The Union of Justice and Mercy

Many people talk about God as though he may be merciful but must be just. In other words, God cannot show mercy until justice is served. Mercy is optional, but justice is necessary.

God has to be just, they maintain, but he does not have to be merciful. He has to punish unforgiven sin, but he does not have to forgive sin. This is a common view among theologians, but it ought to be seen as problematic for a Christian view of God. To subordinate divine love to divine justice so that God has to be just but does not have to love is odd for a Christian who confesses that God is love. – Robin Parry

Further, justice is commonly understood as “getting what you deserve” and is thus seen as being opposed to mercy, which is commonly understood to be “not getting what you deserve.”

This is silly at best. If God requires that justice (in the above sense) be served before he can show mercy, then he’s not merciful at all. If justice has already been fulfilled, then since there is nothing left that is “deserved” it’s impossible to be merciful (i.e. stopping someone from getting what they deserve).

justiceJust what decides “what you deserve” anyways? Does God possess some divine formula for calculating how much punishment to deal out in accordance to people’s bad behavior? Actually, there is something like a punishment formula in the scriptures that matches certain crimes with certain punishments – the Law. The Law does not apply to us, however, since Jesus fulfilled it once and for all.

God does not have some judicial constraint inherent in his nature that forces him to punish sin. God is free; he does what he wants. He moves according to the desires of his heart, not according to some moral standard that bounds him.

Further, God’s justice and mercy are not in opposition to one another; they are in union with one another. As George MacDonald put it, “I believe that justice and mercy are simply one and the same thing.” Justice and mercy are two sides of the same coin. When God shows mercy, He is showing justice. When God shows justice, He is showing mercy. (This is arguably true of all God’s characteristics; this idea is called divine simplicity.)

And where is the biblical warrant, I would ask, for the popular idea that mercy and justice are separate and distinct attributes of God? Where does the Bible even hint that God’s mercy permits something that his justice does not, or that his justice demands something that his mercy does not? Christians sometimes picture God, I fear, almost as if he were a schizophrenic whose justice pushes him in one direction and whose mercy pushes him in another. – Thomas Talbott

The biblical description of justice is not punishment for wrongdoing. In fact, Jesus rejected this retaliatory understanding of justice: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matthew 5:38-41). A few verses later Jesus explains the reason why we should think this way: “you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).

If God’s justice is not retributive, then what is it? According to scriptures it is restoration of what has been stolen, redemption of what has been lost, and reconciliation of what has been broken. It means “to set things right.” Justice is described as showing grace and mercy and compassion to one another. True justice is to set captives free.

No, divine justice does not require payback. To think so is to superimpose our own flawed human sense of justice onto the mind and heart of God. Divine justice is very different. A biblical study of what it means to “bring justice” does not mean to bring retribution at all, but rather to bring healing and reconciliation. Justice means to make things right. All through the prophetic bible passages, justice is associated with caring for others, as something that is not in conflict with mercy, but rather an expression of it. Biblically, justice is God’s saving action at work for all that are oppressed. – Steve McVey

Check out these verses:

“He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18).

“Who executes justice for the oppressed; Who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free” (Psalm 146:7).

“This is what the LORD says: ‘Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed'” (Jeremiah 21:12).

“This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice: show mercy and compassion to one another'” (Zechariah 7:9).

“Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).

“Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18).

Man’s definition of justice (the justice of law) is that when a man murders another man, the murderer gets punished. God’s definition of justice (the justice of grace) is that when a man murders another man, God resurrects the murdered man and brings healing, forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation of relationship to the two men. – Christian Erickson

There’s a reason that, unlike the Old Testament, justice is scarcely mentioned in the New Testament – justice has been servedEverything has been made right through Jesus’ finished work of the cross.

2 thoughts on “The Union of Justice and Mercy

  1. Pingback: What I Am Not Saying | Supernatural Gospel

  2. Pingback: Punished For Us? | Supernatural Gospel

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