Even though the idea of “justice” is a biblical concept integrated by various components that need to be kept in certain balance, the Bible gives privilege to the notion of justice as forgiving and restoring. As Christians, we are invited to practice a personal and social ethic that exemplifies this relationship model.
Biblical Justice Components
The Bible talks about retributive justice, restorative justice and distributive justice (jubilee).
From a different perspective, justice is:
- a) a quality of God (He is righteous),
- b) to act and conduct oneself in life correctly,
- c) to give each person what is deserved (retribution),
- d) to defend the cause of the weak and vulnerable of society – social justice.
First, one of God’s attributes is that He is righteous in the sense that He is impartial in His dealing with human beings, and also inherent to His nature is to act righteous (Psalm 11:7, Isaiah 45:21)
Second, justice (dikaiosune) refers to pious and righteous behavior. That’s the idea when the Bible says that Joseph “was a righteous man” (Matthew 1:19 NLT). An earlier Joseph can also be classified in the same category; his morally impeccable behavior revealed his integrity (Genesis 37 and 39). The Bible also says Job was “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). This is to be righteous.
Third, the Bible has a component of retributive justice that consists of giving each person what’s deserved. It’s called retribution theology, and it’s based fundamentally on Deuteronomy 27:11–28:68. This Scripture passage makes reference to the blessings of obedience and curses of disobedience. The idea is to give the guilty person the punishment deserved by the person’s actions. As we will see ahead here, a biblical reading from the kingdom’s perspective does not cancel this principle of retributive justice, but Christ and the New Testament redefine the terms of the relationship among human beings and between human beings and God around the principles of grace and mercy. The unmeasured use of retributive justice might cause abuse in the application of the religious, criminal or civil law.
Fourth, the Bible defines the concept of justice as a social ethic. In other words, God works in favor of the most vulnerable of societies and invites His people to defend them and act in their favor. A biblical example of a paradigmatic case is the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and oppression (Exodus 3:7–10). Deuteronomy 10:17–19 says about care for the poor and needy:
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”
Justice Redefined in the Kingdom’s Light
Jesus reworks the law and retributive justice’s ethics in light of the hermeneutics of mercy. Paraphrasing Duke University professor Richard Hays, we can say that in order to understand the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) correctly, we need to recognize that we are weak and fallible people and then be willing to forgive one another as God forgives us seventy times seven (fmchr.ch/rbhays). Jesus summarizes the law and the prophets to the commands to love God and other people (Mathew 22:35–40, Luke 10:25–28). As it was said, Christ prioritizes the extravagant grace that forgives even “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22 KJV). That means a permanent disposition to forgive and provide opportunities.
When the guardians of the law criticize Christ for associating and eating with sinners, He responds, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:12–13 and 12:1–8, referencing Hosea 6:6). The prodigal son, who had sinned and failed in everything, was received again because the father was moved to mercy (Luke 15:20). In the kingdom’s perspective, the merciful are blessed because they will receive mercy in return (Matthew 5:7, 23:23). New Testament Scholar E.P. Sanders said that the typical response from Christ wasn’t of rejection but to encourage; He wasn’t condemnatory, but compassionate and forgiving; He wasn’t a puritan but someone joyful who liked celebration (fmchr.ch/epsanders).
A phrase of Christ that commonly is interpreted as legalistic is when He said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). By the context, we understand that it means to be perfect in practicing mercy, like God is merciful so “that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
Paul says in Galatians 6:1-2, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
In the New Testament, Jesus brings the retributive justice under subordination (instead of eliminating it) to the restorative justice named “mercy.”
Justice and the Problem of Evil in Divine Creation
“I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them” (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12).
One of the great challenges to theology and pastoral ministry is the presence of evil in divine creation. As we consider justice in the Bible, we’re confronted with the human dilemma of “suffering injustice.” Is there justice in creation? Is life fair? Why do good and pious people like Job suffer terrible injustices and evil?
