So I’m reading this book of essays about the future of the church. Some of them are pretty good, but last night I hit a real clunker.
The writer is stressing the importance of a right and proper formulation of “the gospel”:
The true gospel. The real gospel. The gospel of the Bible, the one that stands at the very heart of the Christian faith, the one on which the church stands or falls. There are all kinds of gospels floating around out there, all kinds of gospels competing with one another. And amid all of these gospels, we need to discover, or rediscover, or cling to and proclaim, the real one, the true one, the only one that fully and finally matters. The only one that saves. We have got to get the gospel right.
That is the language of a sales pitch. “Babbington’s is your only source for the real, true widgets you must have …” And the stuff being sold isn’t much better — as you may notice from the claim there of a gospel formula being the thing “that saves.” Um, no. The author goes on to describe his onerealtrue gospel and it takes him five pages, suggesting that St. Paul must’ve left quite a bit out, since it never took him five pages.
But what struck me most in this essay was the author’s discussion of God’s justice. “God is also just,” he writes. So far, so good. Yet the very next sentence contradicts that claim by offering a definition of “just” that isn’t about justice at all:
God is also just. This may be one of those character qualities we are guilty of losing sight of, this idea that God is just, that he will never let guilt go unpunished, that he can never let sin go unpunished.
What does it mean, according to this writer, to say “God is just”? It means that God “will never let guilt go unpunished.” That’s not a description of justice. It’s a description of vengeance. Those are not the same thing.
Note that this definition of justice prohibits mercy and grace. God “can never let sin go unpunished,” he writes — the emphasis there is original, stressing God’s incapacity for grace. That’s a weird leap, but it’s the logical conclusion of defining justice as merely inescapable punishment.
There are three big problems (at least) with thinking of justice in this way. The first is that it suggests that grace, mercy, pardon and forgiveness cannot satisfy justice and are not a part of justice. It suggests that grace, mercy, pardon and forgiveness violate justice. God’s bodkin that’s a bad place to be.
The second problem with defining justice as inexorable punishment is that it reduces justice from an end to a means. Punishment can never be an end unto itself, it always serves some larger purpose, some desired end. Punishment that serves no larger end or purpose cannot mean anything, and meaningless punishment is merely torment. The end that legitimate punishment serves is justice — justice in this sense meaning not simply the rough justice of fairness, but the justice of wholeness, of reconciliation and restoration.
The third problem with this definition of justice is that it is wholly negative. Justice cannot only be concerned with punishing wrongdoers, it must also be concerned with compensating and restoring those who have been wronged. The writer of this essay is preoccupied with the injustice of this fallen world, seeing here a world full of sinners deserving punishment. But because this world is, indeed, fallen and unjust, it is also a world full of people suffering unjustly, people being oppressed, exploited, abused, misused, cheated, injured and violated. That, too, requires the correction of justice — not inescapable punishment, but healing, compensation, reparation and restoration.
The clash between this positive sense of justice and the wholly negative view of this essay writer can be seen in a story from John’s Gospel. Jesus comes across “a man blind from birth.”
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” … He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
The man was born blind. That’s not fair. He was cheated. It’s unjust.
The disciples see this injustice and assume that it must have something to do with punishment. Jesus corrects them. It’s not about punishment, he says, it’s about healing and making things whole. Sin and punishment don’t play a part in this story until later in the chapter, when Jesus suggests that “sin remains” only for those who refuse to celebrate this healing and wholeness.
The man born blind — like the prodigal son, like Ninevah, like the late-arriving workers in the vineyard, like the prostitutes and tax collectors entering the kingdom — encountered the justice of God. He encountered “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
That’s from the story of Jonah, but Jonah’s description of God isn’t a compliment, it’s a complaint. Jonah — like the religious officials who sneered at the man born blind, like the prodigal son’s older brother, like the workers who arrived earliest to the vineyard, like those who refused to associate with prostitutes and tax collectors — was offended by God’s idea of justice. It made him angry that somebody else might catch a break.
Jonah wanted God to define justice as “never let sin go unpunished.” God had other ideas.