Justice And/Or Vengeance
We need to clarify what these words mean. Some equate the two and have used the justice of God as a reason to condemn Him, while others insist that they are mutually exclusive. Who is right, or are they both right… or both wrong? Let’s start with the dictionary definitions:
- the quality or fact of being just
- (Philosophy) Ethics
- the principle of fairness that like cases should be treated alike
- a particular distribution of benefits and burdens fairly in accordance with a particular conception of what are to count as like cases
- the principle that punishment should be proportionate to the offence
- (Law) the administration of law according to prescribed and accepted principles
- (Law) conformity to the law; legal validity
- (Business / Professions) a judge of the Supreme Court of Judicature
- (Business / Professions) short for justice of the peace
- good reason (esp in the phrase with justice) he was disgusted by their behaviour, and with justice
- do justice to
- to show to full advantage the picture did justice to her beauty
- to show full appreciation of by action he did justice to the meal
- to treat or judge fairly
- do oneself justice to make full use of one’s abilities
- (Law) bring to justice to capture, try, and usually punish (a criminal, an outlaw, etc.)
- the act of or desire for taking revenge
- retributive punishment; with a vengeance (intensifier) the 70’s have returned with a vengeance
So what’s the real difference, since both “pay back” for a wrong? The key is whether one is acting according to an established law or taking law into one’s own hand; i.e., we uphold the enforcement of law by recognized agents but not vigilantism. Civil law is an established set of principles and codes that society has deemed necessary to see to the safety of all instead of anarchy.
So the question of whether God is being vengeful seems at first to be solved by noting that He is the very definition of all that is “just” and fair, the champion of the victim and leveler of playing fields. Yet scripture also uses the word “vengeance” in regards to God: Gen. 4:15, Isaiah 35:4, 61:2, Rom. 12:19, but since God is “the law”, then there is no difference between the two. That is, when God punishes the wicked it is just, but when we try to take His job, that’s the revenge we are not to take.
All of this means that there is nothing wrong, sinful, or unloving about wanting to see evildoers get what’s coming to them, for to do otherwise is to commit injustice against the victims. But the administration of that justice is not ours to take individually. Yet there are in fact some aspects of the administration of justice which we are commanded to take. In 1 Cor. 5, Paul told the entire congregation in Corinth to administer justice against a man living in sin. As a church, we are to be intolerant of willful, habitual, unrepentant sin, and God charges us with actually carrying out the sentence of expulsion from the fellowship. If we have personal grievances, again Paul teaches that the community of believers must have wise people among them who can settle such things.
The real problem comes when the community of believers fails to police its own, especially those held to be leaders. Though it is explicitly stated that no favoritism is to be shown (1 Tim. 5:19-21, James 2:1-13), many churches and organizations excuse the sins of leaders and reserve the grace of forgiveness only for them and not for their victims. Leaders are to be held to a higher standard, not a lower one. So why aren’t we the people holding them to account? What are we waiting for? They are our servants, whose job is to build up instead of tearing down (2 Cor. 10:8), so when they violate this command the people must confront them. Why don’t we do this?
A complicating factor is the sheer size and distance from the most influential leaders and the many who follow them. It’s one thing for a local congregation to discipline a leader among them, but quite another to get millions of people to confront a false teacher or enabler/committer of sin in the Body of Christ. We simply can’t get enough people on the same page scripturally to do anything about them, and their victim count continues to rise. At best, individuals can leave such leaders behind and try to warn others, or perhaps form organizations to counter them. Yet even this is a steep hill to climb due to the entrenched power of the establishment.
In my “flesh” I’d dearly love to “dish it out” to some of the big names in Christianity these days. But in my spirit I know that this would be taking the law into my own hands. And besides: isn’t God much better at paybacks? I take comfort in the thought of these destroyers of the faith and the Body standing before God at the judgment and having to give an account, in a deliciously ironic twist on the usual reason for citing Heb. 13:17 (and don’t forget Luke 12:48!). Or as it was put in the movie Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility”; in the movie A Bug’s Life, “First rule of leadership: everything is your fault!” Let those who crave the seat of authority also fully embrace the penalty for abusing it.
Without justice for victims there is no love for victims; without mercy for perpetrators there is no love for perpetrators. This is the paradox we struggle with as a community of believers, and we must trust God to know when justice or mercy is called for. Until we reach the time of divine judgment, we as a group are to do our best to act as a group and not as vigilantes, while at the same time not failing to participate in our individual duty to be vigilant against any sin among us and confront it. We cannot take the easy way out and refuse to judge at all, or we show no love toward victims or the honor of Christ and His holiness. Neither can we fail to distinguish between temporary setbacks with sin and a rebellious indulgence in sin, thus hypocritically condemning without mercy other people’s human frailty.
Discernment is required to walk this narrow road, and it isn’t easy. We must know the scriptures in order to gain the wisdom needed to make those tough decisions, and to humbly consider the wisdom of others as well. But though we will never perfectly walk that line, we can trust God to settle all the scores; He will forgive all who are truly broken and repentant of their sin, while also paying back with interest the victims of injustice. We are taking the test here and now, but the time is fast approaching to “hand in the papers to be graded”.
The message to perpetrators: you will be caught and face the penalty:
2 Cor. 5:10-- For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive what is due them for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
The message to victims: you will be avenged:
Rev. 6:10-- How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?
Psm 106:3-- “Blessed are those who maintain justice, who constantly do what is right.”