If there is one Christian teaching that is unprecedentedly ignored, it is the doctrine of forgiveness.  Despite the universal consensus about forgiveness—as taught in every Sunday school class in the world—the application seems to vanish in Christian adulthood.  Doesn’t the way of things teach us that real men hit back?  Many times the natural reaction when one has been wronged is to seek justice in the form of vengeance.  Mankind loves to punish– and does not God love justice? Clearly, from Scripture, He does: “For I the LORD love justice” (Isaiah 61.8).[1]  But God also is a God of mercy “To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness” (Daniel 9:9).[2]  This tension of ideals forces one to understand justice and mercy –and thereby, forgiveness– at a deeper level than the average Sunday school class.

The Context of Justice and the Messiah

Many Christians often confuse passages that applied to both the Old Testament Israel and justice.  Passages are commonly used out of their proper context.  Some passages have been abused or misunderstood for so long it is hard to teach the truth of Scripture.  In the Old Testament justice is clearly to be upheld and acted upon by the Israelites “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17).[3]  Israel’s failure to do so, and to be a people of justice, is one of their many failures to uphold their covenant with God “Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth, that I may pardon her” (Jeremiah 5:1).[4]  This failure, in part, shows the need for a Messiah- one who could do what they could not.

“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.” (Isaiah 42.1-4)[5]

From this, it is clear that it is this Messiah who will be the bringer of final and ultimate justice.[6]

Justice in the Death of the Messiah

As the New Testament reveals Jesus Christ to be the Messiah one can see that He did bring justice– but not in the way anyone expected.  He brought justice by dying—and thus humanity lives in a time of grace, a time in which God has given His Son for mankind’s sins “and not only for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2.2).  God, being a God of justice, could not let man’s wrong go unpunished; being a God of mercy meant He also desired to redeem man.  The result was Jesus, the perfect unity of human and God.  He was a man, therefore able to account for sin- as it was mankind who sinned against God.[7]  He was also God, making the man perfect and the sacrifice worthy.  Had Jesus been only a man; his life would not have been enough to atone fully for justice– just as the sacrifices of the Israelites could not (Hebrews 10.1-4).  But, as God, He infinitely outweighed the sins of the world so that not even death could hold Him (Hebrews 10.14).

“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” Romans 3.25-26

This justice that man now has from Jesus is offered to cover the sins of all who have come before and of all who will come until the end.  When you see a man steal from a store, his crime can be paid for by Christ on the cross, when a child pushes another child to get his way that too can be covered.  Every sin from murder to gossip can be paid in full by the one who justifies.  All one needs to do is accept Jesus as Messiah in their own lives.  God’s justice has been paid for and now His mercy is free to do its work. [8]  God has forgiven mankind for their sins, if only mankind would receive Him. [9]

Justice in the Reign of the Messiah

There is a judgment to come for those who do not except God’s open invitation of salvation:

“This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.”(2 Thess. 1. 5-10).[10]

This is what Hell is for: those who reject the Gospel, and thus receive the just punishment.  Their sins are counted against them for they have chosen the sinful nature over the way of Christ.  Hell is a place people choose to go when they reject God’s merciful offer of justification and redemption.  Hell is a place which God allows people to put themselves, in separation from Him.

Period of Grace

Mankind lives between two periods of judgment.  On one end Jesus was judged for all the sins of mankind and thereby atoned for them.  On the other end, God will place all those who reject His forgiveness to the pit of Hell.  The difficulty lies in knowing how to live in between.  Christians have faith in the past and hope for the future, with Scripture and the Spirit as the only guides between them.  Mankind now lives in a period of Grace.[11]

Salvation as Justification

            Justification, as it is taught by Paul, has two parts: the first is justification by grace which is the justification all men are able receive because of Jesus’ action on the cross “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2.11).[12]  This is what allows for any and all peoples to approach God.  The second part of justification is justification by faith.  This is the justification of receiving Christ as savior “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5.1).[13]  This is the realization and fulfillment of the first part.

The second cannot be without the first being true,[14] but the first may be negated if the second is rejected or left unaccepted.[15]  In other words- all the sins of mankind are able to be done away with by Christ on the cross and if man will accept this truth then they will be fully justified, but if man instead chooses the sinful nature he will pay for it in the end instead of letting Christ pay for it in at the cross.  The two parts are deeply intertwined and clearly demonstrated in Scripture.  They are achieved together through Jesus Christ:

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5.1-2).[16]

This is the doctrine of justification by grace through faith.

Bringing It Back

How does this come back to forgiveness on the Sunday school level?  The connection lies in passages such as:

Ephesians 4:32 (ESV) – ‘Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.’

Colossians 3:13 (ESV)- ‘…bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.’

