Righteousness and peace kiss.
Resolving the tension between God’s love and God’s justice.
A common query which vexes students of theology is the apparent tension between the justice and love of God. As is evident throughout Scripture, God is perfectly just in every one of his deeds and in all that he requires. He is righteous in all ways and at all times; and, likewise, he insists upon the same from those who are subordinate to him. Unrighteousness demands justice, sin calls for punishment, which is the prerogative of God alone to dispense (Deut. 7:9–10; Rom. 12:19). Tensions rise, however, when one perceives the apparent success of the unrighteous.
Wicked and vile men continue in their cruelty without consequence, or so it seems, precipitating the derelict anthems of the prophet Jeremiah, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (Jer. 12:1). Similar cries can be heard emanating from the Psalter (Ps. 37:1, 7; 73:3–12), which serve as inspired expressions of the vernacular of apparent injustice. The unease resulting from this seeming contradiction on God’s part is assuaged in the recollection of both the fate of the wicked and the objective of the gospel. The ostensible prosperity of evildoers is rendered null in the knowledge of the ultimate penalty which awaits the unrighteous. “Though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish,” the psalmist attests, “they are doomed to destruction forever” (Ps. 92:7; cf. 73:17–20).
As such, as Millard J. Erickson maintains, “God’s justice must not be evaluated on a short-term basis” (260). Short-sighted perceptions of God’s justice will frequently be subject to frustration, resulting in a faith that often succumbs to exhaustion. Likewise, though, it is not mere leniency which allows for the apparent flourishing of the wicked. Rather, as is manifest in the gospel, it is the loving intention of God that none “should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9; 1 Tim. 2:4). It is God’s love — faithful, merciful love — which seeks to draw all men to himself (John 12:32). This, to be sure, is in perfect keeping with his justice because of the revelation of the Christ of God, in whom “steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Ps. 85:10).
God’s justice and love converge and collide in the person of Christ as he atones for the sins of the world on the cross. Accordingly, there is never a moment in which God’s love is unjust or his justice is unloving. As Erickson concludes, “The offer of Jesus Christ as the atonement for sin means that both the justice and the love of God have been maintained. And there really is no tension between the two” (268). The bruised and crucified Lord, then, endures as the divine agent who brings all theological contradictions to their inevitable resolution.
Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013).
I think the resolution to the tension is found as you suggest in Paul's letter to Timothy. God desires all men to come to repentance, for the way that we think to be changed such that we can be in fellowship with Him. And one way that our thinking needs to change is about the relationship between Justice and Love or, to say the same thing differently, Law and Gospel.
I was raised in a Southern Baptist Dispensationalist tradition, and they are not the only ones that have this flaw certainly, but Dispensationalism is a good way to see an error that is in perhaps all of our sin natures. They talk about 'the church age', a 'parentheses' where Grace is operative and Law is in some sense suspended. We don't all go so far, but I think we all see Law as a kind of Ultimate Reality, anything that is not Law is sort of an exception, and this goes hand in hand with the idea that Justice belongs to the Essence of God.
Justice is not an essential attribute. It is not a divine perfection. Justice is a tool that God uses. Uses when and for what? Uses to bring men to Himself. Justice, and it's nastier cousin Wrath, are manifestations of Grace. Any father knows that sometimes we are severe in the hope that severity now will make the child more able to receive our love and grace later. I have said before that I don't understand mercy well, the most merciful thing that I know how to do is to hit soon enough and hard enough that I don't have to hit more than once. Sometimes Our Lord does the same thing. But the purpose is always to bring us to repentance, not feeling bad but seeing ourselves in a new light.
The summary of the whole is simply that the Command does not come before the Promise. Grace is the ultimate reality and the foundation on which Law is built. Never the other way around. I like to think of Justice as a bar like in a pole vault. Everything under the bar is failure and slavery. Everything above the bar is Freedom, is Grace. But God Himself never aims at the bar, He always goes far above the bar.
Very good article!