The Bible does not say anything about lawyers as we know them today. Israel was under the legal jurisdiction of Rome during Jesus’ time, so when the Bible mentions “teachers of the law” (Luke 5:17) or “lawyers” (Luke 14:3, ESV), it is referring to the religious leaders who were experts in the Mosaic Law. The modern-day court system, with prosecuting attorneys and defense attorneys, did not really exist at that time.
Lawyers as we know them today—professional public servants who know the ins and outs of the legal process and can lend their knowledge to resolve various conflicts with clarity and justice—did not appear until after the Middle Ages. The Bible mentions human accusers—those who bring a charge against another in front of a court or magistrate—but they are usually witnesses, not lawyers for the prosecution (Luke 12:58; Matthew 5:25). The only character in the Bible who comes close to filling the job of a prosecuting attorney is Tertullus, an orator who was knowledgeable of Roman law and who was paid by the Jews to present their initial case against Paul before Governor Felix (Acts 24:1).
The concept of prosecutors and defense attorneys, or advocates, is a biblical one. We have a spiritual Advocate in Jesus Christ, the righteous (1 John 2:1). He defends our cause before the Judge, God the Father. There is a prosecuting attorney, too: the Accuser, Satan (Revelation 12:10). Satan knows the Mosaic Law very well; he knows the Law better than any modern lawyer knows the laws of his land. He knows that man has broken the Law, and he can therefore accuse us. Thankfully, we have an Advocate in Jesus Christ. He is our Defense Attorney who comes before the Judge with a solution: He has fulfilled the Law for us, so that our punishment can be placed on His shoulders and we can be declared not guilty (see Matthew 5:17; Romans 3:24; and Isaiah 53:5).
The legal system today reflects this biblical model. The prosecuting lawyer looks into the law and brings an accusation against the defendant, attempting to show his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Then the defense lawyer argues for the innocence of his client or points to some extenuating circumstance. In the case of the Christian, the extenuating circumstance is Jesus’ sacrifice, which paid our debt to the Lawgiver and allowed us to go free, despite our guilt according to the Law (Romans 8:1–5).
Lawyers today face many ethical and moral challenges. One is how far a lawyer should go to protect and defend a client. Is the use of “sneaky” but legal tactics ever warranted? A Christian lawyer who has an opportunity to win a case and protect a client using a legal but morally questionable tactic should ask himself a few probing questions: Is the tactic clearly immoral? Is the tactic in question going to require something that God has commanded against? For instance, will the tactic require the lawyer or client to tell a lie? Will it require the lawyer or client to cheat someone else or to be unkind to him or her? Finally, will the tactic misrepresent the truth so that the guilty goes free or an innocent person is punished? If any or all of these questions can be answered with a “yes,” it should cast doubt on the ethical use of the tactic. If, however, the lawyer is acting ethically in God’s eyes and simply using the law in a way that will benefit the client, there is no reason why his knowledge and expertise should not benefit the case. Christian lawyers must have a commitment to honesty and a conviction against “winning at all costs” (Proverbs 11:1–3; James 3:16; Philippians 2:3). When there is a question about the validity of a courtroom tactic, the best course of action is to ask the Holy Spirit for guidance and then trust Him to provide (James 1:5).
Another ethical challenge some lawyers face is the question of defending a client who he or she knows is guilty. A Christian lawyer should not knowingly defend a guilty client if the defense would involve falsehood, excusing the crime, or blame-shifting. Ignoring justice is something that God “detests” (Proverbs 17:15). A curse is associated with calling the guilty innocent (Proverbs 24:24), and blessings are promised to those who convict the guilty (Proverbs 24:25).
Acquitting a guilty man is wrong for several reasons. First, if a guilty person is acquitted, other criminals are emboldened. Second, there is a chance that the man himself will be tempted to repeat his crime, because there was no punishment the first time. Third, on principle, it is wrong to acquit a guilty man, because we must all come to the recognition of our guilt before God if we are to be saved (James 2:10; Romans 3:19–20, 28; 8:1–2). Defending a client knowing of his guilt is no different, morally, from aiding and abetting the crime itself.