For most Christians, “legalism” is something to avoid—except when we’re talking about the law of the land.
Consider how we usually tell the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11). This woman was obviously a sinner. She had broken God’s commandments. But when the scribes and Pharisees brought her to Jesus, he did not condemn her. Instead, he exposed the self-righteous hypocrisy of her accusers: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
The moral of the story? Mercy triumphs over judgment.
True enough. But when we set aside our religious jargon for a moment, we find ourselves telling an even more surprising story—a story, it turns out, about crime and law enforcement.
I had read this passage countless times, but it was only while preparing to teach a course in prison that it occurred to me that this woman really had broken the law. Adultery may not be a crime in our world, but it was in first-century Judea—under both Jewish and Roman law. To put it in modern terms, the adulterous woman was a criminal and Jesus helped her evade punishment.
“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” As I thought of my students in prison, Jesus’ words took on a new layer of meaning. The grace Jesus offered did not just challenge the legalism of her accusers. It also challenged my own attachment to the retributive logic of law and order. Here was a story of God’s boundless love for sinners, yes—but also a story of God’s redemptive grace for those we call criminals.
Just imagine replacing adultery with a different crime, one that violates our own laws, and notice how troubling the story sounds. A man caught dealing drugs, a woman charged with credit card fraud, a teen who stole a car. “Has no one condemned you?” Jesus asks. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
He does not say, “God may forgive you—but according to the law you must be punished.”
The longer I thought about it, the more surprising this passage became. Here was a story stranger and more challenging than I had ever suspected, a story that cut to the root of how Christians engage with issues of law and justice. Why had I never noticed this before?
The New Testament casts a radical vision of God’s restorative justice for all wrongdoers—both those we call sinners and those we call criminals. But modern readers often fail to see it because the lens we bring to the text is shaped by the line we’ve drawn between sin and crime.
When we read the New Testament, we are typically focused on the problem of sin and the need for divine forgiveness. From this perspective, the gospel is about the damage human wrongdoing does to our relationship with God and Christ’s work to restore this relationship.
This is not wrong. But it leaves out an important part of the story. Sin not only affects an individual’s relationship with God. It also creates ripples of harm that flow through the communities for which God created us.
Some of these sins we call crime. Yet when we confront crime, we seldom turn to the gospel. Instead, we call on the criminal justice system.
The writers of the New Testament acknowledged only one kind of justice—God’s. And yet when we distinguish sin from crime, we carve out two separate and very different domains of justice: one religious, the other secular. As a result, we tend to wear two different faces. We forgive sin, but we punish crime. We decry religious “legalism” but advocate for “law and order.”
In other words, we create a conceptual firewall that fences off the realm of criminal justice from the New Testament’s challenging teaching on law and mandate for mercy.
Christians haven’t always thought this way. The conventional distinction between sin and crime dates to the 12th century.
Prior to this, as legal historian Harold Berman writes, “All major ‘secular’ offenses—homicide, robbery, and the like—were also sins to be atoned for by penance; and all major ‘ecclesiastical’ offenses—sexual and marital sins, witchcraft and magic, the breaking of vows by monks, and the like—were also crimes prohibited by the folklaw and subject to secular sanctioning.”
In short, sin was crime, and crime was sin.
But as the Catholic church and Europe’s monarchs struggled to carve out their respective areas of jurisdiction, a boundary began to crystallize between secular and religious realms. Some acts of wrongdoing were against God’s law, but not of concern to secular authorities. These were only sins. Others violated human laws too. These came to be called crimes.
“Human laws do not forbid all vices,” wrote the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, “but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained.”
In other words, God’s law regulated matters of the heart, whereas human laws governed society. And though God might forgive sin, violations of human law must be punished.
The main problem with this distinction is that it blinds us to Jesus’ withering critique of the logic of law and order.
Since Jesus criticizes the Pharisees’ preoccupation with following the letter of the law, we decry their issue as legalism. But we tend to think of this as a strictly religious matter—a question of nitpicky piety.
This misses the point. In first-century Judea, the law of Moses was not just a set of religious prescriptions but a pattern governing all aspects of life, from marriage and divorce to lease agreements and farming practices. Except where the Romans interfered, it functioned as the law of the land, guiding the judgments of local authorities. The scribes we read about in the Gospels served, in part, as lawyers, using their legal expertise to resolve disputes and draft contracts.
When Jesus reproaches them for how they enforce the law, he is not just criticizing their theology—he’s also challenging their legal theory. At its heart, the running debate between Jesus and the scribes is a disagreement about the relationship between law and justice—not just the laws we think of as religious, but the very idea of law as a way of regulating human behavior and punishing wrongdoing. Does meticulous enforcement of the law satisfy God’s justice? Or does God’s justice lie deeper?
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” Jesus laments. “You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23).
Sure, he says, you’ve mastered the tax code. But you’re missing what it’s all about. There’s no value in following the letter of the law if you’re not fulfilling its spirit (Matt. 5:17–48).
Look, the Pharisees ask him, why are your disciples harvesting grain on the Sabbath? (Mark 2:24).
Okay, says Jesus, you know the labor laws. But you’ve forgotten their purpose. The Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. The point is to give weary workers a rest—not stop them from having lunch.
