Justice in All Its Parts (pt. 1)


In our last post, I attempted a short biblical definition of justice. We began by looking at two Hebrew words translated into English as “justice.” Then we considered a number of synonyms and related terms that must be included in order to have a well-orbed sense of what the Bible calls for when it calls for justice. To summarize the biblical data, I offered the following definition:

Doing the right thing to the right extent for the right people in the right way at the right time according to a right interpretation of God’s word.

We concluded by insisting that this definition includes at least four aspects of biblical justice:

  • Retributive justice—rewarding those who do good or punishing those who do wrong;
  • Restorative justice—making “whole” the victims of injustice and reconciling offenders and victims where possible;
  • Distributive justice—giving to each according to what is right; and,
  • Procedural justice—following processes and policies that themselves are fair, equitable and right.

As promised, I want to now demonstrate these aspects of justice from biblical texts and provide brief illustrations of each. In this post, we will consider retributive and restorative justice.

Retributive Justice

“Retributive justice” is very simply punishment for doing wrong. The basic idea is to payback or punish to the same extent that someone has harmed another or to reward to the extent someone has done something good.

The most famous statement of retributive justice in the Bible is —”But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” This basic idea of punishing the wrongdoer and rewarding the good is so basic to justice that anytime it’s missing we believe another injustice has happened. We sometimes call this a miscarriage of justice.

Justice as payback is the foundation of human government. According to the New Testament, the most fundamental role of government as God designed it is to reward the good and punish the wrongdoer. insists:

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor [as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. (italics added)


Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. 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, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (italics added)

When we’re thinking about retributive justice, the key question becomes, “Does what I am calling ‘justice’ punish or reward the right people?”

Restorative Justice

Retributive justice punishes the one who does wrong. But then we have to ask, “What about the person who was wronged? What about the victims?”

Simply punishing the wrongdoer does not actually restore the person wronged. The person who was victimized has to be made whole again. He or she has to recover what was lost to the extent possible. That is what restorative justice is about.

God makes provision for restorative justice throughout the Law. But one place we see it taught prominently is in the various laws of . In , the Law anticipates a situation where one man loses an ox because of another person’s negligence with a pit or wild ox. In each case, the negligent person “shall make restoration” (21:34) or “repay ox for ox, and the dead beast shall be his” (21:36).

We find similar provisions in the case of a man caught stealing an ox or sheep who subsequently kills or sells it. In that case, “he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep” (Exod. 22:1). The chapter goes on to envision various situations where someone’s sin or negligence causes loss to another and the offending party must restore what has been lost, sometimes in multiplied value.

We see a stunning illustration of these laws in Nathan’s confrontation of David regarding his sin with Bathsheba (). In reply to Nathan’s parable, David demonstrates a perfect understanding of restorative justice when he exclaims that the rich man who took the poor man’s lamb should repay four times. Then Nathan follows in with a pronouncement of God’s punitive judgment against David through the death of David’s son. This is a good example of how justice as punishment and justice as restoration often times must go together.

But we also find clear New Testament examples of restorative justice. Recall the repentance of Zachaeus in . His repentance was evident in his fourfold return of defrauded taxes to those he wronged and in his giving to the needs of the poor.

When it comes to restorative justice, the key question is: “Does what I am seeking and calling ‘justice’ require restoration or restitution to the people who have been wronged?”


Any biblical notion of justice must include more than a sword. It must also include rewards for the righteous and restoration for the victim. Justice makes whole.

But justice must also be accomplished justly. Fairness, equity and processes with integrity matter a great deal. Lord willing, we turn to distributive and procedural justice in the next post.

Other Posts in This Series:

  1. Prolegomenon: On Authority and Sufficiency
  2. What Do We Mean When We Say “Justice”?
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19:1 He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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