Learning to Love The Gospel

THE LAW OF JUSTICE By Michael J. Preece


“Justice” or the Law of Justice

A vastly important law applies throughout God’s universe. It is the law of justice, and it is binding upon all God’s creatures. It is even binding upon God himself. The phrase “law of justice” is not actually found in the scriptures—the law of justice is referred to there as simply “justice.”

The law of justice requires that whenever a divine commandment is broken, there must be a punishment imposed and compensation made to restore the balance in natural law that was upset by the violation (see Alma 42). The positive side of the law of justice assures us that God must grant blessings to those who obey the commandments (D&C 130:20-21).

This law sets a standard for all of God’s actions relative to the eternal fate of each of his creatures. It holds that in their quest for their eternal reward, none of his creatures—none of his intelligences—will ever be unfairly accorded an advantage over another. And, no one of his creations will ever be penalized without that penalty’s being fully deserved and wholly appropriate. In all God’s giving and taking there will be no biases, no favoritisms, no discriminations, no prejudices, no prepossessions, no inconsistencies, and no partialities.

In short, all God’s decisions and actions that have an eternal impact on his creatures will occur with perfect fairness and consistency. The law of justice is really the law of perfect fairness. God is, in very fact, “no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). The reader may wish to note that the tenets of the law of justice are binding automatically upon all humankind—indeed, upon all intelligences in God’s universe. This obligation requires no consent from the individual.

The reader may have already noted there is no such “fairness doctrine” that consistently applies to this earth life. Although many of the adversities we encounter in this mortal life are deserved, and many of the blessings we receive are also appropriately earned, there are many exceptions. This mortal-life experience often deals out undeserved trials. It would seem that an element of arbitrariness is intentionally built in to this mortal experience. Uncertainty and unpredictability are intrinsic elements of our experience here.

The law of justice puts “teeth” into the law of the gospel. Because of the law of justice, there are inevitable consequences of obeying or disobeying the laws of the gospel. One cannot avoid these consequences—the law of justice has declared it so.

A “Wintry” Tenet of Justice

The law of justice is mainly known to us because of one of its particularly frightening tenets: If any individual commits a sin, then he or she is unworthy to enter the celestial kingdom or, in fact, any kingdom of glory unless some type of compensation is made. Justice allows this compensation to be made only by the Lord’s extending to the individual the blessings of his atonement.1 This feature of the law of justice is described in scripture: “There cannot any unclean thing enter into the kingdom of God” (1 Nephi 15:34; compare Alma 11:37; 40:26; 3 Nephi 27:19; Moses 6:57). The Lord confirmed the spirit of this tenet: “I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (D&C 1:31).

This tenet’s application to all kingdoms of glory renders it especially challenging and worrisome. All inhabitants of Spirit prison must confess Christ, accept him as their Savior, repent of their sins, and obey his commandments before they can inherit any kingdom of glory (Romans 14:11; Mosiah 27:31). Only in this way can the blessings of the Lord’s atonement be extended to them to absolve them of their sins. Those who remain unrepentant are “filthy still” and cannot inherit a kingdom of glory. They will be banished forever with Satan and his minions to outer darkness.

Corollaries to the Law of Justice

A few qualifications or special circumstances are important additions to the law of justice:

  1. First, a man is punished or penalized by the law of justice only for the sins of which he himself is guilty. It is unjust to punish one man for another’s sins. In other words, if one man commits a sinful act, it is not just to penalize another individual for that act. This is the law of personal accountability (Alma 34:11-12).

  2. Before a man is penalized for committing a sinful act—breaking a commandment—he must be capable of understanding that commandment. That is, he must be accountable. An unaccountable person who unwittingly commits a sinful act will not receive the penalty from the law of justice. He will not be accounted “guilty of sin.”

  3. While ignorance of the law or commandment is no excuse, a man will be judged lightly until he is brought to understanding. All accountable people will eventually have the opportunity to adequately understand the law to the point where their subsequent behavior relative to the law will either cause spiritual growth or lead to their condemnation.

Who or What Enforces the Demands of Justice?

The law of justice places certain restrictions on us. If we are penalized by that law, our options are limited by the law of justice. There are things we cannot do. There are freedoms and privileges we do not possess. For example, if we commit sin, we are forbidden to enter the celestial kingdom or any other kingdom of glory.

If coercion must be applied to enforce these limitations, who is it that applies this coercion? Who is it that enforces the demands of the law of justice? Who is it, for example, that denies blessings to those unworthy of those blessings?

