Jesus, Justification, and Justice
Answering Objections to the Justness of Jesus' Substitutionary
By Abdu Murray
Aletheia International, Embracethetruth.org
One day, the disciples of a wise teacher were arguing amongst themselves
about the nature of God when the teacher approached them. "What are you arguing
about, my students?"
One student replied, "Teacher, we have reached a dilemma that we cannot
reconcile. We have heard it said that God, being purely Holy and Just, requires
that sin be paid for. We have also heard that because God purely loves all
people, who are sinners, He agreed that Jesus would pay for our sins so that
our sins could be forgiven and God's Holy Justice be satisfied." The student
then asked in desperation, "But how can God still be just if He allows Jesus to
be punished for the sins of another?"
The teacher replied with a parable. "There was a certain man who had
incurred many debts to a Lender that he could not repay. There also was a Rich
Man who had no debts of his own to pay and who had compassion on the debtor.
The Rich Man desired to personally guarantee to the Lender that He would pay
the debtor's debt. The Lender knew the Rich Man well, that He had no debts of
His own to pay, and could pay the debtor's debt. Having compassion on the
debtor, and for the sake of the Rich Man's character, the Lender agreed that
the Rich Man could guarantee payment.
"A time came when the debt became due. The debtor could not pay the
debt without becoming bankrupt and cast from his home. So the Lender turned to
the Rich Man for payment. The Rich Man, having no debts of his own to pay, paid
the debt in full. Because the debt had been paid and the lender was satisfied,
the Lender and the Rich Man sealed the instrument of debt with the seal,
'Tetelastai', which being translated means 'paid in full'. With that, the
"Teacher, what does this parable mean?" his disciples asked.
"The debtor is every person who has sinned and therefore has incurred a debt
to God. The Lender is God the Father, to whom the debts are owed. The Rich Man
is God the Son, who, being sinless, has no debts of His own and who can repay.
The debtor, like each of us, needs to be forgiven his debt. But God the Father
must be just and requires that the debt be repaid in full; otherwise His
standards mean nothing. The Son can pay the debt because he is sinless. Having
love for us, He willingly offers to pay. The Father, also having love, agrees
to allow the Son to pay the debt. So God is just because the Son was not forced
to pay, and He is loving because He did not require us to pay the debt. Perfect
justice and perfect love are expressed without compromise. And God is therefore
just and the One who justifies."
"Teacher," his disciples said, "you have spoken true and we now
Although the foregoing story is fictional, its central dilemma-the balancing
of God's ultimate justice with His ultimate love-is very real and profoundly
impacts how we perceive our relationship with God. The dilemma can be summed up
in the question: "How can God be ultimately just, requiring punishment for sin
yet be ultimately loving, wanting every sinner to be forgiven and be saved?"
The Gospel's response is that God satisfies His justice and holiness through
Jesus' payment for sin and that God expresses His love by allowing Jesus, and
not us, to pay the penalty. The objection that follows in the minds of many,
especially Muslims, is the same as the disciples' in the fictionalized parable
above: "How is God just if an innocent is made to suffer the penalty that the
guilty deserve?" He who does the crime should do the time, as the saying
But this dilemma must be addressed by any faith, not just Christianity. Only
the Gospel's unique message provides a satisfactory response. Some faith
traditions try to answer the dilemma by holding that because God is
all-powerful, He can simply choose to forgive sin without requiring payment.
This answer begs the question because it does not actually answer the dilemma
at all. It amounts to saying that God can be so loving that He can compromise
His sense of justice by ignoring sin. But these same religions also hold the
view that God's attributes are immutable. Thus, this answer to the dilemma is
internally inconsistent and ultimately unreasonable, being akin to saying that
God is so all-powerful that He can make square circles.
Other faiths say that each person must make up for his bad deeds himself.
Hindus and Buddhists, for instance, believe in the idea of karma, that
our bad deeds in our past lives account for our unfortunate situations in the
present life and that, if we do good deeds, we can work off our karma
and eventually escape suffering once our negative karma has been paid
off. Mainstream Islam teaches that each person can either make up for his bad
deeds or outweigh them by doing good deeds. The difficulty in each of these
ideas is that there is no good reason to believe that good deeds somehow make
up for previous sins. Those sins are an affront to a purely Holy God, whose
sense of pure justice demands that the sins be paid for. Good deeds cannot
possibly "make up for" sins because the good deeds were things that the sinner
is supposed to do anyway. Even supererogatory works (good deeds that are not
strictly "required" by a particular religious code) cannot effect salvation
because, logically and conceptually, good deeds do not cancel out bad ones. By
analogy, obeying speed limits by traveling at 5 miles per hour beneath them and
signaling at every turn will not be sufficient to pay for a prior speeding
Christianity, on the other hand, deals with the dilemma in a unique way.
