Gospel Justice

In the Old Covenant era the civil law required restitution and retribution for certain cases of theft. A thief had to pay back sometimes two, sometimes four and sometimes five of whatever he had stolen (Exodus 22:1-15). These case laws had a prospective Gospel principle embedded into them. Jesus kept the law (restitution) that we had broken and took the punishment (retribution) for our robbing God of His glory and honor! Vern Poythress puts it so well when he writes:

The nature of the punishment is obviously significant. Not just any punishment will do, but only a punishment that matches the crime. A suitable match is achieved by replicating or reproducing the effect of the crime, only in the reverse direction. If Bill stole from Al, he must give to Al the same amount. This process of replication in reverse is exactly what we saw in the case of murder as well. As a general rule, punishment in similar measure implies that the punishment should replicate the effect of the crime, only in reverse. Such a punishment embodies the basic principle of replication that is integral to God’s created order. Moreover, a punishment of this kind also embodies a kind of restoration of balance. Injury to one is balanced by injury to the guilty party. For convenience, however, I prefer to reserve the term “restoration” for the act of returning the original stolen ox. Restoration is appropriate in the case of borrowing, whereas punishment as an additional burden is appropriate in the case of theft.

In sum, double payment is the appropriate penalty for theft. The penalty must involve two parts, restoration of the original and punishment for evil intent. The double quantity involved is not an arbitrary amount, but is based on what is fitting. Through this rationale we also help to resolve an important exegetical question. Interpreters of Exod 22:4 and 22:7 are not sure whether these texts describe restoring the original plus one more or restoring the original plus two more.2 

The linguistic data of the texts by themselves do not point with absolute clarity to either one of these alternatives. But on the basis of the general principle of due recompense, the interpretation involving restoring the original and one more seems much more likely. Moreover, once we have penetrated to the principle behind the particulars, we are much more confident that the instances of double recompense are the rule, while recompense of four or five times represents the exception.

This punishment for theft reflects on a human level the nature of our obligations to God for our sin. Payment for sin must include both restoration and punishment. In restoration we must restore or repair the damage done to others and to God’s honor. In punishment we must in addition bear damage in ourselves corresponding to our evil intent.3

Both of these two sides to our obligations are fulfilled in Christ. Christ’s suffering and death were God’s punishment for sin. Christ’s earthly life of righteousness and his resurrection are his restoration of righteousness to God. In the promise of new creation, based on Christ’s work, we have hope for full restoration of the universe from the damage of all sin. In the suffering of Christ on the cross we have full payment for the punishment of sin as well as vindication of the honor of God.4

What do we now say about the fourfold and fivefold recompense in Exod. 22:1? 22:1 specifies that if an ox or a sheep is stolen and is not found alive, the thief must pay the owner five oxen in return for one stolen ox, or four sheep in return for one stolen sheep. Everyone has difficulty with this verse because no explicit reason is given why these cases differ from the general principle of twofold repayment (see 22:7). Several speculative reasons have been offered, but in the nature of the case none can be viewed as definitive. 5 I would suggest that we take our clue from the only direct information that we are given distinguishing the case of verse 1 from those of verse 4 and verse 7, namely the issue of whether the ox or sheep is found alive in the thief’s possession. If the animal is alive, the thief restores double, according to the pattern that we have already seen. But if the ox or sheep is not in the thief’s possession the process of restoration cannot take place according to the normal pattern. The thief’s further action in disposing of the beast has introduced a further element of guilt, in that he has intentionally damaged the possibility of making things good to the owner. Before the action of disposition, he was liable for two animals. After the action the guilt is doubled. He must pay two animals to restore balance, and then two more animals for the additional guilt and liability. By this process we get a total of four sheep.

But now why five oxen for an ox? I do not know. We may have reached the limit of our ability to account for recompense in terms of the principle of balanced punishment and restoration. What distinguishes the ox? In Israelite times in an agricultural economy the ox was the single most expensive possession and simultaneously the least dispensable possession that an average Israelite might have–other than land or a house that could not easily be stolen. The theft of an ox could easily threaten an average family with poverty, and the additional guilt involved may be what warrants the additional payment. There may also be a principle at work similar to Exod. 22:5. For accidental damage to a field, restitution is made from the best of the field. That is, in order to make sure that restitution is complete, the best quality product must be given as a substitute. Such a principle would certainly be just in the case of other forms of substitutionary restoration. In the case of the five oxen, the serious threat to the owner’s livelihood warrants a fifth ox to make sure about the fullness of repayment. I am not satisfied with this explanation, but neither am I satisfied with alternative explanations that I have seen. 6

 You can read Poythress’ entire chapter on civil punishment in redemptive history here.

1. Vern Poythress The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, http://www.frame-poythress.org/Poythress_books/Shadow/bl0.


Nicholas T. Batzig is the organizing pastor/church planter of New Covenant Presbyterian Church, a PCA church in Richmond Hill, Georgia.