A Fresh Angle on Justice

I have been contemplating the theological idea of penal substitutionary atonement. It’s the one often preached as ‘Jesus took your punishment for sin and died on the cross in your place’ or some similar variant. As I understand it, it goes hand in hand with the concept that each person has a sin debt that must be paid. There are lots of legal or economic metaphors for the sin debt and how Jesus effectively takes care of that for us. But whatever the metaphor, in my mind, the doctrine has held some merit because God being perfectly just meant sin couldn’t merely be forgiven.

Over the past few years and recently in reading on the topic more I have started to get a new perspective on the idea of justice though. Whereas I had seen justice as sort of opposite of mercy in very rationalistic terms – mercy being not getting what you deserve,  and justice being getting what you deserve – I have started to embrace the more emotional aspects of these words which changes their meanings dramatically. ‘Do the crime do the time’ used to make more sense to me than it does now.  Jail and even kids time outs may still serve some purpose, but I have pretty much given up on it being about serving the purpose of justice.  And letting people just get away with whatever bad behavior doesn’t equate to mercy in my mind.

This quote struck a chord in me,  ‘If we want to understand the concept of justice as the writers of the Old Testament did, then we must see it as a “setting things right again”.’ how did I miss this? It’s all over the place in scripture, and even just common sense says Justice has more to do with restoration than punishment.  And mercy! Mercy isn’t leniency, it isn’t neglecting punishment, it’s about being compassionate. Compassion meaning to truly see through the eyes of another. Jesus had mercy on sinners not because he was denying their sin, but precisely because he did see.

In light of this, the dichotomy between a “God of justice” in the Old Testament and a “God of mercy” in the New mostly disappears. The supposed split in his character dissolves. God has always been compassionate and loving, he has always been mercifully seeking justice. Jesus reveals who God is and who God has always been. Justice is about mercy. Justice comes through mercy and always has.

For me I feel like the penal substitutionary atonement doctrine has gotten in my way. I don’t know if I am ready to say it is altogether inaccurate, but I am pretty sure it is overemphasized and often oversimplified in ways that, at the least, paints an inaccurate and incomplete picture.


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