God's absolute justice requires payment for sin. He cannot simply choose to
overlook it, because to do so lowers God's absolute standard of justice. Since
doing so is antithetical to the absolute nature of God, such arbitrary
forgiveness is unreasonable and thus, not feasible. But because God is
absolutely loving as well, He offers a substitute, Jesus Christ, who
voluntarily chooses to pay the debt we have incurred. In this way, sin is paid
for, and God's sense of justice is satisfied, but humans do not have to pay
this penalty, and God's love is fully expressed. In no other worldview is the
dilemma addressed as it is in Christianity.
But how does this answer the objection that justice still is
unsatisfied because the guilty go unpunished while an innocent is penalized? At
first blush, it seems to be a formidable challenge. But the challenge falters
when we see that it begins with a faulty assumption about the nature of
sin-that sin is a "crime" that requires payment in the form of "retribution."
Although sins may be viewed as crimes against God requiring retribution, this
is not necessarily so.
At the most fundamental level, sin can be seen as the incurring of
debt. This view is not limited to Christianity. For example, implicit in the
Hindu idea of karma is the idea of "payment" for past bad deeds until
that karma is worked off. This sounds very much like the payment of a
debt. Muslims must have their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds in order to
attain heaven. Again, a transaction-a sort of accounting-is implied. In fact,
Islam shares with Christianity and Judaism the story of Abraham's attempted
sacrifice of his son by God's command. Common to the Qur'anic story and the
Biblical story is the fact that God did not simply stop Abraham from killing
his son, but also provided a ram, which was a substitutionary sacrifice that
would pay for sin. Indeed, the Qur'an calls the ram "a momentous sacrifice" by
which Abraham was "ransomed." (Qur'an, Surah 37:107).
In the Gospels, Jesus explicitly identifies sin with the incurring of debt
and judgment as an accounting of the debt. (Matt. 18:23-25; Luke 7:43). In the
Lord's Prayer, Jesus teaches us to ask God to forgive us our "debts." (Matt.
6:12). But most strikingly, at the most profound moment in history, Jesus, at
the end of his ordeal on the cross and in reference to the work he has done in
payment of our sins, utters the words "It is finished." (John 19:30). The
original Greek word recorded in the Gospels is tetelestai, which
literally means "paid in full." Significantly, in first century Palestine, this
term was used to signify that a debt was paid in full and thus "forgiven."
With this view of sin in mind, we can look to the modern legal arena
to see the justness of Jesus substitionary payment for our sins. The law
embraces the concept of a personal guarantor. It is commonplace for someone to
apply for a loan to buy a house. But if that person's credit is poor, the
lender has no assurance that the debtor will be able to repay the debt. In
fact, given the debtor's poor credit, the lender has every assurance that the
loan will go unpaid. The solution? Enter the personal guarantor. The guarantor
whose credit is trustworthy assures the lender that he will personally repay
the debt if the debtor defaults. The lender agrees, because the guarantor is
not like the debtor in that he has good credit. Otherwise, if the guarantor had
the same imperfect credit that the debtor has, the lender would have no real
guaranty that the debt would be repaid by either of them. With such a guarantor
willing to pay the debt, the loan is given. Many times, the debtor will default
on the loan. But, instead of foreclosure or eviction, the lender looks to the
guarantor for repayment. The guarantor pays, the debt is forgiven, and the
debtor's home is saved.
This is an everyday occurrence and one that we do not consider unjust.
Because the guarantor voluntarily chooses to assume the liability for the
debtor's debt, it is not unjust to hold the guarantor responsible. In fact, not
only do we consider this just, but we encourage such transactions so that those
who cannot normally obtain the favor of lenders can do so, even though they do
not merit it.
What is more remarkable about the Biblical doctrine of salvation is
that it goes so much further than our earthly legal concept because the debtor
does not get away so easily. Although the debtor is not required to repay his
debt, another transaction occurs between Jesus and the sinner. The Son offers
to pay for sin in exchange for something. That something is not good works, but
a willingness to allow the Son, through the Holy Spirit, to invade the sinner's
life to change the sinner's heart radically. In essence, Jesus says, "I will
freely offer to pay your debt, but you must realize that the consequence of
sincerely accepting this gift is that I will begin to change you, to sanctify
you, every day." If the sinner agrees to that consequence of the Son's
willingness to be a guarantor, the transaction is complete. Thus, the sinner
does not get away without having some part in the process. That part is not to
the sinner's credit. Rather, it is just yielding control, surrendering the will
to Jesus. It is allowing Him, after having paid the debt with His very blood,
to get something for his payment. He owns your heart and mine and transforms us
into something better and more beautiful.
A more beautiful transaction man has not dreamed of, nor can he. Only in the
heart of God can such amazing grace be conceived.