Archive Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine Steven Wedgeworth

WGT Shedd on Divine Justice: With Excursions on Rewards, Punishment, and Atonement

Editor’s note: The following is taken from Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology Vol. 1 (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888) p365-388. Some formatting changes have been made for the online format and general ease of reading. The discussion is ordered by the species of justice, of which Shedd lists four: rectoral justice, distributive justice (which is then subdivided into remunerative and retributive justice), commutative justice, and public justice, which Shedd concludes is only improperly considered as a justice–SW.

Divine Justice

Holiness is a general term denoting that quality in God whereby he is right (rectus) in himself, and in all his actions. This is implied in the Hebrew which means straight; and the Greek which means exactly right (aequus). But right is determined in its manifestation, by the character of the person towards whom it is manifested. What would be right towards an obedient creature, would be wrong towards a disobedient one. This brings to view the attribute of Justice, as a mode of holiness. In the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 7. after describing God as “most holy,” it is added “most just.”

Justice is that phase of God s holiness which is seen in his treatment of the obedient and the disobedient subjects of his government. It is that attribute whereby he gives to everyone what is due him. The notion of debt or obligation necessarily enters into that of justice. Sin is indebtedness to law. Matt. 6:12, ” Forgive us our debts.” Cicero (De Finibus, 23) defines justice as “animi affectus suum cuique tribuens.” The element of indebtedness, together with that of retribution and penalty, is eliminated from the attribute in the Socinian soteriology. Justice, in this theory, is employed in the loose and general sense of moral excellence. “There is,” says Socinus (Prelectiones Theologicae, c. 16), “no such justice in God as requires absolutely and inexorably that sin be punished. There is, indeed, a perpetual, and constant justice in God, but this is nothing but his moral equity and rectitude, by virtue of which there is no depravity or iniquity in any of his works.”

The attribute of justice is abundantly taught in Scripture. Deut. 32:4, “All his ways are judgment, a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he.” Ex. 20:5, “I am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.” Ex. 34:7, “The Lord God will by no means clear the guilty.” Job 8:3; 34:12; Ps. 145:17 ; Dan. 9:14; Matt. 10:28; Rom. 2:6-10.

Rectoral Justice

Rectoral justice is God s rectitude as a ruler, over both the good and the evil. It relates to legislation, or the imposition of law. God, both in rewarding and punishing, lays down a just law. The reward and the penalty are exactly suited to the actions. Job 34:23, “For he will not lay upon man more than right.” Ps. 89:14, “Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne.”

Distributive Justice

Distributive justice is God’s rectitude in the execution of law, both in reference to the good and the evil. It relates to the distribution of rewards and punishments. Rom. 2:6, God “will render to every man according to his deeds.” 1 Pet. 1:17, “The Father without respect of persons judgeth according to every man s work.” Isa. 3:10, 11, “Say ye to the righteous that it shall be well with him. Woe unto the wicked! it shall be ill with him.”

Distributive justice is twofold: (a) remunerative justice; (b) retributive justice.

Remunerative Justice

Remunerative justice is the distribution of rewards both to men and angels. Ps. 58:11, “Verily there is a reward for the righteous.” Deut. 7:9, 12, 13; 2 Chron. 6:15, “Thou hast kept with thy servant David my father, that which thou hast promised him.” Micah 7:20; Matt. 25:21, “Because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things.” Matt. 25:34; Rom. 2:7; Heb. 11:26; Jude 6.

Remunerative justice is the expression of the divine love, as retributive justice is of the divine wrath. It proceeds upon the ground of relative merit only. The creature cannot establish an absolute merit before the creator. This is taught by our Lord in Luke 17:10, “When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants;” and by St. Paul in 1 Cor. 4:7, “What hast thou that thou didst not receive; why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?” and by God to Job, 41:11, “Who hath prevented me, that I should repay him? Whatsoever is under the whole heaven is mine.” Accordingly, the Westminster Confession, VII. i., affirms that “the distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.”

