God's restorative justice

Saturday, March 05, 2011

In my last post, I addressed the first part of my answer to some questions Peter's Gurry asked in the comments to another blog post. Here I'd like to deal with the second part:

"I struggle to see how your definition of God's righteousness/justice will hold in Rom 3:21-26, especially vv. 25-26. When God passed over previously committed sins, does that mean he never healed people of their brokenness? And if so, how does healing that brokenness now through the cross show that God is, in fact, restoratively just when he restores those who have faith in Christ (3:26)? In other words, I still don't see the need for a blood-stained cross in your system.

I think Paul's logic in this section of Romans makes much more sense if the question he's addressing is not "When will God restore broken, fractured lives" (important as that question is) but rather, "How can God possibly forgive punishment-deserving rebels in a way that doesn't make a mockery of the very retribution they deserve?" In other words, How can God be both just and the justifier? Remember, the question that sets this section going is a question of God's wrath against rebellious humans (1:18-3:20). It's not a question about our fractured human lives. We are victims to be sure, but far more serious is the fact that we are perpetrators and that all our sin is finally directed Godward."

As Peter notes, my definition of "God's righteousness/justice" (Greek: diakaiosyne theo) is restorative justice, as opposed to retributive justice. Peter asks about how that understanding of justice as "making things right" fits with Romans 3:25-26:

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

So let's back up to the beginning of Romans and follow Paul's argument up to here. Paul opens Romans with a discussion of the wrath God (beginning at Ro 1:18). Wrath here can be understood as retributive justice: it is the just punitive consequence for our sinful actions. We do bad stuff, and bad things happen to us. It is the law of sewing and reaping, quid pro quo, or if you like "karma." Paul is addressing his fellow Jews, and begins by speaking about pagan depravity. At this point his audience is thinking "yeah, those pagans sure are rotten! God's gonna get them!" It is here that Paul turns the tables and says that we have no right to judge others when we are just as bad. He then goes on to argue (Ro 2:1-3:20) that we are all under sin, and therefore when we hope for God to judge, we are in fact calling down wrath on ourselves.

This is something that Paul knew from practical experience. He had himself, before his conversion, not only wished for God's wrath, but had seen himself as an instrument of it, acting to persecute, harm, and even kill Christians based on his belief that he was doing this all in the name of God. Paul's major sin was that of religious zeal leading to acts of violence in God's name. This motivation to religious violence was common in his time, has continued to be among the church throughout its history (the crusades, the inquisitions, etc) and frankly still is today among many Christians.

While Paul begins by saying that we are all guilty of sins in general (chapter 2), he then moves on in chapter 3 to address the specific sins of religious people. Notice that the specific sins he lists here have to do with hateful speech (“Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness”) and violence (“Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”) What Paul is describing here is the sins of religious zeal that results in hateful judgment and acts of violence done in God's name. Since Paul would of course include himself in his indictment, we could read this as Paul's own confession of the shape of his religious life before his conversion:

“My throats was an open grave; my tongue practiced deceit. The poison of vipers was on my lips. My mouth was full of cursing and bitterness.
My feet were swift to shed blood; ruin and misery marked my ways, and the way of peace I did not know. There is no fear of God before my eyes.”

Paul did not know the way of peace, and there was no fear of God before his eyes. So Paul's aim in this first part of his argument is to put the fear of God before our eyes: if we continue on this way of judgment and retribution, it will lead to our own destruction. This is also a common theme of Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus warns of God's wrath unless we embrace the radical way of forgiveness.

At this point in Romans, Paul introduces a new concept: "But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify" (Ro 3:21). The law here represents the system of retributive justice, of blessings and curses, that Paul has been discussing up to now. If we obey the law we receive blessing, and if we break it we find wrath. Paul contrasts this way of retribution with "the righteousness/justice of God." This is God's action, motivated by unmerited love of enemies, to make things right. It is restorative justice. So what Paul is proposing is that God's restorative justice breaks into the cycle of violence inherit in retributive justice. God overcomes the cycle of our hurting and being hurt by acting to restore and reconcile us.

