The idea of “getting what we deserve” makes many people uneasy these days. Both Christians and morally sensitive non-Christians have trouble uttering the word “deserve.” This is why the grading system in America’s colleges and universities is in a shambles. There is a growing reluctance to recompense good work with good grades and bad work with bad grades; people feel uncomfortable saying, “Johnny deserved to fail.”
In discussing the matter of salaries with students and colleagues, I have found an aversion to the idea of paying people differently according to the merit of their work. They simply can’t say, “Employee A deserves more money than employee B because his work is better.”
We no longer have penal institutions. We have instead correctional institutions. This means, at least for those who create the vocabulary of the debate, that we no longer punish our criminals; we re-educate them. No one wants to ask, “What does a thief deserve?” We would rather ask, “How can we retool him so that he doesn’t make a nuisance of himself again?”
How shall we view this aversion to the law of recompense? Is it the tender sprout of a genuinely Christian ethic ready to burst into full bloom and fill the world with the fragrance of equality and dignity? Or is it rather the hauling up of another moral anchor?
I will leave that for the reader to decide as I try to answer this question: When is it right and when is it wrong to transcend the law of recompense? By the “law of recompense” I mean that principle according to which a person receives no more and no less than what he deserves; what determines the size of his reward or punishment is the goodness or evil of his action.
I call it a “law” because I believe it is the binding, universal substructure of all moral existence. In other words, it is the foundation upon which any system of ethics must be built to accord with reality. And as a Christian I believe that it has its origin in the nature of God and that he, insofar as he must be himself, is bound to act in accordance with the law of recompense. I hope it will become clear that this is not an arbitrary presupposition but is grounded in reason and in Scripture.
It is easy to agree that to transgress against the law of recompense by treating a person worse than he deserves is almost always wrong. (There may be some rare exception in which one might harm an innocent person in order to prevent him from hurting many others unawares.) Ask yourself how you would appeal a judge’s decision that you were to spend five years in jail for jaywalking (assuming that the law permitted such a sentence). Your basic argument would probably be that the crime of jaywalking does not injure the state or its citizens so severely as to merit this severe punishment. Your argument would be based on the law of recompense: it is unjust to treat a person worse than he deserves.
The other way of setting aside the law of recompense is to treat a person better than he deserves. That is, one may decide not to punish a guilty person or to punish him less than his evil action deserves. This is what I mean by transcending the law of recompense. And here is where the uneasiness with the idea of recompense sets in-understandably so, for the issue involved here is extremely complex, whether one approaches it from a theory of natural law or from New Testament exegesis.
Again and again the New Testament commends to us examples of transcending the law of recompense. If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other also; bless those who curse you; do good to those who hate you; pray for those who persecute you; forgive those who wrong you seventy times seven; repay no one evil for evil; do not avenge yourselves (Matt. 5:39; Luke 6:28; Matt. 5:44; 18:22; Rom. 12:14, 17; 1 Thess. 5:15; 1 Pet. 3:9). No wonder Christians feel uneasy with the idea of recompense, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Does not even God himself cause the sun to rise and the rain to fall on the unjust as well as the just (Matt. 5:45)? And, to get to the heart of the matter, is not the most important thing in life the pardon for sins that we enjoy in Christ? In the death of Christ, God, because of his great love for us, transcended the law of recompense.
Or did he? If the law of recompense had been completely abandoned, then why the cross? Why did the Son of God “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” have to die (Acts 2:23)? Why didn’t God on one clear day in eternity simply say, “In spite of the fact that the human race in its pride and self-sufficiency has sinned against me and deserves eternal destruction, I will overlook what it deserves and bless it forever and that’s that”? He did not do that because the law of recompense is not a legal statute outside God that he consults for guidance, a principle that can be set aside under extenuating circumstances. It is not an impersonal code established by our reason to which God must conform. Rather, the law of recompense is an expression of who God is.
If we were to be spared from the punishment we deserve and to enjoy the smile of God’s countenance forever, then Christ had to die; the Lord had to lay on him the iniquity of us all (Isa. 53:6). God had to send his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin in order to condemn or recompense sin in the flesh (Rom. 8:3). Christ had to become a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). For the curse and the condemnation under which sin stands are irrevocable. God never sweeps any evil under the rug.