Merit and Rewards

Absolute merit, as distinguished from relative, supposes an independent relation and agency between two parties, like that between man and man. One man does not create and uphold another man, while the one is serving and obeying the other. But this is the state of the case, when man serves and obeys God. Creation, preservation, and redemption all preclude that independent agency by which one party brings another under obligations to him, and establishes an absolute merit or indebtedness. Consequently, the exercise of remunerative justice by God is pactional and gracious. It results from a previous covenant upon his part. The reward of a creature’s obedience is in consequence of a Divine promise. No primary and original obligation rests upon the Creator to recompense for services rendered by a creature whom he has made from nothing, and continually upholds in existence. A soul that is created holy cannot demand from its maker, at the instant of creation, a reward for being holy upon the ground of an absolute indebtedness on the part of its maker. Because God has originated the powers and capacities of a creature from nothing, he is entitled to all the agency of these faculties without paying for it; as the artificer of a watch is entitled to all the motion of the watch, without coming under obligation to the watch. Even this comparison is inadequate; for the maker of the watch did not create the materials out of which it is made. But God creates the very substance itself out of which man s faculties of mind and body are made. All that strict justice would require on the part of God, in case a creature should continue in the holiness in which he is created is, that he should not cause him to suffer. That he should go further than this, and positively reward him for being and continuing holy, is gracious treatment. If the creature s holiness were self -originated and self-sustained, instead of concreated and sustained by God, then the merit would be absolute, and God would owe the reward by an original and uncovenanted obligation. Not only are the being and faculties, by which the obedience is rendered, created and upheld by God, but the disposition rightly to employ them is due to the Holy Spirit. David expresses this truth in 1 Chron. 29:14, “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly after this sort? For all things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee.”

But though no primary and original obligation rests upon the Creator, to reward a creature made from nothing, and continually upheld and helped in the service which he renders, yet he can constitute a secondary and relative obligation. He can promise to reward the creature s service; and having bound himself to reward obedience, his own word establishes a species of claim. Obedient man, or angel, may plead the Divine promise as the ground of reward. God desires to be reminded of his promise, and is honored when the creature trusts in it implicitly. And “if we believe not, yet he abideth faithful : he cannot deny himself,” 2 Tim. 2:13. In the words of Witsius (Covenants, I. i.iv.), “God by his promise, has made himself a debtor to men. Or, to speak in a manner more becoming God, he was pleased to make his performance of his promise a debt due to himself. To this purpose, Augustine, Sermo 16, speaks well “God became our debtor, not by receiving anything, but by promising what he pleased. For it was of his own bounty that he vouchsafed to make himself a debtor.” The Scripture representations agree with this.

In Rom. 6:23, the recompense of obedience is denominated a “gift;” while that of disobedience is called “wages.” Sin is the solitary action of the will unassisted by grace; but holiness is the action of the will wrought upon by God. Again, the reward of obedience is denominated an “inheritance”: Acts 20:32, “To give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.” Eph. 1:11,14, “We have obtained an inheritance.” Col. 1:2, “The Father hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.” But an inheritance is not the payment of a debt, in the strict sense of the word. It results from the parental and filial relations, and not from those of creditor and debtor. Yet, as an inheritance may be called the reward of filial obedience, so the blessedness of the future state may be and is called the reward of Christian obedience here upon earth.

Since God and redeemed man are two distinct agents, there is a personal quality in man s obedience whereby it is truly rewardable. When God rewards a believer for his severe struggle with a bosom-sin, lie does not reward God’s struggle, but man’s. Though the struggle was started, helped and made successful by the Holy Spirit, yet it was, after all, a human, not a divine conflict with sin. This is rewardable, and when God rewards it, he does not reward himself but his creature. Paul teaches this in saying, “I live.” There is a personal and human quality in the holiness and the obedience. But that this may not be so exaggerated as to imply that the personal and the human has been independent and self-sustaining in the holiness and obedience, arid that God has thus been brought under the absolute obligation of a debtor to a creditor, he adds, “Yet not I, but Christ which liveth in me.” That the reward of obedience is gracious is still more true in the case of redeemed man. Here, there has been positive disobedience and ill-desert. The gospel promise of reward, in this case, is made not only to a creature, but to a sinful creature.

