A question that comes up, I think more recently, perhaps, than at least I’ve heard in the past, is the question about the goodness and fairness of God. On the one hand, I think we as Christians need to focus more on the goodness and beauty of God. Our apologetics of previous years and decades have often been focused on scientific and intellectual rigor. We should certainly still contend on those fronts, I agree. We need to present a well reasoned case that shows that Christianity is true, and more than that, that it’s reasonable.
But we can’t stop there today, because we also need to make the moral argument. The argument from beauty, that God is both good, and moral, and beautiful. If you take a step back and you look at the arguments being made in culture today, they’re all moral arguments. Morality is not dead in America. Morality is not dead in the west, or in the east, or anywhere on the planet. In fact, it can’t be, because we’re created in the image of God, and moral concerns resonate deeply with us.
But you look at all of the arguments being made by people who aren’t Christians about Christians. What are they arguing against them with them? Morality. They’re saying our views on LGBT issues, on perhaps the environment, or whatever; not that there’s a Christian perspective and policy on the environment, but all of that to say they’re arguing that we’re immoral on those grounds, on those beliefs.
So morality is very much at play today, but the fairness of God comes into question when we talk about Christianity and specifically, is God good? Some people think God is unfair. Some Christians want to go to the mat defending the fairness of God. Let’s talk about today, the fairness of God. This is a very pertinent question because it’s related to and at the heart of concerns about why some people are saved, and some people are not, why some people get sick and experience evil, and why some do not, why some people never even hear the gospel, never have the opportunity to reject the gospel. We’ve talked about these topics before, but at the heart of them is the fairness of God. We have not talked about that head on. At least, I don’t think we have.
This is a topic, though, where definitions are really important. If we can’t agree on our terms, or at least use terms consistently, we’re likely to go off in the wrong direction, or just be inconsistent. So we have to ask the question, what does it mean to be fair? The dictionary defines fairness as the quality of having light colored hair or pale complexion. So is God fair? Well, not on that definition. No, that’s obviously not the definition we’re looking for.
The definition that’s generally in people’s minds is this one: impartial treatment, the lack of favoritism towards one side or party, or another. We have to ask, is God fair based on that definition? I’m going to say no. I’m going to say God’s actually not fair based on that definition. You might be thinking, okay now that … I just can’t sit well with that. I’m not sure how that plays with what I think about God, because if God’s not fair, then wouldn’t that mean he’s immoral?
No. At the heart of this is something we can’t spend a lot of time on today, but it’s what is our authority? We’ll talk about that a little at the end, but where do we get these concepts of goodness, and fairness, and justice, and grace, and mercy? Who defines those terms? Is it kind of the concept of fairness you learn on the playground? Where if you bring one snack and share with one person, well it’s unfair if you didn’t have one to share with everyone. Is that unfair? Well according to this definition of impartial treatment and not showing favoritism, yes, that example from the playground or snack time would be unfair. But does that mean it’s wrong? Is all unfairness sin? Well, no. Not if this the definition and the Bible’s definition of sin is at play.
I want to give you an example about how God actually does show partiality? That term has a very negative connotation, but it shouldn’t because I show partiality to my wife. I treat my wife unlike any other woman; and I should. If I don’t, I’m being a bad husband. It’s actually immoral for me not to show favoritism to my wife. If I were fair to all women, according to impartial treatment, lack of favoritism, then I would actually be a bad husband. In the same way, if I treated all children like I treat my daughter, I would be a bad father, or it would just be creepy; but probably both, okay?
So, favoritism and unfairness is actually good sometimes. Now, you might say that there are different nuances of the definition that I’m kind of running over, and that may be true, but I’m getting at something here that’s important. Let’s actually go to scripture and see an example of what I’m talking about where God treats one group differently than another group.
Deuteronomy 7:7. This is what God says to Israel.
