfect mercy and perfect justice. In the old Testament, the prophet Isaiah speaks to these two qualities of God:

“Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35:4b)

“There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Saviour.” (Isaiah 45:21b)

If you think about it, you cannot have justice without mercy. The whole point of justice is that there needs to be a correction of wrongs. To have mercy is to hear the plea of the one who is wronged and the one who is wronged requires justice. Justice is, therefore, a faithful commitment to mercy.

As we identified in the first part of this series, through putting ourselves first, over God, others, and the environment, in all aspects, humans have ‘wronged’ God. Recognising our own guilt, as we stand in the dock, we are at the mercy and the justice of God who is the great judge. We desire mercy but also recognise that we deserve to be punished or pay a penalty for our crimes.

The justice of God is a recurrent theme in the Bible, and the word often used for the righting of wrongs is vengeance. Vengeance carries with it the notion of God’s righteous anger that people are being hurt or wronged, and so we discover God’s desire for vengeance for the innocent, marginalised, and oppressed.

“The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. People will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.'” Psalm 58:10-11

As all creation belongs to God, and is created in and through God, all wrong-doing on our behalf wrongs God. If I hurt another person, I hurt God. If I hurt the environment, I hurt God. We are all, therefore, deserving of God’s vengeance — the act of meting out punishment (or literally payment in kind) for those that have broken the law.

Jesus, when he declared his manifesto, read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…” (Luke 4:18-19 and Isaiah 61:1-2a)

Importantly, the quote from Isaiah finishes mid-sentence, and this would have been very strange to Jesus’ listeners who would have wanted to finish the sentence! They knew what came next:

“…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God…”

Jesus was saying that he had a job to do in the here and now — through his life — by bringing good news, binding up the brokenhearted, and so on, but, by implication, what would come next was God’s vengeance, and this vengeance would take place through his own death and resurrection.

In the courtroom, where God sits as judge, and we stand in the dock, as we recognise our own wrongdoings, and before sentencing, we are surprised when the door to the dock opens behind us. There stands Jesus, who takes us by the hand and leads us out of the dock. He then squeezes our hands, looks us in the eye, lets go of our hands, walks into the dock and closes the door behind him. The gavel falls and justice is served. Jesus takes the penalty for all our crimes and he is sentenced to death. We are free to go.

In the song, ‘In Christ Alone’ we sing this line, ‘on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’ and for some, this theory of the atonement smacks of cosmic child abuse where God takes vengeance and punishes his own son, but we must remember that Jesus was and is God. Yes, although God’s vengeance was being meted out on the cross of Christ, this is but one side of the coin for the other side is God’s reconciling, self-giving, self-sacrificial, mercy.

But the story does not end there. As Paul writes in his letter to the Christians in Rome, the wages or penalty for sin is death, but as Jesus was innocent, death could not hold him. Jesus was resurrected. As we walk out of that courtroom, we are surprised to find him standing on the steps with arms open wide, ready to welcome us into a new life with him. This really is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.