The rewards for obedience are: 1. Natural. God so constitutes man and nature that virtue has happy consequences : (a) Peace of conscience : 1 Pet. 3:21, ” The answer of a good conscience; ” (b) Worldly prosperity : 1 Tim. 4:8, “Godliness hath the promise of the life that now is.” 2. Positive. These are the rewards bestowed in the future life, which far exceed the merely natural operations of conscience, and earthly good. They consist principally in a special manifestation of the Divine love and approbation. John 14:23; Matt. 25:34-40; Ps. 16:11, “In thy presence is fullness of joy.” Ps. 17:15, “I shall be satisfied when I awake in thy likeness.”

Retributive Justice

Retributive justice (sometimes denominated punitive, vindicative, or, in the older English, vindictive, avenging, or revenging, L. C. 77) is that part of distributive justice which relates to the infliction of penalty. It is the expression of the divine orge. In a sinless world, there would be no place for its exercise, and it would be comparatively an unimportant aspect of the general attribute of justice. But in a sinful world, retribution must hold a prominent place; and hence in the Christian religion, which is a religion for a fallen race of beings, retributive justice comes continually into view. Hence when justice is spoken of without any qualifying word to show that some other aspect of the attribute is meant, punitive justice is intended. Passages of Scripture which present it are: Rom. 1:32, “The judgment of God is, that they which do such things are worthy of death.” Rom. 2:8, “Who will visit tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that doeth evil.” 2 Thess. 1:8, “The Lord Jesus shall be revealed in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God.” Acts 28:4, “Vengeance suffereth not to live.” Rom. 12:19, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.”

Retributive justice is expressed: 1. In the commandment that is given with a penalty attached to it. Gen. 2:17, “Thou shalt not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge; in the day that thou eatest thou shalt surely die.” Gal. 3:10, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the law to do them.” Deut. 27:26. Ezek. 18:4, “The soul that sinneth, it shalt die.” Rom. 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” The moral law expresses the mind and intention of the lawgiver. 2. In the actual infliction of the penalty threatened. Both are requisite. The former without the latter would evince want of veracity; want of power; or vacillation.

There is an important difference between remunerative and retributive merit, or between the merit of holiness and the demerit of sin. While the former is relative, the latter is absolute. If a disobedient creature were disposed to do so, he could demand the recompense due to his transgression of the moral law, as something that is strictly due to him. Divine justice is originally and necessarily obliged to requite disobedience, but not to reward obedience. God does not covenant to punish sin, as he does to recompense holiness. The requital in the case of transgression is not pactional and by promise, but necessary. The reason of this is, that sin has the creature for its ultimate and sole efficient. Unlike holiness, sin does not run back to God as its author. When obedience takes place, the Infinite will works in the finite will, both to will and to do. But when disobedience takes place, the finite will works alone. In the act of sin, man is an original and unassisted, though not unsupported author. He performs an act that is analogous to the Divine act of creation ex nihilo. It is true that the faculties of the creature by which sin is committed are created and upheld by the creator. God sustains the being of man or angel, in and during the very acting of sin. But the wrong agency is the creature s alone. God does not cooperate in the act of transgression, and hence its demerit is absolute and not relative.

At this point we notice the doctrine of the Divine concursus. A distinction has been made between an action and the viciousness of an action. The first is called the “material” part of the action, and the latter the “formal” part. God, it is said, concurs in the material, but not in the formal part of sin. “Every action is good by a physical goodness, as it is an act of the mind or hand, which have a natural goodness by creation; but every action is not morally good: the physical goodness of the action depends on God, the moral evil on the creature.” Charnocke: On Holiness, 499. The objection to this distinction between a “material” and a “formal” part of sin is, that the material part of it is not sinful. Sin is a compound of guilt and innocence, according to this analysis and definition. But sin is simple, not compound in its nature. It is evil and only evil. To define it as a composition of that which is good in itself with that which is evil, is illogical. The following illustration which Charnocke (Holiness, p. 500) gives, will illustrate this. “Two judges are in joint commission for the trial of a malefactor, and both upon proof of his guilt condemn him. This action in both, considered as an action, is good; for it is adjudging a man to death whose crime deserves such a punishment. But this same act, which is but one joint act of both, may be morally good in one judge, and morally evil in the other morally good in him that condemns him out of an unbiased consideration of the demerit of the crime ; and morally evil in the other who hath not respect to this consideration, but is moved by some private animosity against the prisoner, and a desire of revenge for some private injury he has received from him. The act in itself is the same materially in both; but in one it is an act of justice, and in the other an act of murder, as it respects the principle and motive of it in the two judges.”

