taking the words of Jesus seriously

As I’ve watched the national conversation concerning criminal justice play out among evangelicals in recent years, the focus has typically been either on the system’s inputs or on its output, meaning statistics about either crime or incarceration rates.

Some participants in the criminal justice discussion focus on the fact that violent crime rates in the United States are unusually high compared to western Europe. In 2020, there were an estimated 22,000 homicides in the United States, or approximately 6.5 homicides for every 100,000 people. By contrast, the homicide rate that year was ranged from 1.4 in France to 0.5 in Italy. Likewise, the rates of other violent crimes in the United States were generally much higher than in those countries. And the combined arrest rate in the United States for these crimes is only about 10 percent. From statistics like these, some argue that what the United States needs is a tougher approach to crime control. 

Other participants in the criminal justice conversation focus on what has come to be called “mass incarceration” and, in particular, the racial disparity of the American prison population as compared to the population at large. The United States is the world’s largest jailer, accounting for approximately 19 percent of the world’s prisoners but only 4.25 percent of the world’s population. Even removing drug crimes from the calculus, our country has the highest incarceration rate among Western countries by a wide margin. And the percentage of Black people imprisoned in the United States is five times higher than that of White people.

These jarring statistics about the justice system’s input (crimes) and output (imprisonment) are certainly relevant to the conversation. More telling, in my view, are these statistics: 40 percent of murders in the United States go unsolved while, since 2000, 1,027 men and women have been exonerated of murders for which they were convicted. Thousands of guilty wander free while more than a thousand were wrongly imprisoned. This suggests that something in the American criminal justice system is broken.

But these statistics cannot tell us what is broken. To answer that question, an analysis of the design and operation of the features, procedures, actors, and laws that make up the system is required. We need an examination of the machinery, not merely the product, of the criminal justice system.

The criminal justice system is, by definition, state-sponsored violence. Every criminal law, even a just one, is an authorization for the state to use physical force against an image-bearer if he or she fails to comply with the law’s mandate. Most Christians do not believe that the Bible either forbids or condemns such violence. It is expressly sanctioned by Scripture in several passages, the most notable of which is Romans 13. This means that the sight of the criminal justice system at work, even in entirely appropriate ways, will be often violent. And viewing physical force brought to bear on another human is upsetting. What is disturbing, however, is not always unjust. Though it might be. So once we understand how the system operates, we need a Christian ethic against which to judge the justice of the system.

Running throughout Scripture is the idea that justice is, most fundamentally, an issue of love. That which is loving is no less than that which is just. As professor Christopher Marshall, a leader in the restorative justice movement puts it, “Love requires justice, and justice expresses love, though love is more than justice.” For the Christian, love is an issue of the highest order. It is foundational to the Christian ethic. Love is—or should be—of utmost importance to Christians because it is of utmost importance to Christ. The implication of Jesus’s teaching is that everything about life turns on love (Matt. 22:37–40). And justice is no exception. 

Some have objected that all this discussion about justice—social justice generally and criminal justice in particular—distracts Christians from what really matters, namely, the gospel. “Just preach the gospel,” some say. But what is the gospel—the good news—if not a gracious promise and provision of justice? The best news you will ever hear is this promise from the one who sits on the throne of the universe: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Peter encourages us to look forward to “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). As Christians have confessed for centuries, we “look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

Anglican ethicist Oliver O’Donovan rightly observes, “It is the task of Christian eschatology to speak of the day when [divine] justice shall supersede all other justice.” Our eternal hope as Christians is found in the answer to Abraham’s rhetorical question, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25). Indeed, Christ posed—and answered—that same question in his parable of the persistent widow: “Will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily” (Luke 18:7–8).

Some might respond that while our ultimate hope is a just world to come under the only just King, we have no such promise in this present world. And that is true. We will not see perfect justice on this side of eternity. Earthly politics have a “provisional task of bearing witness to God’s justice” fully realized only in the eschaton, O’Donovan reminds us. The danger, however, is that our pessimism is overactive and our eschatology is under-realized.

I think this is a particular danger for Protestants of the Reformed variety. We rightly emphasize that Christ declares us just, but we tend to underemphasize that he is making us into people who live justly as well. We fail to see that we glorify the God who is just and who has declared us just when we, as his image bearers, do justly. As more and more justified people do justly, it makes for a more just, or at least less unjust, world. Our prayer even now is that God’s will for justice “be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). As a result, “social injustice must always be denounced, even if its ultimate abolition awaits Christ’s return.” And as we live justly in this life, we point to that day of ultimate justice in the life to come. “Our membership in the kingdom of God may be transcendent,” O’Donovan writes, “but it can be gestured towards in the way we do our earthly justice.” Every glimmer, however faint, of justice in this life is God’s kingdom breaking through, a reminder that cloaked in fog, just around the bend, perfect justice is on the march. One day soon, he will dwell with us (Rev. 21:3).

And all of that is true because of love. His love. For us.

This is a book about that love and what it means for the American criminal justice system. Crime is conflict. It is a product of a fallen world. God ordained government to address that conflict, and a criminal justice system is one facet of that conflict management enterprise gifted to us by God for our use until that day when conflict is no more. The question I set out to answer in this book is how to conform such a system to Scripture—which is to say, how to do criminal justice justly. In sum, my answer is that a criminal justice system marked by Christ’s love for accused and victim alike is, in a fallen world, a crucial element of what Augustine called “the tranquility of order.”

Much of the story of American criminal justice has been a story of “us versus them.” In a sense, that approach to criminal justice has intuitive appeal. Each criminal prosecution is, after all, the People versus the Defendant. It is the “versus,” however, that frames the problem. It is the “versus” that highlights the conflict that makes love for both victim and accused seem out of reach or, worse yet, unnecessary. We too often fall prey to thinking that the “versus” of criminal justice means that there is a “them,” an accused, a defendant, who is unentitled to our love. That conclusion—or, perhaps, simply an unchallenged assumption—is wrong. It is unbiblical. It is unloving. It is unjust. It is sin. The story of biblical criminal justice is a story of “we.” For the Christian, the defining slogan of the criminal justice system should not be “law and order” but “love your neighbor.”

Content taken from Reforming Criminal Justice: A Christian Proposal by Matthew T. Martens. © 2023. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

About The Author


Matthew T. Martens graduated first in his class both in law school (University of North Carolina School of Law) and in seminary (Dallas Theological Seminary). He is a trial lawyer and partner at an international law firm in Washington, DC. He has spent the bulk of his more than twenty-five-year legal career practicing criminal law both as a federal prosecutor and as a defense attorney. He served as a law clerk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist at the US Supreme Court and also as a political appointee in the criminal division of the US Justice Department under Attorney General Ashcroft. Matt and his wife are members at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, and have two sons and a daughter.

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