It seems impossible for a Christian to be compassionate and also in favor of hard justice. I think much of the difficulty comes from the fact that most Christians (as most people) mix up the commands of God with the means of God.
One of the current hot button issues is how we deal with terrorists. Is it possible for a Christian to love a terrorist and at the same time hope that the terrorist is stopped cold by justice, never to hurt anyone again? This is portrayed as an oxymoron for a follower of Jesus. We are to love our enemies. So our nation should not seek out these people and destroy them, right? Well... not so fast.
Swords play heavily throughout the stories in the Bible. This was before guns and bombs. It was the primary weapon of war and justice for thousands of years. In the New Testament times, God has given two swords to two groups of people. It is in the proper understanding of these swords that we as people of peace can be in favor of extreme justice.
The Church has been given a spiritual sword. This weapon is supernatural. While it certainly has a major effect in the natural realm, it is primarily to bring us victory in the spiritual realm. The apostle Paul wrote this to the early Church...
Be strengthened by the Lord and by His vast strength. Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil. For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. This is why you must take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand. Stand, therefore, with truth like a belt around your waist, righteousness like armor on your chest, and your feet sandaled with readiness for the gospel of peace. In every situation take the shield of faith, and with it you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word. (Ephesians 6:10-17)
Now some people do not like this imagery. They don't like the idea of Christians being warriors. They make fun of or even attack the idea. They think it makes us look unfriendly. But the fact is, we are at war. Christians are not at war with people or nations. We are at war with Satan, his demons, the powers of Hell, sin, and in a sense, everyone who surrenders themselves to evil. What? We ar in battle with people? Well... on a spiritual level we are.
Jesus had to battle people when the spiritual played itself out in the natural. He argued with hypocrites and called out those who opposed truth. The disciples were told to kick the dust off of their feet as a curse to the towns that would not receive their message. Paul struck people blind and turned others over to Satan. These aren't the things we like to think of when we talk about how Christians are supposed to share the love of Christ with sinners. But while Christianity is the most loving movement ever, it is engaged in real battle with spiritual realities that plays itself out in the natural realm.
We have a spiritual sword to wage spiritual war. Every believer should be armed with it. And the sword should be in regular use. We should be good with the sword. When we grab the sword, which Paul says is the Word of God, Hell should tremble with fear. It is by God's Word that we shut down the works of the enemy. This sword is not less than other swords. It is the most powerful weapon given to Christians.
But there is another sword...
The sword of steel is a natural weapon given by God to proper authorities to carry out natural justice on behalf of a supernatural God. In the natural realm, the sword given to the governing authorities is also a spiritual reality. The sword of the State is a representation of the power of God on earth to enforce justice and peace. This is where we lose some of our more Liberal leaning brothers and sisters in Christ.
This understanding does not take mental gymnastics, but it does take holistic thinking about what God is doing on the earth. It seems impossible or hypocritical for a believer to think that Christians should turn the other cheek and not go around killing people while at the same time believing that government has the right... and even the responsibility to execute ultimate judgment on the most evil of us. But the same apostle Paul who wrote that our spiritual weapons are not for waging war against flesh and blood (people), also wrote this...
Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. (Romans 13:3-4)
Was Paul a hypocrite? Or did he just have a keen understanding of the different roles and duties given to the Church and the State? I think he saw the different groups as different spheres in the world. The sphere of the State is to carry out laws so that good people are protected and bad people are punished. The sphere of the Church is to carry out the ministry of reconciliation between God and man by engaging in battle with spiritual powers that would take captive the souls of men.
The government is not a human institution. It is God's magistrate... God's minister of order and justice on the earth. It deals in natural means, but is a spiritual entity. It is to dispense wrath on evil doers. So there is a serious spiritual component. This is why it is good to have in government those who understand the spiritual battle. Someone should understand justice, and be able to stop child molesters, rapist, murderers, thieves, drug dealers, speeders, etc.
There are two fronts against evil. One is the Church. The other is the Government. Both have been established by God and given weapons to stop evil. Christians mess up when we try to take the government's role. God did not commission His bride to go around executing people who break the law. The Government messes up when it tries to take the Church's role. The government is a lousy source of evangelism and compassion.
But the Government should support the Church in its work, primarily by staying out of the Church's affairs, and using its power to keep lawlessness down, allowing righteousness to spring up. The Church should support the government as it dishes out justice... even when it is justice we cannot dish out, primarily by praying for the leaders, living good lives ourselves, and doing the work God gave us so the Government can focus on its work.
There are two swords. When Christians try to use the sword of steel, we get reprimanded by Jesus. Remember this event?
Then they came up, took hold of Jesus, and arrested Him. At that moment one of those with Jesus reached out his hand and drew his sword. He struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his ear. Then Jesus told him, “Put your sword back in its place because all who take up a sword will perish by a sword. (Matthew 26:51-52)
Christians aren't here to imprison or kill evil-doers, but the governing authorities are. We can support them in their role while we do not participate in the actual execution of justice. They are not here to be compassionate and evangelistic, and should not stand in the way of our mission.
Today, make sure you are carrying the proper sword... and using it well. Pray for your leaders that they will govern properly, but do not hold them to a standard different than God has given. If you are a leader, you are responsible before God, just as we are in the Church. If we all do our part, we will see evil diminish and righteousness and justice bloom.
[Bible quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible, unless otherwise noted.]
Find more of David’s work at Heart Of Ministry.