On Sunday, I explained from Psalm 98 how God justifies sinners and demonstrates that he is both just and justifier (Rom. 3:26). From that message, let me synthesize five more truths about justice. These build upon three truths about justice from Psalm 97, and they continue to assist our understanding of justice as the Bible presents it.
What Psalm 98 Teaches Us about Justice
Because salvation means different things to different people, it is always important to define salvation from the Bible itself. In Psalm 98, therefore, we need to see how salvation is presented. And importantly, we will see that salvation comes from God’s justifying justice.
In other words, salvation is not simply the victorious defeat of God’s enemies for his people, nor is it the dismissal of guilt from his people without a legal solution, nor is it the liberation of oppressed people regardless of their sin. Rather, as we learn from Psalm 98, salvation is grounded in the events of redemptive history which turn on the exodus. In fact, we can find at least five truths about justice in Psalm 98.
First, salvation is an act of God’s judgment, which means God’s salvation demands and provides ‘justification.’
When God saved Israel, he judged Egypt and Israel. The difference was that Israel—namely, their firstborn sons—received a substitute to receive their judgment. Verse 1 reads, “His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” This language of “right hand” and “holy arm” go back to Deuteronomy, where the description of God’s salvation is posited anthropomorphically as God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm (Deut. 4:34; 11:2; 26:8; cf. 7:8; 34:12).
More precisely, the mention of God’s “holy arm” follows Isaiah 52:10, a passage that speaks of God’s new exodus. In Isaiah’s prophesy, the suffering servant becomes a sin offering just like the Passover lamb (see Isaiah 53). By way of cross reference then, we learn that the salvation described in Psalm 98 stands on the legal substitution of a sacrifice for the sins of God’s people. In this way, salvation is not devoid of judgment; it is the promise of a substitute who takes the judgment in the place of God’s people.
Even more, this provision of a substitute, which goes back to Isaac on Mount Moriah, sets a pattern in redemptive history, that God would not save his people without a sacrifice. In salvation, he had to be just. And thus, salvation required an act that would impute righteousness to his people, and act we call “justification.” Wonderfully, justification is but one part of God’s salvation, but it is central to salvation that God grants.
To put it differently, salvation must fulfill the law. And only in the just taking of a life and the gracious giving of life, provided by God, could God be just and the justifier.
Second, justification must pass the test of all onlookers.
In other words, because God made his salvation of Israel so public, it was to pass the scrutiny of all who saw it. Twice in Psalm 98, we find the importance of this revelation: “The LORD has made known his salvation,” and again “he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations” (v. 2). The implication of this public event is that if anyone on earth or in heaven saw that God saved Israel but did so in some unscrupulous or unlawful way, he could be accused of partiality. His reputation of righteousness, and hence his praiseworthiness, hangs in the balance of how he saved his people.
Wonderfully, and in harmony with his perfect nature, God proves his justice in the fact that he saves his people in broad daylight. Just as Paul tells the Corinthians that Christ’s resurrection could be tested by more than 500 witnesses (1 Cor. 15:8), so Psalm 98 declares that God has made known his salvation to the nations for them to search out and see.
In fact, this public display of justice not only confirms the righteousness of God’s actions; it invites others to trust in him for their righteousness too. Indeed, until the final judgment, God’s righteousness is not adversarial to sinners; it is evangelistic. The public witness of God’s salvation invites all who would trust in him to find salvation in him. This was the case in Israel, as a mixed multitude left Egypt with Israel. And it is still true today. All who see the justifying justice of God are invited to trust in Christ as their justification too.
Third, justification fulfills God’s word.
In Psalm 98:3, we find these words: “He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” God remembered. Particularly, he remembered his covenant promises. God’s justice is seen in making promises and keeping them.
Whereas, political leaders in our day make campaign promises that they never fulfill, and often never intended to fulfill, God always keeps his word. Because he has the knowledge, authority, power, and purity to keep all his promises, his word never fails. Hence, his covenant-making and covenant-keeping prove once more the perfection of his faithfulness and justice.
Fourth, justification is not liberation from oppression, but redemption from sin.
Notice, in Psalm 98 there is nothing about poverty or oppression. It is true that the exodus story is about slavery, which entails economic facotrs, but it is not primarily about poverty or improving one’s status in this fallen world. Unfortunately, liberation theology, inspired by the economic impulses of Marxism, takes the exodus narrative and makes it an allegory for all oppressed peoples.
Salvation according to theologies of liberation (e.g., feminism, black liberation theology, queer theology, etc.) puts God on the side of the oppressed and against all oppressors. Instead of understanding how exodus typology leads to Christ’s death and resurrection—an exodus in its own right (see Luke 9:31)—which delivers sinners from eternal condemnation in hell, liberation theology seeks to move people out of poverty and oppression and into a greater place in society.
The trouble with liberation theology, one problem among many, is the way it misuses the biblical story of the exodus. Instead of following the biblical witness, which makes humanity’s sin the greatest problem and forgiveness of sin the ultimate solution, liberation theology turns God into a pragmatic means of improving your life (with your group) in this present world. It misses how the Bible unfolds the story of salvation, and allegorizes poverty by applying the exodus to any group today. Instead of retaining eternal storyline of the Bible, it presents the exodus as an example of the way that God works with people in this age.
Sadly, in the name of justice, many who seek liberation do not do justice to the way Scripture speaks of redemption from sin. Therefore, they misuse the Bible and seek justice unjustly.
Fifth, justification is the source of true justice on the earth.
God’s righteousness is not only an attribute he possesses or a characteristics of his actions, his righteousness is also something he communicates to those whom he chooses. Again, it is not partiality that brings people into the presence of God; it is his grace. By grace, God justifies those who are ungodly. Those who have no place to stand before him, he saves by justifying them. This is a personal act of grace and to those whom it is communicated become the new people of God.
These redeemed of the Lord are the ones who worship God before his throne in Psalm 98. And, as Psalms 99–101 will explain further, these are the ones who will mediate God’s justice to the earth. Indeed, as a kingdom of priests, redeemed by the LORD and justified by the provision of his sacrifice, God’s people both testify to God’s justice and display, to greater of lesser degrees, how righteousness is to be sought.
To be sure, it is not by good works that we achieve God’s justice nor earn our justification. Rather, as sinners justified by God, we are made free to seek the good of others and pray for righteousness, preach justification by grace, and pursue justice in good works that come from God and return praise to his name. Sadly, too many who pursue justice leave behind the justification of God. Yet, this eviscerates the power of God in the gospel and in those transformed by the gospel.
As we seek justice, we must seek first Christ and justification by grace through faith. This is the source of our righteousness and the only reliable means by which we can mediate God’s justice from heaven to earth. More on this to come in the days ahead, DV.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds