Justice and Mercy
By Jesse Pingenot in Student
When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers (Prov 21:15).
Whoever says to the wicked, “You are in the right,” will be cursed by peoples, abhorred by nations, but those who rebuke the wicked will have delight, and a good blessing will come upon them (Prov 24:24-25).
Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law strive against them. Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely (Prov 28:4-5).
What the wicked dreads will come upon him, but the desire of the righteous will be granted (Prov 10:24).
“That jerk cop gave me a speeding ticket. He just hates me. I don’t know what I did to get on his bad side. I haven’t done anything to him.”
We’ve all met people like this. They speed, and then get mad at the police for giving them a ticket. They broke the law, and they blame the consequence on the one who caught them. It’s a fault in the person upholding justice, not in them for breaking it.
I’ve found that a person’s reaction to justice is very telling of their character. Unrepentant hearts expect mercy rather than the consequence of their wrong actions. They believe that they are owed an exception, for whatever reason. And if they are not granted it, it isn’t justice but persecution. Those who refused them leniency are obviously flawed in some way: they’re a jerk, they hate them, they are abusing their power, etc. Surely the fault is not within themselves!
This is how many people perceive God. Have you ever heard people say, “God is a jerk!” or “God is just a tyrant!”? Because how dare God judge anyone. He created everyone in the first place—maybe if He didn’t do such a bad job, he wouldn’t have to judge anyone. Yeah, it’s totally God’s fault!
And some people who claim to follow Christ actually side with this same line of thinking. We all know that God would rather have mercy! So they say they don’t believe in a God who would punish sinners because that would be a wicked God. So everyone goes to heaven, because God is a good God.
Again, they are saying, “If God is good, then he can’t be just. Because that would be evil.”
Yes, God would much rather have mercy. He says that again and again. The Son Himself quoted the Spirit-breathed Word of God of Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” And so many people interpret that as, in God’s eyes, mercy is more important than justice.
There is a problem with this thought, though: it puts God’s justice and God’s mercy in opposition with one another. But the testimony of the Bible is that God is perfect in both justice and mercy. Indeed, the central statement about Yahweh before the coming of Christ—the phrase that is used again and again throughout the entirety of the Old Testament—is this:
The LORD, the LORD, a God 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, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation (Ex 34:6-7).
These words are used over and over again in the OT. Ex 34:6; Joel 2:13; Ps 86:15; Neh 9:17; Ps 103:8-13; Ps 145:8; Jonah 4:3; Ps 86:5; 2 Chron 30:9; Num 14:17-19; Ps 138:2; Micah 7:18… these are just the ones you can find in a few moments on Google. This is attested again and again throughout the Bible: That God is merciful AND just.
We so often view God’s mercy and God’s justice as being in opposition to one another. But they are both attributes of God, and God is not conflicted with Himself.
I think Ezekiel 18:23 sums things up very well: Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?
Yes, God has mercy—on those who repent! God wants to give mercy to everyone, but not everyone accepts God’s mercy. It is not God’s fault that people earn His justice; it is their fault for rejecting His mercy. There is no fault in God!
Ezekiel 18 actually addresses a lot of the issues people might have with God’s justice. For example, how many of you raised an eyebrow at the central statement above because of this bit: “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation”? Yet Ez 18:19-20 explains:
Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
In this case, the protest of the people was that God doesn’t always punish children for their father’s guilt. God explains that, if the child doesn’t continue the father’s sin, he won’t be punished, because he didn’t do anything. They only bear the punishment if the children continue the transgression—if they do not repent, if they do not turn away. That is justice.
Our generation has so many misconceptions of who God is, specifically about His justice and His mercy. And I think a lot of it stems from reading the New Testament without understanding the Old. We see the OT as a harsh system, with a God who just wants to stomp people. But that’s not the OT at all.
Read the OT for yourself. It’s big. It’s confusing at times. It will take a while. But read it and see what it really has to say about who God is. And you will come to see the NT the way it was meant to be read.
All views expressed on this blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Chi Alpha Campus Ministries, U.S.A., U.S. Missions, and The General Council of the Assemblies of God.