Restorative Bible: From Story to Practice

By Ted Lewis (2020)

In his chapter on “Covenant Justice: A Biblical Alternative,” (Changing Lenses, 1990), Howard Zehr explains how the core Hebrew concepts of shalom (peace) and covenant are “transforming forces” in the way that law and justice developed over time in biblical society (135). While parts of the Bible seem to emphasize the violation of rules and the use of punishment, traditional ideas were transformed into a perspective that reflected God’s true character, known best through the teachings and passion of Jesus. 

Shalom is a condition of “all-rightness” (130). It depends on things and people being in right relationship with each other. Anything that disrupts that well-being requires a justice that restores the “all-rightness,” and at times transforms a hard situation into a better, life-giving situation. Understandably, the Bible integrates social and economic justice with criminal justice, since they both seek redemption through the righting of relationships. Systemic injustices and individual wrongdoing are inseparable.

Comparing Contemporary Justice and Covenant Justice

Zehr contrasts Contemporary Justice that is State-governed with Covenant Justice that is rooted in the Bible. (He charts about 20 pairings listed on page 151-2.)

Whereas the former is based on broken laws and established guilt, Covenant Justice is based on the harm done and obligations to repair the harm. State-driven justice is tested by protocols and procedures, whereas Covenant Justice is defined by outcomes, measured by the shalom it yields. Instead of inflicting pain and punishment which serves to divide people, the latter aims to make things right; it brings people together. In the former, justice and mercy move in opposite directions; in the latter they operate in unity.

This comparison of traditional and biblical justice paradigms parallel’s Zehr’s subsequent charts that similarly summarize the differences between retributive and restorative forms of justice (see pages 185, 202, 212). He frequently comments how these charts are not meant to present polarizing features of both systems, but rather reflect continuums which have middle-ground variants in each area. 

“Whether the thrust of the Bible is on retribution or restoration is not a marginal issue. The question is at the heart of our understandings about the nature of God and about the nature of God’s actions in history. It is not an issue which Christians can avoid” (157).

Justice as Balancing the Scales vs. Justice as Filling and Overflowing

A healing justice certainly heals the wound and restores the well-being that was lost. But it is more than just a return to original situations prior to the harm or crime. One has to consider what caused the harm in the first place. Will injury happen again? Will impacted people feel safer and more trusting?

Zehr quotes Dave Worth at length who corresponded with him over an early draft of his chapter “A Restorative Lens” (190).

Second Corinthians 5:18f makes a link between reconciliation and new creation. That is perhaps the essence of reconciliation: something new has happened between two people. Not something based on the way it was in the past, but on the way it should be. Reconciliation is really a forward-looking approach to the problem. 

[Overflowing] is what justice is about. It is not the level-over-the-top kind of legalistic approach to justice that we are talking about. We are not talking about the scales of justice. We are talking about a situation where true justice has occurred which has made a new thing come to pass. A thing which leaves people not lower, not just equal, but full and overflowing so they can go out and spread justice to others around them. Perhaps the problem with the present legalistic approach to justice is that it doesn’t heap people up so they have no justice left to give others. (190)

Going from 2 Corinthians 5 to Romans 5

This passage in 2 Corinthians 5 has deep implications for restorative justice as it gives a platform for how sins no longer have to be “counted against” offending persons (vs. 19). We no longer view offenders from a “worldly point of view,” which in this case, binds people’s identity to their actions in the past. Instead we view them through a Christ-lens as being renewable people, determined more by a positive future than a negative past. “All things are new!” For this reason, restorative dialogue is intentionally designed to help harming and harmed parties move their discussion forward from things past to things present to things future.

Dave Worth’s commentary along with Zehr’s charts correspond well to Paul’s own ‘comparison chart’ at the end of Romans 5 where Paul contrasts the key elements of two realms: the realm of sin and death, and the realm of grace and life. In fact, these two realms can be viewed as two paradigms of justice that bear some similarities but also have significant differences. The first realm operates like a traditional justice system where the negative consequences of wrongdoing lead to conviction and judgment, indeed death. The second realm, however, overwhelms the negative operations of the first realm, and through a higher form of justice, delivers life.

