Many assume that mercy and justice are at odds as if these are two opposing things, and therefore two opposing characteristics within God. That God desires to have mercy, but he is bound to justice because of his holiness. A dichotomy within the very being of God. Such thinking is based on a wrong understanding of God’s justice influenced by Justitia (Lady Justice) rather than the Bible. Looking at the Old Testament, Jesus, and Paul this article will show that God’s justice is restorative in its nature and therefore consistent with God’s love. God’s restorative justice is an expression of his love and not a quality contrary to God’s love.
Justitia—the common, yet modern concept of justice
The modern concept of justice, adopted by many Christians, is characterized by Justitia(Lady Justice), the lady with the scales. Justitia was the Roman goddess of justice. “Rome prided itself on being…the capital of justice, the source from which justice would flow throughout the world” (Wright, 2002:404). Justitia is about objectivity and impartial judging. Her justice is retributive (an eye for an eye), punitive (contrary to mercy), and cold. Justitia is strongly influenced by Aristotle who separated justice from kindness and demanded that judges must not have feelings. Projecting such a human view of justice onto God creates a God who is made in our image. This view of justice is indeed opposing to love. This low understanding of justice, however, is far removed from the Hebrew concept of justice.
God’s Justice in the Old Testament
The Old Testament portrays God’s justice in many ways. Two Hebrew words are mainly used for justice: מִשְׁפָּט [mišpāṭ] and צְדָקָה [ṣĕdāqâ] (click HERE to learn more about these two terms by watching the Bible Project video). The Hebrew concept of justice ( צְדָקָה [ṣĕdāqâ]) is associated 90% of the time in the Bible with grace, mercy, and goodness. Often also with faithfulness, joy, and rejoicing. The idea of ṣĕdāqâ is seeing others as valuable because they are made in the image of God. Therefore, relationships and offenders should be restored. God’s justice (ṣĕdāqâ) is not a cold and objective punishment, but his just action is a cause for joy, it is a helping action. God’s justice is a positive, redemptive activity. It “is always to be understood as a gift rather than as punishment” (Ringgren & Johnson 1989:904-905). While God’s justice often appears retributive in the OT (e.g., an eye for an eye) we can find at the same time that God’s justice is not retributive (punitive) at the core, but restorative in its nature. This becomes very clear when we look at Jesus.
Jesus is “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:3; NRSV) or as The Message phrases it: the “Son perfectly mirrors God”. Jesus came to reveal to us how God truly is. “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all” (Ramsey, 1969:9). Therefore, the best way to learn what God’s justice is like is by looking at Jesus.
Was Jesus ever unjust? Jesus said about himself that he came to fulfill (in Greek this can mean to bring something to its ultimate goal) the law (Matt 5:17). That means that everything that Jesus did and taught was just and reflected God’s justice. What did Jesus’ justice look like?
Jesus prioritized mercy and love over the strict obedience of the law. Restoring people was his focus and not balancing accounts. His justice was restorative in nature and not retributive. This restorative justice made many religious people angry because they believed in Justitia, retributive justice. They put the law above love and they longed for God’s revengeful wrath to devour the Romans. But Jesus, again and again, forgave sinners without punishing them: the paralyzed man (Mark 2:5), the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), and the sinful woman (Luke 7:47). By forgiving them, he restored and transformed them. Jesus forgave them without needing a sacrifice first or punishing them so that the requirements of justice could be fulfilled.
The parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) is very unjust if understood from the perspective of Justitia. It was “unjust” that those who worked only a few hours got the same payment as those who worked all day long. But God’s justice is about restoring people. The workers hired last were “the ones rejected by other employers as unworthy” (Hagner, 1995:571). Those hired last were just as much in need of funds to feed their families as those hired first who worked all day. God’s justice is not ultimately revealed in fairness but in his “attention to the last, to the marginalized, to those left out, to those no one else wanted or would hire” (Witherington, 2006:375). God’s merciful justice enrages those who long for Justitia justice. The real question of the parable is: Why do we not rejoice in God’s scandalous justice, grace, and goodness?
