Imagine a man who is always able to turn every situation to his own advantage. He is a smooth talker who can convince others to loan him their car, not realizing that they will never see it again. When finally caught by the law, he is able to garner sympathy from the jury and escape without punishment. Nothing ever seems to stick to him, and everything goes his way. We might call such a man cunning, but he would not be wise. Wisdom seeks out what is genuinely good, not only for oneself, but also for others. The wise man must also be just.
Justice is the second of the cardinal virtues. Justice, put simply, is giving to each according to his due. Broadly considered, there are three main components to justice: the standard/law, situation, and motive. Notice how there is an inherent objectivity in this virtue. There is a standard that must be used to determine what someone is owed. You cannot go into excess with justice; that would actually be the virtue of love. Also, the situation must be taken into account, for it is not just to return a sword to a lunatic, even though it does belong to him. Finally, one cannot be accidentally just, for if you intended to cheat a shopkeeper, but gave him the correct amount by mistake, you could not be considered just.
There are three kinds of justice: individual, retributive, and distributive. Individual justice is probably the form of justice we most often think of. This is justice between individuals as individuals. It may be expressed towards God by giving Him what is due Him, namely, all praise, glory, and honor through prayers, songs, obedience, and the theological virtues. When directed towards God, justice is also known as piety. Piety was the premier Roman virtue, displayed powerfully by Aeneas as he flees from his burning city of Troy. He puts his father, who carries the household gods, on his back and takes his son by the hand, leading them out of the dying city and towards a new home. He forsakes all inward distractions as he fulfills his duty toward the gods and his descendants.
On a human level, individual justice may range from paying the proper amount at a store, returning stolen property, replacing damaged goods, and not committing any evil against another. But not only is it necessary to provide restitution in cases like this, but it is also necessary to do good toward out neighbor. As expressed in the second commandment, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. This means not only refraining from evil works and words, but also to seek their positive good as an image bearer of God. This is justice because they are made in God’s image, and are endowed with natural rights, hence, there is just (and unjust) behavior towards them.
Justice also places requirements on the community towards individuals. This is known as distributive justice. The society, as a whole, ought not to trample or ignore the natural rights of an individual so that the rest of society may flourish. This is a perpetual danger that manifests itself variously in different regimes, but it occurs in democracy when the majority tramples on the natural rights of an individual. The right to one’s life, body, family, and property may not be sacrificed on the altar of national comfort. Governments and societies that steal from their citizens, deprive families of their children, or murder their own people (born or unborn) are not just, even if their motivation is noble.
The final kind of justice is retributive or legal justice. This is justice owed by an individual towards the community as a whole. Each citizen is obligated to seek the common good of his society, even at personal discomfort. Citizens are obligated to uphold the moral laws of their state, pay taxes towards the defense of their country and administration of legal justice, and participate in government to the degree that they are able.
Often, societies grow sick by focusing on a particular form of justice to the exclusion of the others. An emphasis on individual justice may lead one to ignore the communal nature of justice and obligations of a community towards individuals. This causes a blindness to societal sins because no particular individual can be blamed. Other societies may focus only on distributive justice and ignore the necessity of an individual to work towards the common good and uphold just laws. Justice will run in every direction within a healthy society.
Also critical to this definition of justice is the idea of “what is due.” There are natural rights which are owed to individuals simply because they are made in God’s image. Some would like to expand these natural rights to an ever expanding lists of personal desires, but speaking accurately would restrict the use of “rights” to those privileges which are due to every single human being at all times and in all places. A cell phone and the internet cannot be natural rights because they did not exist for most of recorded history. Electricity isn’t even a natural right, for there are those who live without it (and some by choice!); there is not necessarily injustice here.
Justice exists because God is just. God displays his justice as He patiently bears with sin until His Son should die on a Roman cross for the sins of the world. God upholds justice by showing that He will not and cannot ignore cosmic treason, but He also shows His loving patience by granting forgiveness to those who trust in Jesus. No sin goes unpunished, and God will not judge sins twice. Either a person’s sins will be judged on the cross as Jesus bears the wrath and judgment of God, or they will be judged in the last day as rebels bear their own sins. Some people receive mercy, and some receive justice, but no one receives injustice.
God’s righteousness manifested through His Son provides the only foundation for justice. It can be tempting to condemn the innocent in this life for fear that otherwise, some of the guilty would go free and escape justice. It can be tempting to falsify evidence in order to make sure the guilty actually receive a conviction. Knowing that no sin will go unpunished can provide tremendous freedom from these pressures. No sin will escape the judgment of God. His justice never condemns the innocent and never clears the guilty. An understanding of God’s justice can provide patience and hope when it seems like this world’s justice is constantly miscarried.
Christians also have a foundation to speak about justice by looking to the cross. They recognize that they themselves are guilty and deserving of death, but God showed mercy to them. This ought to encourage compassion and eliminate hypocrisy. Truthfully, we all deserve the death penalty, but Christians have died in and with Christ. Now we proclaim the same message of forgiveness and justice to others.
In the cross, we also see that God does not overlook justice. This should prevent us from offering cheap escapes from earthly justice by not reporting crimes or avoiding civil penalties because “we forgave them.” Upholding justice involves God’s appointed rulers to carry out temporal judgment on crimes. When forgiveness is extended, the victim surrenders the claim to personal vengeance. They will not be judge, jury, and executioner. They surrender the right of vengeance to God who always judges rightly and never clears the guilty. But this does not mean that a crime is released from the need for punishment. Judges, police officers, guards, and civil magistrates have a duty from God to impose penalties on evil-doers (Rom. 13). It is unjust to refuse to punish crimes because they have been “forgiven.”
Ultimately, a revival of justice by practicing the second commandment requires a return to the first commandment: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all you mind, and with all your strength.” Natural rights only exist if there is a nature created by God. Natural laws require a law-giver. If rights are granted by a government or other human source, they may be taken away. If justice is mere societal convention, it can quickly shift with public opinion. True justice requires that there is a objective “oughtness” to the world and a standard that must be conformed to. True justice comes from on high.