50 Shades of Grace: Restorative justice and the Bible

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

A reader of my new book Healing the Gospel wrote and asked me this excellent question:

"You say that restorative justice is the solution to retributive justice.  One question ... isn't the latter the position of the OT that was instigated by God under the law?   If so then is God solving a problem that he has created?  If retributive justice is not that of the law then where did it come from?" 

I think the answer can be found in how Paul has come to read Scripture: Paul tells us in Galatians that the law was something that was given as a temporary thing until the real thing--the "promise" in Christ--comes and makes the law obsolete:

"Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian"
(Gal 3:23-25).

The purpose of the law is to keep us in check as a "guardian". The purpose of en eye for an eye is to restrict the escalation of violence. it is 1 eye instead of the 7 times of Cain and the 77 times Lamech demands "If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times!" (Gen 4:24). We see in the genesis account that vengeance is a sinful human response which quickly escalates into out of control violence. The law comes in and curbs this violence by saying "no not 77 eyes, just 1 eye." However, it is not God's intent that the law is the permanent solution. That's why Jesus overturns an eye for an eye in the Sermon on the mount, replacing it with the superior system of enemy love, and why he also reveres Lamech's declaration of extreme violence by making it that we forgive 77 times instead of 7 times (Matt 18:22). Now it is the escalation of forgiveness!

We are under a new way in Christ, the way of radical forgiveness and enemy love. Although it was good in that it curbed the escalation of violence, Paul says in that the reason the law was insufficient is because is cannot produce life:

"Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law" (Gal 3:21).

This idea of the gospel being life-imparting is one that Paul returns to frequently. Retribution and punishment are not life-imparting because they can only give a negative consequence for hurtful actions, but they cannot change our hearts, they cannot heal. Restorative justice can. It heals, mends, imparts life. The one gives restrictions, and the other is all about our being transformed by being in union with Christ, in a loving relationship where we are transformed by God's love as we spend time with Jesus and grow to be like him.

The law is limited in what it can do (it cannot impart life, it cannot make us holy) and thus is not God's ultimate plan (As Paul says, the promise is not the law), however Paul maintains that it has a good purpose. However, it has also through sin become something deeply hurtful, as Paul confesses in Romans:

"I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.  For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death" (Rom 7:10-11)

Anything good can become hurtful. In fact, the more good something is, the more potential it has to cause harm when it goes bad. Families are meant to be a place where we are safe and loved, but they can also be deeply abusive and leave devastating scars. Religion and law are also meant to be good, but can likewise become abusive. We see that abuse in the Pharisees whom Jesus is continually confronting. Paul was a Pharisee too before he changed his way and took up the way of Christ.

This is not about pitting Judaism against Christianity! Jesus and Paul were both Jews. It is about how we approach faith. Whether we use religion to justify hurtfulness (ranging from hurtful words that exclude and condemn, to actual acts of violence done in God's name) or whether we instead take up the way of grace, restoration, and love of enemies.

So, with all that under our belt, let's return to the original question: retributive justice (i.e. the way of seeking vengeance for harm done) is something that pre-existed the law. It is a human response to hurt that quickly escalates in to more and more hurt. The law of an eye for an eye was a temporary measure intended to curb violence. However, as Paul tells us, this was not God's ultimate plan. God's ultimate plan is seen in the superior way of restorative justice which is modeled by God in his act of restorative justice in Christ. That is how God loves us, and we are to likewise love like that too.

Wrath can be understood as the consequence for sin (Paul describes it in terms of wages, inheritance, fruit which are all different ways at getting at this idea). So saying that wrath follows sin is a bit like saying that death follows a terminal illness. According to the laws of medicine, that is how sickness works. So the intent of the law is to warn people to avoid behaviors that are hurtful in the same way that a doctor would advise us to avoid behavior that would lead to sickness. At best it the law can give us a picture of what the ideal picture of healthy relationships should look like.

The role we see wrath playing in the OT is therefore primarily one of warning. Similar to those warning on the side of cigarette boxes, the prophets warn of impending disaster from sin with the intent of moving their hearers to repentance. That is, the desire is never for harm, it is always instead for people to turn from their hurtful ways and to live.

But what so we do with people who don't listen and get sick? What do we do with people who fall outside of that law, people who both hurt others and have been hurt themselves? (which, if we are honest would probably be all of us!) What do we do with people who are blinded by their pain, and who make dumb and hurtful choices? Do we just write them off? Do we wish pain on them? Not if we love them we don't. But we also cannot simply look on while the hurt continues.