Upon examining this case, it will be found that what is called the “formal” part of sin is in reality the essence of it; and what is called the “material” part of sin is no part of it at all. The sin in the instance of the sinful judge, as Charnocke says, is in the principle and motive of his act of passing sentence. This principle and motive is the selfish disposition of the man; which is simply the inclination or self-determination of his will. This inclination, and this alone, is the viciousness and guilt in the case. Whether the judge actually passed the sentence verbally or not, would make no difference with the fact of his selfishness and sin in the sight of God. This internal action of the will, seen in the self-moving inclination and disposition, is the wickedness of the man. To add to it the action of the physical faculty of the tongue in speaking the sentence, is to add nothing that essentially belongs to the idea and definition of sin. To distinguish, therefore, this bodily and physical part of man’s agency, in which God confessedly concurs, as evidence that God concurs in the act of sin itself, is not to the purpose. The real question is, whether God concurs and co-operates in that internal action of the will which is the real malignity and wickedness in the case supposed. Did God work in the revengeful judge to will, is the question. Did he “concur” in his malignant disposition? The answer to this question must be in the negative.

Retributive justice is an attribute whose exercise is necessary, in case there be transgression of the moral law. God cannot lay down a law, affix a penalty, and threaten its infliction, and proceed no further, in case of disobedience. The divine veracity forbids this. He has solemnly declared that “he will by no means clear the guilty,” Ex. 34:7. If the penalty is not inflicted, it is not “impossible for God to lie,” Heb. 6:18; and it is untrue that “the Lord hath sworn and will not repent,” Ps. 110:4. Hence, in every instance of transgression, the penalty of law must be inflicted, either personally or vicariously; either upon the transgressor or upon his substitute. The remission of penalty under the Divine administration is not absolute, but relative. It may be omitted in respect to the real criminal, but, if so, it must be inflicted upon some one in his place.

Vicarious Satisfaction

At this point, the possibility of the vicarious satisfaction of retributive justice requires a brief notice. The full discussion of the topic belongs to the doctrine of Atonement. See Vol. II., p. 451. The exercise of justice, while necessary in respect to sin, is free and sovereign in respect to the sinner. Justice necessarily demands that sin be punished, but not necessarily in the person of the sinner. Justice may allow of the substitution of one person for another, provided that in the substitution no injustice is done to the rights of any of the parties interested. This principle was expressed by the schoolmen in the statement, “impersonaliter poenarn necessario infligi ornni peccato, sed non personaliter omni peccatori.” In the words of Turrettin (III. xix. 4), “duplex jus oritur circa poenae inflictionem ; aliud necessarium et indispensabile respectu peccati ipsius, aliud vero liberuin et positivum respectu peccatoris.”

This agrees with the intuitive convictions of man. “The profound and awful idea of substitution meets us in the religion of the early Romans. When the gods of the community were angry, and nobody could be laid hold of as definitely guilty, they might be appeased by one who voltunarily gave himself up (devovere se). Noxious chasms in the ground were closed, and battles half-lost were converted into victories, when a brave citizen threw himself as an expiatory offering into the abyss, or upon the foe.” Mommsen: Rome, I. xii. Mommsen adds that the compulsory substitution of the innocent for the guilty, human sacrifice by force, was not allowed in the early Roman commonwealth. There was, moreover, no formal provision for this substitution in the legislation of the Romans. This substitution was the action of popular impulse, and of the voluntary decision of the individual. Some assert that the substitution of penalty is impossible, and cite in proof the passages: Gen 2:17, “In the day thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die;” and Ezek. 18:4, 20, “The soul that sinneth it shall die.” In these passages, the verb, not the pronoun, is the emphatic word. They teach the same truth with Rom. 6:23: “The wages of sin is death.” If, in these texts, the emphasis is to be laid upon the pronouns “it” and “thou,” so as to make the Divine declaration to be, that every individual who transgresses shall himself suffer the penalty of transgression, and that no other person shall suffer it vicariously for him, then the salvation of a sinner is impossible. For nothing could occur but the execution of penalty upon the actual transgressor. No exercise of mercy could take place in the universe of God. Such an interpretation admits of no alternative, and every soul that sinned would die. But that this cannot be the explanation intended to be put upon these threatenings, is proved by the fact that not every soul that has sinned does suffer the penalty threatened. The implied meaning of these texts, therefore, is, that ” in the day thou eatest thereof, thou or thy redeemer shalt die ; the soul that sinneth, it, or its surety shall die.” Sin must be punished personally, or else vicariously. “It may be objected,” says Edwards (God’s Sovereignty), “that God said, If thou eatest thou shalt die; as though the same person that sinned must suffer; and, therefore, Why does not God s truth oblige him to that ? I answer, that the word then was not intended to be restrained to him that in his own person sinned. Adam probably understood that his posterity were included, whether they sinned in their own person or not. If they sinned in Adam, their surety, those words, If thou eatest, meant, If thou eatest in thyself, or in thy surety. And therefore, the latter words, Thou shalt die, do also fairly allow of such a construction as, Thou shalt die, in thyself, or in thy surety. ”

