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How Justice and Mercy are Alike with God

August 12, 2018

Many people today set mercy and justice in opposition to each other, but where is mercy if justice is absent? Could the victims of genocide really be said to experience mercy if their unrepentant killers were ushered past them into the Kingdom of Heaven? Could Heaven even be Heaven if unrepentant sinners dwelled there? At some point, mercy demands that justice rightly separate what is stubbornly evil from what is good. For now, there is a time of mercy and access to the throne of mercy, but there comes a day when justice requires a final answer and verdict. It is mercy that accompanies us to the justice of the final judgement. Mercy and grace prepare us.

Mercy that canceled the requirements of God’s justice and His law would not be mercy at all. It would leave us deformed and incomplete; it would mean that injustice would continue forever. Neither of these outcomes is merciful.

Further, justice that did not rely on grace and mercy would not be justice at all. This is because without grace and mercy, we are dead in our sins; justice is unattainable.

One of the signs of orthodoxy is the ability to hold competing truths in tension, realizing that they are there to balance each other. For example, on the one hand God is sovereign and omnipotent, but on the other we are free to say no to Him; both are taught in Scripture. Our freedom mysteriously interacts with God’s sovereignty and omnipotence.

Heresy will not abide any tension and so it selects one truth while discarding others meant to balance or complete it. For example, is God punitive or forgiving; is he insistent or patient? Too often we focus on one while downplaying or dropping the other. In some eras, the notion of a harsh, strict God was so emphasized that His mercy was all but lost. Today, the tendency is to stress His mercy and kindness while nearly dismissing His role as the sovereign Judge who will set things right by upholding the just and punishing the unrepentant and wicked.

The balance of orthodoxy holds that justice and mercy are alike with God.

  • The LORD loves righteousness and justice. His mercy fills the earth (Ps 35:5).
  • Righteousness and justice are the habitation of your throne: mercy and truth shall go before your face (Ps 89:14).
  • Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my pleas for mercy! Because of your faithfulness and justice, answer me (Ps 143:1).

Yes, in God, justice and mercy meet.

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Comments (6)

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  1. David F says:

    I’m not getting it. I see how justice must ultimately come after a window where mercy is available but I don’t see why justice requires mercy (although I’m glad it’s on offer). Couldn’t God if He so choose simply judge us without mercy and still be perfectly just? Mercy is an undeserved gift, but justice would still be served without it, right? I get that righteousness would be unattainable without mercy, but not why justice requires mercy. I’m missing something here.

    • Stephen says:

      That would not be just even if God was an unloving god. We are totally dependent on God and the provision of His mercy. It would be unjust for us if no mercy was offered. Because God is a loving God, justice requires mercy. The decision is ours to accept that mercy or not. Our worship only enhances the glory of God if we choose freely and He loves us.

      • David F says:

        I get that we are dependent on God’s grace and that we cannot be saved without His mercy, but not how it is unjust if it is withheld. We don’t deserve and cannot earn His mercy so it is a pure gift that glorifies Him. I have no just claim on mercy. So while I am delighted God is merciful, in fact I rely on it and happily praise Him for it, I don’t see how it is part of justice as justice is something I have by right or by merit. Before God I have nothing that is not His gift so I can make no claim that I have earned it, as Paul says.

        • Stephen says:

          This is an interesting discussion and I have just come to understand how much God loves us. We are worthy and deserve mercy from God’s perspective not our own! Isn’t that amazing! When we think we are simply unworthy (from all perspectives) we don’t see God as He truly is, a loving God. It is only in the last few days that I have come to realise this! When we accept God’s mercy it brings him joy (e.g. finding the one lost sheep).

  2. C Beltz says:

    Perhaps Mercy is in the ability to choose good or evil in the first place? The ability to decide to do wrong and reap the consequences or do good and enjoy the benefits is in fact a free will choice. Justice or the balance between good and evil is a natural companion to the choice then. Justice and Mercy are two sides of the same coin.

  3. Kevin G says:

    I’ve read: “Mercy without justice is licentiousness. Justice without mercy is legalism.” I think that sums it up.