That is where the idea of healing comes in. A doctor may warn you not to smoke, but if you get cancer, that doctor will nevertheless do everything they can to fight that cancer and save your life. This is exactly what we see Jesus doing: he does not blame or condemn people, he restores, heals, and forgives them, and calls them to follow. People thought that when a person was sick that this was a judgement of God due to their sin. We see this for example in the story of the man born blind where his disciples ask, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). We can see this same thinking backed up in many parts of the Old Testament. Jesus does not affirm these "judgments," and in fact identifies this not with God's judgment, but with the work of the Satan, and declares that he has come to oppose that reign with his kingdom. 

So we see some pretty radical shifts taking place here. A major take-away is that neither Jesus or Paul understand the Old Testament to be a perfect revelation of God's eternal way. There are many things about it that a provisional and limited. That's why Jesus says that it needed to be "fulfilled" (the Greek word means "completed") and then proceeds to amend and reverse things like an eye for an eye with love of enemies on the sermon on the Mount. In other words, his fulfillment does not mean he accepts everything (since we see him immediately reversing some things), rather it means he lovingly brings it to its full intended place, just as Jesus does not leave us as he finds us, but lovingly shapes us into Christ-likeness.

Consider Paul's story: He had read his Bible as a Pharisee and it had led him to a life of religious violence--persecuting the church, participating in the stoning of Stephen--which later led him to call himself "the greatest of sinners." Paul's great sin as he understood it was using religion as a justification for hurting people. After he came to Christ (which at involved an act of healing and enemy love), he had to go back and learn to read his Bible in a completely different way. He had been trained in the law, he knew the Bible inside and out, and yet it had lead him to that he describes as "producing death." The New Testament is all about confronting that legacy of toxic religion which is epitomized in the way of retribution and religiously justified violence and replacing it with the superior way of grace and God's restorative justice revealed in Christ.

Part of the consequence of that means that we need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did, and like Paul learned to as well. That means that we learn to look for the way of Jesus, and recognize that, especially in the Old Testament, we do not always see that way reflected. So we need to learn to read Scripture Christocentrically, that is, we need to learn to recognize when Scripture reflects Christ... and when it does not. That's why Paul writes,

"To this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away" (2 Cor 3:14).

This is a huge topic (and this is a really long blog post already!), so let me end with some resources: My Sojourners article on how Paul wrestled with violence in the Bible is a good place to start. If you've read Brian McLaren's new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? you'll likely recognize the same content in one of the chapters, which he based on my Sojourners article (he of course asked me, and I was thrilled). I'm in the process of working that article into a full length book for my next major project, but that will take a while. In the meantime, another helpful resource is the work of Eric Seibert. Eric has two books out on this topic: Disturbing Divine Behavior and The Violence of Scripture. Both highly recommended. Another great resource is the work of William Webb and his trajectory hermeneutics.

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At 3:56 PM, Blogger Josh said...


Re: Gal. 3:23-25, the Greek word translated "guardian" above and "disciplinarian" in the NRSV was a term that described servants who watched over young children in first-century households; when the children grew older, this servant was no longer needed. Note, then, how this metaphor works: Paul is asserting that just as children mature beyond the need for a "guardian" or "disciplinarian," so too have followers of Jesus (whether Jew or Gentile) matured beyond the need for the ethnocentric Mosaic law. A developmental view of religious thought is evident here, with the teaching of Jesus seen as superior to the law of Moses. (I am not saying that Christianity is superior to Judaism; rather, later Jewish teaching--that of Jesus--trumps earlier Jewish teaching.)

At 4:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for that reply :) I understand that God set up this system as a bandaid but I suppose my deeper question is this, "Why did God establish retributive justice in the first place?" Why instigate this whole violent system? The law releases wrath - Romans 4:15 - so why start the whole cycle?

At 4:23 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Good insight Josh. I wonder if we might translate it today as "babysitter" :)

At 4:28 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

"I suppose my deeper question is this: Why did God establish retributive justice in the first place?"

What I am arguing is that God did not set up retributive justice. That is simply human sinfulness that predates the Mosaic law and we first see with Cain and Abel.

What God did as "bandaid" with the law is to restrict it so, it would not escalate out of control (1 eye for 1 eye, not 77). Jesus however reverses the entire concept, replacing it with a redemptive one (love of enemy).

At 5:45 PM, Blogger Josh said...

I might put it like this: God did not establish retributive justice; rather, the OT presents the best understanding of justice--restrained retribution or "eye for an eye"--available pre-Jesus.

At 12:55 AM, Anonymous Santo said...

I understand that God set up some laws [like divorce laws] to restrict harmful practises that were already current at the time. But this does not seem to be the only purpose of the giving of the law. Paul and Moses seem to link as cause and effect the establishment of the law with the release of wrath and curses that come directly from God himself! This seems retributive and directly from the hand of God himself. So why would God establish a system of law in such a way that if it was broken that he would directly and personally curse and punish? I understand that God set up laws intended to restrict destructive behaviour but at the same time he also set up the laws so that if they were disobeyed that he would personally and directly curse and punish his people. So again why would God set up the law system, even though it was meant to curb violence, also entailed the release of retribution in the form of curses and punishment directly from God himself? Deut 28. I struggle with this.