The demand of retributive justice is, that sin be punished to the full measure and degree announced in the law. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men,” Rom. 1:8. The Divine displeasure expressed in punitive justice is not aimed against the person as such, and distinct from his sin. “God,” says Charnocke (Holiness, 473), is not displeased with the nature of man as man, for that was derived from him; but with the nature of man as sinful, which is derived from the sinner himself. God hates only the sin, not the sinner; he desires only the destruction of the one, not the misery of the other.” God loves the person as such. The immortal nature of man is precious in his sight. Divine justice has no angry spite against anyone’s person. Consequently, if its claims can be satisfied by a suffering endured by another person, properly qualified, there is no feeling of animosity against the sinner’s person, to prevent the substitution. It is true that justice is not obliged to accept a substitute. It can insist, if it pleases, upon the infliction of the penalty upon the actual criminal. But neither is it obliged to refuse a substitute. Justice is not tied up, by anything in its own nature, to the infliction of the law’s penalty upon the identical person of the sinner, to the exclusion of any other person whatsoever.

In the sphere of human life, a refusal to admit a substitution of one person for another, in the only case in which substitution is allowable, viz., in commercial law, would look like malice, and would require explanation. Should a creditor refuse to receive the complete vicarious payment of a debt from a friend of the debtor (though this would involve no difficulty for the debtor, who could of course take his friend s money and pay it in person, yet), it would evince a malignant and spiteful feeling of the creditor towards the person of the debtor. It would look as if, besides obtaining the full satisfaction of his claims, he desired to injure him, or in some way to vex and worry him. But in the Divine sphere, the suspicion of personal animosity, in case of a refusal to permit a vicarious satisfaction of justice, could not arise, because of the absolute perfection of God. “As for God, his way is perfect,” Ps. 18:30. And had the Supreme Judge permitted no substitute for man the guilty, it would be necessary to assume that there were good reasons for the procedure. The reasons might be unknown, and perhaps unknowable. But the reason certainly could not be, that the Eternal Judge feels hatred towards the body and soul of a man, as that particular man. There is no malignant feeling in God towards the person of even the most wicked and devilish transgressor. God is not a respecter of persons in any sense. He has no prejudice for, or grudge against, any one of his creatures; and if the complete satisfaction of justice can be secured by a vicarious endurance of penalty, he has no such ill-will towards the sinner s person, in distinction from his sin, as would prevent him from accepting it, in case there were no reasons in his own mind why he should not. On the contrary, he loves the person, the immortal spirit, of the transgressor; as he has abundantly evinced in the gospel method of mercy. It is, however, to be carefully noticed, in case there be substitution of penalty: 1. That the substituted penalty must be a strict and full equivalent. Justice is in exorable upon this point. Here, the necessary nature of the attribute appears. 2. That the person substituted be able to render complete satisfaction, and be himself no debtor to law and justice.

The sovereignty and freedom of God in respect to justice, therefore, relates not to the abolition, nor to the relaxation, but to the substitution of punishment. It does not consist in any power to violate or waive legal claims. These must be maintained in any event. “Fiat justitia ruat coelum” is an intuitive conviction. The exercise of the other attributes of God is regulated and conditioned by that of justice. God cannot exert omnipotence unjustly, or benevolence, or mercy. The question, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25), must be answered affirmatively. It follows, then, that the sovereignty of God in respect to retributive justice, consists in his power and right to satisfy its claims in more than one way. He has a choice of methods. He may inflict the full amount of suffering due to sin, either upon the sinner, or upon a proper substitute. He may require the complete satisfaction of justice from the transgressor, or he may provide it for him vicariously.

