Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.
Psalm 89:14 ESV
Matthew 25 concludes with these words of Jesus:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.Matthew 25:31–46
ALTOGETHER RIGHTEOUS & JUST
Before us today is the study of God’s righteousness and justice. We place these two attributes together because, as R. C. Sproul notes, “God is at once righteous and just. The two concepts are so closely connected that, though they can be distinguished, they may not be separated.” Tozer likewise asserts that “justice and righteousness are scarcely to be distinguished from each other. The same word in the original becomes in English justice or righteousness, almost, one would suspect, at the whim of the translator.”
Both righteousness and justice are tied to God’s judgment and to His role as the great Judge. Righteousness, after all, means do what is right, while justice means enacting the right judgment, either of reward or punishment. His righteousness, therefore, is not entirely the same as His goodness. We might be able to conceive of a scenario in which doing an otherwise good thing is not a right thing during a particular moment. To craft a flawed analogy, reading God’s Word is a very good thing upon which to devote our time and attention, yet to refuse to save a drowning child in favor of reading the Bible would be decidedly not right. In fact, we might describe God’s righteousness as the intersection between His goodness and His wisdom. Because He is righteous, wise, and good, He will always do what is right, wise, and good.
Justice is righteousness enacted. Righteousness is the heart of justice, and justice is the arms and legs of righteousness. Again, the two are dependent upon one another. Justice sees that righteousness is justly rewarded and that unrighteousness is justly punished. This righteous and just judgment of God begins in Genesis 1:4, where God deems (or judges) the light to be good, and continues until all are one day brought before the “great white throne” of God (Revelation 20:11-15). No discontinuity exists here between the Old and New Testaments. His judgement is promised throughout both sides of the Scripture. In fact, Jesus (who many believe today to have left behind the judgment of God in favor of only love) is said three times to be the judge of both the living and the dead (Acts 10:42; 2 Timothy 4:2; 1 Peter 4:5), as we also saw above. In other words, nothing, not even death, can prevent us from standing before the righteous and just judgment of Christ, for “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne” (Psalm 97:2).
Like God’s other attributes, we should again note that God does not merely conform to or even perfectly embody righteousness and justice; He is righteousness and justice. They are qualities that flow from His very being; therefore, we cannot know true righteousness and justice without first knowing God. Of course, by the common grace of being God’s image-bearers, righteousness and justice are not entirely alien to nonbelievers, yet no one can know them truly without knowing the God of righteousness and justice.
Remembering this today is of particular importance. The world around us staunchly holds to a form of righteousness and passionately cries for a form of justice. They are, however, what Paul warned against: “the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). For instance, while all Christians should rightly affirm that the lives of black persons matter equally to the lives of every human and should oppose all forms of racism, the Black Lives Matter organization is unquestionably unbiblical. They claim to “embody and practice justice, liberation, and peace,” yet they also aim to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure” and “foster a queer-affirming network… with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking.” Their ideas of what is right and just, therefore, run contrary to the biblical framework. A form of godliness is promoted, but by divorcing it from God Himself, it ceases to be godly, right, or just. We cannot stand behind such kinds of “justice” but must rather seek to know and imitate the only just and righteous God.
OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS; OUR JUSTICE
God’s righteousness and justice should give us infinite joy because they console us with the promise that all wrongs will be made right and that no evil will go unpunished. Ecclesiastes presents this very thing as the ray of comfort shining through the dark gloom of our broken world: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). This is gloriously good news!
And yet Paul’s words to the Romans should give check to our joy: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). He then notably goes on to conclude that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). According to God’s righteous law, we have fallen short. Having sinned, we are firmly unrighteous. We are sinners against the righteous God and merit wrath as His just judgment. Although we may try to argue that God in His mercy and love could simply ignore our sins, Proverbs 17:15 testifies against us: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” God cannot merely ignore our sin because doing so would be unjust. A righteous judge judges all offenses, not simply the big ones. God is a righteous judge; therefore, He cannot overlook our sins. He must punish them.
How then can our problem of sin be solved? How can the just and righteous Judge justify us? The context of Romans 3:23 gives us our answer:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.Romans 3:21-26
Though the law of God bears witness to the righteousness of God, Jesus is the manifestation. And while He was sinless, Jesus willingly took the penalty of our sins upon Himself. Thus, God’s judgment was dealt justly upon the cross, and Jesus Himself becomes our righteousness. Sproul notes of this process:
There is no way that God clears the guilty. He justifies the guilty through Christ. To clear the guilty would be to declare a guilty person innocent. That is one thing God will never do. God does justify the ungodly; he saves us while we are still sinners.
By this justifying work of Christ, the words of John are now marvelously true for us: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Through Christ’s atoning blood, we are no longer under the condemnation of God’s judgment against our sin, but instead we lay our sins before His throne, trusting by faith that in Christ He is both faithful and just to forgive us and to make us righteous in Him.
 R. C. Sproul, Enjoying God, 136.
 A. W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy, 147.
 R. C. Sproul, Enjoying God, 151.