At 3:27 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

This is a really good question that deserves a full answer. My teaching semester just started so I'm a bit pressed for time now and I don't want to just give a quick answer that does not do it justice. So let me get back to you on this in a bit...

At 4:22 PM, Blogger Josh said...


I know your question is for Derek, but I can't resist offering a response of my own. It seems to me that you think of the Mosaic law as something that God dictated. This view is problematic because it makes God's revelation in Jesus Christ contradict what God literally spoke at an earlier time. Another possibility is that the Mosaic law represents the best understanding of God's will available to God's people before Jesus, and that on this side of the Christ-event we have a better understanding of God's will. The opening verses of the book of Hebrews support this reading.

At 10:00 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Paul begins in Romans by assuming with his audience that God's judgment is retributive. His audience is hoping for it because they expect it to mean that their enemies will be punished. Paul's argument is that we should not desire this because it will result in death for everyone, because we are all sinners. (that was a radical idea, since they would have seen themselves as the good guys)

Instead Paul suggests a better way to address the problem of evil: the way of God's restorative justice. This is something new he says, and it supersedes the inferior way of the law which has been, he tells us, twisted by sin so that it produced death rather than giving life.

I see this as Paul's way of making sense of the transition that he has undergone in his conversion to Christ. He had previously understood himself as an agent of God's wrath following in the footsteps of the zeal of Phineas. Now he is following Christ, and that entailed for him a critique of the law and with it a critique of its focus on curse, wrath, and retribution.

So while Paul does still affirm the rightness of God's wrath (which is also the shared starting point of his audience), the critical thing to note is where he goes from there. He begins there, and then moves away from that, showing the problems with it, and instead proposing a superior way, the way of God's restorative justice.

I do not think that Paul is saying that God first proposed a bad system and then fixed it. Paul implies this somewhat with his law/promise framework, but he also is extremely critical of the law, and frequently subverts violent texts. On the whole, the sense I get is that the NT writers understood the OT to be an inferior, dim, veiled, picture of God, and in contrast saw Jesus as giving us the true and perfect reflection of what God is really like.

At 1:09 PM, Anonymous Santo said...

I can agree with both of you [Derek and Josh]. I am still processing all of this and this is difficult for me. If there are any other evangelicals with the penal view of justice reading this then they will sympathise with the points I am making and so this blog will be very helpful as we wrestle together with these questions ... With my SDA background I have never believed in verbal inspiration. SDA's never have. SDA scholars have written heaps of papers to show that this cannot be the view of God. They repeatedly affirm that Peter says that "men were moved" when the Spirit spoke to them. Men, not their hands. Prophets were his penMEN not his pen! This means the whole personality is involved and as such leaves room for the human error and imperfection. So I dont have the idea that things were dictated from God to the prophets. Nonetheless the OT was the only "bible" of Jesus and Paul. I know some may disagree as to which books were canonical for Jesus etc but he repeatedly referred to the "law, prophets and psalms" - which assumes a known body of authorative literature which I take to at least include much of the OT and specifically includes the torah - the pentateuch. Derek you said "Paul begins in Romans by assuming with his audience that God's judgment is retributive." Do you mean that he is agreeing with his audience that the OT does in reality present God's OT justice as retributive or that he does not really agree that this was EVER the OT picture but is doing so for the sake of his argument? It is very hard to read through Romans 1-3 and not see the retribution as coming directly from God and from his audience as well. I do see your point though ... Paul does NOT speak of the alternate righteousness of God through faith in Jesus as coming in direct fulfilment demanded by the law ... as if The Cross vindicated and upheld the punitive demand of the law. I can see it clearly now that there are two OPPOSING systems of justice and that the latter is not connected in any way whatsoever as a kind of fulfilment of the former. It is either the retributive justice of the law [instigated by God in the OT..] or it is the alternative way of restorative justice provided by Jesus! But you cant have it both ways. Paul definitely makes a transition in Romans from Retributive to Restorative justice ... but he never comes out directly and says that the retribution as found in the OT law never really existed in the first place. Maybe if he did make such a radical statement he would have been crucified! So Paul comes in through the back door so to speak. Hard for me to totally shed my penal view at this point. But I know I want to :)

At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


It is possible that Paul is adopting the perspective of his audience, but we really can't know that for sure. So let's assume that Paul means what he says and still thinks that God is just in his punitive judgment of sin. Still the fact is, Paul is clearly arguing against that way of wrath, and in contrast arguing for the restorative justice of God (note that justice for Paul always refers to restorative justice. Judgement refers to retributive justice). Bot only as a model of our way, but also as a deeper revelation of who God is.

