How is it that the Bible demands justice for the innocent and the guilty, and yet, we all guilty before God (Rom. 3:10-20, 23)? Similarly, we are to love and forgive all, but yet our God – our role-model – has ordained a punitive justice system:
- For he [the magistrate and the criminal justice system] is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. (Rom. 13:4)
Many Christians are confused by this dilemma and consequently reject one of these two seemingly opposite positions - usually justice and its “sword.” However, this leads to unbalanced decision-making. We might forgive our attacker not press any charges. However, when the attacker attacks again, it will bring our faith into disrepute. The next victim will understandably accuse us: “Because you didn’t bring any charges, this enabled him to attack me! How foolish you are!”
How then can we rationally embrace what seem like irreconcilable opposites - love and justice? They are different yet complementary truths. If we love our children, we will punish them. If we fail to train them up in this manner, they fail to learn valuable and necessary lessons. If we fail to bring charges against our attacker, we neither love the attacker or our neighbor.
Sometimes, love requires causing discomfort. If our friend wants to take crack cocaine, love would require us to warn even if it will cause discomfort and charges that, “You are judging me!” If our neighbor is creating a fire hazard on his property, love might require us to warn of the potential consequences or even call the fire marshal to take punitive action.
Love requires justice, and justice requires love. However, the biblical teachings on the subject might sound contradictory. For example, Jesus had taught that forgiveness was both conditional and unconditional:
- CONDITIONAL: “So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” (Luke 17:3)
- UNCONDITIONAL: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins." (Mark 11:25)
This “contradiction” is resolved when we understand that there are two aspects of forgiveness (as love also takes many forms). While we should always pray for the offender and have a heart ready to forgive, restoration to fellowship (church) is a very different matter. Jesus taught that, unless the offender repents, he should not be restored:
- And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. (Mat. 18:17)
Restoration requires repentance. If you have a friend who has spread malicious lies about you, indeed, pray for him but do not reconcile until he repents. To do so would be to enable more of the same. This would not be love. Restoring a sinner to church without confession and a determination to leave behind the sin is not love but enablement.
God has established role distinctions. He has ordained the justice system to bring His wrath upon the evildoer. Because God will punish through the courts, we need not be concerned about this task. This frees us up to love, as Paul had written:
- Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse…Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath [Rom. 13:4]; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.” (Rom. 12:14, 17-19)
Because God “will repay,” we need not take justice into our own hands. After leaving wrath with God and the criminal justice system, we are freed to think about how we might be a blessing to the offender.
Although we are all guilty before God and therefore require His mercy, this doesn’t mean that we are guilty of a punishable criminal offense. Therefore, it is appropriate to talk about innocence and guilt – a critical distinction that God Himself makes (Exo. 23:7; Num. 5:31; Deut. 16:19; 19:10; 21:8; 25:1). He even insists that allowing the guilty to go free is no less an offense than convicting the innocent (Prov. 17:15).
This issue of love, and whether it entails warning and punishment is today on the cutting edge. We are called “hated-filled bigots” if we resist the gay agenda. However, we can lovingly respond that:
- If I would warn a friend against crack cocaine, should I not also warn against embracing the gay lifestyle, which is patently filled with many physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual costs? How does this make me a bigot?
If this reasoning is rejected, we find ourselves in the company of all of Israel’s Prophets and our Apostles and all the other righteous who had been vilified. But at least we know that we are walking in His light. Paul had warned:
- In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Tim. 3:12)
Therefore, do not be intimidated and pray that you might remain faithful.