It is difficult to argue with the notion that the system of justice in America has its problems. Yes, our jails are substantially overcrowded and underfunded. Yes, we have developed a structure of criminal justice in which incarceration is the default regardless of the circumstances and non-incarcerative alternatives (although this is slowly changing). Benjamin Corey points this out in a February 4, 2014 blog post on the Sojourners blog and emphatically argues that our system of justice is not working because of what he calls a poor theology of the cross. You can read his post by clicking here.
I agree that our system of justice has serious problems, but I need no empirical evidence to prove this fact. Proverbs has a great deal to say about justice. “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it completely.” Proverbs 28:5. I wonder how many of our judges would claim to be more devoted to Christ than to anything else in their lives. If I had to venture a guess, I would bet that number is extremely low. “Many seek the face of a ruler, but it is from the LORD that a man gets justice.” Proverbs 29:26. We constantly go to court seeking justice from a secular judge, but Scripture tells us that we will only get justice from God. Why should it surprise us when justice is not done in a court established by the secular world? “A worthless witness mocks at justice, and the mouth of the wicked devours iniquity.” Proverbs 19:28. We have laws passed by legislatures that make it a criminal (and incarcerative) offense to lie on the witness stand, but case law that suggests when a trial court judge makes a decision based on testimony, the appellate courts give deference to the trial judge’s ability to ascertain the credibility of the witness. When those perjury laws are rarely enforced and lying on the witness stand is simply a matter of appellate review that assumes witnesses lie, why should we expect justice from our justice system?
I have plenty of empirical evidence as well. When I was a trial lawyer, I had plenty of well-reasoned motions or objections denied or overruled with seemingly little discussion, debate, or consideration. On the other hand, I’ve had clients who won cases that shouldn’t have. One thief I represented actually paid less in fines than the value of the merchandise that had been stolen and sold. The thief profited from criminal activity despite the fact that this person was caught. I’ve had clients who were punished less than other clients who had committed substantially greater offenses, in my mind due in part to variances in my relationship with different prosecutors, the prosecutor’s or judge’s feelings or policies about a particular offense, or even the prosecutor’s or judge’s mood the day that we began plea negotiations. However, considering Scripture’s description of secular justice, why should any of that surprise me?
What is most objectionable about Mr. Corey’s article is his analysis of how our system of justice became what it is today. Despite Scripture’s clear description of secular justice, Corey ascribes the fallacies of American justice to the church. “We got here because of poor theology,” he says. He argues that the church has been so influential in American jurisprudential thought and public policy that our overcrowded prisons and broken justice system can only be attributed to the church, not the fallen world. His culprit? The penal substitutionary theology of atonement.
Let’s start by discussing the propriety of the penal substitution theology of atonement. In essence, Corey accurately describes the element of substitutionary atonement. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Rom. 3:23. “The wages of sin is death.” Rom. 6:23a. While we as a human race were ungodly and sinful, Christ died for us and in our place. Rom. 5:6-9.
Corey objects to substitutionary atonement because “the cross is explained exclusively in legal terms.” Inasmuch as I cling to Scripture to understand the problems in our system of justice, I cling to Scripture to understand the ins and outs of Christ’s atoning sacrifice for us. In doing so, I cannot understand why we would want to explain the cross any other way when Scripture itself explains the cross in legal terms.
One of the foundational soteriological passages in Scripture is Romans 3:23-28. It says:
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Emphasis supplied.
Look at all of the legal terms in this passage about salvation: sin, justification, redemption, propitiation, forbearance, law, holding. The Greek word for sin is ἁμαρτάνω (hamartano), a verb which means “to violate a divine law.” In the legal world, when a person violates a law, it is called a criminal offense. The Greek word for justified is δικαιόω (dikaioo), a verb which means to be or become judicially vindicated as having complied with the requirements of the law of God. Elsewhere in Scripture, this same word is contextually translated “acquitted” (see 1 Cor. 4:4), which in the legal world is the word we use to describe the action of a judge or jury declaring a person not guilty of a criminal offense. The Greek word for redemption is ἀπολύτρωσις (apolytrosis), which is a noun meaning the act of liberating someone or something, especially one that required payment. In the legal world, the word redemption is also a noun, meaning the act of redeeming, buying back property by paying off a loan, interest and any costs of foreclosure. The Greek word for propitiation is ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion) which is a means of satisfying God’s wrath. Similarly, satisfaction in legal parlance is the discharge of an obligation paid. Since the wages of sin is death, propitiation is a satisfaction of those wages; the debt has been paid. I could go on, but I think you get the point. These words clearly describe the death of Christ in legal terms.