We do not really get direct insight from Paul as to whether God changed his mind, or whether the OT writers were wrong. Paul seems to hold still to the rightness of God's judgment, but rejects the common idea that humans also should participate in being agents of that judgment by killing which he had formally thought. So I see him in transition. We see something similar with slavery in the NT. They are moving away from it by saying that slaves should be treated with dignity, but they do not say (as well all would today) that slavery was simply wrong. If you want to go with a "the OT is never wrong" view, then you have to assume that God used to like slavery and genocide along with retributive justice. So today I think we need to follow in the trajectory they set, rather than going back the assumptions of slavery, polygamy, patriarchy, and extreme violence in their culture.

I do not think we can say that Jesus or Paul simply accepted Scripture. They both deeply challenged it. I get into this in detail for Paul in my Sojourners article, and William Loader has done really good work in Jesus and the Fundamentalism of His Day at outlining this for Jesus (I also deal with this a bit in my book where I talk about "Jesus the ultimate lawbreaker" and the fact that he was presented as such in the Gospels. The fact is, Jesus and Paul clearly did not read their Bibles the way that evangelical scholars say we should. They wrestled with them, contradicted them, improved on them, etc.

At 4:49 PM, Blogger Josh said...

Until we allow that Jesus can correct Scripture, we make the latter rather than the former Lord.

At 7:44 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Amen Josh, very well said!

At 1:38 PM, Blogger Auggybendoggy said...


I'm one who believes that retributive justice is compatible with restorative justice. Depending of course on how you define these terms. Retribution is to payback and I believe God does do that as Paul declares he does. But why does he payback? Could it be that retribution is a good thing? If God took vengeance to restore someone, is that a logical contradiction? I would think it is only if you change the definition of these terms.: If you attach "non-restorative" to them.

I myself don't understand Jesus to overturn an eye for an eye. I understand him as explaining it. If eye for an eye is a means of justice and I believe it is, it's point is not to get even but to correct the problem - make things right. The problem is that people are literalists and believe poking out the other guys eye fixes things. The point of eye for an eye is justice. Jesus’ wasn’t making a new law saying you cannot poke out an eye – in fact if a case occurred where poking out his eye was the means of saving him then it would be right to do so. The point being: The law’s intention is love. But being literalist they believe abstaining from pork made them clean or at least didn’t defile them. And likewise poking out the eye was what pleased God.

My suspicion is that you’re stretching it to place "eye for an eye" (justice) in competition with enemy love. I believe eye for an eye can be love for enemy- that’s the meaning. Murder and hate are what's in competition with enemy love. After all the whole law is summed up in a single command, love one another.

I'm wondering what compels you to think that injustice is attached to retribution? If the word means payback why can't it mean to payback for restoration rather than destruction?

You say "Retribution and punishment are not life-imparting because they can only give a negative consequence for hurtful actions, but they cannot change our hearts, they cannot heal."
But you have to prove that. Where does it say that punishment or discipline cannot correct? When it comes to Hebrews it seems to imply that we suffer because God disciplines those he loves.

At 3:40 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I think you would need to practically state what the practical conclusions of your theory would be in practice. You say that you do not literally intend to poke out eyes, but what would redemptive punishment look like when practically applied? What would some examples be? How would those examples be restorative? Would you include acts of physical violence as an acceptable means for this corrective punishment? Where would you draw the line?

The fact is, if we look historically at how people have applied the idea of restorative punishment, we see that they have argued that beating children is redemptive, torturing prisoners is redemptive, and so on.

This is simply the reality of how this theory has been applied in history. Consequently when one speaks of "restorative punishment" this is what comes to mind. If your intent is to suggest something else, you would need to take it out of the theoretical so we can all know what is actually being proposed in order to evaluate whether it indeed is redemptive rather than abusive. It's possible that I might agree with you, but not really knowing what you are proposing, I cannot say.

At 5:32 PM, Blogger Auggybendoggy said...

Good point. I don't feel however that I would have to draw any line as to what type of "torture" anyone might approve of, that's fundamentalism. If you think placing a child on time out is torture than I suppose I'm an abusive parent. But of course I would have to ask, do you punish your children or do you simply let them suffer the consequences naturally. If your child bullies and beats another child at school do you simply tell him if he continues to do that eventually he will get beaten down by a bigger kid or do you punish him in order to teach him bullying is evil. If you don't I would disagree whole heartily. I believe you should punish him in order to prevent the inevitable that he will suffer. So I think it's true that if God does not punish then he is not loving. Do you?

