ustice from a Biblical Perspective

MAY 9, 2017


When speaking about reconciliation, justice is very important. We have discussed a number of different issues up to this point, such as forgiveness and power, but they are all to be understood in the context of justice. To speak of justice implies that injustice exists, and injustice hints at conflict, so essentially justice is crucial to conflict, conflict resolution and reconciliation. In this chapter, we will first explore justice from a biblical perspective, looking specifically at how the Bible associates justice with other attributes. For now, we will look at biblical justice, and try to get a better understanding of how it relates to conflict. We will also look at how different modern interpretations of justice have been influenced by the biblical concept, examining which aspects of biblical justice they have preserved and which aspects they have ignored.

In one of the most well-known passages from the Bible concerning justice, the prophet Amos writes, “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24) This image of justice, like a river, is different from the modern, western conception of justice, which is usually conceived as a scale, weighing the good and the bad objectively, detached from the world. In the Bible, justice is not a static or universally applicable ethical theory, but a dynamic and powerful force which changes and transforms as the river surges forward, adapting to each new situation. Justice in the Bible is a very complex and multi-faceted concept. It is not just one thing, but many things. Therefore, it is not possible to give a single, conclusive definition of biblical justice, since it is a concept in flux, constantly changing like a river and made up of many different aspects. However, by looking at these different concepts we can certainly gain an understanding of what biblical justice seeks to accomplish, and learn about the life-changing power it contains.

Biblical Justice: Some Terms

Two Hebrew words that are used to describe justice in the Old Testament are tsedeq and mishpat. Each of them brings out a different nuance or characteristic of justice, which will help us as we seek to deepen our understanding. Tsedeq is understood as acquittal, deliverance, judgment, justice, saving help, vindication, order in creation and community loyalty. Mishpat is understood as vindication of the oppressed, requital, vengeance, or the retributive justice of God. Tsedeq and mishpat are also connected to shalom, or peace, and relate to each other in terms of covenant. The covenant is between God and humankind, with shalom representing the way the human community should be structured so that we may benefit from God’s commitment to support and protect our community. In the same way, tsedeq represents the covenant in that it provides the guidelines to living according to shalom. Also connected to this concept of covenant is hesed, or mercy. With these three ideas in mind, tsedeq, shalom and hesed, we understand the covenant that God had with the children of Israel in the Old Testament, “Generally, the righteous person in Israel is the one who preserves the peace and wholeness of the community by fulfilling the demands of communal living.”

This covenant is not limited to the Old Testament, however, for the life and teaching of Jesus was constantly displaying and expanding this covenant beyond the borders of the children of Israel. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan “would have been shocking to its hearers because those characters in the parable who would have been expected to be tsaddiq [righteous] were not, and the Samaritan, one clearly outside the covenant for the hearers, is the one person who is tsaddiq. The parable thus opens the way to reflection of who is tsaddiq and who is part of the covenant.” This is a theme that is later taken up by Paul; God’s mercy (and through it his peace and justice/righteousness) is extended to all, even those outside of his covenant. This expansion includes everyone who is a child of God.

The Attributes of Justice

Justice is linked to many other concepts in the Bible, so we will briefly look at a few of them, which will help expand and enrich our understanding of justice. At first glance, many of these concepts are overlapping, but there are in fact differences between them.

Justice as Restitution/Repayment: In Exodus 22, there are a number of statements which detail how an offender is to “make restitution” for an injustice s/he has caused, whether it is theft of or damage to another’s property. Isaiah 59:17–18 portrays a righteous God who is out to repay evil doers with his wrath. The word used here is shalem, or repay. It is used differently in Joel 2:23–25, where God repays his people with his mercy after the damage caused by his punishment. “In an act of mercy for the offender, peace (shalom) is the repayment (shillum) that God offers.” In Psalm 62:12 the word shalem suggests repayment for behavior, whether good or evil. This repayment is an expression of God’s mercy, and God’s faithfulness to the covenant. When this is contrasted to Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:14–15 there is a big difference. In this story the laborers are paid the same amount even though they did not work the same amount of time. This is repayment based on God’s mercy and generosity, not based on the behavior of the laborers.

