2 – God’s Justice & The Problem with Substitution

Home Learning Hub Violence in Scripture 2 – God’s Justice & The Problem with Substitution
I grew up in a Western nation. In the post Second World War period, this meant that religiously we grew up with an emphasis on a judicial faith. The book of Romans was read this way. “God is angry at the sin of the world and was going to punish it. But Jesus stepped in and took God’s anger on himself and thereby saved us from the anger of God.” This is how the holiness of God was seen. We said that because God is holy, he can’t stand any breach of his law. His justice demands that every breach of law be satisfied with an equal punishment. “The law must be satisfied,” we were told. Laws in Moses like “tooth for tooth” were said to express this. Justice was seen in this punitive sense. Justice was the equal punishment upon the transgressor.

“So,” it was said, “God demands this type of justice because he is holy.” But how could the punishment of the guilty bring justice to the one who was wrongly treated? Sometimes the principle of “tooth for tooth” pointed to a financial compensation to restore the victim. But many also saw the principle demanding retribution required by God due to his holiness. If I am slain and justice demands that the offender is also slain, how is that helping me? Or does retribution as an example stop crime? This was what the Pharisees thought. Jesus said that this is where the church is called to come in with grace and mercy to try to restore.

So, who demands tooth for tooth? Why is that in the law? Our normal answer to that is that God demands it. But if God demands that, then why did Jesus overturn that instruction? Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘Tooth for tooth’, but I say to you, ‘Do not resist evil.’” This means, do not resist evil violently. “If someone smites you on one check, offer to him the other check.” One of the problems here is that if God demanded tooth for tooth in the law, why is Jesus not demanding the same from his disciples in the way we encounter wrongdoing? This was the problem the Pharisees had with Jesus: “Why is Jesus overthrowing what God taught? Who does Jesus think he is? How could he be from God?”

But Jesus said he and the Father were one. He said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Jesus is God come in the flesh, so he can’t be overthrowing what was in the heart of God in the Old Testament. They aren’t against each other. They aren’t different Gods, with different wills.

Jesus quite clearly threw out the law’s teaching on “tooth for tooth.” Jesus did this with a lot of Old Testament conventions. We will look at this in detail later, but take sacrifice for example. This was the most sacred institution to Israel, but Jesus threw it out. He said, “I have desired mercy, not sacrifice.” This is similar to the “tooth for tooth” idea. Jesus said God didn’t desire sacrifice for sin, to satisfy his holiness. God didn’t require a judicial, retributive or legal form of justice.

Jesus also did this with the temple. This again was most sacred to Israel. It was where the law was satisfied, where all the sacrifices went on. But Jesus also threw that out, proclaiming that his body, and his people in the world, was the true temple. His people would bring justice to the world a different way. Not by demanding tooth for tooth, but by offering themselves to serve to restore the poor and weak. This is what we call restorative justice, helping to deliver the captive, rather than to punish the sinner, and this is what we see in Jesus’ actions in going to the cross. The cross is restorative, not punitive, justice. This is God’s holiness.

We have often been taught that God is angry at sin and that he must punish sin, because his holiness demands it. We have been told that God visited this anger and punishment upon Jesus, to satisfy his legal demands concerning tooth for tooth. “Jesus would pay for our crimes and God’s justice would be satisfied.” When we look at sections of scripture like the book of Romans, or the opening 9 chapters of Genesis, what do we see? Do we see a God of wrath, looking for a way to appease his wrath through the sacrifice of an innocent party? This is how we view these passages through the Western judicial spectrum. We see these passages as primarily to do with our individual justification. But passages like Romans and Genesis 1-3 aren’t primarily concerned with our justification. They are about God’s plan to renew the world through a new priesthood of believers. This isn’t an angry God. This is a self-giving God, who calls us to follow him in the world.

If God demanded tooth for tooth, why did he tell us through Christ not to demand it? Aren’t we to follow God? Why would he tell us to do something that he wouldn’t do? The picture we get of God through Jesus in the Gospels is one who forgives freely. He doesn’t require payment for sin. He simple says, “Your sins are forgiven you, rise and walk.” “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” Just as Jesus freed the woman bound by satan for 18 years, his whole ministry, death and resurrection was a mission to rescue, a release of captives from satan, not from God.

Instead, we see a God who receives the prodigal son home without any compensation for wrong done. The historical record of sin isn’t even considered, and isn’t covered by sacrifice. God forgives freely and for that reason he tells us to do the same for our enemies. “Forgive those who sin against you. Love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you.” So here, we don’t see anger expressed at sinners. We see love that takes initiative to bless those who sin. It’s not just a command to forgive, but a command to take action to serve. This is following God. This is what he does. This is who he is.

So, who demands satisfaction for the law? Does God? No. Then, who does? It was the Prodigal’s brother in Jesus’ parable. He wanted satisfaction for the wrong his brother had done. The father didn’t care about that. It was the brother who used the law to accuse. So it was in the Old Testament. It was the accuser who demanded Israel’s death through the law. And it was God who stepped in and took that death on their behalf, to deliver them from that law and from the legal justice that satan required.

This is how we read the judicial parts of Romans; in the love of God. As Paul said in conclusion, “Who shall condemn us, it is God who justifies?” This is how Jesus viewed the cross: as a “ransom.” A ransom is paid to the one who kidnaps people. Satan took custody of Israel by the law and God came in the flesh and paid the price and set them free. And he paid the price in our own satanic conscience. We accused ourselves, and on the cross we saw a God who forgave us.

“Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins.” (Heb 9:24) Christ offered himself to God, which doesn’t mean God’s wrath required it, but that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament law, to set our conscience free to serve God. The cross is God’s personal humiliation in Christ, to serve humanity, to set us free from ourselves, from satan, from sin and death, not to save us from God. In renewing our hearts this way, God’s plan is to renew the world with our new works. The cross is changed from an image of God punishing, to God serving, and this changes the image we reflect in the nations.

This is quite different from the common kind of judicial view of the cross. An angry Father didn’t punish his innocent Son to satisfy his anger. Rather, God gave his life to save us from our sin and death, to open the grave of condemnation satan held us in. This is an action of love, not an action demanded by anger.

Who demanded a tooth for a tooth in the Old Testament? The people did. Since Cain slew Abel, societies have demanded retributive justice. This is what Cain feared. So Cain’s murder would be 10 punished by sevenfold retribution. This was how kingly justice was. If you sin against a poor person, then you pay a small sum. But if you sin against an important person you pay heavily. So God gave the law of “tooth for tooth” to limit human vengeance and control it. The law was meant to limit the damage we made upon society, to prevent conflict from tearing society apart. Jesus was right in saying that tooth for tooth was a necessary convention in fallen society, but not in his kingdom.

The law contained a glimpse into the heart of God, showing the things that would bring lasting peace. These included kindness towards the refugee, support towards the weak, the poor and the enemy. This revelation of God’s person in the law is summarized by concepts like Jubilee. This mercy was the message of Jesus. The Pharisees thought Jesus was throwing away the law, but Jesus was fulfilling the law. Jesus claimed that Jubilee, not retribution, was the central revelation of the nature of God and also the central part in his kingdom in renovating the world.

In the Old Testament, sacrifice was the human way of forgiving others. It involved compensation for legal justice. But Jesus taught us just to forgive from a renewed heart. The old heart didn’t just require sacrifice to forgive others, but also to forgive ourselves. We see this immediately with Adam and Eve, hiding from God behind the bush. Since then, mankind devised sacrifice to appease their conscience. Sacrifice had a lot of benefits. It could help my conscience; it could settle disputes; it could reconcile enemies. All of this has been answered by the cross. Jesus says to us that since he suffered and forgave us, can’t we forgive ourselves and be reconciled to others? Simple.

Jesus became our sacrifice, our scapegoat, in order to end our need of sacrifice. It wasn’t God’s anger that killed Jesus, but human anger and violence that did it. God’s willingness not to kill his enemies, but to forgive them from the cross, is what drove a nail right through the centre of our retributive hearts and religious systems. This would change for ever the way we viewed justice and conflict in our world, bringing in the kingdom of God to our relationships and nations. The New Testament speaks of Christ dying to heal our conscience from sin, demonstrating his love to a humanity in hiding. On the cross Jesus met the judicial demands of the satan without, of the satan within our conscience and of the satan within our relationship.

In 2nd Thessalonians 1, it seems that the concept of retributive justice is celebrated. I will speak of this passage in a subsequent chapter, but will introduce the passage into this book here. No doubt this enlivened the Christian armies in times past, when they proclaimed themselves instruments of God’s justice upon the nations. But how does this compare to Jesus himself, who from the cross breathed no retribution, but only reconciliation? Jesus also clearly rebuked his disciples for desiring retribution upon others, claiming that such wasn’t the Spirit of God. Is Jesus different to what Paul was proclaiming here?

I believe Paul was speaking according to the Jewish mindset. The scenario is similar to the scene in Job, where God himself is being tried for his unequal favour towards his people. Here, Paul proclaims that in the day when God’s works shall be on trial, it will be seen that his people truly reflected the salvation they professed, in patience, in suffering. At the same time, those who missed the kingdom of God, it will be seen, did so because of their own evil works, which brought destruction upon themselves. God is vindicated in saving some and handing others, who insist, over to their own retribution. Paul was alluding to the fall of Jerusalem in that century, but the overall point, in the Jewish mind, is the vindication of God before history, as we say.

There is no sense in which God delights in retributive justice. Rather, his will is that all be saved. He does not delight in any that perish. He does not delight in, nor call for, retribution. Rather, he calls for us to love those who do wrong and to serve them for their reconciliation. It’s when we remove 11 this satanic court, this Jewish backdrop, from Paul’s writings, that we end up reading the letter to the Romans, and other such passages of Paul, as depicting God as the accuser and destroyer. This was not in Paul’s mind. Paul saw satan as the accuser, from whom God has reconciled us.

When it comes to a biblical discussion on justice, the justice that God is interested in is that which works through the lives of his people, the justice the Prophets of the Old Testament spoke of, the gospel of the kingdom Jesus bought about, that is, the good news being preached to the poor. It’s not just a matter of us sharing with others, but a matter of us working in the world to bring about just systems that obliterate our carefully maintained personal advantage, and lifts up those in need. It is what Mary said, bringing down the rich, and lifting up the poor. Not that we purpose just to bring ourselves down, but we use what we have to lift others up. This is the justice that is in the hearts of God’s people, because it is in God’s heart.