What we understand about how God forgave mankind is how one should approach forgiveness in relationship with the fellow man.  God sent His Son Jesus to take the punishment for man’s wrong, even as Jesus was on the cross He cried out to God to forgive,[17] He seeks and desires restoration and peace, not punishment and condemnation; He shows mankind mercy and grace first.  What one will not find in the example and teachings of Christ is punishment of evil-doers, an attitude of vengeance or casting judgments on sinners.[18]

The key statement in these two passages is ‘forgive as Christ forgave you’.  This is a broad command!  Paul does not go on to explain when or who this applies to, he simply says to forgive.  By this it must be taken to mean that absolutely everything and everyone should be approached with an attitude of forgiveness by Christians.  It also says that this forgiveness is to be like that of Christ towards mankind.  Having discussed thoroughly how exactly Christ forgave mankind already we can draw some conclusions on what this means:

As Christ died for those who hated Him, so should Christians be willing to die for those who hate them.

As Christ actively sought restoration with the worst kinds of people, so should Christians seek restoration with those they find most vile.

As Christ shared hope, love, peace and all the other benefits of following God—so should Christians share these benefits with the world at large.

As Christ did not live in fear of those who can do physical harm, but instead wished they could be saved—so should Christians not fear those who can harm them and instead desire their salvation.[19]

Jesus has shown His people what it means to truly forgive– that is, one is to stand in and take the punishment for those who despise you.  Allowing evil to have its way for now by forgiving its actions against us and others is the truest and best way to –long term– defeat it.  Christians are called to view this world and it’s occupants from God’s perspective, a long term perspective with short term implications.  “Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” -James 2.13

Also, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” -Romans 12.19

Putting Justice in Its Right Place

Heavenly justice– the final justice spoken of above—will come when Christ comes once more.  This is something else Christians can learn from following the example of Jesus.  Punishment for wrong action and evil rebellion in all its forms will be destroyed by Christ in the end times.  It is one of the greatest Christian hopes.  It also teaches Christians that punishment for evil is on hold for a time, and that God is not administering just punishment now through His Son, and thus He is not doing it through Christians.

However, God does allow for just punishment to occur at this time through very specific channels.  These channels are:

Governments: Romans 13.1-7, 1 Peter 2.13-15

And also-

Christian Parents: Eph. 6.1,Col.3.20, Proverbs 23:13, 29:15

Christian parents are given specific teaching and authority regarding the children God has entrusted them; however and they should approach discipline carefully and not vengefully or angrily.  Aside from parenting, Christians are not given such allowances.  Friends are not taught to punish each other; brothers in Christ are not instructed to beat one another for sinning nor are any other defined social groupings given this authority.  Brothers in Christ are instructed to reject the one among them who will not cease to sin and that is the furthest extant of the judgment Christians may make upon each other.[20]  There is solid biblical teaching for Christian parents and no one else; however, it is the authority of governments that is the most complicated.  1 Peter 2.13-15 teaches about governments:

“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” (ESV)

When it comes to governments, Christians are to respect the authority[21] and to pay their taxes without resistance.[22]  By doing so Christians maintain peace with their neighbors and their lives are testimonies to Christ.  The question is- can Christians be in positions of Government that administer or officiators of justice and punishment?

Confusion of Identity

            To find the answer it all comes back to the one Christians are to be like, the one man in whom Christians find their identity- Jesus Christ.  There are many things that described the Christian identity.  For starters, Christians are:

Sons (Romans 8.14), Heirs (Galatians 3.29), Brothers (Matthew 12.50), Ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5.20), Servants of God (Romans 6.22), ‘Dead to sin and alive to God’ (Romans 6.11), Stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4.1), the image of the man of heaven (1 Cor. 15.49), and Members of the Body of Christ (Romans 7.4).[23]

One of the strongest identity markers of the Christian person is the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit marks a man as God’s and It is proof of ones membership of the Kingdom of God and our other-worldly nature created in Him “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1.13-15).[24]  This is the Christians strongest allegiance.

This allegiance teaches its members to be merciful, to not repay wrongs, and to forgive all.  It teaches Christians to turn the other cheek,[25] to accept persecution as a blessing,[26] and to love their enemies- and not just enemies on account of the Gospel.[27]  This is all part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, forgiving as He forgave us.  Christians are not even to judge others:

“In fact, I do not even judge myself.  For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” Corinthians 4.3-5

The Point

            This is the point I hope to demonstrate clearly: Christians cannot maintain their identity in Christ and be administrators of justice/punishment.  Even though governments are given authority to do so, Christians are not and should not.  How do the two co-exist?  How does the authority of Christian to be merciful and forgiving approach the authority of governments to do uphold justice with punishment/violence?

The relationship between God and the governments of man can be called the ‘natural law’ or ‘the natural order’, something ordained since the time of Adam and Noah, but Christians are held to a higher standard than that of government.  The standard of Christ Jesus is not the standard of governments.  We see this direct link between God and government in Romans 13.1-4

“For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed… he is God’s servant for your good… the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” Romans 13.1-4

This is not to say that Christians cannot be involved in government- they can be if it does not require them to be judges or administrators of punishment.  This may be impossible because just punishment may be the very nature of government.  However, Christians are still required to pay taxes and give respect where it is due.  Christians are also to be defenders of the weak and helpless which is a form of justice that does not necessitate punishing others.[28]  Christians are also to be just themselves in the terms of, being fair and kind, equally, to all with love.  Christians should understand justice better than any because they follow the God of true and perfect justice.  Leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. offer an example of a better way, a more Christ-like way, of defending the rights of the oppressed.  Justice can be done by Christians even with the restriction of not being able to punish those who commit wrong.  Christian justice must not be that of punishment, neither should it be judgmental and condescending.