As for eye for an eye and how that translates into justice in a theoretical way, I don't read it literally but neither do I believe Jesus was dogmatic that if you fail to turn the other cheek then you are not loving. I believe he meant, be self-giving unless you know otherwise. I'm not convinced he meant if someone robs you of your coat there is a new law that you must give him your shirt. I believe he's doing the same thing as God did in the O.T. - love that person even if it means pinning him to the ground and having him arrested where God awaits him in prison. I tend to think Jesus was simply telling them the dogma of literalism was to think that if you poke an eye out or abstain from pork you've pleased God. Do you think people believe that? I personally know Christian Universalists who do. they believe abstaining from pork is love. I don't. But neither do I think that not abstaining from pork is love.

I read Paul as saying God will do as he pleases including hardening the heart of people in order this others might receive mercy. I don't think he was wrong nor confused about that.

by the way, I might sound like an antagonist, but I love these thoughts and I'm entertaining them. I simply have to come to terms with them.

Blessings to you.

At 7:39 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes, I agree that we should not interpret anything dogmatically. That always gets us in trouble.

I think it is important not to misuse words. So I would never say that giving a child a time out is "torture." That sounds crazy to me. What I am specifically objecting to is physical violence. A timeout is not violent at all. So we need to clearly recognize that distinction.

I do believe that with children it is important to set boundaries and give consequences. A timeout would be one way among many to do this. I don't really like the word "punishment" because it traditionally refers to physical punishment. Words do matter. So I try to find words that are more neutral.

If my child was bullying someone else, I don't think it would be enough to simply give them a negative consequence. I would also want to talk with them and help them find ways to deal with their feelings in ways that do not hurt others, and to develop a sense of empathy. Again, I have no problem with them getting a negative consequence for their actions (timeout, no TV for a week, grounded, etc.) but in that particular situation it is not enough.

I would also stress that bullying is often a sign of insecurity. So I would suggest that while there may be a temptation to want to shame them, to say their actions are "evil" that in fact what they need is to have empathy, respect, and maturity modeled for them.

At 9:06 AM, Blogger Auggybendoggy said...

love the points you're making. And for the most part I agree. It's terminology that I feel we need to be careful about but I've become sympathetic only because I know you're trying to define a real difference between a God who gets you back and a God who wants to get you back to him.

But I like Santos have not fully embraced all the ideology here. I agree with Santos that the N.T. seems to clarify that God does indeed deal with sinners and that to me is retributive. Of course I believe he does so to restore them. Where you Hardin, Miller and Jersak seem to argue that he doesn't. I'm trying to find out why?

I don't read Romans 1 the way you do. I see Paul not assuming but declaring that God does indeed punish the wicked for their acts. Here I agree with Tom Talbott that we should see that as a declaration that God loves the wicked - not that if he punishes them then he's hateful. So I sympathize with Santos there. It seems clear to me that Paul is arguing that God's wrath is upon the wicked.

I think this is a difficult issue to wrestle with because as much as Paul says the law did not impart life he also declares that it's those who obey the law that will be declared righteous.

I feel he's not contradicting but declaring 2 different views of the law - spirit and letter. So is eye for an eye included in that? I think so. I think if one reads it for the letter then he'll gouge out the eye. If one reads it with spirit then we understand it to mean - love justice which is an extension of love.

So I disagree at this point that Jesus was overturning the law. He was overturning their understanding of the law. He himself did not come to abolish it and that is what I struggle with regarding this view point you present. I'm not saying your wrong, just that I like Santos struggle with it.

Aug (Gene)

At 11:22 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes these are hard questions, and I wrestle with them too. My next book will be on understanding violence in the Bible, and this is directly related to that. I think it is important that we wrestle with these things and don’t accept easy answers. So I hope you’ll join me in working through this together.

Let me address some of the points you make:
“the N.T. seems to clarify that God does indeed deal with sinners and that to me is retributive, of course I believe he does so to restore them.”

We should define some terms. Retributive justice by definition is not restorative. It is done with the purpose of retribution. What you mean is “redemptive violence” or “corrective punishment.” For example if one believes in conscious eternal torment (as many Christians do) then this is obviously retributive and not restorative. Likewise, if the OT calls for the death penalty, as it often does, this is also not restorative (remember they did not believe there was an afterlife at the time).

The next question is whether hurting a person (and as I said above, I do not mean “time outs” but physical violence) is restorative? For example, the context of “wrath” in the OT is of people being killed in war, of women being raped, terminal illness, and starving to death, and the claim that (see for example Dt 28 which Santos referenced above). Would inflicting these things on someone be restorative? Or would it be abusive? I think the answer is pretty obvious, which is why we struggle so much with it.

