A common theme in recent theological work is to stress God’s justice as restorative rather than retributive. The underlying assumption appears to be that retribution is mean, nasty, and unnice and therefore unworthy of a God of love, grace, and mercy. For instance, Tom Smail comments: “God’s justice is concerned less with punishing wrong relationships than with restoring right ones. Like the heroes of the Book of Judges, Jesus is concerned with freeing the land from the evil forces that have infested it and setting our humanity free from the personal and social twistedness that is corrupting and destroying it.” Stephen Travis believes that “Retributive concepts are forced toward the edges of New Testament thought by the nature of the Christian gospel. It is a gospel that proclaims Christ as the one through whom people are invited into a relationship with God. Once the relationship to Christ and to God is seen as central, retributive concepts become inappropriate. The experience described by such terms as forgiveness, love, grace and acceptance overrides them. And the experience of those who refuse to respond to this gospel is not so much an experience of retributive punishment as the negation of all that is offered in Christ.” He points out that the biblical imagery for justice contains warnings of retribution against the wicked, but they are largely metaphors for exclusion from God’s presence rather than speculative descriptions of postmortem torments like that found in some Jewish literature. Moreover, retributive judgment is frequently juxtaposed with wider visions of the triumph of God’s glory and love. In his conclusion he asks whether “retributive language should be displaced from Christian vocabulary” in favor of “the language of a relationship to Christ”.
Now I can genuinely sympathize with a desire to escape the western captivity to a contractual understanding of divine-human relationships and the limitation of justice to recompense of deeds. Aristotle and Anselm have set the agenda and grammar for theology for too long. So instead may God give us a covenant relationship rather than a contract. May his justice be transformative rather than punitive. But the more I think about this the more baby and bath water comes to my mind. God’s covenants are intimately relational, but they are also legally binding, hence the law-suit motif one finds in the Pentateuch and Prophets. God’s justice will transform the world, but a transformed world must be one where the most insidious of evils and their perpetrators are not lightly rinsed with a perfume of goodness. Evil is such that it must be destroyed or quarantined if the goodness of God has utter supremacy in the new creation. Precisely because God condescends to covenant with creation is why he can prosecute his contention when his covenant partners fail to follow the obligations in that relationship. Precisely because God is love is why he must not allow evil to have the last enduring word in any corner of the galaxy.
 Tom Small, Once and For All: A Confession of the Cross (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1998), 95.
 Stephen H. Travis, Christ and the Judgment of God: The Limits of Divine Retribution in New Testament Thought (2nd ed.; Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2008), 325,327.
 Henri Blocher, “God and the Cross,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives, ed. B.L. McCormack (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 140 (125-41).
 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 302.