Divine justice may smite the guilty man, or it may smite the man who is God s “fellow,” Zech. 13:7. It is free to do either; but one or the other it must do. God is not obliged either to accept or to provide a substituted penalty, and in case he does either, it is grace and mercy towards the actual transgressor. These two particulars, of permitting substitution, and providing the substitute, furnish the answer to the question, “Where is the mercy of God, in case justice is strictly satisfied by a vicarious person?” There is mercy in permitting another person to do for the sinner what the sinner is bound to do for himself; and still greater mercy in providing that person ; and greater still, in becoming that person.

The Socinian view of retributive justice denies its necessary nature. “There is no such justice in God,” says Socinus, “as requires absolutely and inexorably that sin be punished, and such as God himself cannot repudiate. There is indeed a perpetual and constant justice in God; but this is nothing but his moral equity and rectitude, by virtue of which there is no depravity or iniquity in any of his works.” Prelectiones Theologicae, XVI . This makes retributive justice to be an effect of the Divine will; and not an immanent and necessary attribute. Indeed, Socinus (De Servatore, I.) expressly asserts that justice, in the popular (vulgaris) signification, as opposed to mercy, “dei qualitas non est, sed tantum effectus voluntatis ipsius.” It would follow from this, that the moral law together with its penalty is a positive statute, like the ceremonial law. And as God abrogated the latter, so he could abrogate the former, by an act of arbitrary will. Accordingly, in respect to the necessity of the satisfaction of justice, Socinus remarks: “Divinae justitiae, per quam peccatores damnari meremur, pro peccatis nostris neque Christum satisfecisse, neque ut satisfaceret, opus fuisse, arbitror.” But if justice is an attribute at all, of the Supreme being, it must be essential, like all the other attributes. It can no more be an effect of God’s optional will, than his omnipotence can be. An effect or product need not be at all, provided the efficient or producer so pleases.

The history of doctrine shows a difference of opinion in respect to the absolute, or the relative necessity of retributive justice. The question was raised by some of the schoolmen, whether the satisfaction which Christ makes to Divine justice for the sin of man is necessary per se, or only because God so willed it. Schoolmen like Hales, Bonaventura, and Aquinas, adopted the latter view, in opposition to Anselm’s positions in his Cur Deus homo? These theologians took an erroneous view of the divine omnipotence, whereby this attribute is made superior to all others. “In contemplating the Divine power as absolute,” remarks Hales, “we conceive of a certain energy (virtus) in the deity that is abstracted from the rest of his nature, and transcends all limitations; and with respect to this form, the divine power cannot have limits set to it (non est determinare).” But it is as impossible and inconceivable, for the divine power to act in isolation from all the other attributes, as it is for the divine omniscience, or for the divine benevolence to do so. Benevolence cannot act without power; and neither can power, in so perfect a being as God, act without wisdom or justice. This theory ultimately resolves the deity into mere blind force.

Still, the motive, in some instances, was a good one. There was fear of limiting the divine omnipotence. Twisse, the moderator of the Westminster Assembly, affirmed only the relative necessity of retributive justice, in opposition to the powerful reasoning of Owen, who maintained its absolute nature. Magee (Atonement, I. 191) adopts relative necessity. Respecting such instances, Turrettin (III. xix. 9) remarks, that although both parties are agreed as against the tenets and positions of Socinus, yet the doctrine of the absolute necessity of justice is much the most consonant with the nature of God, and the language of Scripture, and more efficacious for the refutation of Socinianism (ad haeresim illam pestilentissimam jugulandam). The Remonstrants asserted the relative necessity of retributive justice. In their Apologia they say, that “to affirm that the avenging justice of God is so essential to his nature, that by virtue of it, God is obliged and necessitated to punish sin, is very absurd and very unworthy of God.” See Witsius: Apostles Creed, Dissertation IX.

