Last Sunday, I suggested the source and substance of true justice comes down from Yahweh, the God of heaven and king over all creation. As he brings his rule from heaven to earth—the enthronement described in Psalm 93–100—he establishes his kingdom in righteousness and justice (Psalm 97:2).
In the fulness of time, this kingdom came in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And now, with the full disclosure of God in his inspired Word, we have all that we need for life and godliness, righteousness and justice—i.e., all that we need, until the God of justice returns and makes all things right on the last day.
You can watch the sermon from last week to a get sense of the message of Psalm 97, but today, I want to consider what God’s kingdom justice means for us living in a time between Christ’s two advents. What follows are three points of application from Psalm 97. These will also prepare the way for our consideration of Psalm 98.
Three Truths about Justice in God’s Kingdom
As questions of justice proliferate in our world and the church goes in search of justice, I am arguing that Scripture is sufficient for us to pursue justice in all the vocational spaces that God leads his people. With that in mind, we must begin to understand God’s justice, as outlined in Scripture. And in Psalm 97 we find at least three ways that justice “works” in the kingdom of God.
First, kingdom justice begins with God and comes to us when God brings his kingdom from heaven to earth.
In Psalm 97, God’s kingdom is established in righteousness and justice. In other words, God is the source of justice, and thankfully, he shares that justice with his people as they gather around his throne. Indeed, while cries for justice can be found throughout the earth and glimpses of justice can be found in some places therein, only on God’s holy hill is justice firmly established. As Isaiah 2 says, God’s law goes forth from Zion and God’s throne is the place where he teaches his people his way, his truth, his life, and his justice.
Today, we know that God’s justice came near when Christ came and inaugurated God’s kingdom through his death and resurrection. As Scripture teaches, the defining act of justice is seen in the cross of Christ, where God poured out his wrath on sin, when God the Son embodied the sins of all those in covenant with him. In Jesus’s death, we see how God judges without partiality, and we also come to learn that God justified sinners through this one act of judgment. As Paul says in Romans 3:26, God is just and the justifier, a truth that serves as the cornerstone for understanding justice and for enjoying the blessing of justification.
The effects of Christ’s cross are manifold, but for starters it means that God’s justice is not a future reality or a faraway promise. God’s justice is as close as the Spirit of God to the people of God. In Hebrews 12, we discover that the church gathers at Zion, and consequently, as Megan Hill has put it, “your seat in church is a seat in heaven.” This means, that the place where justice is found is currently available to us. When we gather as disciples around his throne, we can and must learn what justice is.
Indeed, in the Word of God and by the Holy Spirit, we have been given the means by which God brings his justice to earth. As disciples, we learn from Scripture that God is the standard of righteousness, and his standard has been revealed to us in his law, his gospel, and most importantly in the Son, who is the perfect embodiment of righteousness. Such knowledge of true righteousness is foundational for doing justice.
At the same time, by giving us his Spirit, the Lord has supplied Christians with power do justice in a way that Israel never had. This is what Paul is getting at in Romans 14:17, when he says, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking [like it was under the old covenant], but a matter of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” With the Holy Spirit, we can know what good and evil are, and we can seek justice with the power of the Spirit.
In this way, the justice of God has begun to come to the earth in the people justified by faith in Christ and gifted with the Holy Spirit. To be sure, the exercise of this justice will be imperfect in God’s people—not because God’s justice changes, but because stumbling children of God must learn how to practice righteousness and do justice. Nevertheless, it should not be missed that when the people of God are given a share in God, they are also given every spiritual blessing, including justice.
Second, kingdom justice grows among God’s people when we understand the fundamental divide in humanity and stop trying to play God.
While most discussions about justice today speak about race, economics, or some other matter of sociology, the fundamental divide before God’s throne is one of faith. Before God’s throne, humanity is not divided by color (black or white) or geography (Western vs Eastern vs Middle Eastern); humanity is not even divided by age, economic status, or intelligence. The only divide that matters is how one responds to God in Christ.
In Psalm 97, God’s divide is between those who rejoice in God and those who don’t. That is the divide. And critically, our personal understanding of justice follows our understanding of this divide.
As the cross of Christ is the wisdom of God, so too, our wisdom stems from our understanding of how Christ divides humanity (cf. Matt. 10:34–39). By contrast, our wisdom devolves, the more we look to social constructs as the defining feature of justice. Without denying the way people—individuals and groups—have been unjust towards one another, wisdom pertaining to justice does not come from learning about or reacting to worldly injustices. Wisdom comes from the LORD and the way he looks at humanity.
Such a heavenly approach to earthly injustice might seem uncaring, but it is actually the opposite. When we realize the way God has justified us by grace, undeserving as we are, it produces in us a heart of thanksgiving, mercy, and good works. For as we consider the cost of our justification—namely, the crucifixion of Christ in our place—we are impelled by God’s love to love others and to see that they too might know justice, and especially the justification by faith in God.