Jesus abolished retributive justice (eye for an eye) and replaced it with restorative justice (love your enemy) (Matt 5:38-48). “For Jesus, embodying a love that embraces enemies and refrains from violence was the definitive sign, and the precondition, for being considered a child of God. This means that to be considered a child of the Father in heaven by Jesus, one had to be willing to break the OT commands to retaliate. Conversely, if one chose to obey the OT’s [law of retaliation], Jesus would not have regarded them as a child of the Father. We have to choose, since we obviously cannot turn the other cheek when slapped and refuse to resist evildoers (Matt 5:39) if we are at the same time seeking to afflict aggressors in retaliation for the way they have afflicted us” (Boyd, 2017:73).
The God of the Bible is not like human tyrants who revenge and punish. Jesus revealed God as the one who forgives his enemies (Matt 5:45) instead of seeking revenge. The whole trajectory of the Bible indicates that God loves to restore what is broken and lost. The Bible reveals God as a redeeming God and this is part of his glory. The traditional understanding of justice (Justitia) deprives God of his glory and equates him with all the tyrants of history and all other deities who hate and vengefully punish their enemies.
The parable of the Compassionate Father (Luke 15:11-32) is another great example of God’s restorative justice. If God’s justice were characterized by Justicia then the father would have needed to abandon the son or employ him as a servant. But the father restored the son without any kind of compensation. Mercy triumphed over (Justitia) justice. God’s justice is revealed in restored relationships and renewed lives.
How does this fit with Jesus’ warnings and words of coming judgment?
Observing suffering and injustice without intervening is cruel. God loves every human and his heart grieves when we endure hardships and suffering. His ability to intervene is limited by his character of love (read THIS article to learn more about God and suffering). God intervenes as much as is possible. He fights suffering and injustice by revealing the truth, enduring evil, forgiving injustices, and with his self-sacrificing love. His wrath and his judgment are one way to get our attention and to lead us to repentance. While God judges partly in this world already, he will one day ultimately judge everyone. But his judgment is not an act of vengeance and retribution. His judgment and his wrath, as everything God does, are driven by his love and mercy. God’s wrath, his judging action, is confronting people with the consequences of their actions (learn more about it HERE). This confrontation is an act of love to bring people to their senses and restore them, not an act of vengeance or acting out of uncontrolled anger. On the future day of judgment, God will judge us with the truth. He will take away our blindness (and our conditioned worldview) and will help us see everything through his eyes. This judgment will lead us to repentance and therefore is restorative in its nature.
The parable of the prodigal son illustrates this beautifully. The father allowed his son to go his own way (= God’s wrath). This path led the son into misery, which moved the son to repent and return home. God’s judgment is, at its core, an expression of his love. His actions as he restores humans involve judgment. Because judgment is the only way to bring some people to repentance. But this judgment is for restoration, not for retribution. His wrath is his way of moving us to repentance, and this is not through coercion and force, but by giving us freedom, helping us see the truth, and letting us gather our experiences.
Summary: Jesus fulfilled the law by “overturning the very system of retributive justice embodied in the law, and replaced it with the superior way of God’s restorative justice rooted in the enemy love that Jesus came to demonstrate with his teaching and life” (Flood, 2014:34).
Paul’s understanding of God’s justice in his letter to the Romans
The “righteousness” (δικαιοσύνη dikaiosynē)of God is the central theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans (Wright, 2002:397). The Greek word dikaiosynē can also be rendered as “justice”. God’s justice is “his instrument of putting the world to rights—of what we might call cosmic restorative justice” (:400). In his letter to the Romans, Paul is contrasting two systems of justice: the law and God’s justice. The law is based on punitive justice (similar to the Roman Justitia justice which very likely was the kind of justice that the original audience of the letter believed in) and results in rewards and punishments, blessings, and curses depending on our actions. But God’s justice is now revealed apart from the law (Romans 3:21)! God’s justice is not revealed in the law, but in the Gospel (Rom 1:17). The Gospel is God’s restorative intervention in this world. His saving action, his justice, will make all things right again. He is fixing the damage we humans have caused (Rom 5:18-19). The Gospel is that God will fully reconcile the whole cosmos (2 Cor 5:19; Col 1:19). God’s justice is revealed in his act of reconciliation and restoration and not in the law, retributive justice!
