By Catherine Ramey
I have always had a passion for justice, somehow grasping in the dark recesses of my mind that if God is truly good, then He is also fully just. I’ve spent years searching for a foundational understanding because oftentimes His justice appears harsh, especially as I have sometimes misunderstood a biblical character’s actions with an assumption of God’s approval (Jdgs 11).
Genesis 1-2 present the clearest, most uncluttered view of God; almost all of it is His speaking and doing. There is no existential clutter as occurs after the “fall” in chapter 3. Ultimately God establishes a foundation of justice for all creation (Psa 89:14), and this is mandated to be carried forward in all we say and do (Deu 16:20; Mic 3; 6:8).
God’s justice may be uncomfortable at times, but when it is finally understood, it is mind-blowing as an affirmation of all God says of Himself in scripture. Moses discovers this as he obeys God to lead Israel out of captivity (Exod. 34:6-7). The key, I believe, is to rethink the ages-old debate as to what it means to be “image and likeness” of God. What I have discovered is that God’s justice is very different than the many forms called “justice” in the world, and even as practiced in many churches. Why? God holds Himself fully accountable to His own nature without apology, hesitation or coercion (Gen. 22:16; Heb. 6:13). His incarnation is marked just the same (Matt. 16:23, 39; John 12:27).
Throughout Genesis 1 and 2, God models accountability. Each day, beginning with the third day, when oppositionals (solid and liquid) are ordered to serve in the interest of life (Gen. 1:9-13), God self-critiques what He has accomplished on that day. All together His determinations result in a creation that is, in His sovereign judgment, “good” and eventually “very good” (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 26, 31). We see this is not merely for His own satisfaction, but for the benefit of all He has created (Gen. 2:18). His Reality alone allows all things to work together for good (Rom. 8:28).
God’s justice may be uncomfortable at times, but when it is finally understood, it is mind-blowing as an affirmation of all God says of Himself in scripture.
In scripture, every time God is described in emotional terms (sorrow, regret, disgust, wrath, delight and more), that sentient mood is linked to an action to bless or curse based upon man’s words, actions/inactions and the outcome or impact on God’s “good” creation. His emotions affirm His own honor and concern for all He has made. Accountability defies our fallen egocentricity without abandoning a Just self-regard (Deut. 9:28; Mal. 2:2). And by reference to emotion, God tells us in which way He will act or hold Himself to account to bring creation back toward accord with His plan and purpose.
God holds Himself to account so that arguably His coming for the purpose of extending salvation is part of the justice He requires of Himself. All the earth thunders with the Reality that He created what is “very good,” benevolent and life-supporting toward every other aspect of creation and yet, paradoxically, toward “free will” or “choice” that can resolve down to decay and death (Gen .2:16-17). He allows for the possibility of deplorable rebellion, yet never dismisses the labor of His own hands but retains accountability to ever act toward restoration.
Mankind was justly warned that his unjust choice (defying his Creator) would result in disaster. God could have said “I told you so” and washed His hands of humanity. But what we see in scripture is that paying the redemption price for what He has created is the ultimate of taking responsibility for what God spoke into being.
It can never be said God “owed” us our rescue. God could have held Himself accountable by destroying all that He made (Gen. 6:13; 1 Pet. 3:20). It is a legitimate option. He chose the more costly option because through the cross God provides a picture of the degree to which He holds Himself to account: it declares His intrinsic nature in outward expressions of Love, Mercy, Goodness, Justice and other of His eternal attributes (Rom. 5:6-8; 1 Cor. 13). It defines what it means to be holy.
As externalized, we see the degree to which God is other-focused; He speaks and acts toward the eternal wellbeing of what He creates. He alone is Life, triumphant over death and all other contenders (1 Cor. 15:54-58). This is true, whether He acts to bless or curse. He acts with eternal good in view, even when expressed temporally through wrath (Neh. 1:8-9).
This amazing self-accountability is fundamental to God’s nature, and it is, first to last, what God models and then requires and desires of mankind (Gen. 3:17-19; Deut. 30:19; Lev. 26). Adam is presented with the ability to exercise a choice with the nature of his future hanging in the balance. He is given responsibility and accountability for his choosing. Throughout scripture God exhorts all humanity toward making choices in keeping with His nature. He leaves us free, like Adam, at the same time, to choose our eternal future.
Whether in life or death, God allows us to be as He is (image and likeness), accountable for our every word and deed.
Whether in life or death, God allows us to be as He is (image and likeness), accountable for our every word and deed. What this suggests is to say mankind images God best as he holds himself accountable in the same way—to the standard God establishes. This is not “legalism” as some might presume, but is embodied in an obedient and joyous relationship with God. It is in keeping with His own determination to judge every matter including our every carelessly spoken word (Matt. 12:36).
God wastes nothing, including His creation of time. Adam’s alone-time in the garden is critical! It carries the principle forward that man or woman, our first, vital relationship, our fundamental accountability, is always first to our Creator. To forge any other such relationship results in being cursed (Exod. 20:3-6; 1 Sam. 26:19). Nothing can sustain us in the necessary way God does. Then, having had time to recognize this (since initially God alone supplies Adam with life, purpose and intimacy), the man becomes cognizant of a secondary need (Gen. 2:19-20).
Man has been intentionally oriented to interact in creation with an outward/other focus as an accountable agent of God’s justice; to honor God, properly manage all animal life and provide stewardship over the garden called “earth,” and to do so in healthy cooperation with an equal and “opposite” of his own kind (Gen. 2:8, 15, 16, 20; 2:22). All of this external focus and Adam’s success and affirmation (as a second witness) in doing all that God commanded, informs us God is again, in a sense, self-critiquing and expressing satisfaction in meeting His stated purpose (Gen. 1:26). Mankind is fully able to reflect God’s own accountability and express a proper rule over all that God has made on the earth.
This is not expressed in the sort of “perfection” that never “misses the mark,” but in a perfection of self-critiquing against God’s holy standard, and then moving in corrective accountability. Our confession (Jas. 5:16) affirms that God Is and Remains the God-standard throughout all generations. We imitate His self-accountability so that we are manifestly and essentially imitating Him (“image and likeness”) no matter the mess we may create along the way.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life.”
 The references on God’s ownership of all He says and does are too numerous, the actions too clear to allow ourselves the idea that God is remote or idle in mere “feelings” (Genesis 6:6-7; 7:4; 8:21; Deuteronomy 7:4; 9:20; Numbers 24:1-7; 1 Chronicles 21:15ff.; 1 Samuel 15:35-16:1, 14, 18; Psalm 106:43-47; Proverbs 1:24-29; Jonah 3:10; Zechariah 8:11-15; Ezekiel 16:38, 42; 20:33-34; 24:14; Joel 2:11; Luke 2:11-14; Acts 3:18; 2 Corinthians 7:ff.; Hebrews 4:12; Revelation 11:18-19; 21:1-8).
 “Blessing and cursing” serve as a figure of speech, a merism like “day and night” and “heaven and earth”; the extremes accounting for all words and deeds that fall between committed servanthood to God and utter rebellion [see Bullinger]. By use of these terms, God declares Himself Judge of all we say, do, or fail to do.
Catherine Ramey graduated from Western Seminary in 2001 with an M. Div. degree in theology and counseling. She has researched Biblical Justice for more than two decades and has written magazine articles and commentaries on the same since 1989.