The enforcer of justice would have to be fully capable of enforcing the “law of fairness” in all eternal matters. There is yet another requirement for this individual or these individuals. They must be authorized to allow exceptions to the law of justice. They would have to hear the pleas from the Savior on behalf of those for whom he desires exaltation. In other words, these enforcers of justice would also have to be able to dispense mercy. To whom does the Savior appeal? Who are the keepers of justice? When the scriptures speak of the “demands of justice” (Mosiah 15:9; Alma 34:16; 42:15), who is it that makes these demands?

Let us review the two requirements for those who make and enforce the demands of justice. First, they must be able to place and enforce binding limits on those who are unworthy of blessings. Second, they must be available to listen to the Savior’s appeals for mercy and be authorized to grant those exceptions.

This is a complex area we are not yet given to fully understand. It would seem to be, however, a useful and informative activity to consider the plausible alternatives:

  • Perhaps the enforcer of justice is God the Father himself. Certainly the Father is the epitome, essence, and personification of justice. He is by his very nature just. It is not in his nature to be otherwise. The Father may exercise his influence in enforcing the law of justice. In support of this possibility, we know that the Son pleads our case before the Father:

    Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified; wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life (D&C 45:3-5; see also Hebrews 7:25; D&C 38:4; 109:53; 110:4).

    Though the Savior will appeal our case before the Father, in the view of some, the Father cannot allow exceptions to the law of justice and remain just. Hence, he is not the law of justice, but rather is subject to it. Some have suggested he cannot redeem us in our sins because the laws of justice, which he represents, would not permit him. John Taylor gave the reason for this divine restriction: “It would be impossible for [the Father] to violate law, because in so doing he would strike at his own dignity, power, principles, glory, exaltation, and existence” (The Mediation and Atonement, 168). The Father certainly enjoys all powers possessed by the Son and more. Yet, there is reason to believe that the Father by himself cannot save us. He cannot ignore justice. He cannot bring us home to him in spite of our sins. “For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son” (John 5:22).

    How do we then explain D&C 45:3-5 quoted above? That scripture suggests that the Son brings before the Father, for his approval, the candidates for celestial glory. This suggests that the Father possesses, and could indeed exercise, veto power over the Son’s choices. It seems more likely, however, that the scripture is another of the several passages of scripture that illustrate the profound deference the Son extends toward the Father.

  • Perhaps the enforcer is the governed himself. Could the law of justice itself, without a mediator, be self-enforcing? In a sense the laws do enforce themselves by the effects they have on those who strive to keep the law. King Benjamin taught:

    Therefore if that man repenteth not, and remaineth and dieth an enemy to God, the demands of divine justice do awaken his immortal soul to a lively sense of his own guilt, which doth cause him to shrink from the presence of the Lord, and doth fill his breast with guilt, and pain, and anguish, which is like an unquenchable fire, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever (Mosiah 2:38).

    The prophet Alma reflected:

    I ought not to harrow up in my desires, the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction (Alma 29:4).

    According to Webster, one archaic meaning of harrow up is to alter or remove value from. This meaning seems applicable here. Alma says in effect, “I ought not to attempt to detract from or despoil the firm decree of a just God.

    These verses suggest that the ultimate reward of each man will be determined by the man himself. After all, would a telestial individual want to spend eternity living among a bunch of celestial people? Any individual who does not obey the law to the point of exaltation does not earn those gifts that would render him comfortable among those who will be exalted (see also Mormon 9:3-4). Such a person would not want to be in the celestial kingdom. He would not be at all like the other people. He would be uncomfortable and miserable there.

    Another aspect of the three degrees of glory might add to the “self-selection” idea or the idea that the plan enforces itself. An individual unworthy of celestial glory may be physically incapable of tolerating existence in that realm. There is evidence to suggest a celestial environment can only be tolerated by an individual with a celestial resurrected body. A terrestrial or telestial body might burn to a crisp, or otherwise be intolerant of, a celestial environment. In that case, no one would need to stand at the gate and say, “Sorry, you’re not allowed in here.” He could not enter. He could not exist there.

    This idea does not really eliminate our question as to who it is that enforces the laws of justice. There are many spiritual advantages in this second estate, and the life beyond, that individuals who are unworthy of those advantages may desire for themselves. It seems clear that an independent enforcer of justice must exist, apart from the law itself.

  • Perhaps the law of justice is an eternal principle. As such, it would stand as an eternally revered written statute. It would be long-since agreed upon and universally observed. Perhaps this written law spells out just how a man must comport himself in order to avoid being in permanent arrears to the law of justice.

    There are some things that make this possibility unlikely. For one thing, could a standing law, a written law, be modified or amended so that any needed exceptions be made, were they to become necessary? The Savior’s requests for mercy must be granted according to each individual’s qualifications. Yet, the complexity of each person’s situation and circumstances is practically endless. An inanimate statute would hardly be capable of receiving and responding sensitively to the Savior’s appeals for each qualified individual. Also, would any kind of standing law or statute be capable of enforcing itself? It would be difficult to understand just how.