Here is Eugene Peterson’s paraphrased contribution to this passage:

“If death got the upper hand through one man’s wrongdoing, can you imagine the breathtaking recovery life makes, sovereign life, in those who grasp with both hands this wildly extravagant life-gift, this grand setting-everything-right, that the one man Jesus Christ provides?” (Romans 5:17, The Message).

It is interesting to note that some translations use the word “overflowing” for the Greek word that is more typically translated “abounding”. There is a positive contagion that spreads out from those whose needs are deeply met through a restorative justice dialogue process. Having experienced release and redemption through honest, heart-to-heart conversation, both offending and victimized parties have greater impetus within themselves to share that goodness with others (and for offenders to not re-offend).

Similarly, restorative practitioners speak of the ripple effect that is caused by harms and crimes that spread more pain, more mistrust, creating more protectiveness on those most affected while also affecting wider circles of people with negativity. Imagine, then, a justice process that adds more pain and mistrust to the negative contagion that has already been set in motion. When legal matters diminish a true search for solutions to the harm done, more alienation and heartache can happen. “All that passing laws against sin did was produce more lawbreakers” (5:20a). And victims whose needs are not deeply met can likewise have their lives determined by the weight of the past. But in God’s future-leaning realm of justice, “sin doesn’t have a chance in competition with the aggressive forgiveness we call grace” (5:20b). 

From Older Testament to Newer Testament Review

In 1991, New Zealand biblical scholar Christopher Marshall visited the offices of Mennonite Central Committee in Pennsylvania, where he received a copy of Howard Zehr’s book, Changing Lenses. A subsequent book review by Marshall opened the door for a 1994 restorative justice conference in New Zealand where he presented a paper on the New Testament contribution to criminal justice issues. 

Recognizing how Zehr’s chapter on “Covenant Justice” was primarily a “summary of Old Testament materials in furnishing the biblical foundation for the restorative justice movement” (xiv), Marshall was compelled to provide an extended survey of New Testament texts to supplement what Zehr had already put forth. The result of that effort is his book Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment.

“Marshall has written the best study of New Testament justice that I have encountered. He offers the best summary of the marks of the kingdom of God in the New Testament that I have seen. And he presents the best available study of divine and human punishment in the New Testament, interpreting both kinds of punishment as prophetic calls to repentance and restoration. Marshall brings together remarkably extensive literature in criminals justice theory as well as biblical studies.”  — Glen Stassen (author of Just Peacemaking, 1992)

An excerpt from Chris Marshall’s book (93) serves well to pull together several themes from this overview of Biblical Roots:

Underlying Paul’s interpretation of the Christ-event and the Gospel writers’ presentation of the life and teaching of Jesus is an understanding of God’s justice as a redemptive power that breaks into situations of oppression or need in order to put right what is wrong and restore relationships to their proper condition. Paul speaks of God’s act of eschatological deliverance in the death and resurrection of Christ as a comprehensive work of justice-making that liberates oppressed humanity from the power of sin and death and from the guilt of actual transgression, and brings peace with God and reconciliation between former enemies. Jesus speaks of the inbreaking of divine justice as the coming of God’s kingdom,which starts to put right what is wrong on earth, establishes a relationship of new intimacy between God and humanity, and calls into being a new community to live a transferred way of life in the midst of the old order. Distinctive of this life is the call to radical forgiveness of offenders and nonretaliation toward opponents, virtues taught and exemplified by Jesus himself and repeatedly affirmed throughout the New Testament. These virtues are not arbitrary requirements; they flow from the inherent character of divine justice itself. For throughout the biblical witness, as Paul Ramsey explains,

[God’s saving justice] is the source and  at the same time the measure of human righteousness. Expressly excluded from the heart and soul of biblical ethics is the notion that we should deal with people only according to their merits, earned or unearned; or that we are simply to treat all men as their manhood intrinsically deserves. Not corrective justice or distributive justice or any other humanitarian standard is the measure, but a contributory justice, a helpful, redeeming, caring justice, since the day God began to form the consciences of men and to shape their lives to the measure of God’s own righteousness that stooped to conquer wrong (Paul Ramsey, “The Biblical Norm of Righteousness,” 1970).

