Volume 8, Issue 3: Magistralis
Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord
The tension in the humanist debate over sentencing of criminals always polarizes around two people. On the one side is the criminal, with concern for his rights and the need to punish as well as rehabilitate him. On the other side is the victim, and the need to compensate him for the wrong done and to protect him and the rest of us from further criminal transgressions.
In addressing these issues, the righteous requirements of God's holy law are left entirely out of the picture. However, as we seek reformation in all of Christ's kingdom, God's word must always take precedence. In this discussion, I will consider the victim's interest in the debate.
As the politicians chant the "tough on crime" mantra in this election year, the conservatives will call for more attention to what the victims have suffered and the corresponding need for harsher sentences. Pathetic stories will be told of people who were brutally handled or emotionally terrorized by criminals in order to stir our passions against a system which allows miscreants and psychopaths to get out of prison on early parole, only to roam the streets seeking new prey. Some particularly vile creature will emerge as the symbol for all that is wrong with the justice system, and candidates will call for more judicial vengeance in the form of increased use of the death penalty and longer prison terms.
But by emphasizing the victims of crime, we focus on the subjective thoughts and feelings of people who have an obvious personal bias against the defendant. The victim's bitterness, anger, and hatred fill the courtroom and the minds of the jury. Objective standards of justice are crowded out. Sentencing becomes an exercise in man's vengeance.
While it is good and right to want justice to be done, we must make sure it is God's justice we seek and not our own. We must make sure that our own hearts and attitudes are right. We must make sure that the vengeance we seek is God's, not man's. Without this fundamental principal in place, we will never be able to have a truly just and righteous criminal justice system.
Scripture is clear that vengeance belongs to God. When someone murders or steals, he does not wrong us; he wrongs God. It is His law that has been broken. Such concepts as sin, wrong, and crime have no meaning outside of this context. "Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight," said David, after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband Uriah when he would not cooperate in the attempted coverup (2 Sam. 11:1-12:15; Ps. 51:4). Both Bathsheba and Uriah were the victims of David's crimes, but David sinned against God.
David would have committed no wrong if God had not prohibited adultery and murder. When we punish criminals, we are not avenging the wrong done to particular persons. We are avenging God.
It is not wrong to seek vengeance, if it is God's vengeance that we seek. The Bible is full of accounts of the saints calling for God to judge their enemies. The Psalms in particular contain prayers that the Lord will bring judgment swiftly upon those who trouble us. But the purpose is always that the glory of God will be revealed and His righteousness upheld.
This does not mean that man is completely removed from the picture. While God often brings judgment through providential means, man is just as often the ordained agent of God's vengeance. The Lord exercised His wrath against the nations of Canaan by sending Israel in to utterly destroy them. When Israel violated the covenant by her unfaithfulness, God called on Babylon and Persia to take the people captive. He has particularly ordained the civil magistrate as His agent of vengeance against wrongdoers, and calls them His ministers for that purpose (Rom. 13:4).
In reforming the criminal justice system, or anything else, we must keep in mind what the Bible says about obedience. We know from Scripture that obedience is not purely a matter of outward conformance to the Law. It is a pure heart that is of first importance. "Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer (Deut. 10:16)," and "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams" (1 Sam. 15:22). Paul declared himself righteous under the Law, but he knew that it is possible to do everything right on the outside and yet be under God's judgment (Phil. 3:3-9). Likewise, it is possible for our laws to outwardly conform to what God requires (as in the death penalty for murder), and yet our hearts may condemn us.
The Law of God sets forth specific punishments for specific crimes. There is no opportunity for the victim to enhance the penalty by bringing his own feelings before the judge. When we allow the hatred the victim has for the
criminal to influence the punishment, we are in danger of letting our own anger influence our judgment, and thus coming in danger of judgment ourselves (Mat. 5:21-22). But when exercising God's justice, we must make our anger God's anger, and our vengeance His vengeance. We must set our own prejudices against the criminal and our own sympathy for the victim aside,and we must give place to God's wrath.