A Problematic Proverb

In my recent reading through the book of Proverbs, I came across a rather problematic verse.  Proverbs 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.”

At one level, there’s nothing altogether remarkable about that verse.  As a statement of God’s standard of justice, it makes perfect sense.  No one would argue that a judge acts rightly if he condemns an innocent man.  And leaving aside a possible desire to show mercy, no one would like it if a judge gave his hearty stamp of approval to a vile murderer.  Both the punishment of the guiltless and the acquittal of the guilty offend our notions of fairness and justice.  So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that God considers both of these injustices as “abominations” to his perfect, holy standards.

The problematic part is when you compare this verse to what the Bible says about Jesus.  At least on the surface, the gospel message contains both aspects of what God reveals as an abomination in Proverbs 17:15.

First, the gospel points to God himself as the one who justifies the wicked.  In Romans 4:5, Paul says that if we do not work to conform to an external standard of righteousness, but instead have faith in Christ, our faith is counted as righteousness.  In whom do we believe?  In “him who justifies the ungodly.”  So God is doing exactly what he said is an abomination to him — he is justifying ungodly, wicked sinners by counting their faith as righteousness.

Second, the gospel points to God as the one who condemns the righteous.  In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul says that Jesus “knew no sin,” but yet God made Jesus to be sin on our behalf.  And God didn’t stop there.  Romans 8:3 says that he condemned sin in Jesus.  Again, God is doing what he says is an abomination — he is condemning an innocent man.  His beloved son, no less.

So what are we to make of these verses?  Don’t skip over the difficulty here.  Why doesn’t God’s punishment of Jesus, the only truly righteous and innocent man that ever lived, make God unjust?  We can look ahead and say that it was an exercise of God’s mercy, but doesn’t that put God’s mercy at odds with his justice, at least as it’s revealed in Proverbs 17:15?  Likewise, why doesn’t God’s justification of ungodly, rebellious sinners like me and you make God unholy and unjust?  It’s very easy to skim the surface of that question and let our minds come to rest on God’s merciful love for us.  But again, doesn’t that put God’s love and mercy in tension with his righteous standards of justice?

To sharpen the point, imagine that God had created a second man at the same time he made Adam, but, unlike Adam, the other man did not rebel against God and suffer the devastating effects of sin.  Suppose further that this second man went on to live a perfect life in the eyes of God, and when he was in the prime of life, out of love and pity for Adam, offered to pay the penalty of Adam’s sin in his place.  Then suppose that God took him up on the offer, declaring Adam as perfectly righteous in spite of the life of sin he had lived, and pouring out the full weight of his wrath on the innocent man instead of Adam for all eternity.  Looking solely from Adam’s standpoint, that would be an amazing — and warmly welcomed — outcome.  Instead of eternal wrath and torment, he received eternal joy.  Looking to the other man, though, the outcome appear unjust.  His offer to take Adam’s sin may have been amazingly loving and generous, but it just wouldn’t be right to have a truly innocent man suffer the brunt of God’s anger against sin.

The different between that hypothetical and the gospel is that in Jesus, God satisfied his own holy, just standards.  It wasn’t unfair for God to punish an innocent man in Jesus because Jesus is God.  Neither was it unjust for God to treat ungodly, unjust sinners as just and holy because God credited to us his own perfect righteousness.  I’m accepted as righteous because Christ lived a perfectly righteous life, not because I lived up to God’s standard.

This exchange of the just treatment of Jesus’ righteousness for the just treatment of my sin is at the very heart of the gospel.  In fact, it is the gospel.  In Christ, God both displayed his amazing grace and satisfied his perfect justice, so that in Jesus, “we might become the righteousness of God.”  2 Cor. 5:21.

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