It was Augustine of Hippo, in the fourth century AD who, apparently for the first time, defined “Justice” as “retribution” and the exact opposite of Mercy.
He argued that for a few, God chose to exhibit his mercy, which means that these folks did not get what they deserved: retribution (that is, pay-back). And that for most people, God chose to exhibit his “justice,” which meant that they did get what they deserved: no mercy and endless torment. He argued that endless torment for most created endless gratitude in the few.
It was the Protestant Reformers who appear to have finally formulated the full-blown doctrine of the “Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” but it had its origins in Augustine’s concept of Justice.
The doctrine is often formulated as follows: God is just. Justice is retribution. God must punish offenders in order to be just. God is also merciful. So, God the Father chose to punish Jesus the Son in our place—the place of those who receive his grace.
It sounds so right, and so much of it is right. God is “just”…
but does God punish Jesus to feel better about you? And is justice “people getting what they deserve”?
Many years ago, some men assaulted my father with knives, broke his bones, and took a huge sum of money. When I arrived at the ICU, my father looked like a corpse.
It’s at times like this that we ask, “Is there a God, and is he ‘just’?” Then we ask, “How can I get justice?” We wonder why people do such things, but then we want to do such things to other people…in the pursuit of “justice.”
Through Ezekiel in Ezekiel 33, God basically says to Israel, “If you do all sorts of good things and then do a bad thing, you die and none of your good things count. And if you do all sorts of bad things and then do a good thing (a “just” thing, “mishpat”), you live and none of your bad things count.”
That seems terribly unfair! It also makes one wonder: How could a person “do all sorts of bad things and then, do a good thing,” for at that point, wouldn’t that person be dead? And dead people can’t do anything. Confusing. But, definitely, “Unfair!”
Next, God says, “Yet your people say the way of the Lord is not just (yit-taken: fair).”
English translators translate both “yit-taken” and “mishpat” as “just.”
But “mishpat” means something like “good judgment,” and it’s clear that God’s judgment is not “fair.” At least not what we think of as “fair.” Grace isn’t “fair.”
Ezekiel 33 leaves us with three rather clear impressions:
#1 “Retributive Justice” must not be a thing with God.
If sometimes “good deeds” aren’t even “remembered,” and sometimes bad deeds aren’t “remembered against” those who have done good deeds, then God’s justice is not retributive.
I had a good dad, and with my dad there was no such thing as “retributive justice.” There was reward and punishment, but it was never “payment;” it was all gift. The punishment was discipline, and the reward was to share in his joy, his work.
#1 “Retributive Justice” (or at least what we mean by that) is an illusion.#2 The only thing that matters is now: “mishpat,” good judgment, a good choice, now.
#3 We’re dead… or were dead. And dead things don’t make good choices.
So, why is God telling Ezekiel this and having him write it down?
Perhaps so that one day, if we ever were “alive,” we might “know”?
That’s a refrain throughout all of Ezekiel, “Then you will know.”
In Ezekiel 36 and 37, God says, “I will remove your heart of stone… and give you a heart of flesh… I will put my Spirit within you… and cause you to do ‘mishpat’… And they will say, ‘This land… has become like the garden of Eden… And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you (the whole house of Israel) from your graves… Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”
“Then you will know.” “I will do it.”
“It is finished,” said the Word of the Lord, the Judgment of God, from a tree in the midst of the garden at the end of the sixth day of the week and the edge of endless rest.
So, why was Jesus, from “the bosom of the father,” crucified on a tree in a garden?
As I sat by my father’s bed in the ICU at the hospital all those years ago, I wasn’t filled with anxiety over what had happened, and I wasn’t plotting revenge against those who had cut him. It’s true that they cut him, broke his sternum, and took a large sum of money, but he had also freely given them that money. And when he awoke, he was extremely grateful. They hadn’t taken his life; they had given him life—he had experienced successful open-heart surgery.
Perhaps, right now, you are receiving open-heart surgery, and when you awake, you will know: God is Grace, you cannot pay, and so you are and will always be grateful.
You cannot pay, for this surgery is a heart transplant, and God himself is the donor.
In Hebrew thought, the heart is that thing that makes judgments.
A Good judgment in you is “mishpat” in you, it is justice in you, it is righteousness in you.
It’s Christ in you; you actually are his body.
So, is there such a thing as the “Penal Substitutionary Atonement”?
Well, NO—Hell NO—if you define God’s Justice as the opposite of Mercy; God’s Justice is Grace. God does not need to torture Jesus to feel better about you.
And YES—Absolutely YES—if you define God’s Justice as Mercy; God’s Justice is Jesus. From his own bosom, God the Father is giving you his heart, and he wants you to know. When you know, you will constantly choose the Good who is your God… in freedom.
Justice is not “people getting what they deserve,” for then there would be no justice; people, created from nothing, do not “deserve” anything.
Justice is not “people getting what they deserve;” Justice is God getting what God deserves—and that’s people in his own image and likeness, people full of “mishpat.”
That’s Divine Retribution; God owes you to himself; and he always “pays.”