Now what I think we need to see is not only what Jesus says, but also what he does: his response is not to affirm the rightness of these punishments, but to undo them. He heals the sick, frees people from demons, touches the unclean, and forgives the condemned. In doing this he is opposing the system of wrath outlined in Dt 28. He does not connect that way of inflicting sickness and suffering with God, but with the devil and says that his “kingdom” is opposed to that way. That is what the gospel (according to the Gospels) is all about.

A major factor here is the idea of the devil which was a new development (intertestimental). Before folks thought that God did good and evil. We see this in Dt 28. Now they think that some things are demonic, but still that the devil acts as God’s agent of wrath. However Jesus is opposing those punitive sentences. Undoing them. Condemning them, rather than affirming them. That’s important to recognize. He is saying that the work of the devil is not in line with God’s will. The Satan (=accuser) is a “liar” he says. He has come to “steal, kill, and destroy” but Jesus shows us that God wants to restore, to turn around, to mend, to liberate, to heal. We can of course spin it so that Jesus’ relationship to the law is positive--and there is value in seeing it this way!--but we also need to recognize that this was an offense to people, so much so that they called him a blasphemer and wanted to kill him. We need to face the fact that Gospels present Jesus as one who is seen as offensive, as breaking the law, as confronting the religious leaders, as having a bad reputation with them.


At 11:22 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


“as much as Paul says the law did not impart life he also declares that it's those who obey the law that will be declared righteous.”

Paul says that we need to obey the law to be recognized as righteous, but that no one can. If you cannot, the law can’t do anything to help. So its “sink or swim” and everyone sinks. Instead he proposes that we live in the spirit of Christ and that this transformative relationship produces the fruits of the spirit which is love. In doing that we fulfill the intent of the law which is love, but we do not alone but with God together.
“I feel he's not contradicting but declaring 2 different views of the law - spirit and letter. “

I agree. Paul and Jesus had a very different way of understanding what fulfillment of the law looked like than the Pharisees (which Paul was before his conversion). It involved acting in love as the fulfillment of the law. The thing is, that meant practically that they both had to rejecting parts of the OT, and it meant that they had to break some commandments in order to love. Jesus for example heals on the Sabbath (punishable by death), he makes himself unclean (meaning unholy, stained), he does not obey commandments to kill. So its a “law” that is free to break the law. A “law” that is free to reject parts of the law as wrong. As Paul says, we are not “under the law” and have been “set free” from it (the image is one of slavery), we now only have the obligation to love which he says “fulfills the law.” That is, in his context, very radical and it is still today in the context of Christianity still quite radical. They read their Bibles very very differently than the way we were taught to read ours in church.

The problem I have with the approach you are taking (which is to say for example that “an eye for an eye” is loving) is that this has a long past and that past has lead to bad places where people end up calling things that are really hurtful “loving.” I think we need to be really careful not to do that because we don’t want to hurt people or find ourselves in the position of justifying those who do.

At 1:41 PM, Blogger Auggybendoggy said...


I’m indebted to you and your band of brothers for writing on these issues. So thank you.

It seems to me you’re connoting a meaning in order to make the distinction. Payback to me is neither good nor bad – it depends on other conditions. If ECT is retributive, it’s not the payback that’s the issue, it’s the fact that it is not accompanied with good intention or as we call it – Love. But if payback is for a good purpose, one that restores, then retribution (payback) can be a means of justice. We probably agree Justice is always restorative – by definition.

I don’t believe Jesus was undoing Deut 28. Jesus in fact preaches that God’s going to get them in the end and they won’t escape God’s wrath. So if Duet 28 (blessing and curse) is negated by Jesus, what then are you saying? That to practice sin leads to blessing? Jesus warns the hypocrites that they’re going to suffer, just as Duet 28 reveals. He does not preach to the hypocrites that all is well. So the wicked are in trouble of God’s wrath and both John the Baptist and Jesus make this VERY CLEAR. They will inherit hell (retribution) for the wicked things they do. That does not mean God hates them, he in fact loves them. He warns that when the master returns they’ll be cut to pieces, tossed into fires, weeping and gnashing of teeth. And Paul explains in Romans 9 – God is the one who hardened them that mercy might come to the gentiles.

Again, I don’t believe Jesus is undoing Deut 28. I would argue he’s condemning their false interpretation of how to achieve justice. That’s how he does not abrogate the law and yet fulfills it. Under your view, he seems to abrogate it (mind you even I’m sympathetic with that). They don’t have to reject parts of the O.T. they have to understand it differently. It’s the interpretation of the Sanhedrin that they reject.

I’m not settled on “my” particular view either. While I hold eye for an eye is loving, I won’t agree with modern Christians that it’s literally achieving love to poke out the other guy’s eye because God said it was – we must understand the command. Its intention is to endorse love – and forgiveness is always required to achieve justice.

