Acton Institute Powerblog

Criminal Justice and Christian Forgiveness

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Last Saturday a brief op-ed commentary of mine ran in the weekly Religion section of the Grand Rapids Press, “Chandler case exemplifies need to repent.”

The occasion for the piece was the sentencing over the last few months of those convicted of involvement in the rape and murder of Janet Chandler in 1979 (more details about the case can be found in the Holland Sentinel’s special coverage section.) Chandler was a student at Holland’s Hope College at the time of her death. (Here are two of the stories that form the background for my article’s argument: “Swank: ‘No excuse’ for role in Chandler death” and “Lives built on dark secret crumble.”)

In the op-ed I make the claim that the work of the criminal justice system in the conviction and sentencing of those involved provides a necessary context within which forgiveness, or more precisely a form of restorative justice, might be sought. “For criminals who are in denial about what they have done, the power of the state to punish crime stands as public and objective testimony to the wrong that has been committed,” I write.

Swank: “No excuse…” (Sentinel/Dan Irving)

That’s exactly what has happened in this case. Earlier in December four men were sentenced to life in prison in connection with Chandler’s murder. After the four men were sentenced, Janet’s father Jim said, “As a Christian, I thought of saying we should forgive, but you have to ask for forgiveness. None of these arrogant people ever felt remorse or asked for forgiveness.”

Jim Chandler touches here on the critical difference between a forgiveness that is merely offered, and forgiveness that is sought out and received. Forgiveness that is merely offered is described as the “weak” form of forgiveness by Victor Claar, a professor at Hope College, and John N. Oswalt, a professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Miss., in an article appearing in the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Can Neoclassical Economics Handle a Scriptural View of Forgiveness?”

Claar and Oswalt also describe the “strong” form of forgiveness: “This strong form follows the biblical view that forgiveness cannot be granted unless the victimizer has repented. Apology is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the strong form of forgiveness. Further, only the strong form holds the possibility of reconciliation. There can be no reconciliation without apology.”

Much of the reflection that lies behind the GR Press article is the fruit of the study behind a piece on restorative justice and the Christian tradition that is due to appear in an issue of next year’s Ave Maria Law Review. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how so-called “retributive” justice and “restorative” justice relate.

One way of putting the question is to inquire as to how to put together the instructions in Romans 12, such as, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath,” and Romans 13, including the statements referring to the civil magistrate, “He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

For more on how restorative justice can work within the context of the criminal justice system, see this story about the work of Celebrate Recovery, a prison ministry at work in Michigan and around the country, “Pastors baptize 33 at St. Joseph County Jail” (HT).

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • One of the fallacies about the restorative justice movement, from my perspective, is that it equates forgiveness with there being no further need for prison, which is troubling on one hand and deeply dangerous on the other.

    Though Pope John Paul II forgave the man who attempted to assassinate him, I don’t think he worked to have the man released from prison.

    The sanction of imprisonment is not only clearly called for in Catholic social teaching, but is often the only sanction giving criminals the opportunity for the personal reflection leading to strong forgiveness and eventual redemption.

    David H. Lukenbill, President
    The LampStand Foundation

  • In Judaism there is a concept called
    a-vay-ra b’lee teshuvah, a sin for which there is no repentance. Murder is at the top of the list. The command to execute a murderer is the only commandment to appear in all five books of the Torah.

  • There ia a new web site: is a one-stop web site where you can:Ask for forgiveness from anyone who was ever hurt by you in the past,Send Your Prayers to God. We’ll print out copies of these letters and place them among the holy stones of the “Western Wall” in the Holy Land and Post a Confession to tell what you had never told before

  • This is an excellent little essay. There is no forgiveness without — indeed, no forgiveness until — repentance. No one, not even the Lord god, can force anyone to be forgiven. That is his will, as expressed many places including the sermon by St. Peter in which he preached, as reported in Acts, “repentance unto forgiveness.” In reprentance we open ourselves to forgiveness. The model — as David Lukenbill has so clearly explained in his writings — is the Good Thief: to accept the justice of merited punishment.
    Nothing in this logic however diminishes in any way our duty to love one another, even those who injure us. We hope and pray for their repentance and consequent forgiveness. We even pray, when necessary, for their punishment in hopes that if nothing else will work, that it will teach repentance. The only sin that can not be forgiven is the one that is not repented.