The Inextricable Binding of Justice, Grace, and Forgiveness

Posted 02/06/2018 in

Like many others, I have been deeply affected by Rachel Denhollander’s powerful testimonies: both her words as the first plaintiff and last survivor to testify in the sentencing of pedophile Larry Nassar, and in the further details she gave about losing her church in an interview she did with Christianity Today.

Photo: MATTHEW DAE SMITH/Lansing State Journal

As a seminary professor with concern for children at risk, I see the words she offered and the response they received as echoes of the experiences of countless other children and young people worldwide. Christian adults want to believe that we are always open to hearing the concerns of children and responding appropriately. Surely, followers of Jesus should be eager to provide a place where hurt children can find solace. But the evidence on hand doesn’t always back that up. Sometimes the things children experience far exceed our ability to cope with them. Embracing these claims as truth means embracing a more hostile world than we are prepared to accept. So instead, we ignore, in hopes that the problem will go away; or we minimize the extent of the wrongs that have been done, offering only platitudes in response.

Both of these responses characterize what Denhollander describes. “Just forgive,” her well-meaning friends might have said. “Don’t make a fuss!” But the problem, as she notes, is that we have forgotten the relationship between justice and forgiveness. We easily recognize the well-worn coupling of forgiving and forgetting, even though we know the two only exist in that relationship if the wrongdoing is truly insignificant. The hurts that cut deeply, the wounds that devastate, and the repercussions they entail—these do not vanish once the magic words of “I forgive you” are intoned. In these cases, we must also attend to the issue of justice.

This distinction recently emerged again as I was interviewing Dr. James Witty, a seasoned therapist and trainer of lay counselors around the world who started the Christian organization CareCorps. His specialty is working in former war zones, where children who have been traumatized by the brutality of armed conflict often struggle with minimal community support. As he observed, when family members or friends are slaughtered, or worse—when you are a child forced to commit the acts yourself—these are not the kinds of peccadillos that the forgive-and-forget script are equipped to address. Instead, we need to explore and affirm the desperate and righteous desire for justice before we can begin to discuss the work that is needed to understand forgiveness.

But this is a terrifying prospect. If we think too hard about justice—about what should and should not have happened, and how proper and reasonable reparations must be made—we risk affirming anger that can instead stoke resentment, bitterness, and an understandable thirst for vengeance. So it’s reasonable to believe that a discussion of wrongs done is a trap. We avoid the pursuit of justice because our Christian instincts believe it can only lead to greater brokenness.

This is precisely where we need Jesus. In fact, the only way we can hold justice and forgiveness together is if the cross of Christ inserts grace in between the two.

It is only by the mystery of grace that we can hope to have our desire for ultimate justice satisfied. Yes, there are steps that should and must be taken, but if we look only to those acts to satisfy our desire for revenge, we will be disappointed. There are some wounds that no human effort can salve. Our only way out is to receive the fellowship of the sufferings of Jesus (Phil 3:10), who endured the most unjust treatment that any human being ever received. He was sinless, yet he was humiliated by his community and brutally executed by a dictatorial regime in a charade of justice. He knows our pain and sorrow—he endured it on our behalf.

And this is what must lead us to forgiveness. Because no matter how innocent any victim may be, all have sinned and fallen short (Rom 3:23). As we reckon with this, we are obliged to realize the unmerited grace that Christ’s sacrifice means for us. And only, only through that grace is it possible to find the release of true and abiding forgiveness.


David H. Scott is assistant professor of intercultural studies and children at risk at Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies. He helped develop Fuller’s first class on children at risk and has continued to provide strategic leadership as the lead faculty member in the Children at Risk area of study. His ministry experience includes almost ten years with Viva (formerly Viva Network), an Oxford-based nonprofit that networks Christian organizations working with children at risk, helping to facilitate the development of academic children-at-risk training programs at different Christian institutions worldwide.