Justice as Vindication/Vengeance: Justice is also related to naqam, which is revenge, and can be seen as God taking vengeance against the oppressors on behalf of the oppressed. This can be seen in numerous examples from the Bible. But it is more than that; it is also vindication. Since oppression was often seen as punishment for sinful behavior, the act of liberation, and vengeance is also a testament to the innocence of the oppressed. An example of this would be the slavery the children of Israel suffered in Egypt. It is important to distinguish between vindication/vengeance and vindictiveness. Vindication is an act of judgment which demonstrates that the oppressor is wrong, and vengeance is a form of justice-inspired harm caused to the offender, with the intention of bringing about a change, and bringing about justice. Vindictiveness, on the other hand, is the desire to cause harm for the sake of harm. In the New Testament these concepts change. In Romans 12:17–19 Paul warns us to avoid vengeance and leave it up to God. We are called to forgive, and told that our vindication will eventually come when God’s final judgment takes place.

Justice as Retribution/Punishment: When justice is related to retribution and punishment, it is the simple desire for offenders to get what they deserve. This is seen in the “eye for an eye” calculations made in the Bible, which prescribe exactly which punishment is to be given for each sin. We see this in Exodus 21:23–25. This “law of retaliation establishes the principle that the offender is to suffer the same injury as the victim.” The aim of this type of retributive justice is to ensure that there is balance in justice; in other words, only an eye for an eye, not two eyes for an eye. This creates a separation between the balance of justice and the raw emotion of revenge. Many practitioners of restorative justice reject this aspect of biblical justice because they view punishment/retribution as something which is against the project of justice. Therefore, even though restorative justice is in many ways grounded in the biblical concept of justice, this important aspect is sometimes ignored. There are consequences to our actions, and we must be ready to bear them. Our modern (or postmodern) sensibilities make it difficult for us to accept the idea of punishment and retribution, but it is an important concept in the Bible. It is also important to note that in most biblical passages where God’s actions are on behalf of retributive justice, “God takes up the cause of the one who has suffered, and rebalances the moral universe.” There is evil in the world and it must be dealt with.

Justice as Judgment: One of the possible translations for the word mishpat is “judgment,” and as we have already seen, mishpat can also be justice. So the two concepts are closely linked. Judgment “is an act of God for the oppressed and against those who oppress. God executes judgment in order to call Israel to return, so that mishpat as judgment is the precursor to repentance . . . In this sense, judgment is also an act of hope.” It is significant that there is hope, and judgment is directed toward the future. In Isaiah 19, we see that God passes judgment on Egypt because of its sin. In response to God’s judgment and punishment, Egypt cries out to God for rescue, and the Lord hears their cries. We see in this passage, “God both strikes and heals, and strikes in order to heal.” The judgment brings our sin to the surface, we are forced to acknowledge it, and then we are given a choice: to continue in our sin or to change and accept God’s healing. The fact that we are faced with a choice means that we have agency, and that we control our own destiny to a certain extent. This does not mean, however, “that choices are completely unconstrained. Choices are subject to a wide variety of social, economic, and psychological constraints, as well as the constraint of divine will.” These constraints should be taken into account, but in the end we are still responsible for our actions. In the Bible, the Exodus narrative clearly shows that Egypt was judged by God, and the children of Israel were liberated. But God also used this liberation to hold the children of Israel accountable, saying that they were to remember that they had been in bondage in Egypt and that God had freed them. Therefore, they are to treat the alien, the poor, the widow, and the orphan with justice.

Justice as Mercy: If we only consider the different aspects of justice we have seen so far: retribution, vengeance, punishment and judgment, then the biblical view of justice is not unique, but rather a familiar view of justice. However, in Psalm 85:10 we see something new. In this verse, mercy and truth meet, justice and peace kiss. This is different than the traditional view of justice. Here is a justice that is joined with mercy. And this is a mercy that extends to the guilty, those who do not deserve it, but it is not a mercy that excludes punishment for the guilty. “God does not declare the guilty innocent or the innocent guilty, or say it really doesn’t matter. There is no such thing as mercy unless right is right and wrong is wrong.” This leads us to the idea of forgiveness. Although God is faithful to forgive, “Mercy is not something that can be claimed, as if the standards were faulty or impossibly high, and God really owes us leniency. Mercy finds us condemned, and then for some reason we do not know, set free.”10 Justice as mercy is seen in the New Testament as well, in the parable of the prodigal son. In this story, the son returns home having sinned, and expects to receive punishment and judgment, but is instead met with justice as mercy, “a justice that returns the son to the covenant community of the family, an extravagant justice that comes as surprise, and yet is completely in keeping with the character of the father who is clearly awaiting the return of his son.”