Read also some excerpts from Marshall’s RJ and Religion Chapter on how the biblical roots of the initial restorative justice ideal is precisely what made it so congruent with indigenous justice. (Religion Matters: The Contemporary Relevance of Religion, ed. Paul Babie and Rick Sarre, Singapore: Springer Nature, 2020.)

New Testament Restorative Practices

Ched Myers and Elaine Enns, in the first volume of Ambassadors of Reconciliation (2009), illuminate several New Testament texts that serve to integrate theological understanding with peacemaking practices. In the same vein as John Paul Lederach’s treatment of Matthew 18, the authors provide a deeper dive into the social context of Matthew’s writings.  Against the social stratification which disempowers the least and the lost, namely those who have been victimized by social structures and injustices, the three-phase process for resolving harms and offences which is mapped out in Matthew 18:15f, is designed to dignify those who have been harmed and restore those who have done the harming.

Far from being a traditional formula for ousting a disciplined member from a church community, the dialogue-driven language of going, listening, winning, and agreeing emphasizes a process that is meant to restore relationships that have been affected by hurt and separation. Lamach’s proverbial 70×7 curse, which exaggerates the impulse of all retributive justice measures, is now reversed by Jesus’ astonishing 70×7 invitation to perpetually forgive others from the heart.  The authors then unpack the following parable of the unforgiving servant which upends the entire framework of justified retribution in the face of God’s universal restorative ethos.

“In the second half of Matthew 18, Jesus has put the ‘seventy-times-seven restorative justice liturgy’ of disciples, who live in solidarity with the least, side-by-side with the ‘retributive justice liturgy’ of the rich and powerful, who live in a fearful, dog-eat-dog cosmos. The choice is ours. The point of the entire discourse is to persuade us that only restorative justice can free us from the curse of Lamech.”  (Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Vol. 2, 81)

Other sections in Ambassadors of Reconciliation (vol. 1) focus on the peacemaking mission of the church as supported by Paul’s own theology and ministry. Examples include the breaking down of the wall of hostility in Ephesians 2, which is linked to the nonviolent usage of God’s armor within a retributive world.  2 Corinthians, which holds the title phrase for ‘ambassadors of reconciliation’ in chapter 5 is effectively linked to chapter 6 where Paul describes the cost of discipleship when Jesus-followers lean into solidarity with those who are dishonored and disempowered (pages 10-17). As God took initiative to make ‘at-one-ment’ in solidarity with humanity, Paul’s own ministry is a powerful testimony to how Christians take similar initiatives of solidarity to “become poor” so as to make others rich with new life. Restorative dialogue is premised around this same pattern of vulnerability and re-empowerment. It gives new life precisely because it is cruciform. Strength is perfected (or completed) through weakness.


Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (Westminster John Knox, 1992) by Glen Stassen

In Just Peacemaking, Glen Stassen helps to integrate Old and New Testament concepts of righteousness in his treatment of the Sermon on the Mount. He translates the righteousness that we seek as “community-restoring justice” (72).

He also quotes Elizabeth Achtemeier who gave this description of a righteous person in the older Hebrew context: one who “preserved the peace and wholeness of the community, because he or she fulfilled the demands of communal living.”


Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (Eerdmans, 2020) by Douglas Campbell

Chapter 14 of this book, “Loving as Peacemaking,” directly address restorative justice in the context of Paul’s relational ethics.

Listen also to his Paul the Peacemaker presentation.

An earlier book, The Deliverance of God, opens up new understandings of the Pauline concept of justification in restorative terms.  Foreword writer N. T. Wright call it a “theological tour de force.”


For an in-depth word study of justice/righteousness in both Hebrew and Greek contexts, read Max Lee’s blog article, “Paul’s Theology on Justice, Righteousness and Reconciliation.”


View a listing by Ted Lewis of 49 Biblical Touchpoints for restorative themes.

Read several blog series by Ted Lewis relating restorative themes to biblical narratives.