Corey’s analysis of penal substitutionary atonement fails because it takes place in a vacuum apart from the rest of Scripture. His analysis portrays God as a blood-thirsty judge who engaged in brutal domestic violence by beating and killing His own son for us criminals. We are not just criminal before the death of Christ, we are dead in our trespasses and sins. (Col. 2:13). We are alienated and hostile, at war with God. (Col. 1:21). God is not blood-thirsty – He is both loving and just. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:16). Wayne Grudem notes that “the justice of God also required that God find a way that the penalty due to us for our sins would be paid (for he could not accept us into fellowship with himself unless the penalty was paid.) Paul explains that this was why God sent Christ to be a ‘propitiation.’” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, p. 569). In other words, if God’s law mandates that “the wages of sin is death” like Corey says, then God is not just if death is not given in exchange for sin. In God’s incorruptible justice, the mortal obligation we owed for our sin was paid and satisfied by Christ, who “for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21).
His analysis further falls short by leaving out one of the most important legal terms that Scripture uses to describe the atonement: reconciliation. Reconciliation is as much a part of penal substitutionary atonement as propitiation and redemption are. The above verse about God making Christ (who knew no sin) into sin itself is all placed in the context of reconciliation.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Cor. 5:17-21
The Greek word translated “reconcile” here is καταλλάσσω (katallasso), which is a verb meaning “to be or become restored to favorable or friendly relations with another after a presumed wrong.” In legal parlance, two warring parties (usually and interestingly in terms of spouses in a divorce proceeding) reconcile when an agreement is reached which saves the relationship. So we and God are warring parties and we have the opportunity to salvage our relationship through the death of Christ. Christ’s death is all-sufficient, punishing sin to satisfy God’s perfect justice and reconciling mankind to Himself congruent with His perfect love.
Is this to blame for the problems in our justice system? Corey says yes because, “we have focused our understanding of God and God’s justice as the need for punishment instead of the need for reconciliation, and this has led to a broken framework in our country in regards to justice.” However, this conclusion removes the justice of God from the love of God, and the two are not mutually exclusive.
Our prisons are not overflowing because the atonement was both punitive and restorative. Our prisons are overflowing because society goes to a court created by society for justice as society understands and mandates it. We should not too broadly apply the atonement either. The atonement was designed and implemented by God to redeem mankind to Himself, not to redeem criminals to society. While there should certainly be elements of grace, forgiveness, rehabilitation, and restoration in our criminal justice system, the Christian view of the cross only influences the societal view of justice insofar as the church must accurately communicate God’s perfect justice, wrath, and love, as well as the implications of living without trusting in the death and resurrection of Christ. The church must be the catalyst of life change, not the criminal justice system. As lives are changed by a church on mission and commissioned by Christ to do so, society can slowly change as well. Until we, the reconciled, go back into “enemy” territory as Christ’s ambassadors to implore them to be reconciled to God as well, society will continue to seek its own sense of justice.
Finally, let us not be overly and unrealistically pessimistic about our criminal justice system. As with any fallen institution of the fallen world, our criminal justice system has cases of injustice in it. However, drug courts are becoming better funded and equipped to help restore people as functioning members of society without their addictions. A renewed emphasis on alternative dispute resolution methods and statutory requirements to seek mediation and/or arbitration are reducing dependence on civil and domestic relations courts. While not based on a proper theology of the atonement, these movements are capable of alleviating some of the problems and injustice in our justice system.
Despite the injustice we see, we as a human race will one day be judged, and on that day “every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11).
I follow Christ. I have a beautiful wife Megan and three wonderful children, Harrisen, Rebekah, and Carter. I am a candidate for a Ph.D. in ethics from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, have an M.Div. from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and a JD from the University of Arkansas, am licensed to practice law in several state and federal courts, and live in Rogers, Arkansas. I write a blog and produce a podcast. And I do it all that others may know Christ.