  • Perhaps the law of justice is enforced by all of God’s beings or “intelligences.” There was some sentiment among the early brethren of the Church that perhaps all of the intelligent beings in the universe govern the application and administration of the demands of justice. Brigham Young taught: “The eternal laws by which he [God] and all others exist in the eternities of the Gods, decree that the consent of the creature must be obtained before the Creator can rule perfectly” (JD, 15:134). The myriad intelligences that make up our universe, in combined voice, may well constitute the “demands of justice.” They are highly likely to insist on fairness and justice since each of them is involved in the very process of working out his own salvation. Each and all are highly invested in the fair administration of the law of justice. What is true, fair, and just for one intelligence must be true, fair, and just for all. This is the spirit of the law of justice. There is no resentment and vindictiveness in their demands. It is simply their understandable insistence on equity, impartiality, and fairness for all.

    Is this plausible? Is it possible that the sum total of all the intelligences are the enforcers of the law of justice? This possibility seems not only plausible, but even likely.

    How would the intelligent creations of the Father be able to exert enough influence to enforce the law of justice? Do they have any actual power or influence in our universe? How could such a group oversee a law to which even God is beholden? What measure of enforcement power could such a group have?

    In a subsequent chapter,2 we will learn it is this very group from which emanates an important part of the power of God. The Father is the embodiment of justice in this universe, and for this he has nearly universal support from his creatures. We will learn he cannot force his will upon any of his creations. His power emanates from the willing and voluntary support of all the intelligences in his universe (D&C 63:59).

    Since all his creations are subject to the law of justice, each would have a vested interest in fair play. That is, they would not want to see anyone receive any undeserved blessings. Yet, each would want every one of God’s creatures to be treated fairly. Each would want all to receive the blessings and privileges they deserve. They would be inclined to call foul if they were to observe that any one creature is denied a deserved blessing or given any unearned blessing. Those who make the demands of justice are more than just a grievance committee. They have at heart a true concern for the welfare of all of God’s creations—each other.

    It would seem those who enforce the demands of justice need not be assembled in some type of standing committee. They are everywhere in the universe and aware of everything. Any injustice in the universe would be readily perceived by the intelligences. The word of this injustice would be communicated abroad quickly. No injustice can be kept secret. Any potential injustice would result in a hue and cry among the intelligences.

    One poignant example of a perceived injustice is the overt demonstration of pain and anguish among those intelligences inhabiting, or embodied by, the “inanimate” things of the earth as they witnessed the egregiously unjust crucifixion of the Savior. This event was recorded by the prophet Enoch: “And he [Enoch] heard a loud voice; and the heavens were veiled; and all the creations of God mourned; and the earth groaned; and the rocks were rent” (Moses 7:56). Perhaps it was this massive revulsion at the Savior’s atoning suffering and death that resulted in the physical upheavals in both the eastern and (especially) in the western continents.

    If God were to allow someone a blessing he didn’t deserve, then all the creations of God would conclude that God is unfair and unjust, and they would refuse to obey him. A rebellion of the intelligences would deprive God of his power. God would cease to be God (Alma 42:13, 22, 25). This will never happen, of course, because God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, are, and will always be, perfectly just.

    There seems to be an eternal principle or law of common consent. It is applicable not only in the Lord’s earthly Church (D&C 26:2), but also in the eternities. Who can doubt that the law of common consent will operate during the righteous theocracy when Jesus Christ reigns personally on the earth during the millennial thousand years? God’s creatures, his intelligences, will always be present and maintain a constant vigil or oversight. This expanded principle of common consent is a protection for us all against injustice or unfairness.

What Is Sin?

What is sin? Is it something you do or something you are? Is it an act or a state of being? I believe one might successfully argue it is both. In the broadest sense, any way in which we differ from Christ may be regarded as a sinful state. Each and every one of us lives in this sinful state since none of us is just like Christ. A sinful act is behavior (actions, words, thoughts) that betrays, exposes, or advertises to others our sinful state (1 John 3:4). We will learn that we are not actually accounted sinners because of our sinful state alone.

Let us cite an example to illustrate the difference between a sinful state and a sinful act. Let us consider the divine attribute of patience. The Savior is perfectly patient. He has the spiritual gift of patience to perfection. I possess only a small amount of divine patience. Hence, regarding the gift of patience, I exist in a sinful state. I do recognize the need to begin to repent of the sinful state of impatience. Let us now assume I am brought to a situation that causes me great impatience. It tests the little patience I do have. As I engage this situation, I have two choices. First, I can give in to my natural inclination to be impatient. I can say and do those things that manifest or display the fact that I lack patience. This is the natural thing to do. It is what my natural self would be inclined to do. This is a sinful act. It demonstrates or advertises to myself and to others that I do not possess the divine attribute of patience to the point of being able to control my impatience in situations like the present one.