No one of the Divine attributes is supported by more or stronger evidences, than retributive justice. 1. The testimony from Scripture is abundant. To the passages already cited, may be added, as only a part of the great number of texts, Ex. 34:7, “God will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.” Ps. 11:6, “Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest.” Matt. 18:8, “It is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, than to be cast into hell-fire.” Jude 7, “Suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” Luke 12:5, “Yea, I say unto you, fear him who hath power to cast into hell.” 2 Thess. 1:6, “Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you.” Heb. 2:2, “A just recompense of reward.” 2. The testimony from the human conscience, and the consent of all nations alluded to in Rom. 2:14, 15, “Their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts meanwhile accusing.” 3. Sacrifice among pagan nations, and the Jewish system of sacrifices, teach retributive justice. The first is universal, and implies that divine justice requires satisfaction by expiatory suffering. The second was an arrangement for eliciting the consciousness of guilt, and preannouncing its pacification through the suffering Messiah. Heb. 10:3, “In those sacrifices there is a remembrance of sins every year.” The remarkable provision made in the gospel for the vicarious satisfaction of retributive justice, evinces the reality and importance of the attribute.


Retributive justice is retrospective in its primary aim. It looks back at what has been done in the past. Its first object is requital. A man is hung for murder, principally and before all other reasons, because he has transgressed the law forbidding murder. He is not punished primarily from a prospective aim, such as his own moral improvement, or for the purpose of preventing him from committing another murder, or for the purpose of deterring others from committing murder. It is true that moral improvement may be the consequence of the infliction of the penalty. But the consequence must not be confounded with the purpose. Cum hoc, non ergo propter hoc. The criminal may come to see and confess that his crime deserves the punishment, and in genuine unselfish penitence may take sides with the law, and go into eternity relying upon that great atonement of Christ which satisfies retributive justice for his sin; but even this greatest benefit of all, is not what is aimed at in man s punishment of the crime of murder. For even if there should be no such personal benefit as this attending the infliction of human penalty, the one sufficient reason for inflicting it still holds good, viz., the fact that the law has been violated, and demands the punishment of the offender for this reason simply. Only upon this view of justice, is the true dignity of man maintained. When he is punished because, as a rational and free being, he has responsibly violated the law, there is a recognition of him as a person endowed with free will. But if he is seized and made to suffer for the benefit of others, he is treated like a chattel, or a thing that may be put to use. “The nature of ill-desert and punishableness,” says Kant (Practischer Vernunft, 151, Ed. Rosenkranz), ” is always involved in the idea of voluntary transgression; and the idea of punishment excludes that of happiness in all its forms. For although he who inflicts penalty may, it is true, also have a benevolent purpose to produce by the punishment a beneficial effect upon the criminal, yet the punishment itself must be justified first of all as pure and simple requital and retribution: that is, as a kind of suffering that is demanded by the law, without any reference to its prospective beneficial consequences ; so that even if no moral improvement and no personal advantage should accrue to the person from the punishment, he must acknowledge that righteousness has been done to him, and that his experience is exactly conformed to his conduct. In every punishment, as such, justice is the very first thing, and constitutes the essence of it. A benevolent purpose, it is true, may be conjoined with punishment; but the criminal cannot claim this as his due, and he has no right to reckon upon it. All that he deserves, is punishment; and this is all that he can expect from the law which he has violated.” The same view is taken of the retrospective aim of justice by Muller, in his lucid discrimination between chastisement and punishment. Doctrine of Sin, I. 244 seq. The opposite view, that punishment is prospective in its primary purpose, and aims only at reformation, was maintained by the Greek sophists. Protagoras is represented by Plato as saying, that “no one punishes the evil doer under the notion, or for the reason that he has done wrong; only the unreasonable fury of a tyrant acts in that way.” Protagoras, 324. Plato (Laws, X. 904, 905) holds that punishment is retributive. Cicero (De Legibus, I. 14) contends that virtue has regard to justice, not to utility. Grotius defines penalty, as “the evil of suffering inflicted on account of the evil of doing.” Coke, Bacon, Selden, and Blackstone explain punishment by crime not by expediency. Kant, Herbert, Stahl, Hartenstein, Rothe, and Woolsey (Political Science, II. viii), define punishment as requital. Beccaria and Bentham found punishment on utility and expedience Penny Cyclopaedia, Article, Beccaria. Paley notices the difference between human punishment and divine. In the former, there is a combination of the retributive with the protective and reformatory, but not in the latter Moral Philosophy, VI. Ix.