Paul used to believe in retributive justice. Paul had read the Old Testament “and concluded that he should commit violence in God’s name. He was convinced that justice comes through punishment and saw himself as an agent of that. After his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul completely reassessed how to understand scripture, leading him to a radically different understanding focused on God’s way of restorative justice in Christ. Paul is trying to get his readers to see that, too. Paul has converted away from the way of retribution, and Romans is his treatise explaining why the way of restorative justice is a better way” (Flood, 2012:God’s justice).
Paul boldly proclaimed that Rome’s justice, Justitia, will never accomplish its goal: putting everything right. He was convinced that only God’s restorative justice has the power of bringing true justice by making everything right through the reconciliation of the whole cosmos (Rom 5:18-19; Paul’s conclusion of chapter 1-11 is verse 11:32).
If I put my oldest daughter in charge of caring for my other three children while I’m gone, and I come back and find that she abused the others and caused a lot of harm, obviously I’m angry. It’s totally justified and appropriate anger because she harmed my beloved children and she even harmed herself in some capacity. I have now three choices:
- I forgive her and don’t do anything. This might cause her to never understand the harm she inflicted, and she might keep doing the same to others.
- I seek revenge (retributive justice) and punish her (Justitia) to avenge what she had done to me and my three beloved kids. This punishment might punish her and cause some level of “justice” but it has the potential of breeding hate and bitterness which can cause lifelong separation. The relationships are likely not restored.
- I seek a restorative judgment for her, so that she realizes the harm she has caused and hopefully wholeheartedly repents. My daughter is restored, our relationship is restored and the relationship with her siblings (if they forgive her) is restored (restorative justice).
To help us move into our purpose, God can’t ignore our sin because by sinning we cause harm to ourselves and others. Ignoring sin (option 1) simply wouldn’t be loving nor helpful. But retributive justice (option 2) doesn’t fit with the teachings of Jesus and Paul at all. Retributive justice can make the problem even worse. Retributive justice is harming people who harm people to teach them that harming people is wrong. God wants to restore all things (option 3). The way to achieve that is by restorative justice!! He judges (he gives us over to the consequences of our choices) in order that we repent and relationships can be restored. God’s judgment is a clear expression of his love and has nothing to do with vengeance.
Chris Marshall who extensively studied biblical justice concluded, “The justice of God is not primarily or normatively a retributive justice or a distributive justice but a restorative or reconstructive justice, a saving action by God that recreates shalom and makes things right.” (2001:53). Restorative Justice is not one theme found in Scripture, it is the core narrative of the Gospel.
“Restorative justice … is rooted in compassion and reflects a desire to see things made right, to see relationships restored, to see broken lives mended, to see hurtful and hurting people come to their knees in repentance and be made new. … [Therefore] love is not in conflict with justice, love is how justice comes about because the New Testament understanding of justice is ultimately not about punishment, but about making things right again.” (Flood, 2012:The limits of Law).
God is love, but he is also just!? No!!! God is love, therefore he condemned Justitia justice. His restorative justice is a clear expression of his unfailing love, which will never fail!
Flood, Derek. (2012). Healing the gospel: a radical vision for grace, justice, and the cross.
Boyd, G. A. (2017). The crucifixion of the warrior God: interpreting the Old Testament’s violent portraits of God in light of the cross. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Flood, D. (2012). Healing the gospel: a radical vision for grace, justice, and the cross. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books.
Flood, D. (2014). Disarming Scripture. Metanoia Books.
Hagner, D. A. (1995). Matthew 14–28 (Vol. 33B, p. 571). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
Marshall, C. (2001). Beyond Retribution. Eerdmans.
Ramsey, M. (1969). God, Christ, and the World: A Study in Contemporary Theology. London: SCM Press.
Ringgren, H., & Johnson, B. (2003). צָדַק. G. J. Botterweck & H.-J. Fabry (Eds.), D. W. Stott (Trans.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Revised Edition, Vol. 12, p. 245). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Wright, N. T. (2002). The Letter of the Romans. In L. E. Keck (Ed.), New Interpreter’s Bible(Vol. 10, p. 404). Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Witherington, B., III. (2006). Matthew. (P. K. Gammons & R. A. Culpepper, Eds.) (p. 375). Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Incorporated.
Goldingay, J., & Wright, T. (2018). The Bible for Everyone: A New Translation (Heb 1:3). London: SPCK.