One of the controversies of the grace message is the fear that it gives license to do whatever you want without a governing fear of consequences. The concern is that grace blurs the boundaries and removes the curbing effect of the threat of punishment. That worries us because we are all familiar with human nature, and quickly imagine the breakdown of law and order when there is universal amnesty. Paul addressed the same concern in Romans 6 verse 1 where he asked the question, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may increase?” We have every reason for concern when we view grace from a human standpoint. However, fear generated by the threat of punishment is incompatible with the “perfect love (that) casts out fear”(1 John 4:18), and that God “has not given us a spirit of fear” (Romans 8:15;1 Timothy 1:7).
We need to see that it is the “grace of God”. God’s grace does not do away with justice; it simply employs a different dynamic. Punishment and the grace of God are alternative and to some degree competing dynamics in dealing with sin. Punishment or the threat of punishment is designed to control sinful human behaviour. Grace is God’s dynamic in dealing with the deeper root of evil at its source. Grace is the only way to permanently deal with sin, redeem humanity and yet let justice prevail.
Grace is defined by the nature of God and is perfectly modeled in Jesus Christ. “We beheld Him, full of grace and truth”, which came out of the “fullness of the Godhead (that) dwelt bodily in the Lord”. To live in and operate in grace, we need to receive grace from that fullness, rather than generate the grace that from our human nature source. We must bear in mind that the grace of God is qualitatively different from human grace. In fact God’s grace is foreign to our way of thinking, which has been twisted by sin.
The Old Testament portrays God as a punisher. Breaches of the law were met with stiff penalties. God’s nature does not change. One might ask, “where is His grace shown in the Old Testament?” When Moses received the law, he asked for and received a true revelation of the nature of God. “Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty;”(Exodus 34:7). God endorsed the brutal treatment of enemy nations, and yet he says “As I live! ’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). God’s grace must include justice being served. It is the mystery of Christ that reconciles this paradox.
God of Justice
The grace of God cannot contradict the righteousness of God since both are embedded in His nature. Deuteronomy 32:4 “The Rock! His work is perfect, For all His ways are just; A God of faithfulness and without injustice, Righteous and upright is He”.
Justice is defined as:
- the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness:
- the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals.
From the biblical perspective, justice is about the process to restore righteousness and establish truth. There is a final judgment day, after which there will be no crime, and justice will have been done. Truth and righteousness continue after justice is no longer required. In the presence of sin, God is the God of Justice. Where there is no sin, that view of God is foreign, as we no longer look from the distorted perspective of law-breakers.
The philosophy of justice defines three basic forms of justice:
- Retributive Justice
This looks back to the crime and prescribes the penalty for the crime as punishment and may include punitive damages. Retributive justice uses the threat of punishment as a deterrent against others committing similar crimes. It views crime as against the state and as a threat to the law and order endorsed by the state.
- Restorative Justice
Crime in this view is against the community or the individual, and seeks restore by compensating for what was lost. Justice in this case seeks to rehabilitate the perpetrator, and broker peace between victim and criminal. The focus is to redeem the present condition, and restore it by mitigating the damages.
- Transformative Justice
Asks the question, what is at the root of the injustice? Why did the perpetrator do what he did? Transformative justice is looking to the future, and attempt to change the underlying conditions and so prevent others becoming perpetrators.
God’s justice combines all these elements. We can see that in His judgment in the first crime in human history recorded in Genesis 4. Cain murdered his brother violently, and that crime demanded justice.
Cain had to pay for his crime. Retribution was exile from God’s presence, and His supportive grace, which meant that he would wander through his life in purposeless (Land of Nod) existence with the earth resisting his every effort for productivity. It included a threat of retributive punishment to those that would use his guilt as an excuse to commit the same crime against him, and thereby multiply evil.
There was also restorative justice. Rather than the death penalty, Cain would remain alive and have the opportunity to rehabilitate, although he apparently did not. A legal precedent was set for restorative justice. In this early stage of human history, Cain’s action was a crime against humanity, but also by humanity. Rehabilitation was therefore aimed at restoring humanity as well. Cain’s impenitence and his succeeding generation of criminals was a necessary risk to permit the opportunity for rehabilitation as a form of justice. Adam and Eve had another son, Seth. His mother gave him this name, “for God,” she said, “hath appointed me [i. e., compensated me with] another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew. “ God compensated the victims for Cain’s crime.
Transformative justice would look ahead to the work of Jesus on the cross to deal with the underlying root of all crime in humanity – sin.