“It is not because you are more numerous than all the other peoples that the Lord favored you and chose you. For in fact, you were the least numerous of all peoples, rather it was because of His love for you and His faithfulness to the promise, He solemnly vowed to your ancestors that the Lord brought you out with great power, redeeming you from the place of slavery, from Pharaoh, the king. So realize that the Lord, your God, is the true God, the faithful God who keeps covenant faithfully with those who love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations, but who pays back those who hate Him as they deserve, and destroy them.”
Why did God treat Israel differently? Because of something in them? No. Like you could say if it were something in them, that God treats all small nations the same way, and all large nations the same way. While that’s still discrimination in a way, it would be based on something that might be meaningful, depending on what action was being undertaken. But no, that’s not the case here, right? He didn’t treat them because they were better. He didn’t treat them a certain way because they were bigger. No, He treated them a certain way simply because He loved them. When did He start to love them? He had always loved them.
So we see here that He’s following through on His promises, but He is treating them differently than the other nations. Now, He does chastise them when they sin. He does punish them when they sin, but He has special promises only to Israel. For people who would come through Israel, ultimately to the Messiah, Jesus, that He doesn’t give to other people, right? So He is showing favoritism to Israel. He consistently does that. Based on our definition, that means God is unfair.
You’re probably thinking why are you having a whole podcast trying to show that God is unfair? That just does not seem like a good idea. Like, you’re not making God look better. The point I’m trying to make here is if we think God looks bad because of what I’m saying, then we have formed our conception of fairness not from scripture. We have formed our concept of justice and immorality and sin not from scripture, if the secular idea that just kind of floats around as common wisdom actually makes God’s actions look evil. We have it entirely backwards. It should be the picture of God revealed in scripture, the actual teaching straight forward, explicit teaching of scripture, also, that forms our conception of fairness and justice; not what is culturally acceptable.
Because on the one hand, there are ways in which God is not fair, but that should not be a problem. There are, perhaps, unjust ways of being unfair, and just ways of being unfair; or perhaps I should say, sinful ways of being unfair, and non-sinful ways of being unfair. I’ll cash that out in a minute. Because we also have to contend with not just Deuteronomy 7:7, that God chose people not because of their size, but He did set His love on them, and not on the other nations. He did that.
But we also have to contend with Romans 9, which says, “What shall we say then? Is there injustice with God? Absolutely not, for He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.'”
Sometimes I think we find ourselves asking this question. We read something in scripture and we’re like, ‘God, that seems unjust.’ Paul’s like, ‘Is there injustice with God? Absolutely not. May it never be.’ Now, Paul isn’t saying that God treats some people worse than others, or that He treats some people poorly, and others neutral, or well. What he is saying is, is some people get mercy, and some people don’t. It’s not that He treats some worse. It’s that He treats some better.
What we’re going to see as we go through our talk today in our passages is that everyone gets at least what they deserve. No one gets worse than they deserve. That’s entirely key. God’s not taking some people backwards. He is moving some people forwards. There’s inequity sometimes due to mercy or grace that’s been extended to some, but not to all. Some people receive it, some people don’t. That’s what Paul’s saying here, right? He has mercy on all, but don’t question His justice. Justice does not require mercy. Okay, so everyone gets at least justice.
This is the same thing that’s happening in Deuteronomy 7, right? So what’s happening here? Well, God’s showing mercy and grace to some, and not to all; but everyone’s getting at least what they deserve. It’s not fair in a way, but it’s not unjust. We have to have these categories that come from the scriptures in order to make sense of the scriptures, and to realize that fairness is not the highest good, right? You can be unfair and still just. You can be unfair and righteous because God is unfair in how He treated Israel, but he’s still righteous. You can also be unfair in a way that’s unrighteous, and we’ll talk about that.
Now, what about Romans 3? This is another passage that talks about the justice of God. Not the fairness. Scripture isn’t so much concerned with fairness, but it is concerned with righteousness, and justice, and holiness, and grace. Here’s what Paul says in Romans 3.