With all that in mind, let's return to 3:25-26: Paul writes that God made things right through Jesus in order to "demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished." In other words, God leaving sins unpunished was seen as wrong by Paul's audience who wanted to see God's wrath poured out on bad people. They felt it was unfair that bad people got away with it, and wanted God to punish them. Paul has been arguing that the bigger problem is that we are all bad, and so in wanting this we are really just hoping to add to the hatred and pain, we are pulling ourselves into the destructive cycle of retribution. In order for God to show that he was not unjust in leaving past sins unpunished, in not wiping us all out (and it would be unjust to simply do nothing in the face of evil), God now acts to make things right through Jesus. "God did this to demonstrate his restorative justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus." (v 26, my translation). We could also translate this verse as "God did this to demonstrate his goodness at the present time, so as to be good and the one who makes-good those who have faith in Jesus."

So I think Peter is absolutely right in saying that Paul is not addressing the question "When will God restore broken, fractured lives" (important as that question is) but rather, "How can God possibly forgive punishment-deserving rebels in a way that doesn't make a mockery of the very retribution they deserve?" More specifically, the question is how can God just ignore sin, and not punish it? Paul's answer is that God cannot simply ignore sin and be just, but God can act to heal sin (and sinners) and make things right, and in doing so God demonstrates true justice which is God's restorative justice that comes through Jesus.

Now how exactly God's action in Jesus (in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection) acts to restore us, Paul does not detail here (he does elsewhere, but that will need to be the subject of another post). He simply claims here that what God is doing now in Jesus apart from law (that is, in contrast to the system of retribution) is about God's act to restore ("the justice of God" diakaiosyne theo) as an answer to the problem of retributive justice (wrath).

Peter Gurry writes that "We are victims to be sure, but far more serious is the fact that we are perpetrators and that all our sin is finally directed Godward." As we have seen, Paul was a perpetrator. That sin was indeed directed Godward. Jesus confronts Paul on the road to Damascus with the words "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9:5). Because God identifies with the victim, when we hurt others, even when we do this as Paul did in God's name, (or perhaps especially when we do) as do it unto them, the least, the vulnerable, we do it unto God. But what Paul the violent perpetrator encountered was grace and forgiveness instead of wrath, and that unmerited enemy love turned him around so that he renounced his former commitment to the way of retribution, and instead embraced the way of grace and restorative justice in Jesus. Paul's brokenness was precisely his hurtful understanding of religion that lead him to hatred and violence, and it is this wrong understanding of justice that Jesus undoes in Paul, replacing that with a new understanding of God's justice typified by restorative enemy love.

Following Jesus means following in that way of love of enemies, of forsaking judgment and instead embracing healing restoring forgiveness. To claim that the atonement is one rooted in the fulfillment of a retributive demand (that God punishes Jesus to fulfill the demands of retributive justice) is to utterly miss the entire point of the New Testament--that God's way is the way of radical restorative grace. That is what God's justice means. The cross is a demonstration of that restorative justice acting to overcome the way of retribution by making things good again, rather than adding hurt to hurt.

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At 9:52 PM, Blogger EmotiveAdventures - A Writer Inscribing Emotions said...

I have talked about something likewise in my article on: Justice and God – Answers to Unanswered Questions and have posted it herein: http://emotiveadventures.blogspot.com/2011/01/justice-and-god-answers-to-unanswered.html

At 9:52 PM, Blogger EmotiveAdventures - A Writer Inscribing Emotions said...

Letz lead to a further healthy discussion and exchange our ideas

At 7:08 AM, Anonymous Andy W. said...


Have you seen this article "The River of Fire" by ALEXANDRE KALOMIROS. This provides an EO perspective on God's righteousness/justice. I found it interesting and helpful.


At 7:08 AM, Anonymous Andy W. said...

I forgot the link:


At 11:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

think it's helpful to look at this review:
river of fire revisited:


At 12:39 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Personally, I think Moss is deeply wrong in his critique of Kalomiros, especially in regards to how Moss understands God's justice. Moss has a deeply Western conception of justice that is out of line with the early church fathers who understood God's justice (that is, the gospel) as restorative and healing rather than punitive. I also find it rather patronizing and juvenile that Moss calls Kalomiros a "heretic" repeatedly.

At 5:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Derek,

though Kalomiros doesn't use the word "heretic" in his paper he makes very clear, what he thinks about "western theology". Don't you agree?

I admit, that - up to now - I've only skimmed the article from Moss. And probably you are right. But I often miss the complete picture in articles. For example Kalomiros' paper has (at least) one small paragraph on the "juridical" speech you find in the bible. It would be very helpful not only to touch these topics here and there but to go into deep. NT Wright seems to do it. But I'm not through his books.