Justice as Forgiveness: In the Bible, two words are used in Hebrew to mean forgive, nasa and salach. Nasa means “to lift” in a literal and figurative sense, in other words, to take away the sin and guilt. In Psalm 103:3 God is described “as one who forgives (salach) all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases, linking forgiveness with healing.” This link between forgiveness and healing is seen in the New Testament when Jesus heals and forgives the lame man in Mark 2:1–12. Forgiveness is also linked to cleansing, in Jeremiah 33:8 when God declares, “I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me, and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me.” In Isaiah 33 we see a presentation of shalom or peace, and we see that God promises to heal all illness and forgive all sin. This indicates that forgiveness is linked to shalom, and we have already seen that shalom is linked to tsedeq, or justice. Therefore, forgiveness is strongly linked with justice. We see this in the parable of the debtor in Matthew 18:23–35, where the slave whose huge debt was forgiven did not have mercy on his fellow slave who owed him a small debt. This parable “connects forgiveness with the cancellation of financial obligation, divine forgiveness, and the obligations of human forgiveness.” The forgiveness and mercy we receive from God is dependant on our ability to forgive and show mercy to others. It is clear that as followers of Christ the Messiah, we are commanded to forgive, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to his claim that we are to forgive seventy times seven. It is also clear that in order to achieve justice and peace, forgiveness must be present.

Justice as Reconciliation: In the Old Testament, reconciliation is presented as the “ending of punishment and the restoration of Israel to living in conditions of shalom, the restoration of the covenant.” The cycle of sin, judgment, a call to repentance, punishment and finally a return to shalom, and ultimately reconciliation, is found in the narrative of Hosea. At the end of Hosea, we are presented with an image of “God’s people as a fragrant garden, a blossoming vine, living in the shadow of God.” This is the restoration of the relationship between God and his children. In the New Testament, reconciliation is also an important concept, and becomes a central component of Christian theology. The reconciliation is both vertical (between us and God) and horizontal (between us and our fellow humans). “[T]hat God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:19), and “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14). For true justice to be done, reconciliation must occur, for “genuine justice, the justice that makes things better, is never satisfied merely by following rules, however equitable they are, or by asserting legal rights, however fair that may be. It is satisfied only when relationships are restored and the destructive power of evil is defeated, and this requires a freely chosen relinquishment of the logic of—and legal right to—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Justice is not just upholding the law, but the restoration of relationships and defeating evil, which is only possible through reconciliation.

Justice as Repentance: In the Old Testament repentance is presented as turning (shub). Thus the call for repentance is a call to turn away from sin, injustice and evil, and to turn toward God and justice. In Jeremiah, we see God speaking as a father spurned by his son, or a husband spurned by his wife. The children of Israel, in spurning God, have also spurned their inheritance. The inheritance is never given, “because the child neither knows nor cares.” Eventually, the child realizes that s/he has forgotten God, and turned away from righteousness. “In response, God again invites the faithless, the turned away ones, to return, and to redirect themselves toward God.”18 The call for repentance is also an implicit discussion of what the faithless child or wife is turning from, and what they are turning to. As we have already seen in our discussion of tsedeq, shalom, and mishpat, “a significant aspect of God’s doing justice is the bringing of punishment on Israel for its failure to practice tsedeq, to live shalom. By implication, the turning to God would mean a new practice of living tsedeq and shalom.” Therefore, repentance is not only turning away from evil, but it is turning toward justice.