Because of what happened on the cross, Paul says that all of us ungodly people will be treated as innocent if we believe in Jesus (Rom. 4:5; 3:24). So if we focus on ourselves, it is true that the law of recompense has been transcended: we are not requited according to our iniquities. But if we focus on God we see that he has not been untrue to himself. There has been due recompense for sin; the glory that we failed to render to our Creator has been duly repaid in the obedient death of his son. So the law of recompense is not nullified by the mercy of God that we as believers cherish so much.
What of those who do not believe? How does the God of righteousness relate to them? He is patient and longsuffering, bestowing upon them sun and rain, seedtime and harvest, and the witness of his servants. But they presume upon the riches of his kindness, and by their hard and unrepentant hearts they store up wrath to fall upon them on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed (Rom. 2:4, 5). As Paul says to the Thessalonians, the Lord Jesus will be “revealed from heaven … inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus; they shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction. . .” (II Thess. 1:7-9). “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). For those who do not take refuge in the cross of Christ there will be only wrath and fury in the end. For them the last word of the law of recompense is Hell. And it is not correctional or remedial; it is punitive and eternal (II Thess. 1:9; Matt. 25:46; Rev. 20:10, 15).
Our own practice of transcending the law of recompense derives its proper meaning from the death of Christ. When the New Testament calls us to turn the other cheek and not to render evil for evil but to forgive, it is calling for a behavior that mirrors the work of God in Christ. Accordingly, the twofold source from which our transcending the law of recompense should spring is, first, the mercy of God that we have experienced in Christ and naturally want to extend to others, and second, the inner peace or contentment that we derive from this mercy. We thus show that Christ has freed us from the craving to exalt our own ego by squashing others down (even if they deserve it).
From the work of God in Christ we derive also the twofold goal at which our merciful behavior should aim. The first part is the glorification of God. If we endure wrong without a spirit of retaliation for Christ’s sake, we are saying in effect that God is gloriously trustworthy, for he has promised that this momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (II Cor. 4:17f.), so that we don’t need to secure our own glory by showing up the offender. Secondly, our transcending the law of recompense should aim at the conversion of the unbelieving opponent. Our hope is that he will see our good deeds and give glory to our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:12; 3:16).
Ultimately the law of recompense is still fulfilled. If our offender repents and believes on Jesus, all his sins, including his slap on our cheek, will be laid upon Jesus and there duly condemned and punished. If he dies in his sin, then he will reap in wrath and fury all that he has sown, including the slap on our cheek.
Is it always right for the believer to transcend the law of recompense? In my opinion, no. I see at least three spheres of life in which it is both socially devastating and contrary to the will of God to transcend the law of recompense consistently. The first is the parent-child relationship. The parent who makes it his rule to transcend the law of recompense, always turning the other cheek, always answering his child’s insolence with sweet talk, and never punishing disobedience, is destroying his child. Where is that child going to learn that each person is held accountable for his deeds? How is he ever going to conceive of the holiness and the wrath of God? And if the parent should defend his approach by saying, “I want my child to know that God is a God of mercy,” my response would be that he is making it impossible for that child to appreciate mercy. One cannot appreciate mercy unless one knows that according to the law of recompense he deserves condemnation. This child will not learn this if his arrogance and disobedience are continually rewarded instead of punished.
The Old Testament wise man said, “Discipline your son while there is hope; do not set your heart on his destruction…. If you beat him with the rod you will save his life from Sheol…. He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Prov. 23:13f.; 13:24). And nowhere in the New Testament is this deep insight called into question. Paul writes, “Bring up your children in the discipline of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). In other words, take heed, parents, for you hold an awesome post as God’s deputies and are to administer his discipline, punishing evil, rewarding the good, and training your children properly.
The second sphere of life where it is destructive and contrary to the will of God consistently to transcend the law of recompense is the economic order of society. The economic counterpart to the law of recompense is that the value of goods and services should be truly reflected in the remuneration received for them. Where there is no direct correspondence between the value of goods and services on the one hand and prices and wages on the other, the economy will deteriorate and collapse.
To illustrate: if we have to pay as much for a loaf of bread as we do for a car–that is, if we are forced to transcend the law of recompense and reward the bakers far more than they deserve–then the people will starve, and before they starve they will revolt, and that will mean the destruction of the economic order. Or if the garbage collectors demand $50,000 a year and we grant it, the tax burden will become unbearable. No economic order can last if the law of recompense is abused in this way.
