Justice = Forgiveness

There’s a verse most of us have heard often:

9 But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. (1 John 1:9 CEB)

It’s a verse usually quoted in terms of the importance of confession. It definitely is about that. But just now I’ve realized something else about this text. Not what it says about us and what it is good for us to do, but there is an assumption behind this statement about God which makes it good for us to confess (I will ignore for now whether this is talking about a regular confession or whether it is meant to a one-time repentance).

God is faithful and just to forgive. In other words, God’s justice includes forgiving. So often we treat them as opposites, such as in the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement. We make God wanting to forgive but really since he is also just he must do some kind of punishment to somebody. That’s what justice is, we say: doling out punishment when harm is done. So God finds a loophole by killing his Son so that he can forgive us. Which isn’t really forgiving because it’s just transferring the blame and still requiring penalty, and isn’t really retributive justice either since it isn’t the wrongdoer being punished, but somehow this is said to satisfy these two conflicting elements of God’s character.

More practically, we speak the same way in our own lives. If somebody wrongs me, I instinctively see my options as between justice, defined as giving them what they deserve, or forgiveness. In other words, I think we usually start with a retributive definition of justice, at least those of us in positions of power. We must make sure that the bad people are punished and the good people are rewarded. We project this onto God as some holy attribute, so obvious we don’t even consider that it might not be the case. We also use it to ignore our own calls to forgive others in the name of making sure retributive justice is served – after all, that is just as much if not more part of God’s character as forgiveness is. It makes perfect sense when we approach with that presupposition.

But this text is blatantly saying the exact opposite. God forgives us because that is the just thing to do and God is just. Real justice at the heart of God is not punishment. Real justice at the heart of God is not giving us what we deserve. Justice is forgiveness. The upside-down nature of the Kingdom strikes again. God is forgiving, God is just, God is faithful, God is love. And they’re essentially all synonyms of the same thing.

The prophet Micah famously said something that makes the same point:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8 NIV)

We have to decide what this means. Are we supposed to sometimes love mercy (forgiveness) and other times act in retribution? That’s what most of us do. When it obviously benefits us, we see that as the time to apply that we should love mercy. When it doesn’t – if we’re hurt and want to hurt someone back, for example – we think that this is the time to act justly and hand out that punishment. But as with God’s character described in 1 John, I don’t think Micah is telling us to be schizophrenic. I think instead that God is leading us to a point where we can set aside our retribution and embrace the real justice that is restoration through forgiveness.

I haven’t read the book unfortunately. I just grabbed the image from Paul’s blog.

Fellow MennoNerd Paul Walker recently shared similar sentiments. I’ll end with a quote that he shared from Brian Zahnd:

If your concept of justice is to make sure that everyone gets ‘what they deserve,’ you are going to have a hard time getting along with Jesus. This is the very kind of justice that Jesus stands against and came to save us from. A world bent on the justice of giving people ‘what they deserve’ is a world that is endlessly cruel and marked by alienation, violence, and war. The concept of retributive justice is what fuels the endless escalation of violence in the worst places on our world- from troubled inner cites to the troubled Middle East. Retributive justice has the horrible tendency to degenerate into my justice. And my justice is inevitably someone else’s injustice. This is not the justice that saves- this is the justice that kills.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • John Ayala

    Great post Ryan. This is something that I have been trying to get worked into my entire life.