I mostly agree with your opinions, but questions remain.


At 1:38 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Peter,

For what it is worth, NT Wright sees Paul's understanding of "the righteousness of God" in terms of restorative justice too. See the preface to his Romans commentary.

I'd say that the juridical language in the NT (particularly in Paul) needs to be understood in a relational context. Paul speaks for example of "adoption" which is a legal term, but also clearly a relational one. "Marriage" is also both legal and relational. So my objection is not so much with "juridical" language (I think the idea of justice is deeply important) but rather I insist that the way justice has been understood in society (both East and West) has been in terms of payback, retaliation, and thus ultimately in terms of violence. Until very recently it was considered common place to punish prisoners, burn heretics, beat children, and kill enemies. All of this (payback, retaliation... let alone violent punishment) is the very antithesis to the way of Jesus, the way of grace and enemy love. It is not justice at all, rather it is the way of the world and the flesh.

Identifying that way of Jesus (restorative love of enemies) in contrast to the way of the world (violent egotistical domination) is crucial, and involves re-thinking what real justice is. The NT speaks of "battles" but is not advocating using violence, and in the same way when it speaks of "justice" it is not advocating the legal system of Rome which is rooted in violence.

Our legal systems in the West are in fact moving beyond this view themselves, as they come in line with what we (i.e. medical and social science) has come to understand about how humans work, how we break, and how we are made better. Teachers do not beat children, prisoners are not tortured, the insane are not beaten and kept in dungeons, etc. All of that used to be common practice. The view of "justice as punishing" is one that is profoundly out of touch with pretty much everything that the mental health field understands about mental health and human development over the last century. It is not only wrong, it is abusive, and deeply harmful. As a result you increasingly see prisons with recovery programs, education, and so on. Additionally you see laws being passed that prohibit this kind of corporal punishment (let alone torture) and focus on human rights. When you take all of that into account, the view that Moss advocates strikes me as staggeringly flawed and out of touch with both everything Jesus taught (God's revealed truth), and with everything we know about people (empirical reality).

At 6:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." Rom.2:13
I think you need to find what this law is Paul has referenced.

At 2:58 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Interesting question. Paul uses the term 'law' in a pretty nuanced and complex way. On one hand he has a pretty severe critique of the law, saying that it by itself can never result in salvation (Gal 2:21), and that under the power of sin it can lead to death (Ro 7). At the same time, he says (contrary to Luther) that we can and should fulfill the point of the law which is to love, when we live in and through Christ. He writes, "Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law" (Ro 3:31). Yet insists that "you are not under the law, but under grace" (Ro 6:14). Does that mean we can sin? No way, rather by living in grace, living in the Spirit, he says, we can actaully lead a holy life "we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit" (Ro 7:6).

Here Paul introduces a second concept of 'law,' juxtaposing the law of grace vs. the law of death: "through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death" (Ro 8:2). The Law (that is the Torah) was just as entangled in sin as we are, so that it being corrupted lead to death and hurt. Jesus saves us, and in the same way saves the corrupted law, saves abusive and fallen religion. So we are freed from the flesh and from the law of death in order to live in Christ and fulfill the law of Christ which is to love as Jesus loved us "whoever loves others has fulfilled the law" (Ro 13:8).

In short: The answer to your question is that Paul is ultimately referring to the law of Christ which is to love. He is insisting that fulfilling the law is not about a bunch of rituals, it is about being good, and doing good. So we do need to act right in order to be called righteous. Or put differently, if Jesus is really in us, we should look and act like Jesus. We do that of course through Jesus.

At 5:25 AM, Blogger Aceofspades said...

>> God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Derek, what I found interesting about this passage is that the original Greek doesn't actually read that he had left sins before hand unpunished. Rather all it says is that he had passed over sins committed before hand (he had left them undealt with up until the cross)

This doesn't at all imply that God has to deal with sin through punishment, yet that is often the interpretation offered here.

In the case of the Jonah and the Ninnevites, we see God dealing with sin through threat alone. In fact there are many examples (http://pastebin.com/7Y345dWC) of places where God deals with sin and restoration is brought about without the need for punishment.

I write about this here:


At 9:58 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

That's a great observation Ace. Very significant. I'm convinced that what Paul is arguing against is the assumption of his religious audience that there must be punishment, and instead proposing a different kind of justice, what he calls "God's justice" which consists of a nonviolent and restorative approach rather than a retributive one.


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