Indeed, such justification does not eclipse justice; it makes justice possible. As evidenced in someone like William Wilberforce, it was his theological understanding of justification by grace through faith that empowered him to withstand the onslaught of opposition as he sought the abolition of slavery. Indeed, when men and women have learned from God how to think justly about humanity, it will result in actions that inform every other aspect of life. This does not mean, every Christian will be or should be a Wilberforce, but it does mean that instead of pursuing cosmic justice in some abstract and unattainable way, Christians who dwell on the Lord’s justification, as the chief revelation of justice, will be equipped for every good work in their respective spheres of influence.
Indeed, because God alone can bring about cosmic justice—a truth that is foundational to the gospel—right-thinking Christians are set free from playing God and saving the world with their acts of justice. Instead, they can proceed in loving their neighbor, seeking their good, and bringing to fruition good over evil in a specific places and times. Too often, cries for justice are universal in scope, but such attempts at righting the wrongs of an unjust world will never be accomplished by anyone other than God. In fact, it is very possible that most attempts at cosmic justice are impelled by hubris and an unrighteous impulse to make the world better by fashioning it after their own image. By contrast, true justice is impelled by the joyous love of God.
Third, kingdom justice runs on the joyous love of God.
In Psalm 97, a psalm that speaks about God’s fiery arrival on earth, the predominate theme is joy (see vv. 1, 8, 11, 12). Let that sink in. God’s judgment produces unending, ever-increasing, Christ-centered joy in those who love the Lord.
In fact, in Hebrews 12, we discover that Christ went to the cross, impelled by joy. And if that justifying act of justice is central to redemptive history, it is not surprising that Christ-centered joy is what empowers Christians to pursue justice too. In fact, it is not too much to say that if Christ-centered joy is absent in one’s pursuit of justice, something has gone terribly wrong.
Sadly, many who want to do justice do so with hearts filled with anger, bitterness, or cynicism. Others might find joy in their work of justice, but is it the joy that comes from God, is centered on Christ, and is granted by the Holy Spirit? These questions should be ask by every believer committed to seeking justice.
In Psalm 97, we learn that joy is both the means and the end to God’s justice. Even in his anger at sin, God is profoundly and unswervingly joyful. And the same is true for those in Christ. While we may grieve and grow angry over sin, we still rejoice in the LORD—for who he is, what he has done, and what he will finish in the end.
In this way, Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered joy is necessary for any true pursuit of justice. And in the same moment, because joy in the LORD is a reflection of love for God, that arises from a heart of faith, we return to the bedrock truth of Christian ethics: anything not done in faith is sin. And truly, any justice sought with idolatrous motives is poisoned from the start. Only justice pursued in righteousness will last. And this true pursuit of justice can be observed by an abiding joy in the things of God and his gospel.
A Final Word on God’s Justice
In the end, while the world offers many options for seeking justice through protests, policy-making, and program-building, any of these endeavors for justice that lack joy in the work of the Lord or that fail to produce joy in the Lord must ultimately be judged to be devoid of God’s justice. Indeed, it is a misnomer to do “kingdom” work if joy in Christ, his cross, and his church are absent. We might see unbelievers and believers doing good works in the world, and we can be thankful for God’s common grace in those works, but the good works of those not seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness remain distinct from those who are impelled by joy in God’s justification.
Truly, the difference between these good works is not immediately observed in their end results, i.e., the effects that are visible. The difference is more evident in the instrumental causes and motivations of those seeking justice. For those pragmatically-driven, this may not matter. But for those, who are learning justice from the Lord, we begin to see that the means to justice are as important as the end.
To that end, I don’t believe we can regenerate the world with the gospel message of justification by faith. I’m not postmillennial. I believe the world will be transformed when Christ comes back, and not before. However, I do believe we can corrupt the message of the gospel, if we attempt to transform the culture with the philosophies, tools, and ideologies of this age. While the world can speak often about justice, this justice is not the same as God’s justice, unless it comes down from Zion.
That is the argument that I am making here—that Christians who have been brought to Zion should continue to seek from the Lord wisdom for trusting Christ, seeking righteousness, and doing justice. Too many, I fear, are adding incompatible forms of justice to their gospel faith, instead of laboring to see from the Scripture how the faith once for all delivered to the saints has all the necessary materials for doing justice in an unjust world.
This is what kingdom justice is, the intentional application of God’s wisdom by disciples of Christ to all areas of life. Indeed, when good works are pursued in this way, disciples are protected from stealing God’s glory in their pursuits of justice. Instead, they joyously give credit to God alone. And thus, Jesus words are fulfilled: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). This is true justice, and when it is manifest on the earth, it bears testimony to the God of justice who reigns in heaven.
May God give us confidence in the sufficiency of his Word and the boldness to live out that justice in public.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds