by John Owen
An edited extract from A Dissertation on Divine Justice or The Claims of Vindicatory Justice Vindicated. In this piece Owen demonstrates, against the errors of John Crellius, Socinius and others, that vindicatory justice is an essential attribute of God and must necessarily be exercised.
AS all “acknowledging of the truth” ought to be “after godliness” (Titus 1:5), we shall adduce such useful and practical conclusions as flow from this truth [that vindicatory or punitive justice is an essential property of the divine nature and must be exercised, and that it was an indispensable necessity that God, in the exercise of His justice, should exact full satisfaction from Christ, for the salvation of sinners, by inflicting punishment upon Him, as the surety of sinners] which we have thus far set forth and defended.
First, then, from this truth we sinners may learn the abominable nature of sin. Whatever there is in heaven or in earth that we have seen, or of which we have heard, that declares the glory of the Creator, also exposes the disgraceful fall of the creature. The offspring of sin are death and hell; for “sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (James 1:15). That the heavens cast out their native inhabitants, namely, “the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation” (Jude 6), and that the earth is filled with darkness, resentments, griefs, malediction, and revenge, is all to be attributed entirely to sin, this cankerous ulcer of nature. On account of sin “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven” (Romans 1:18); the earth, lately founded by a most beneficent Creator, is cursed; the old world having but just emerged from the deluge, and “the heavens and the earth which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:7). Yea, forasmuch as “the creature was made subject to vanity” (Romans 8:20), there is none of the creatures which, by its confusion, vanity, and inquietude, does not declare this detestable poison, with which it is thoroughly infected, to be exceeding sinful. This is the source and origin of all evils to sinners themselves. Whatever darkness, tumult, vanity, slavery, and “fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation”, vexes, harasses, oppresses, tortures, burns, corrupts, or kills them – and whatever comes from without, be it penal, grievous, sad, dire, dreadful, or even the last unavoidable calamity itself – is all to be attributed to this prolific parent of miseries.
Someone may wonder what this so great a plague is, which perverts the course of the creation. What crime, what kind of inexpiable wickedness has procured to creatures so highly exalted and created in the image of God to share in His glory, after being banished from heaven and paradise, an eternal deprivation of His glory, and punishment to which no measure or end is appointed? What has so incensed the mind of the most bountiful and merciful Father of all, and embittered His anger, that He should bring eternal sorrows on the work of His own hands, and kindle a fire that should burn to the lowest bottom? I will tell him in one word – sin.
Is it to be wondered at, that God should be disposed to punish severely that which earnestly wishes Him not to be God, and strives to accomplish this with all its might? Sin opposes the divine nature and existence; it is enmity against God, and is not an idle enmity; it has even engaged in a mortal war with all the attributes of God. He would not be God if He did not avenge, by the punishment of the guilty, His own injury. He hath often and heavily complained in His word, that by sin He is robbed of His glory and honour. By sin He is affronted, exposed to calumny and blasphemy, so that neither His holiness, nor His justice, nor name, nor right, nor dominion, is preserved pure and untainted. He has created all things for His own glory, and it belongs to the natural right of God to preserve that glory entire by the subjection of all His creatures, in their proper stations, to Himself. And shall we not reckon sin, when it would entirely wrest that right out of His hands, to be entirely destructive of that order, and therefore a thing to be restrained by the severest punishments? Let sinners, then, be informed that the least transgression abounds with hatred against God; is highly injurious to Him; brands Him, as far as is in its power, with folly, impotence, and injustice; and directly robs Him of all His honour, glory, and power. Therefore, if He wills to be God, He can by no means suffer sin to escape unpunished.
It was not for nothing that on that day on which He made man a living soul He threatened him with death, even eternal death; that in giving His law He thundered forth so many dread execrations against this fatal evil; and that He has threatened it with such punishment and with so great anger, fury, wrath, tribulation, and anguish. It was with a view to vindicate His own glory, and provide for the salvation of sinners, that He made His most holy Son, who was “holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners,” to be “sin” and a “curse” (Hebrews 7:26; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13), and subjected Him to that last punishment, the death of the cross, including in it the satisfaction due to His violated law. All these things divine justice required as necessary to the preservation of His honour, glory, wisdom, and dominion. Let every proud complaint of sinners, then, be hushed, for we know that “the judgment of God is according to truth against them that do evil” (Romans 2:2).
Sin, in respect of the creature, is folly, madness, fury, blindness, hardness, darkness, stupor, giddiness, torpor, turpitude, uncleanness, nastiness, a stain, a spot, an apostasy, degeneracy, a wandering from the mark, a turning aside from the right path, a disease, a languor, destruction, death. In respect of the Creator, sin is a disgrace, an affront, blasphemy, enmity, hatred, contempt, rebellion, an injury. In respect of its own nature, sin is poison, a stench, dung, vomit, polluted blood, a plague, a pestilence, an abominable, detestable, cursed thing. Sin is that which, by its most pernicious power of metamorphosing, has transformed angels into devils, light into darkness, life into death, paradise into a desert, a pleasant, fruitful, blessed world into a vain, dark, accursed prison, and the Lord of all into a Servant of servants. Sin has made man, who was the glory of God, to be an enemy to himself, a wolf to others, hateful to God, his own destroyer, the destruction of others, the plague of the world, a monster, and a ruin. Sin, attempting to violate the eternal, natural, and indispensable right of God, and to cut the thread of the creature’s dependence on the Creator, has introduced, with itself, this world of iniquity.
First, then, to address you who live, or rather are dead, under the guilt, dominion, power, and law of sin, “How shall ye escape the damnation of hell?” The judgment of God is that you who commit those things to which you are totally given up, and from which you cannot refrain, are “worthy of death”. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10: 31) because it is “a just thing with him to render to everyone according to his works.” And who shall deliver you out of His mighty hand? How can “the wrath to come” be averted? With what can you make atonement to so great a judge? Sacrifices avail nothing; hence those words in the prophet, which express not so much the language of inquiry as of confusion and astonishment: “Wherewithal shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6: 6, 7). Would you attempt an obedience arduous and expensive beyond all credibility? By such dreadful propitiations, by such dire and accursed sacrifices, at the thought of which human nature shudders, would you appease the offended Deity? These furies, which now agitate you within by starts, will, by their vain attempts against the snares of death, torment us to all eternity: for God, the judge of all, will not accept “sacrifice, or offering, or burnt-offerings for sin”. With these He is not at all delighted, for “the redemption of the soul is precious, and ceaseth for ever” (Psalm 49: 8). God cannot so lightly esteem or disregard His holiness, justice, and glory, to which your sins have done so great an injury, that He should renounce them all for the sake of hostile conspirators unless there should be some other remedy quickly provided for you; unless the Judge Himself shall provide a lamb for a burnt-offering; unless the gates of a city of refuge shall be quickly opened to you in your trembling at the avenging curse of the law; unless you can find access to the horns of the altar. If God is to remain blessed for ever, you must doubtless perish for ever. If, then, you have the least concern or anxiety for your eternal state, hasten, while it is today, to “lay hold on the hope that is set before you.” Give yourselves up entirely to Him; receive Him “whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness.”
Those with spiritual eyes will perceive how bitter a sense of sin; how deep the humiliation, contrition, and dejection of heart and spirit; what self-hatred, condemnation, and contempt; what great self indignation and revenge; and what esteem of, and faith in, the necessity, excellence, and dignity of the righteousness and satisfaction of Christ, must be excited and kept alive by a proper view of the transgression of the divine law, the nature of sin, and the disobedience of the creature. Such a view have they who are convinced of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment, by God graciously condescending to bestow upon them His holy Spirit, without whose effectual aid and heart-changing grace even the most apposite remedies applied to this disease will be in vain.
To those happy persons “whose sins are forgiven, and to whom God will not impute iniquity,” because He hath laid their transgressions upon Christ, the knowledge of this divine truth is as a spur to quicken them to the practice of every virtue and to sincere obedience. In what high honour and esteem must God be held by the man who, having escaped from the snares of death and the destruction due to him, through His inexpressible mercy, hath thoroughly weighed the nature of sin and the consequences of it. The man will ever acknowledge himself indebted to eternal love for the remission of the least transgression, because in inexpressible grace and goodness it hath been forgiven, when he reflects that such is the quality and nature of sin, and so impiously inimical is it to God, that unless His justice be satisfied by the punishment of another, He could not pardon it or let it pass unpunished. From this truth we may learn too how much beyond all other objects of our affection we are bound to love with our heart and soul, and all that is within us, our dear and beloved Deliverer and most merciful Saviour, Jesus Christ, “who hath delivered us from the wrath to come.” Is not He to be caressed and dearly beloved, to be contemplated with faith, love, and joy, who answered for our lives with His own, devoted Himself to punishment, and at the price of His blood, “while we were yet enemies,” purchased us, and rendered us “a peculiar people to himself?” We, now secure, may contemplate in His agony, sweat, tremor, horror, exclamations, prayers, cross, and blood, what is God’s severity against sin, and what are the punishment and curse of the broken law. Unless God, the judge and ruler of all, after having thoroughly examined the nature, hearts, ways, and lives of us all, had thence collected whatever was contrary to His law, improper, unjust, and impure, whatever displeased the eyes of His purity, provoked His justice, roused His anger and severity, and laid it all on the shoulders of our Redeemer, and condemned it in His flesh, it had been better for us, rather than to be left eternally entangled in the snares of death and of the curse, never to have enjoyed this common air, but to have been annihilated as soon as born. Wretched men that we are, who shall deliver us from this most miserable state by nature? “Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” May we always, then, be “sick of love” towards our Deliverer! may He always be our “beloved, who is white and ruddy, and the chiefest among ten thousand!”
The acknowledging of this truth has respect not only to the manifestation of His justice, but also of the wisdom, holiness, and dominion of God over His creatures. That justice which, in respect of its effect and egress, we call vindicatory, which, as we have before demonstrated, is natural to God and essential, and therefore absolutely perfect in itself, or rather perfection itself, this very truth, which we have thus far defended, evidently illustrates; as also His supreme rectitude in the exercise of it, “when he sits on his throne judging righteously;” and how severe a judge He will be towards impenitent sinners, whose sins are not expiated in the blood of Christ! That justice is not a free act of the divine will, which God may use or renounce at pleasure; nor is sin only a debt of ours, which, as we were unable to pay, He might forgive by only freely receding from His right: for what reason, then, could be assigned why the Father of mercies should so severely punish His most holy Son on our account, that He might, according to justice, deliver us from our sins, when, without any difficulty, by one act of His will, and that too a most free and holy act, He could have delivered both Himself and us wretched sinners from this evil? But it exists in God in the manner of a habit, natural to the divine essence itself, perpetually and immutably inherent in it, which, from His very nature, He must necessarily exercise in every work that respects the proper object of His justice; for sin is that ineffable evil which would overturn God’s whole right over His creatures unless it were punished. As, then, the perfection of divine justice is infinite, and cannot by any means be relaxed by God, it is of the utmost importance to sinners to seriously and deeply think how they are to stand before Him.
Moreover, the infinite wisdom of God, the traces of which we so clearly read in creation, legislation, and in the other works of God, is hereby wondrously displayed, to the eternal astonishment of men and angels; for none but an infinitely wise God could bring about that, which in its own nature is opposite to Him, inimical, and full of obstinacy, should turn out to His highest honour, and the eternal glory of His grace. Yea, the divine wisdom not only had respect to God Himself, and to the security of His glory, honour, right, and justice, but even provided for the good of miserable sinners, for their best interests, exaltation, and salvation, and from the empoisoned bowels of sin itself. “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” By interposing a surety and covenant-head between sin and the sinner, between the transgression of the law and its transgressor, He condemned and punished sin, restored the law, and freed the sinner both from sin and from the law. “He hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence,” (Ephesians 1: 8), when He “made all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God,” (Ephesians 3: 9); for “in Christ are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2: 2, 3).
It will be for ever esteemed a miracle of God’s providence that He should have made the captivity or wicked sale of Joseph, by means of so many windings, perplexed mazes, and strange occurrences, issue at last in his own exaltation and the preservation of his brethren, who impiously sold him. But if anyone, though endowed with the tongues of angels and of men, should attempt to describe this mystery of divine wisdom, whereby it is evident that God exalts His own name, and not only recovers His former honour, but even raises it, manifests His justice, preserves inviolable His right and dominion in pardoning sin, wherewith He is highly pleased and incredibly delighted (and unless this heavenly discovery, a truly God-like invention, had intervened, He could not have pardoned even the least sin), he must feel his language not only deficient, but the eye of the mind, overpowered with light, will fill him with awe and astonishment. That this which is the greatest, yea, the only disgrace and affront to God, should turn out to His highest honour and glory; that this which could not be permitted to triumph without the greatest injury to the justice, right, holiness, and truth of God, should find grace and pardon, to the eternal and glorious display of justice, right, holiness and truth, was a work that required infinite wisdom: an arduous task, and every way worthy of God.
Finally, let us constantly contemplate in the mirror of this truth the holiness of God, whereby “he is of purer eyes than to behold evil”, in “whose presence the wicked shall not stand”, that we ourselves may become more pure in heart, and more holy in life, speech, and behaviour.