“For there is no distinction,” he means between Jew and Greek, “For all have sinned, (All kinds of people have sinned. And yes, every individual) and falls short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God publicly displayed him at his death at the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate God’s righteousness, because God in His forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. This was also to demonstrate His righteousness (You could also say His justice) in the present time so that God would be seen to be both just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness (or because of faith in Jesus).”
So the cross accomplished at least two things. It did more than this, but not less than this. It showed that God was just, that He does punish sin. It also made Him the justifier, the one who can declare someone else righteous because of what Christ did. So Christ was credited with our sin. We get credited with the righteousness of God if we have faith in Him.
But you’ll see here, neither of these things are fair. Is it fair that the sinner is credited as righteous? Well, no. Not at all. He’s a sinner. Why does he get a righteous standing? Right? Is it fair that Jesus was credited with our sin? Well, no. He didn’t get what he deserved. He was treated in a way that no righteous person should be treated so that, once again, in an unfair way, we would be treated how no unrighteous person could actually be treated.
So there is justice here. There is mercy and grace here, but there’s not fairness. Okay, I don’t think that word is actually helpful. It’s kind of like culturally today, people are very concerned with being nice, which is kind of like an appearance. It’s a feeling, as opposed to kindness, which is a virtue. In the same way, I think we as Christians, and society get very caught up on fairness, and not so much on justice, not so much on righteousness and holiness, and grace.
If we mean that fairness requires not treating someone better than someone else, God is unfair, okay? But, if we think of fairness as not unjustly treating someone worse than someone else, God is fair. God doesn’t treat anyone who deserves something worse than someone else who deserved the same thing. So, He does treat some better than others. But no one gets less than they deserve. He gives justice, at least justice, to everyone.
We often think we deserve better than we actually do. I think that’s also part of why people have this rejection to how God treats sin. But let’s let God and the Bible conform us to its categories. For instance, Isaiah, 46:6. I like how the NET Bible renders this. It’s pretty accurate.
It says, “All of our so called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in God’s sight.” So called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in your sight. I’m not going to explain that, in case there are little ears, but you get the picture. It’s not a good one. Even the best things we’ve done on our best day with our best intents on our own are pitiful and shameful, and disgusting before the Lord and His holy perfect standard.
In Romans 6:23 tells us that the payoff, what we literally earn from this sin, is death. Even those best so called acts of righteousness weren’t death and punishment, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord. What do we see here? That there is something that is justly owed, and it is death; but some people get grace. They get better than they deserve. Is that fair? No, but it’s grace. Grace is not fair. Mercy is not fair, but it is not unjust.
So everyone gets at least what they deserve, or better. You either get justice, or you get grace; but no one gets injustice. That is so important. No one gets injustice. Everyone gets at least what they deserve, or better. You get justice or grace. You get justice or mercy.
So just in concluding today, we have to think of our standards. If this sits with you the wrong way, consider why. Is it because the Bible and its examples, and its explicit teaching has formed your categories? Or, is it because of all of us, myself included, have had some categories, and just the default way we respond to things, shaped by our culture, and fairness? Perhaps those lessons we learned very early on in elementary school, where if you didn’t have something to share with everyone, you couldn’t share with anyone.
That’s actually not a good concept of fairness, because I’m going to treat different people differently. Now, there are inappropriate ways to discriminate. There are appropriate ways to discriminate. There are inappropriate ways to be unfair. There are appropriate ways to be unfair. God is appropriately unfair because He extends grace to some people. If he treated some people worse than others when they were guilty of the same things, then that would be unfair; but that’s not what happens. He treats some people better than others when they’re guilty of the same things. Everyone gets at least what they deserve.
There is not injustice with God, right? Paul’s not concerned about the fairness point so much, but he is concerned about justice. I think our vocabulary kind of betrays what our influences are sometimes, and how we’re thinking about things. Let’s commit to hashing things out more in terms of justice, and grace, and love, and mercy, and not so much in fairness; which is a squishy term. But if we insist on fairness, we may actually have an issue wearing our concept of fairness with the biblical picture of the true and living God.
Well, I will talk with you next week on ‘Unapologetic.’