Justice in the New Testament

The Greek word for justice used in the New Testament is dikaios, which appears over two hundred times. It is connected to the concept of righteousness, just like the Hebrew words for justice. Unfortunately, in many translations the word dikaios is translated as righteousness and not justice. “Of the two hundred times that dikaios is used in scripture, most versions only use the translation justice once (Col 4:1).” This has led to the false idea that the New Testament is not concerned with justice, especially among evangelicals. The evangelical church “has emphasized personal righteousness and piety and has missed much of the intended meaning bursting through the scriptures about justice. It is critical to understand that righteousness and justice are interconnected in both Testaments [Old and New].” Whereas the Old Testament focuses on righteousness and justice through obedience to the Law, the New Testament is more concerned with righteousness and justice through faith in the Messiah, repenting from sin and living justly.

In the Gospels, Jesus constantly challenged the religious (Pharisees) authorities and political (Roman) authorities, against injustice. He continually challenged the dominant social hierarchy of the time, healing and casting out demons on the Sabbath and associating with women, fishermen, Samaritans, tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus’ self-proclaimed mission was to the sinners and not to the righteous, in coming to save the offenders and in elevating the child above the religious Pharisee. The statement, “So the last will be first and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16) is a good way to summarize much of what Jesus hoped to accomplish while on earth.

In addressing the prostitute in Luke 7, Jesus recognizes that the moral failings and social injustices within the society are inextricably linked to the theological. As Jesus pronounces this woman forgiven, the implication is that she will sin no more and leave her old life of prostitution behind her. Jesus’ ‘restorative’ justice, therefore, addresses both the person and the political and economic situation in which they are to be found. He destabilizes the existing social orders of the time and vindicates the sinner by situating him in the right position in society.It is Christ’s activity on the cross which finally deals with the debt of sin which not only corrupts the personal and the individual but distorts the social and created order of the world. This is because the cross represents God’s mercy and grace, an element of justice which is counter to our modern conception of impartial, objective justice. In fact, there “is a profound ‘injustice’ about the God of the biblical tradition. It is called grace.”

An example of this grace is found in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11–32. In this story, there is something very unjust about the way the prodigal son is welcomed home by his father, and rewarded even above the son who was faithful. How can this be? “Why does God not treat all people equally but attends to each person in their specificity? Why does God not abstract from the relationship but instead lets the relationship shape judgments and actions?” Because to do so would not be true justice. It is impossible to have absolute justice, without taking into consideration the individual case. Attempting this absolute justice often creates further injustices. People are not all alike, and cannot be judged the same. In order to achieve true justice, we must be able to assess what is appropriate to each particular situation, and this assessment “cannot be adequately done . . . if no love is in play. Without the will to embrace, justice is likely to be unjust.” Without love for each other, especially for those who have wronged us, our enemies, we can never have real justice. This love in only possible in the context of God’s sacrifice on the cross.

Application of Biblical Justice

The concern God has with justice, with tsedeq, applies to all people in the Old Testament. For example, in Amos 1:11 God warns of his wrath against Edom because of its injustice. The punishment Edom is to suffer is the same as the punishment that

the children of Israel are to receive for their injustice in Amos 2:6–8. The children of Israel failed to be an example of justice to the surrounding nations. “Israel’s failure to practice justice destroys the hope of the nations. Israel’s faithfulness is for the sake of the nations, that they might see the light of God’s justice and love. When Israel is unfaithful, there is no light to be seen.” This clearly indicates that biblical justice has universal application and is intended for everyone, not just the children of Israel. The goal was always to bring justice to all the nations through the story and example of the children of Israel. The suffering servant in Isaiah 53, which the followers of Jesus have identified as the Messiah, suffered because of his attempt to bring about justice. Therefore, it is the task of all believers in the Messiah to work toward the establishment of biblical justice.

The criminal justice system and all modern theories of justice have been influenced by the concepts of biblical justice, however, most of them have embraced some of the aspects of biblical justice, while ignoring others. This is true of the criminal justice system (which emphasizes the retributive/repayment aspect) as well as of the theorists of restorative justice. Theorists of restorative justice in response to the criminal justice system which they view as failed, have great difficulty in accepting the ideas of judgment and punishment. This is problematic, for in order to fully understand and apply the principles of biblical justice, all the interconnected elements need to be accepted.

