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Divine justice as restorative justice

February 6, 2012

….In my view, there can be little doubt that biblical teaching on justice includes a definite theme of retribution. Most basically, the Bible recognizes that human deeds carry inescapable consequences. There is a kind of inbuilt law of recompense in the universe that means people “reap whatever they sow” (Galatians 6:7, cf. Ecclesiastes 10:8; Proverbs 1:32; 26:27; Psalm 7:15-16). In addition, the basic retributive concepts of guilt, desert, proportionality, and atonement are widely attested in the Old Testament legal and cultic system, and undergird moral and theological teaching in the New Testament as well. Furthermore, since God is inherently just, and God’s judgments are never capricious, biblical accounts of divine judgment on sin, both within history and at the end of time, may also be regarded as demonstrations of retributive justice. The biblical story ends with an affirmation of the retributive principle of just deserts: “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work” (Revelation 22:12).

….Biblical justice includes retributive components, but it cannot be adequately characterized rincipally as retributive justice. It is better described as a relational or restorative justice. The fundamentally restorative character of biblical justice is evident at four main levels of the biblical material.

….Four obligations devolve on offenders. The first is recognition or remorse, the need to acknowledge guilt or confess the sin (Leviticus 6:4; Numbers 5:7). The second is repentance, the determination to make amends, to put things right, to display “fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8). The third obligation is restitution to the victim, plus additional compensation (Leviticus 6:5; Numbers 5:7)…. The fourth obligation on offenders is reconciliation. The crime itself, though perpetrated against another citizen, is perceived also to be a breach of faith with God and a trespass against the Lord (Leviticus 6:2; Numbers 5:6). Before God’s forgiveness can be secured through sacrificial offering, reconciliation must be made with the injured party by means of restitution.

….The Church is called to bear witness to the reality of God’s saving justice in Christ, both by proclaiming it verbally in the story of the gospel and by putting it into practice in the way it deals with offending and failure in its own midst. Knowing God’s justice to be a restoring and renewing justice, the Church is obliged to practice restorative justice in its own ranks and to summons society to move in the same direction. There can be no justification for saying one thing about God’s justice in Church and advocating the opposite in the world. 

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