Question: "What does the Bible say about restorative justice?"

Answer: Restorative justice aims to restore and rehabilitate offenders and reconcile them with their victims and with the affected community. In contrast to restorative justice is retributive justice, which aims to punish wrongdoers according to what they deserve without the goal of restoration. In retributive justice, individuals reap what they sow. Both forms of justice are present in Scripture, though the theme of restorative justice is more prominent.

To understand what the Bible says about restorative justice, it is helpful to recognize the theme of retributive justice in Scripture. The Bible says that sin has consequences and that poor decisions often lead to negative outcomes (Isaiah 59:2; Proverbs 1:32). These themes of retribution and measured punishment for the guilty are present throughout the Old Testament legal system and sprinkled throughout the New Testament (Deuteronomy 19:21; Ecclesiastes 11:4; Galatians 6:7–8). It is also important to note that God assigns governmental authorities the role of punishing evil (Romans 12:19—13:5). Being just, God does not leave evil unchecked. Pagans and Christians alike face consequences for their sin. Scripture makes it clear that there is value in punishing wrongdoing, but, ultimately, justice is God’s to mete out (Romans 12:17–21; 1 Peter 2:21–23).

To some degree, there are retributive themes in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve disobey God and suffer the consequences of sin. However, Christ took our deserved punishment upon Himself with the purpose of full redemption (see Isaiah 53:5 and Hebrews 9:12). It is God’s grace that adds to the story of retributive justice. God’s gift of redemption, restoration, and forgiveness for undeserving sinners permeates Scripture (Isaiah 32:17; Psalm 111:9; 130:8; John 3:16; Acts 3:19; Colossians 1:19–23). The goal of restorative justice in Scripture is the full restoration of the relationship between God and sinful humans.

We see an example of a redemptive approach in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The Lord says, “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. . . . You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:38–39, 43–44). In these verses, Jesus emphasizes the importance of restoring relationships between parties rather than repaying wrongdoing. While He does not negate the importance of government fulfilling its duty to punish wrongdoing, He teaches that our hearts should have a posture of forgiveness and reconciliation.

A clear example of restorative justice in Scripture comes from the book of Philemon. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, escapes and flees from his master. In those days, masters had the right to sentence their runaway slaves to execution. Making an effort to reconcile with one’s master was unthinkable. However, through the influence of Paul, the runaway Onesimus places his trust in Christ. Paul then pens a letter to his close friend Philemon, asking him to welcome Onesimus home. Rather than seeking the punishment Onesimus deserves, Paul seeks to restore the relationship between slave and master. He goes even further, telling Philemon to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but . . . as a dear brother” (Philemon 1:16). Paul then offered to pay Philemon any damages incurred: “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (Philemon 1:18). The theme of restorative justice in this story points toward the gospel.

We see restorative justice in the gospel through Jesus’ death on our behalf. Our sins deserve punishment, but Jesus took our punishment on Himself in order to save us from the consequences of sin and to restore us to a right relationship with God. One day restorative justice will be fully realized. When Christ returns He will restore relationships, bodies, and even the earth (John 5:24–25; Romans 6:5–7; Revelation 21:25).

It is a great act of grace that God chooses a balance of restorative justice and retributive justice for sinners. Out of gratitude and obedience, believers should also choose restoration, redemption, and forgiveness in their relationships (Ephesians 4:31–32).

In summary, restorative justice is paramount to the overarching story of Scripture. Without it, there is no right relationship between God and sinners.