Should a Christian juror be quick to acquit in the courtroom? It’s a question from a young man who wants to know. “Hello, Pastor John! Recently my nephew, who attends a private Christian university, related to me an encounter he had with his New Testament professor. This professor held that even if a Christian juror knew without doubt — based on evidence — that a defendant was guilty of a crime, the Christian’s duty is to pass along a verdict of not guilty. As proof, the professor cited Jesus’s response to the woman who was caught in adultery and was brought before him in John 8:1–11. Since Jesus didn’t convict the guilty woman, neither should we convict guilty criminals today. That’s a basic summation of the professor’s argument. How would you respond? I would appreciate your thoughts on what God expects from Christian jurors. And I’m curious, have you ever served on a jury yourself?”
Well, let me just dispense with that first one. No, I haven’t, though I’ve been called up several times, and they just never got to me. I went to the courthouse and sat there, and I didn’t even get interviewed.
But here’s what he’s really asking. What’s behind this question is not so much a misunderstanding of John 8; rather, it’s an effort to carry through a consistent pacifism for Christians. That’s what’s going on here, and we need to probe that. In other words, this professor is advocating for Christians never to return evil for evil, or eye for an eye, or any kind of punishment or retribution, but only forgiveness, only release from all consequences for evil in this world. That’s what’s behind the question. Is that approach to life taught in the New Testament?
Let me first respond to his use of John 8:1–11. I know that the earliest manuscripts of John don’t have this story. It may not be an original story. But for the sake of the argument, I’m just going to treat it as genuine.
A woman is caught in adultery. The Pharisees bring her to Jesus and remind him that this is a capital offense according to Leviticus 20:10. She should be stoned to death. Jesus pauses, looks down, draws in the ground, and says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
“The New Testament teaches that God has put civil government in place to punish wrongdoers.”
What Jesus is doing here is setting in motion a massive change in the way the new people of God — his followers, the church as distinct from ethnic, political, geographic Israel — will no longer be governed as a national, political, geographic body politic with civil laws regulating, for example, capital punishment, the way Israel was. Rather, the church, the new people of God, will not be a political or ethnic or geographic reality, but it will be governed by the law of Christ, which introduces significant changes from the law of Moses.
One of those changes, for example, we see being played out in 1 Corinthians 5:1–13, where there is an example of adultery in the church — something worse than adultery. And the punishment that the apostle Paul requires is excommunication, not execution according to the Mosaic law (1 Corinthians 5:2). That change is what Jesus is now setting in motion when he refuses to participate in the stoning of this woman.
So, we must ask: When he said that the one without sin should cast the first stone, was he saying only sinless people can pursue retributive justice? Was he saying that only sinless people can actually be involved in the punishing of wrongdoers? Is he saying, “No jurors who follow Christ could ever find anyone guilty”? Is that what he’s saying? Or is he saying, “I’m about to forgive this woman, because I have authority on earth to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6), and fulfill and change the law of Moses (Matthew 5:17; Romans 10:4). I am about to transform her with the command to go and sin no more (John 8:11). So, if you are without sin, and thus in a position like me, go ahead and contravene my judgment”?
What Does Christlike Love Require?
Now, I think the rest of the New Testament warns us against treating Jesus’s words about casting the first stone as if they were a teaching that says, “Only sinless people can exact justice.” The New Testament teaches that God has put civil government in place to punish wrongdoers.
- The ruler “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” (Romans 13:4).
- Governors are sent by God “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14).
“The mingling of mercy toward our enemies and the application of justice is not easy.”
Now, the Christian pacifist, this professor that we’re being asked about, doesn’t deny that the civil governments can find people guilty of crimes and punish them. What the Christian pacifist denies is that God’s people, the followers of Jesus, should participate in that. We are called to bear witness to the kingdom of Christ by not participating in the kingdom of this world on its terms, with its standards of retributive justice. That’s consistent pacifism. Our standard is this:
- “Repay no one evil for evil” (Romans 12:17).
- “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38–39).
And so, the Christian pacifist infers that this is the only way to show Christlike Christian love in this world. This is the only way to bear a clear witness to Christ.
Retributive Justice in the New Testament
Now frankly, I have a lot of sympathy with that view. I think all the texts that support it should probably have a greater effect on our attitudes than they do. But I can’t go all the way with the Christian pacifist when he tells us that retributive justice should have no place in the Christian life, because I see in the New Testament at least five spheres of life where the Bible portrays proper Christian behavior as including retributive justice — that is, holding people accountable for wrong behavior and applying painful consequences for it.
1. Parenting. Fathers are told in Ephesians 6:4 to bring up their children in the discipline of the Lord. That word discipline, we know from Hebrews 12:5–11, includes the application of chastisements and consequences, painful consequences, for our children. I think a father or a mother would be sinning if they only turned the other cheek for every act of disobedience and insolence from their children. Of course, discipline is always mingled with mercy, but retributive justice is not excluded from parenting.
2. The marketplace. Christian employers should pay their employees for the work they do and not keep paying them indefinitely for work they refuse to do. If Paul could say to the church, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10), how much more would he say to employees, “Let those who refuse to work not be paid”? Withholding a salary from an employee who refuses to work is a form of retributive justice.
3. Education. Teachers should not reward failing students with high grades. They may show tremendous patience and mercy, but they do not equate sloth with superior performance. There are consequences for failing to do your work. Retributive justice belongs in education — always for the Christian, of course, mingled with patience and mercy.
4. Government and law enforcement. We’ve already seen it in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. Lawbreaking should be met with appropriate consequences: fines, imprisonment, or even execution. This is the way God restrains the rivers of evil in the human heart with common grace — the common grace of retributive justice.
5. The church. The church is instructed to perform church discipline, which can include ostracism or excommunication, which is a horrific consequence for unrepentant sin, if one takes the Bible seriously.
For those reasons, I can’t follow the pacifist into the position where retributive justice has no place in the life of a Christian.
Mingling of Mercy
I admit very freely that the mingling of mercy toward our enemies and the application of justice is not easy. We are supposed to love our enemies. We are supposed to return good for evil.
So, the upshot for me is that I, we, desperately need the Holy Spirit to guide us: When should our witness to Christ involve turning the other cheek? And when should it involve spanking a child or not, letting an employee go or not, giving the student a C instead of an A or not, excommunicating an adulterous Christian or finding some other way to move them forward for now, and finding a murderer guilty while serving as a Christian juror?