Divine Versus Human Justice

Hyveth Williams

Buried deep in God’s Word are everlasting truths about divine justice. This is God's fair and impartial treatment of all people, which is a necessary correlate of His holiness, or moral excellence. And since God is infinitely and eternally perfect, He must be impartial in His judgments and always treat His creatures with equity (Gen. 18:25). 

Divine justice, more commonly known as the righteousness of God, is the most significant attribute of the Lord that we need to contemplate and understand. As humans living in the presence of sin, it’s obvious that rebellious conduct from the pulpit to the pew is producing disrespect for divinity and guilt, which brings conflict with humanity.

God’s justice requires freedom, accountability, restoration, and transformation and is different from human social justice. A glaring difference is demonstrated by Jesus in a parable tucked away in Matthew 18:21-25. It’s a dramatic example of divine justice versus human justice, where the two are shrewdly compared.

The telling of this parable, known as the unforgiving, or unfair, servant, should be rightly called a comparison between divine and human justice; but it’s also frequently described as Jesus’ illustration of the true spirit of forgiveness. When Peter heard it, and in his assumed role as spokesperson for the disciples, he took the initiative to improve upon it by way of a question that was really not a question: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (verse 21, NIV).1

Because Peter is commonly described as one whose reasoning was often clouded by his culture, customs, or his own idea of what it meant to be the Messiah, he’s often labeled as one who speaks without common-sense filters. But we owe a great deal to Peter’s quick tongue. True, he repeatedly put his foot in his mouth, so to speak, especially when he rushed to speak in impetuous ways. In fact, on one occasion, after confronting Satan, Jesus admonished Peter strongly, saying: “You are not setting your mind on things of God, but on things of man” (Matt. 16:23, AMP).2

Regardless of Peter’s reckless spontaneity, however, without his eager willingness to put himself at risk and speak freely, we would not have eternal lessons such as the one in Matthew 18:21-35. For to Peter’s credit goes this everlasting lesson, drawn out of Jesus with one question we would all have wanted to ask: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (verse 21, NIV).

Peter had more than doubled the Jewish practice of pardoning someone three times for an offense. Ancient Jews rigidly followed this rule based on their interpretation of Amos 2:6, where it’s written: “Thus says the Lord, ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment’” (ESV).3 From this, rabbis deduced that divine justice extended to only three offences, one at a time only—no more, no less. At the fourth, the offender would be severely punished. This rule was a rabbinic teaching to which all Jews in the time of Jesus were required to adhere. 

So when Peter suggested forgiveness seven times, the other disciples must have thought it a magnanimous gesture. Peter had multiplied the rabbinic requirement by two, then added one more for good measure. But Jesus famously replied, “I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” To make it plain, in this parable He illustrated heaven’s justice using the act of forgiveness practiced by a compassionate king who represented God and an unjust servant who is a symbol of humans. 

We couldn’t ask for a more vivid, distinctive difference between divine and human justice than this lesson. Jesus didn’t say or mean merely 77 times, but rather 70 multiplied seven times, which is 490 times. Thus, He clearly demonstrated that no finite number can ever indicate the fathomless extent of forgiveness in divine justice and His willingness to rescue humanity and redeem us from the power, presence, and penalty of sin. 

Hyveth Williams is a professor at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.

1 Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

2 Scripture quotations credited to AMP are taken from Amplified Bible, copyright © 1954, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved. Used by permission. 

3 Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.