Notes For a short presentation at Logos High School
1. Only God is perfectly just; human justice that submits to God’s justice approximates God’s justice but not perfectly. The Final Judgment at the end of human history is our hope for complete and perfect justice. Until then, we must aim for obedient biblical justice, but perfectionists will be constantly disappointed and bitter. And this leads people to take vengeance into their own hands, but vengeance is the Lord’s – God will repay. Biblical justice must be humble and patient under God and His final judgment.
2. The Cross is the central act of biblical justice: this is both the moral justice due our sins and crimes against God as well as the foundation of our ability to do true criminal justice in this world. The Cross orients how we think about everything and fundamentally allows us to think and judge clearly. Jesus said that we should not try to remove the speck from our brother’s eye without first removing the log from our own eye. It is also the revelation of the justice of God because God simultaneously saved us while satisfying justice. The goal of biblical justice is punitive, but when the penalties are biblical, justice is also restorative. But we shouldn’t get this backwards.
3. Biblical justice makes a distinction between sins vs. crimes. The distinction between sins and crimes recognizes different jurisdictions. Sins are the jurisdiction of family/church and crimes are the jurisdiction of the civil magistrate. When we are dealing with crimes as defined by Scripture, they are also sins, but not all sins are crimes. For example, murder is a crime and a sin, but covetousness is only a sin and not a crime. It doesn’t become a crime until it turns into theft. Broadly, a crime is something that God says does some kind of objective harm to the community, or to a person or property. So, according to biblical law, adultery and fornication are crimes and sins, but they are rarely prosecuted as crimes in our modern day.
4. Biblical justice also makes a distinction between consequences and forgiveness. A man may commit murder and while he is on trial truly become a Christian, confess his sins, and seek forgiveness, and he truly is forgiven by God and he should still receive the death penalty. In biblical law, the death penalty is only mandatory for murder (Gen. 9). I take the other death penalties to be maximum penalties, which means that magistrates may use wisdom in rendering their verdict and penalties. And while true repentance and forgiveness may play some role in that wisdom, a person may be forgiven and still face just consequences.
5. Biblical justice requires two or three witnesses in order to convict someone (Dt. 19:15). I take it that one of those witnesses may be material evidence (e.g. finger prints, DNA, blood, surveillance footage, cell pings, etc.), but this is also why the standard is two or three. The less certain the material evidence is, the more necessary a third witness is. This requirement is the basis for the biblical standard of presumption of innocence – innocent until proven guilty. This also means that biblical justice requires us to lean in the direction that it would be better to occasionally let a true criminal off the hook (for lack of evidence, e.g. only one witness) than to occasionally convict an innocent person because we have an itchy trigger finger.
6. Biblical justice requires the cross-examination of witnesses. “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17). Related to this is the right of the accused to face his accuser(s). Anonymous accusers/accusations do not allow for this, and thus they ought to be ordinarily rejected. What a bunch of people on the internet think or say isn’t sufficient to convict a person of a crime.
7. Biblical justice teaches that there is wisdom and safety in a multitude of counselors: this is part of the basis for trial by jury. And we see the same principle in the church where an elder board hears difficult cases and decides, or else where a case is brought before the entire congregation for a vote. The idea is to spread out as much as possible the human tendency to prejudice a decision. In all the old paintings and statues, Lady Justice is pictured as blind (or blind-folded), holding scales in one hand and a sword in the other. The blindness/blindfold pictures this equality of judgment, and a multitude of counselors helps approximate that.
8. Biblical justice requires that penalties match the crime. This is what the scales represent in the pictures/statues of Lady Justice. This principle is called the Lex talionis, which refers to the law of fairness or equivalence. The Old Testament statement of this principle is: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” While moderns often think that this seems barbaric, it was actually a principle of restraint. If someone took your eye, the maximum penalty that could be brought against them was for them to lose their eye. In our fleshly anger and desire for vengeance, when we’ve lost an eye, we usually want to take off the other person’s head. Jesus taught this same principle in the Sermon on the Mount when he said that we must love our enemies and do good to those who wrong us, and not seek personal vengeance. Jesus was not saying never to call the cops. He was saying the wrath of man doesn’t accomplish the justice of God, and it is the civil magistrate’s job to weight out justice carefully. You can give a thief a drink of water and call the cops.
9. Lastly, biblical justice is often concerned with restitution. Short of the death penalty (the sword), most crimes should require paying back the damage that has been done by criminal actions (the scales). Often this restitution would require years of labor to pay back. The ordinarily principle of restitution is paying back double what was damaged or stolen (Ex. 22:4). This is a far more humane and personal way to make things right. When criminal justice began talking about “paying one’s debt to society,” we turned away from biblical justice. In the situation with the U of I murders, the one who committed that crime did not primarily wrong “society,” they wronged the individuals they murdered and their families and friends.
Kip' Chelashaw says
Any comment on recent push for reparations which is often presented as a justice issue? Are they part of the last point on restitution? Can one restitute crimes committed long ago to a following/subsequent generation?
Bryan Carter says
Toby, should females, our wife and/or daughter(s), be a jury participant?
Why or why not?
David Trounce says
G’day Toby. I enjoyed your outline on justice. Two quick questions.
You mention that murder is the only crime that explicitly called for the death penalty in the Old Testament, but I see it called for in the case of sexual immortality also.
Can you show from scripture how you made the distinction?
Secondly, and perhaps related, given the definition of a crime as being something that negatively impacts my neighbour or neighbours, and his property, and given that homosexuality (or fornication) appears to be treated as a crime in the Old Testament, with a penalty attached: How would you demonstrate that this crime (say, two guys in the privacy of their own bedroom) negatively impacts my neighbour?
David, G’day to you. Actually what I wrote is that murder is the only crime where the death penalty is *mandatory* — And I said that all the other death penalties are maximum penalties (e.g. for sexual crimes). I would argue for this based on the fact that Kings Asa and Josiah exiled the sodomites from the land, and that was considered righteous (even though they didn’t put them to death). On the second question, that’s why I said that a crime is something that “God says” harms community, persons, or property. Sometimes we can see the harm, but sometimes we just have to trust God that there is harm even if we can’t see it. But I would add that part of the proof is in the pudding — what started as “privacy of our own home” has turned into Drag Queens gyrating in front of children. Cheers!
David Trounce says
Gotcha! Well said.
I guess the other evidence of the public consequence of such crimes, even if we set aside the gyrating wigs currently parading through story hour, are those public sins mentioned in Romans 1:28-30 which Paul seems to suggest are the outworking of those deeds done in the darkness of Romans 1:26-27.