Divine Judgment: A Relational Framework

Atonement

Is God’s display of justice (e.g. wrath/judgment) a deterrent, reformatory, retributive, punitive, or vindictive?

How is one to understand the basic framework of God’s justice? Are his judgments “intrinsic” or “extrinsic” to human action? For example, does God say, “Do that and I’ll hurt you”(extrinsic) or “Do that and you’ll get hurt”(intrinsic)

This is topic that deserves a great deal of study and conversation. However, my short answer is that in the Scriptures reward and punishment, blessings and curse, are intrinsic (i.e. the consequences are inherent in the act of obedience or disobedience themselves). Ultimately, in Scripture, one’s relation to Christ is both the criterion and the result of judgment. God’s supreme reward is himself, and likewise, the worst thing that could befall someone was his absence (Isaiah 59:3, Psalm 51:11-12; 89:46).

Jesus discourse in John 3:16-21 highlights the relational understanding of God’s justice.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Through Jesus, God reconciles the world to himself. Apart from the Jesus the world already stands condemned and awaits judgment. Eschatological (future) salvation is the continuation and consummation of a relationship with God already experienced. To call it a reward in the retributive sense would be like calling marriage a reward for being engaged.

Yet, one must not error in separating God from his acts of justice. God’s judgments do come from God (and can be spoken of as coming from God) because they are directly connected to one’s relation to God. Intrinsic does not mean God is not distant or uninvolved in the process. This is what the Scriptures mean when they mention the direct agency of God’s justice (e.g. wrath/judgment/punishment).

The relational framework of God’s justice does not contradict the repeated Scriptural references to judgment based on works (Romans 2.1–16; 14.10–12; 2 Corinthians 5.10.). Good works (i.e. right/righteous action) is directly linked to knowing God, the exercise of faith, and the power and presence of his Spirit (Romans 1:18—2:11; 8:9-17; Galatians 5:16-25; Hebrews 11:6). Jesus says obedience is a manifestation of love. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

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For a deeper exploration of this topic see Stephen Travis’s Book, Christ and the Judgement of God: The Limits of Divine Retribution in New Testament Thought