While the Bible doesn’t explain these questions, it does face them with a unique and admirable realism. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes present the idea that there are aspects of life that cannot be answered with conventional formulas about justice. The problem of Job’s friends is that they had a prepackaged response — based in a retributive theology — about the causes of Job’s suffering. Their formula was that Job had sinned and, thus, he had to suffer via retributive justice (sin, guilt, punishment — simple).
Basically, these books propose that life is perplexing, complex and elusive. They reveal that, under specific circumstances, life is not easy. For some people, life can be absurd, cruel, unjust, contradictory and mysterious. Let’s think about the thousands of people in Judah who were pious and “righteous” but died equally with the renegades in the siege and fall of Jerusalem in the year 587 B.C. Let’s think of the thousands of innocent people who died in the Holocaust or the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11. Let’s reflect on many Christian missionaries who are murdered in countries hostile to the gospel. What justice is that? Jesus Himself on the cross said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
The narrative of the books of Ruth, Job and Ecclesiastes and some Psalms teach us that there is merit to facing absurd challenges and injustice in life while being good people and not expecting something good in return. (Satan’s accusation of Job was that he served God because of the expected blessings.) We learn that evil is a real problem in the cosmos’ structure. We learn that this kind of suffering comes without explanation. We learn that we need to embrace success as well as failure. We learn that life goes on, and, thus, we need to rise from failures. We learn that God prizes faithfulness and perseverance in times of unfair suffering. (Job recovers his health, gets a new family, etc.). We learn that in some circumstances, we need to learn to be silent while counseling others, to accompany those who suffer, and to wait on God while avoiding preconceived therapies (that was Job’s counselors’ problem). Above all, we have to learn to embrace the mystery, and, like Jesus on the cross, always trust in the Father’s wisdom.
We must recognize that we live in a twisted, fallen and imperfect world, and the kingdom of God is the divine answer to the problem of evil in His creation. Then evil doesn’t have the last word. God is fixing what is twisted and is taking all of His creation to a new, pristine estate with restored victory over evil and suffering.
Practical Implications of Biblical Justice
But what are the implications of biblical justice for the Christian ethic? How do we practice and apply justice in our daily lives?
- God is righteous, and that must make us trust in His justice and wisdom.
- The Christian believer — like Job and both Josephs in the Bible — is invited to live in a pious way that pleases God. In the New Testament, the Christ-follower is transformed by his or her close relationship with Him and by the work of the Holy Spirit in the context of mentorship in the body of Christ. The Christian believer then produces “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8) and shows the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23).
- Retributive justice reminds us that the way we act has consequences in this life and also in eternity. This justice shows us that there are limits in life that we are not to trespass. It reminds us that we must live responsible lives before God, family, church and society. Additionally, the biblical alternative to any brutality in the criminal justice or ecclesial systems are exhortation, reprehension, repentance, confession, forgiveness and restitution.
- God’s justice also is manifested by defending the helpless and marginalized (Proverbs 31:9). Any theological discourse that ignores this dimension of biblical justice suffers ideological narrowness or incongruency between what the Bible teaches and Christian practice. Biblical justice summons us to work for the just and equal treatment of all individuals or groups. That means not to discriminate against anybody for conditions of gender, skin color, social level, or religious beliefs. As Christians, we are called to defend the rights of every person, even when their beliefs or characteristics are different than ours.
In conclusion, the notion of justice is a biblical concept of various components that we need to keep in balance. Nonetheless, the Bible prefers the notion of forgiveness and restorative justice. As Christians, we are invited to practice a personal and social ethic that exemplifies a relationship style of forgiveness and restoration. Jesus put the hermeneutic of mercy in the center of relationships.
The mercy and justice of God are revealed through Christ’s redemptive and justifying death for us, the guilty. This is a powerful and relevant message for the contemporary culture.
Guillermo Flores is the pastor of the Melrose Free Methodist Church in Miami, Florida, and a Latin coach for the Free Methodist Church – USA Recalibrate initiative. He has a Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary.1