Anything can be twisted to into love, but that doesn't require us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes it’s proper to make someone pay back their loan though Jesus says don’t. That might very well be the lesson they need to mature in empathy. To me you may be taking to literally Jesus’ command to turn the other check (like many have done with the O.T.) when it really means – do justice (which is to say LOVE ONE ANOTHER). Sometimes it might mean pin the kid to the floor (which happened about a year ago in a robbery when a UFC fighter pinned a robber hard with a choke-hold and then spoke to him for about an hour – he didn’t exactly turn the other cheek – but that fighter had a heart for the robber [sympathized with him]). To me he obeyed Jesus and Paul by not turning the other cheek; DO EVERYTHING TO SAVE THE OTHER.

All of this to say I agree we can break the letter (desecrate the command) while obeying the spirit (remain blameless) but this does not mean that the command is negated; as pauls says “do we negate the law? NO! Rather we uphold it.”

You might be interested in Robin Parrys new edition of the Evangelical Universalist, he goes into this very topic (and I think he agrees more with you) :)

At 9:18 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I generally agree with where you are going--specifically that you say the goal is to do good and to love, and not to have a free for all. I also think it is positive that you are trying to harmonize the OT with the NT. Where I would want to push back a bit is that we should not try to harmonize things so much that we end up advocating bad stuff that promotes hurt. There are many parts of there OT that are profoundly immoral, and I think we are right to reject these.

If we can recognize that Jesus frequently challenges things in the OT (and I think it is quite clear that the Gospel writers present him as doing this to the point that he often scandalizes his religious audience), then we can join him in that. If on the other hand we think that everything must be harmonized, then there is a danger that we will whitewash over things, and end up excusing things that are inexcusable. For example, I don't think there is any way to morally justify genocide. We need to face that. Jesus give us an example of how we can wrestle with Scripture and at the same time cling to a loving God, rather than choosing between either harmonizing everything or turning to atheism.

"He does not preach to the hypocrites that all is well. So the wicked are in trouble of God’s wrath and both John the Baptist and Jesus make this VERY CLEAR. They will inherit hell (retribution) for the wicked things they do."

That does not sound like the Gospels. Notice that the "hypocrites" are NOT the sinners, prostitutes, the sick, the poor, and those who have been condemned under Deut 28, rather he is referring to the **religious leaders**. Jesus has flipped the tables!

The sick and the sinner, he comes with love and care saying "it is the sick who need a doctor" and "peace, peace." But to the religious he says "woe unto you, you hypocrite." It's a complete role reversal. He does that all the time. His parable of the sheep and goats is a perfect example.

I think you are under-appreciating how radical Jesus was. Yes, he doing it for love, and as a fulfillment of God's will. Absolutely. But also, in doing this, he makes religious folks so mad that they want to kill him. He was not trying to harmonize, he was trying to provoke. That's why I think he says "do not think I have come to bring peace, I have come to bring a sword!" Jesus is the rebel God.

At 6:32 AM, Blogger Auggybendoggy said...


Blessings to you brother and thanks for the comments. Yes I agree about trying to harmonize everything. Recently I've had to rethink my approach to these issues because for the longest time I held INTUITION as the root of the problem - that is many people bypass their intuition. But I've recently discovered that everyone has a different intuition (LOL - yea I'm a little late to the party).

I love what you're saying and I don't believe we should "baptize" genocide as a loving act. I think that text needs to be read in a different light. If we can baptize genocide then how do we logically defend against Jihadists who strap C4 onto their backs and call it an act of compassion?

I also agree Jesus was turning things upside down but perhaps you're not getting my point - It's upside down because they (his religious audience) misunderstood the texts. He's not truly abrogating the law. It appears that way to them because they're literalists/legalists. They walk by the letter and in that sense it's overturned, but like us, he upholds it's spirit (intent). My point of the hypocrites is that they will indeed inherit punishment/retribution/hell from God. I totally agree the status of who sinners are is flipped, but the fact that those who are the true sinners (the self righteous religious) will receive punishment from God remained. Jesus never flipped that upside down. That would mean practice good and God will punish you. I understand Jesus and Paul to constantly repeat that those who pursue evil will inherit evil, you will reap what you sow, God will judge you, tossed into a fire, cut to pieces. So it seems to me that Jesus and Paul still endorse Duet 28, a God who will deal(payback) sinners the evil they've done. I simply hold that he does so with the intent to restore them.

I totally appreciate your points on this reversal that Jesus introduces. Joel B. Green in his commentary on Luke makes this point over and over again. No doubt Jesus appears to be the law breaker, I believe he purposefully did so. I'm writing a bigger piece that touches on this very subject.