Or, alternatively, I could “bite my tongue” and deliberately restrain my tendency to impatience. I could avoid those negative actions and words and thoughts. I could deliberately avoid a display of the impatience I am inclined to feel. In spite of the difficulty in doing so, I could force myself to maintain patience. Moreover, I could deliberately force myself to speak and act as though I were a patient man. As I do this, what am I doing? I am repenting of my sin of impatience by manifesting deliberate patience. I am obeying the Lord’s commandment to be patient and long suffering. I am striving to earn the spiritual gift of patience, which can only come through personal revelation as a gift to my heart and mind. This is revealed patience. We should note that when we repent, we repent of both our sinful state and any previous sinful acts we may have committed.

We have used the example of the sin of impatience, but obviously there are hundreds if not thousands of sinful states and sinful acts. Each of us exists in a state of sin. Neither the Lord nor the law of justice regards us as being guilty of sin because we exist in a sinful state. Even the mortal Jesus Christ would acquire, during the course of his mortal sojourn, spiritual growth or additional divine attributes.3 Early in his life there were gifts of the Spirit he would yet acquire through his perfect obedience. Yet, we know that his life was accounted as being completely without sin. Thus, we are not considered guilty of sin because we exist in a “state of sin.” We are only considered guilty of sin when, given an opportunity, we fail to act in a repentant manner. We do not “commit sin” until we actually give in to our natural self and commit a sinful act. We are not held accountable for our sinful state until we are faced with situations that test us. Mortality is intended to present us with myriad opportunities for testing. These opportunities are “temptations.”

The Consequences of Sinful Behavior

It is important for us to have clearly in mind the consequences of sinful behavior (actions, words, thoughts). This issue is fundamental and of vital importance. What are the consequences of giving in to our natural selves and committing sin? There are two major consequences, and it is important to distinguish between these two and understand them both.

  1. A penalty is imposed by the demands of the law of justice. This penalty renders a sinner unworthy to return to his celestial home. When a man commits sin, he is held by the demands of the law of justice to be unworthy and therefore unable to enter God’s presence or any other degree of glory. Thus, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), referring to spiritual death or separation from God. We refer to such a man as guilty of sin. He committed sin. A penalty was assessed. He is guilty, unworthy, a sinner.

  2. The second consequence of a sinful act is cessation or even loss of spiritual growth. A man cannot grow spiritually lest he obeys the commandments. If he gives in to his natural self and fails to obey, he will not grow. This is different from being penalized. He simply fails to make any spiritual progress, and he may even lose some of the progress he previously had made.

Let us consider another question. Is there any consequence of sin for an unaccountable individual (due to age or lack of mental competence)? That is, if an unaccountable person inadvertently sins, does he experience any negative consequence of that sin?

He does. While he is not penalized by the law of justice because of his being unaccountable, he does fail to grow spiritually. Is it possible for an unaccountable person to grow spiritually? Apparently it is, though we would not expect him to grow at the same rate as an accountable person who fully understands the law and clearly sees the alternatives. Is it possible for the unaccountable person to fail to grow or even deteriorate spiritually? Apparently the answer again is yes, although he will not be penalized by the law of justice, and we would expect him eventually to be judged with lenient mercy.

Forgiveness of Sin and Spiritual Growth

Before a man on earth is judged worthy of exaltation, in fact, before he inherits any kingdom of glory, there are two general things required of him. No man will advance to the celestial or any other glory without these two.

  1. First, he must be forgiven of his sins. Please keep in mind that according to the law of justice, a man guilty of even one sin cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. A man who has committed a sin is penalized according to the demands of the law of justice. Lest that penalty be removed, he is unable to enter the celestial kingdom. Removal of the penalty or forgiveness of sin is the process of justification.

  2. Second, he must strive to become like God and consequently grow spiritually. He must actually earn gifts of the Spirit or attributes of God, become purged of all that is ungodly within him, and become, in fact, more like God. Earning gifts of the Spirit is the natural consequence of our obeying the Lord’s commandments. All men will be held accountable for their spiritual growth. All must make real progress along the road toward godhood. This spiritual growth is sanctification. It consists of the purging from a man’s soul his natural self’s tendencies and being granted gifts of the Spirit.

- Michael J. Preece

Cited Works

  1. The mechanism of the Lord’s being allowed by justice to forgive sins is discussed in chapter 19, The Essence of the Lord’s Atonement.

  2. See “Power in His Honor” in chapter 14, The Power of God.

  3. Again, see chapter 19, The Essence of the Lord’s Atonement.

  4. For a more detailed discussion of these two requirements for exaltation see chapter 17, Justification and Sanctification.