Judgment has been defined as “an act of moral discrimination that pronounces upon a preceding act or existing state of affairs to establish a new public context.” This definition can be broken down into three parts:

  1. Judgment is an act of moral discrimination that divides right from wrong    
  2. Judgment is reactive in that it speaks to a past act or existing state of affairs    
  3. Judgment creates a context for future action                        

This means that judgment makes a clear demarcation between right and wrong. Without judgment there can be no distinction between good and evil and therefore no basis for justice. Judgment presumes that doing wrong is a choice, but as we have seen, judgment should also recall that this choice is made under different constraints and circumstances which must be taken into account. “Judgment has to be clear about what is judged and what is not, so that offenders take responsibility for the choices they make, while not being held responsible for the social forces that played a role in these choices. Issues of social class, family of origin, education, mental health, racist social structures, and much more play a role in the choices offenders make.” Still, however, once the choice is made the offender must take responsibility for the choices they have made and the consequences that result from their choices.

Once judgment is rendered, then the possibility is open for change in the future. The offender must understand that what s/he did was wrong, and experience guilt and remorse. However, this alone is not enough. The offender must also change his/her behavior, so that the injustice will come to an end. Once this is done, the offender has the possibility of learning to act against injustice, and work toward the establishment of justice. This experience of judgment is not a death sentence; it allows for a positive change to occur. “The experience of judgment that produces change in the offender enables the offender to participate in the task of helping others to make the same change, to assist in the undoing of harms caused by others in similar circumstances.”

Repayment is another concept which is central to biblical justice, but has mostly been ignored by modern theories of restorative justice. For most theorists of restorative justice, the focus is on encouraging dialogue between the offender and the offended, and helping the offender undo the harm s/he has caused to the offended. There is no concept of repayment in restorative justice which mirrors it is expressed in the Bible, for example when Isaiah writes, “According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies and retribution to his foes” (Isa. 59:18). Restorative justice has “specifically framed itself in a way that excludes vindication, vengeance, retribution and punishment.”

Very few of the writers on restorative justice deal with the issue of repayment and punishment, and when they do, they usually skirt the issue or set up an opposition between judgment and mercy, favoring mercy. In the same way, the criminal justice system leaves no room for mercy and forgiveness, and leans heavily on the side of punishment. Biblical justice, however, does not separate judgment and mercy, and does not divide punishment and forgiveness. As we have seen, they are all held in tension with each other, and all a part of justice in the Bible. Biblical justice is in a very real sense restorative justice, because the goal of God’s justice is to restore justice and peace based on his covenant with humankind. His justice is “saving justice where punishment of the sinner is an integral part of restoration. [ . . . ] God’s justice is a restorative or reconstructive justice before it is a punitive or destructive justice.”

We cannot afford to do away with the retributive or punitive aspects of justice, for when we do the lines between right and wrong are blurred. Judgment and punishment are crucial to justice. But we must remember the purpose of judgment and punishment, as seen in the Bible is always to reconcile and to restore. We must strive for change, and a turn toward justice and reconciliation is God’s plan for justice. He does not punish for the sake of punishment, but for the sake of saving those who have sinned and caused injustice, and for the sake of his covenant.


Boadt, Lawrence. Jeremiah 1-25. Wilmington: Michael Glazier, Inc, 1982. Brueggemann, Walter. A Commentary of Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming. Grand

Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998.

Cannon, Mae Elise. Social Justice Handbook, Small Steps for a Better World. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Gowan, Donald D. Theology in Exodus: Biblical Theology in the Form of a

Commentary. Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1994.            

Grimsrud, Ted. “Healing Justice: The Prophet Amos and a ‘New’ Theology of Justice.” In Peace and Justice Shall Embrace: Power and Theopolitics in the Bible, edited by Ted Grimsrud and Loren Johns, 64–85. Telford: Pandora Press, 1999.                

Marshall, Christopher. Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

Myers, Ched and Elaine Enns. Ambassadors of Reconciliation Vol. 1: New Testament Reflections on Restorative Justice and Peacemaking. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2009.

O’Donovan, Oliver. The Ways of Judgment. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005.

Regehr, Keith Allen. “Justice and Forgiveness: Restorative Justice

Practice and the Recovery of Theological Memory.” PhD diss., University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, 2007.

Toews, John E. Romans: Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA. and Kitchener, ON: Herald Press, 2004.

Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace, A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.