In Jesus’ eyes, God’s law points to values close to God’s heart—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. The specific regulations of God’s law are meant to serve these values. In other words, enforcing God’s law should never get in the way of practicing the redemptive justice it points toward. Neither should enforcing our own laws.
These days, we seldom have legal controversies over tithing or Sabbath observance. Still, Jesus’ penetrating focus on the justice-shaped center of God’s law poses a challenge to modern readers too. God’s law is a beautiful gift. And our human laws also have value. But laws are not an end in themselves. When our desire to maintain law and order distracts us from the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness—well, we already know what Jesus would say.
Paul, too, was wary of what happens when enforcing the law takes priority over receiving and sharing God’s grace. “The letter kills,” he wrote, “but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). This is a truth he knew firsthand—first as an enforcer of the law and then as an imprisoned convict.
Paul’s gospel is articulated in language that would be familiar in any courtroom: law, justice, mercy, judgment. For years I read these terms as theological jargon, while actual laws and courtrooms were the furthest things from my mind. Now I’m convinced I was missing something important.
In fact, although mapped on a larger scale, Paul’s gospel addresses the same fundamental problem the modern criminal justice system targets: the basic fact of human wrongdoing and harm—or, as Paul calls it, sin.
The gospel, Paul says, is God’s solution to this problem. But it is not a solution based on law. No, if God were bound by law and order, we would all be lost. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). No one is innocent, not even one (Rom. 3:10). We have all violated God’s law.
And yet God issues a surprising verdict: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Rom. 8:1). Through the gospel, the true shape of God’s justice has been revealed—a justice based not on law but rather on faith (Rom. 3:21–22). God declares innocent all who put their faith in Christ.
Paul knows that some think God is soft on crime. “How do sinners keep getting away with it?” they ask. “Why has God not yet punished them?” But the answer is not, Paul writes, that God is indifferent to evil. No, God is indeed a just judge (Rom. 3:26). It’s rather that God’s solution to sin is an unexpected one. Where we look for law and punishment, God addresses the problem of evil through Jesus’ reconciling sacrifice (Rom. 3:24–25).
“Now apart from the law,” Paul writes, “the righteousness of God has been made known” (Rom. 3:21, emphasis added; cf. Gal. 2:21). As Mark Baker and Joel Green have argued, in Romans, we see that Jesus stands in our place not by suffering the legal penalty for sin but by absorbing on our behalf its deathly consequences.
Paul’s thinking about the law is famously complex, but at its heart it mirrors the priorities of Jesus. “The entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command,” he writes. “‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14; cf. Rom. 13:8–10).
It’s not that Paul thinks the law is useless or wrong. No, he insists, God’s law is good (Rom. 3:31; 7:12). But when we rely on legal regulations—or “works of the law,” as Paul calls them—and when we trust in them to resolve the problem of sin, we only make matters worse by stumbling into judgmentalism and hypocrisy.
Paul is especially troubled by the use of the law to reinforce the marginalization of Gentile believers (Gal. 2:11–14; Rom. 2:17–3:20)—a concern that should make us uncomfortable, living as we do in a nation where Black and brown Americans are much more likely to be arrested than white people, more likely to be jailed while awaiting trial, and far more likely to be incarcerated.
In God’s eyes, we are all offenders: Jews and Gentiles, police officers and felons, model citizens and gang members. No one is innocent, not even one. That’s why we all need God’s mercy—mercy that is not the opposite of God’s justice but its life-giving culmination.
As Bryan Stevenson has written, after decades of work among those our legal system has condemned to death, “The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution, and suffering.”
This is the heart of Paul’s argument too—that the free gift of God’s mercy in Christ is the source of our healing and reconciliation. In Christ, God restored us to new life in a way the law never could (Rom. 8:3).
In the end, the question is not whether we should live in a society governed by laws. Paul may not have wanted believers to take each other to court (1 Cor. 6:1–11), but he recognized that those in authority do have a role in punishing wrongdoing (Rom. 13:3–4). At their best, rulers enact the sort of justice that protects the weak and the vulnerable against those who might otherwise take advantage of them (Ps. 72:1–4).
Rather, the question for believers is where our allegiance lies. When confronted with sin and crime, do we find ourselves calling for law and order, or do we join Jesus in advocating for justice, mercy, and faithfulness? Are we focused on enforcing legal regulations, or are we oriented toward what Paul considered the heart of the law—loving our neighbors, both victims and offenders?
Here Christians have a mixed track record. As Aaron Griffith has noted in his recent book God’s Law and Order, no group has been as committed to caring for those in prison as evangelical Christians—and yet evangelicals have also been prominent advocates of the law-and-order ideology that has landed nearly two million Americans behind bars, including a disproportionate number of poor and Black Americans.
God forgives sin, we’ve preached. But crime must be punished.
In this, we risk eclipsing the fundamental message of the gospel: that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God—and yet while we were still criminals, Christ died for us.
Ryan Schellenberg is associate professor of New Testament at Methodist Theological School in Ohio. His most recent book, Abject Joy: Paul, Prison, and the Art of Making Do, is a reading of Philippians in its ancient prison context.