I think we're closer than we think.

Again thanks for the thoughts, they're truly appreciated.

At 1:40 AM, Blogger Aceofspades said...

Thanks Derek, I have just discovered your blog and this post is incredibly insightful! I have just one question: How are we to deal with Paul still viewing God as a God of vengeance and wrath?

I agree that "wrath" should in many cases be interpreted as being the natural consequence of sin, but when we read certain passages such as Romans 12:19–21, we see Paul equating God's wrath with vengeance and repayment. Are we to simply interpret Paul here as being wrong (influenced more by his Jewish roots than Jesus at this point), or is there another way of looking at this?

At 8:12 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

The thing that is important to get with Paul is that most of the time when he quotes passages like this he is subverting them. I deal with that in my sojourners article on Paul and violence. In Romans 1-3 he is addressing his audience's desire for God's wrath against Gentiles, and flips that around to make the appeal that we all are sinners in need of mercy.

Here he takes a text from Deut 32, the song of Moses. The "good news" part of this song is the promise that God will help Israel to take vengeance in war. This is the context in which that line Paul quotes belonged originally:

"It is mine to avenge; I will repay....
I will take vengeance on my adversaries
and repay those who hate me.
I will make my arrows drunk with blood,
while my sword devours flesh:
the blood of the slain and the captives,
the heads of the enemy leaders" (v 35, 41-42)

This is a prophesy given to Moses right before he dies and Joshua is appointed. The point here is to claim that God is the one who both causes horrible suffering for Israel when they disobey, and also the one who gives them the ability to be successful in war

"How could one man chase a thousand,
or two put ten thousand to flight,
unless their Rock had sold them,
unless the Lord had given them up?" (v 30)

So what does following this passage look like? Joshua is made the new head, and in keeping with this principle of "it is mine to avenge" they commit mass genocide in God's name. Wow.

Now look at what Paul is doing with this same verse: He is using to argue that we should not seek vengeance at all, but instead do good to our enemies. So while Deuteronomy preaches

"in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them" (Deut 20:16)

Paul now instead teaches "Do not take revenge, my dear friends... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

He is not confirming that way of killing in God's name, he is completely reversing it. He is taking a text which was used as a justification for killing in God's name, and turning into a text that tells us not to kill and instead bless our enemies and do good. Again, wow.

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Aceofspades said...

Thanks Derek

I get what you're saying. My issue though is that Paul seems to be saying that God will do the avenging for us. God will repay our enemies with his wrath.

Yes - Paul encourages us to not take vengeance into our own hands, and this is a great thing (revolutionary even - considering the time), but he simultaneously seems to paint a picture of a wrathful God that will even the score at the end.

This seems to miss the entire point that Jesus made - that we should completely forgive our enemies. We should wish the best for our enemies, not wait in hope that God will avenge us.

John Piper has a great way of maligning God further by nailing home this point. I find it depressing that verses like this can be used to demonstrate that God's wrath involves revenge and repayment. (http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/gods-wrath-vengeance-is-mine-i-will-repay-says-the-lord)

At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Exactly. So Paul is taking one HUGE step forward with his audience. As he says "to those under the law I became as one under the law..." So if we would conclude from this that God is not going to do what God is telling us to do, then we completely miss the direction that Paul (and Jesus) are moving us towards. We need to recognize the trajectory and follow in that. God is revealed in Jesus who shows us that mercy trumps retribution.

At 11:12 AM, Blogger Aceofspades said...

Thanks... I'm beginning to see it the way you describe :)

This was in a letter to the Romans though, not the church in Jerusalem so I don't necessarily see why these people would come from a place of "being under the law", but I can see how this quote doesn't say that God WILL avenge and repay, it just says that it is his place (and only his place) to do so.

I look forward to some great future content from your blog. I have a lot of reading to catch up on :)

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


It's called "Romans," but written to a Jewish (Christian) audience. This is pretty clear when you read ch 1-3:

"Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law..." (Ro 2:17-18)

"Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law" (Ro 3:19)

and so on. They may be in Rome, but they aren't Romans.

At 7:20 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I think that a very simple, very clear idea that is being overlooked by many advocates of punitive justice- that to punish is to cause someone harm. Recently there was a case in the middle east where a man was paralyzed by his friend. It was unclear (and obviously unimportant) whether this was the result of an accident; however, the "justice" was either to pay the victim a retribution fine or be paralyzed in return. (I think, but am not sure, that the victim got to choose the punishment for the guilty one) This is an eye for an eye- I have caused you harm, now you have a right to harm me in return. I think it is pretty clear that Jesus intended to establish through his life and death a different kind of justice, a justice that is beyond "what seems right to a man".


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