‘To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you’

 –C.S. Lewis The Weight of Glory

‘Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”’

–Matthew 18.21-22 (ESV)


Forgiveness in Retrospect- A Personal Note

            Each and every day I must remember to forgive.  I have been wrong many times in my life- as I am sure everyone has.  Sometimes it was small, sometimes it was big.  The small things eat away at me, but are easier to forgive if I can catch them.  It is the big things that can infuriate me and cause me to be defensive and lash-out, regardless of the harm I might cause.  Those are the times that I thank God for His presence in my life!  In Him I find a calm/peace that comes from sensing the bigger picture of everything around me.  Without Him I am sure that I would have given into my vengeful thoughts and that my anger would have consumed me.

With what I have written I hope to share the freeing power of forgiveness and mercy to all my brothers in Christ- not only in their everyday relationships, but also with those Christians who may be seeking positions in the military or the police force, perhaps as Judges, Senators, Representatives, or other political positions.  Please slow down and take some time to pray and dwell on the passages of Scripture I share above.

Nothing can more quickly pollute the truth of the Gospel and stifle growth toward Godliness, as Christians getting involved with the activities of this World and confusing their Christian obligations with those of the State.  There should be no such thing as Christian militants or Judges.  To punish wrong doers through the rule of law is a God-given right to only those who do not know Christ, for God knows they need something to keep themselves from falling into chaos and self-destruction.  Members of the Body of Christ have no need for such maintenance, but they do live in the world and must give respect to it.[29]

[1] Deut. 32.4, Psalm 37:28, Isaiah 30.18, Romans 3.25-26

[2] Psalm 145:9, Romans 9:15, Ephesians 2:4

[3] Jeremiah 21:12, Jeremiah 22:3, Ezekiel 45:9, Hosea 12:6, Amos 5:15

[4] Isaiah 1:21-23, Isaiah 59:15, Jeremiah 5:28, Ezekiel 22:29, Habakkuk 1:4, Micah 3:9, Amos 6:12, Habakkuk 1:4

[5] Isaiah 16:5, Isaiah 32:15-17, Isaiah 42.1-4, Jeremiah 23:5, Jeremiah 33:15

[6] Isaiah 42:1, Ezekiel 34:15-16, Matthew 12:19-21

[7] Hebrews 2 relates it best.

[8] This is where Universalist doctrine stops.

[9] I believe that we both chosen by God and choosers of God; these two are in perfect unity with each other.

[10] 2 Peter 2.9-10, 2.13, Jude 1.7

[11] Yes, a dispensation of Grace… whatever floats your boat.

[12] Romans 3.21-24, 5.12-21, Colossians 1.20, 2.13, Hebrews 2.9, 10.12

[13] Romans 3.25-30, 10:10 and Galatians 2:16

[14] “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Heb. 9.22

[15] “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

[16] 1 Corinthians 6:11, Titus 3.4-7, Hebrews 10.12-14

[17] Luke 23:34

[18] Jesus’ actions in Matt. 21.12, Mark 11.15-16, Luke 19.45 and John 2.13-16 are commonly cited as actions of violent punishment that gives an example for, and enabling of, Christians doing violence for justice.  The context reveals this to be poor exegesis.  Jesus’ purpose in doing those things was to fulfill prophecy as Messiah and not necessarily to give an example for His followers.  Jesus did not call the disciples over to help Him turn the tables over.  He chased the merchants out by Himself as the disciples watched in amazement; their thoughts recorded in John 2.17.

[19] Matt. 10.28, Hebrews 13.6

[20] Matthew 18.15-17; 1 Corinthians 5.1-2

[21] But Christians do not have to obey the authority when it makes commands of them that go against the Scriptures.  Respect always, obedience not always.  Respectful disobedience is non-violent and understands that whatever punishment a government inflicts is that governments God given right.

[22] Mark 12.17, Luke 20.25, Romans 13.7

[23] Romans 12.4-5, 1 Corinthians 6.15, 10.17, 12.13-27, Ephesians 3:6, Ephesians 5:30, Colossians 1:18

[24] John 18:36, 2.19, 4.30, Phil. 3.20, Col. 1.13-14, 1 Thess. 2.12, James 2.5, 2 Peter 1.3-11

[25] Matt. 5.39

[26] Matt. 5.10, 2 Cor. 12.10

[27] Luke 6.27, Romans 12.20

[28] James 1.27, Gal. 2.10

[29] Romans 13.1-7; Matthew 22.15-22