The biblical examples of divine justice may anger or offend us. At the very least, they are sometimes confounding in the face of what we have learned about amerciful and patient God of love. Perhaps we have difficulty because we do not understand the linkage between four vital, biblical concepts: holiness, justice,sin, and grace.
We may not grasp the seriousness of holiness by failing to see the purity God requires; we may have an unbalanced perspective of justice; we may misunderstand the deadliness of sin; and we may see little need for grace for ourselves. The stories of Nadab and Abihu, Uzza, and Ananias and Sapphira are clearly not examples of divine mercy.
Before we can understand divine mercy, we must first understand the seriousness of sin and the necessity of divine justice. Divine justice is linked to righteousness: God's justice is according to righteousness. Evil justice in God does not exist because His every judgment is according to His righteousness, for there is absolutely no unrighteousness in Him. The justice of God is always an expression of His perfect, righteous, holy character.
Biblically, justice refers to "conformity to a rule or norm." If life and salvation were a game, we would say that God plays by the rules. He sets them and never deviates from them. The norm of justice is His own holy character. What God does is always consistent with who and what He is. His righteousness is absolutely pure; there is no shadow of turning in Him (James 1:17). He is utterly incapable of an unholy, unrighteous act. We call people "crooks" because they are crooked. God is absolutely "straight." Genesis 18:23-25 speaks of this very issue:
Never did a man ask a more rhetorical question. Abraham had no idea how far such an act was from God. There was never even the most remote possibility that God would kill the innocent along with the guilty! For God to do that, He would have to cease being holy and righteous—He would have to stop being God! God is the Supreme Judge of all the earth. As man's sordid histories show, if He is unjust, there is no hope that justice will ever prevail.
We know human judges can be corrupt, take bribes, and be partial. God, though, is never corrupt, cannot be bribed, refuses to show partiality, never acts out of ignorance, has every fact necessary for judgment, and never makes mistakes. Nadab, Abihu, Uzza, Saul, and Ananias and Sapphira all got what they deserved. There is no injustice with God.
God's justice is never divorced from His righteousness. He never condemns the innocent; never clears the guilty; never punishes with undue severity; never fails to reward righteousness. His justice is perfect justice.
What Abraham fails to address in his question is sin. Mankind utterly fails to appreciate the seriousness of sin. God's Word clearly states that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) and that sin is the transgression of God's law (I John 3:4, KJV). From the beginning in the Garden of Eden, God proclaims to mankind in the persons of Adam and Eve, ". . . in the day that you eat of it [sin], you shall surelydie" (Genesis 2:17).
He does not say they would die immediately, but die they did. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). We have all earned this judgment by the way we live. Is God unjust because He warns Adam and Eve? No, the problem is that man in his pride thinks he deserves better.
However, God does not always act with justice—sometimes He acts with mercy. Mercy is not justice, but neither is it injustice, since injustice violates righteousness. Mercy manifests kindness and grace, doing no violence to righteousness. We may see non-justice in God, which is mercy, but we never see injustice in Him.
John W. Ritenbaugh
To us, the concept of justice contains the notion of fairness, almost as if fairness and justice are the same thing. At first glance, it does not seem as though God ever even considered fairness in His dealings with Nadab and Abihu, Ananias and Sapphira, Uzza, and several others as well.
Justice is defined by Webster as "the maintenance or administration of what is just." In actual practice, it is the restoration of equality, which is where we get our idea of fairness being connected with justice. Just is defined as "reasonable; conforming to a standard of correctness; acting on conformity with what is morally upright or good."
Synonyms for just are "fair" and "upright," which is very close to the Bible's usage. The Bible's definition of justice is "conformity to a rule or standard." However, the Bible's norm or standard is God's own holy character, not a set of laws or statutes a human might have in mind, as we relate to the governments of men. Biblically, then, justice is measured against God's holy character, which is reflected verbally in His law, or more broadly, in His Word.
John W. Ritenbaugh