I’ve been thinking about the standard conceptions of justice and mercy and how they relate to the common view of God. I am reminded of the painting of the last judgment scene in which Christ is depicted with a sword of punitive and exacting justice in His left hand and a white lily of mercy in His right.
When we speak about divine justice and mercy, we often imagine a heavenly scale, as if mercy and justice are competing attributes that require balancing. When people talk about God’s love, they often seek to strike the right balance between justice and mercy, chiming, “But He’s also just.” The problem with this, however, is that saying that God is not only loving but also just creates a false impression of His love. This way of describing God’s love pits His mercy against His justness.
In the legal context, justice is understood as getting what is deserved. When man’s law is broken, justice is served through the legal system—though sometimes by applying lenient (merciful) interpretations of the law—but this is not God’s law, which is “holy, just, and good.” (Romans 7:12, NKJV). God’s justice is not an absolute principle or idea—it is a kind of moral living that looks out for the welfare of others.
The prophet Amos spoke of justice as a mighty stream—a surging torrent of love and life flowing into the world for humanity’s flourishing (Amos 5:24). As Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel says,
If justice is but a category, a conformity, then injustice must be regarded as an irregularity, a deviation from a norm. But justice is like a mighty stream, and to defy it is to block God’s almighty surge. The moralists discuss, suggest, counsel; the prophets proclaim, demand, insist.
To sum up, the image of scales conveys the idea of form, standard, balance, measure, stillness. The image of a mighty stream expresses content, substance, power, movement, vitality . . .
Immutable justice—the principle fiat justitia, peseta mundus—raises justice to the position of supremacy, denying to any other principle the power to temper it, regarding it as an absolute; the world exists for the sake of maintaining justice rather than justice for the sake of maintaining the world. Carried to the extreme, the principle sets up a false dichotomy of world and justice, betraying the truth that the survival of the world is itself a requirement of justice.
God’s concern for justice grows out of his compassion for man. The prophets do not speak of a divine relationship to an absolute principle or idea, called justice. They are intoxicated with the awareness of God’s relationship to his people and to all men…
When Cain murdered his brother Abel, the words denouncing his crime did not proclaim: “You have broken the law.” Instead we read: “And . . . the Lord said, What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground”The Prophets, Ch. 11; Justice p. 275–276
God’s justice is His character of faithfulness or His commitment to make things right in the world. God defines Himself as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:6–8). Mercy and forgiveness also reflect God’s justice. Accountability and consequences remain, for while He remains merciful and compassionate, God will not exonerate the guilty. The notions of love, justice, and mercy are thus fused. As with the fruit of the Spirit which is “love—joy—peace—patience—kindness—goodness—faithfulness—gentleness—self-control,” they form a single fruit (Galatians 5:22–23, ESV, emphasis added).
Psalm 85:10 states that “steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (ESV). God’s justice to enact peace has kissed the world in love. As odd as it may seem, God’s loving the world and enacting peace reveal His justice. Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:31, 32 NKJV).
Justice and mercy thus meet in the same event, which both casts down judgment and draws us close in love. The cross shows us God’s love, forgiveness, and faithfulness, yet this act also reveals His judgment. The cross provides us an image of God’s judgment. Justice and mercy are irrefutably bound, so when God judges and opposes sin, He is also demonstrating the reality of His love. The cross thus reveals how God’s love simultaneously sets things right to draw us to Him and unveils our judgment, our anger, injustice and sin to expose, undermine, and destroy it.
The Bible’s strong warnings about judgment do not deny God’s justice and mercy towards the oppressed, nor do they oppose directing our attention to the dangers of our anger, violence, and injustice or showing us how sin eventually destroys itself. The cross is the ultimate expression of freedom. It shows us both God’s love and judgment because when Jesus is lifted up, our sin is judged. Next to the cross, my anger and violence are exposed. I can choose to become healed by preventing my anger and vengeance from consuming me, or I can stand exposed and judged until God can no longer help me but only allow justice to do its work. “Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant” (Galatians 6:7, NLT).
I believe the end times will be driven by our misunderstanding of justice and mercy. Today, Christians disagree about how to understand God as love, and people argue over how to maintain peace. Differing standards of value and ways of thinking polarize us. Some cherish adherence to law and order, finding wrath and punishment the most compelling methods of justice. Others savor grace, forgiveness, love, and mercy but may ill-define it. Each of us holds core values that drive us one way or the other, and herein lie our conflict and controversy.
In contrast, God’s justice is like a mighty stream. To defy it is to block God’s almighty surge. God’s justice is related to His love and is heavily weighted towards mercy. “Mercy triumphs over His judgment” (James 2:13, NIV). God “exalts Himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18, ESV). God’s justice emerges from His compassion as a surging torrent that never fails! Are our senses of mercy and benevolence that strong? If not, I fear the sort of people we are becoming and the kind of society we are creating.
Craig Ashton Jr.