If the good of the public is the chief end of punishment, the criminal might be made to suffer more than his crime deserves. If he can be used like a thing, for the benefit of others, there is no limit to the degree in which he may be used. His personal desert and responsibility being left out of view, he may be made to suffer as much, or as little as the public welfare prescribes. It was this theory of penalty that led to the multiplication of capital crimes. The prevention of forgery, it was claimed in England, required that the forger should be executed; and upon the principle that punishment is for the public protection, and not for exact justice and strict retribution, the forger was hanged. But a merely civil crime against property, and not against human life, does not merit the death penalty. Upon this theory, the number of capital offences became very numerous, and the criminal code very bloody. So that, in the long run, nothing is kinder than exact justice. It prevents extremes in either direction : either that of indulgence, or that of cruelty Shedd : Endless Punishment, pp. 118-140.

Commutative Justice

Commutative justice implies an exchange of values between two parties, wherein each gives and receives in return. This species has no place in reference to God; for “who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed to him again ?” Rom. 11:35.

Public Justice

Public or general justice, is a distinction invented by Grotius, for the purpose of meeting certain Socinian objections to the Anselmic doctrine of strict satisfaction. It is a relaxed form of justice, by virtue of which God waives a full satisfaction of legal claims, and accepts a partial satisfaction in lieu thereof. Analyzed to its ultimate elements, “public justice” is benevolence, not justice. Justice is the exact distribution of reward or of punishment. Anything therefore that is inexact, is in so far unjust. Too much or too little suffering for a crime is not pure justice. Says the younger Edwards (Against Chauncey, ch. IV.), “general or public justice is an improper use of the word justice; because, to practise justice in this sense is no other than to act from public spirit, or from love to the community; and with respect to the universe, it is the very same with general benevolence.” Grotius agreed with Socinus, and both of them agreed with Duns Scotus, in making punitive justice optional, not necessary. Grotius held that punishment could be waived and not inflicted, if God so decided. It is not necessary that sin be punished with such a punishment as strictly, and fully corresponds with the guilt. An inferior penalty may be inflicted, or even no penalty at all, if God so determine. What then was the difference between Grotius and Socinus? It was this. Socinus asserted that when God decides to waive legal claims, he need not do anything to guard against the evil consequences of so doing. He can release the sinner from all punishment, and let the matter drop there. Grotius, on the other hand, though agreeing with his opponent that God can dispense with penalty altogether, yet maintained that he cannot do it with safety to the universe, unless he gives some expression to his abhorrence of sin. This he does by the death of Christ. When God remits penalty by this method, he guards against the abuse of his benevolence; which abuse Socinus made no provision for in his system. According to Grotius, the substituted sufferings of Christ are not a strict equivalent for the penalty due to sin, but an accepted equivalent, as when a creditor agrees to take fifty cents for a dollar, in the settlement of a commercial debt.

Grotius applies the principles of commercial justice to the doctrine of Christ’s atonement. He employs an illustration from the Roman commercial law, as presented in the Pandects of Justinian. Commercial justice can be satisfied by word of mouth. If a creditor calls a debt paid, it is paid; and the release is denominated “acceptilatio,” or acquittance by word of mouth. Commercial justice has no further demands to make, when the creditor has said that the debt is paid. In like manner, if God will say that the moral law is satisfied by an inferior penalty, it is satisfied; and if he should say that it is satisfied with no penalty at all, it would be satisfied. There are no claims standing against the sinner, because the claims being of a positive, not a necessary nature; being constituted by the optional will of God; they can be abrogated by the same almighty will. Socinus (De Servatore, III. i.) argues “that God is our creditor. Our sins are debts which we have contracted towards him. But a creditor can by an act of will surrender his claim, without making any legal provision for so doing.” This abolishes the distinction between commercial and moral indebtedness, and assumes that the claims of justice and government, like those of a pecuniary creditor, have no necessary quality, but are voidable by an act of will. A pecuniary creditor can abolish his claim by a volition, but a magistrate cannot so abolish a moral claim. Shedd: History of Doctrine, II. 347 sq.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.