The Apostle Paul had to deal with an abuse of this kind. Soon after he had founded the church at Thessalonica and had gone away, somebody began spreading the idea that the day of the Lord was at hand. The result was that some people stopped working and began living a life of idleness. But apparently they expected to be fed by those who were still producing. That is, they expected their Christian brothers to overlook the law of recompense and to reward them with food that they were doing nothing to deserve. Paul wrote to remind them of an established principle: “For even when we were among you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat. We hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to … earn their own living” (II Thess. 3:10-12). In other words: do not transcend the law of recompense.
The third sphere of life in which it is destructive and against the will of God consistently to transcend the law of recompense is governmental authority, specifically the responsibility of governments to make and enforce laws. If, all of a sudden, robbery and murder, rape and fraud were consistently pardoned rather than punished, if the police and the courts always turned the other cheek and returned good for evil, only a dreamer could think that civilized society would last a year.
According to the New Testament, it is God’s will that governments maintain order in a fallen society by ad-ministering justice in accordance with the law of recompense. Romans 13 describes the secular ruler as God’s servant, one whose proper function is to commend good behavior and to manifest the wrath of God by punishing evil behavior. “He does not wield the sword in vain” (Rom. 13:4). The punitive function of government is not seen as a necessary evil that God simply permits. It is viewed rather as an expression of God’s righteous opposition to evil and his loving concern that fallen societies not plummet into chaos.
If this line of thinking is correct and there are at least these three spheres of life in which it is God’s will that men requite others according to their deeds, how shall we reconcile this with the repeated commands in Scripture not to avenge ourselves?
The answer some give is that the Christian must not be involved in an institution in which he would have to participate in the outworking of punishment or recompense, such as a police force. But I do not think it is possible to carry this answer through consistently as one reads and tries to live by the New Testament. What is the difference in principle between a parent’s spanking his child for disobedience and a policeman’s knocking a thief over the head with a billy club because he disobeyed the law and tried to run off with a woman’s purse? To carry this suggestion through consistently would, for me, mean the abandonment of very important biblical teachings, and would result in very unloving behavior.
My own suggestion is that it is possible for behavior that accords with the law of recompense to spring from the same source and aim at the same goal as behavior that transcends the law of recompense. And when human recompense does spring from that source and aim at that goal, it is not sin.
There are at least three ways of expressing the source from which proper recompense might come. First, it must spring out of an experience of God’s mercy. The Christian who recompenses rightly knows that he is utterly unworthy of the grace in which he stands and yet feels totally secure and fulfilled in the love of his heavenly Father; his act of recompense does not spring from a sense of fear or of personal frustration or from a desire to exalt himself by putting another down.
Secondly, the believer’s decision to punish another person will spring from a humble submission to the sovereign Creator, whose prerogative it is to render to a man according to his deeds–but who has ordained that in some spheres of life his human creatures be involved in administering his retributive justice on his behalf. It is too simple to say recompensing evil is not man’s business but God’s, for apparently God has chosen to employ parents and policemen, for example, in his business and has thus made it their business as well.
I do not mean to say that employers who recompense employees according to their merit are God’s agents in precisely the same way that secular rulers are. I want only to stress that in some circumstances economic conformity to the law of recompense is God’s will and that when Christian employers conform to the law of recompense they need not think they are usurping a prerogative of God. They are doing his will on earth and in that sense are his agents.
Thirdly, recompense must spring from a dependence upon God’s willingness to give wisdom to his servants so that they know in specific situations what is right and wrong and what punishments accord with what offenses.
And finally, the goal at which both the transcendence and the execution of recompense aim is the glorification of God: not this time by witnessing directly to his mercy but by witnessing to his justice, which is an essential ray of the glory that streams out from his person. Even here mercy is not neglected, however, for an expression of the justice of God furnishes the context a sinner needs to understand God’s mercy.
I believe that if an act of recompense springs from this threefold source–(1) a humble dependence upon the mercy of God in which one does not act out of frustration or fear, (2) a submission to God’s prerogative to recompense evil, which in some cases he does through human agents, and (3) a faith that God will give wisdom to his servants–and if its aim is the glory of God rather than self-exaltation, it is good.
I have not attempted to provide any absolute criterion for deciding whether an act of recompense or an act transcending the law of recompense is right in a particular situation. Ought one to weave a whip and drive the robbers out of the temple (John 2:15) or to put down the stones and say to the harlot, “Neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11)? The New Testament does not offer absolute rules for making that kind of decision. Instead it offers the power of God to transform us by renewing our minds, so that with our new mind, the mind of Christ, we can in every situation “prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
By John Piper. ©2013 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org. Used by permission.