As finite human beings, we often struggle with trying to understand God. Understanding the Trinity or the dual nature of Christ lies beyond our ability to more than dimly perceive. And some of the attributes of God that we find described in the Scripture can seem at odds with each other, at least to us. His love and mercy for humanity can seem to be at odds with his righteous justice concerning sin. But are they really at odds? Or do they work together in harmony?
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God Is Not Like Me
I believe that whenever we discuss the attributes of God that we need to recognize God is not like us in any appreciable way. Yes, we are made in his image. But an image is not the same as the original. And the image of God within us is tarnished because of our sin. So, while we share many of God’s attributes, including a sense of mercy and justice, they are a limited picture of the infinite God.
I am capable of showing mercy. But how often do I fail to do so? The ability to show mercy seems to be built into me. But I am quite capable of suppressing my merciful tendencies when I find them inconvenient. And the same is true of justice. There is within me a sense of fair play and the desire to see people get what they deserve, whether reward or punishment. But it is easy to turn a blind eye to justice when it is to my advantage to do so.
But that is not true of God. He is merciful and loving. Not just some of the time. But always. He always acts with love and mercy. And God is righteous and just. He always acts in the best interests of his creation. And he does not withhold either punishment or reward, although they may be delayed for a time.
In both the Old and New Testaments God is described as merciful. Examples include Deuteronomy 4:31, where Moses told the Israelites,” For the LORD your God is a merciful God.” And in Ephesians 2:4, Paul described God as “rich in mercy.”
But what is mercy? Is it, as commonly described, just not giving people what they deserve? Or is it more than that? The word translated as mercy in the passage from Ephesians is the Greek word eleos. This word is defined as “the moral quality of feeling compassion and especially of showing kindness toward someone in need.”
So, mercy involves seeing someone in need. Having the ability to do something about that need. And then, in love, responding to that need. It is actually quite different than not giving someone what they deserve, which is really a lack of action. Instead, mercy is actively working for the good of those in need by one who is capable of meeting that need.
When people talk about the justice of God, what often comes to mind is judgment. The wrath of God being poured out on the ungodly and sinners. And passages like Acts 17:31, “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice”, are used to illustrate that view. Without question, God will judge the world and its inhabitants for their sin. But justice is not the same as judgment.
The word translated as justice in the passage above is the Greek word dikaiosynē. It means “righteousness, what is right, justice, the act of doing what is in agreement with God’s standards, the state of being in proper relationship with God.” The Hebrew word mišpāṭ in the Old Testament has a similar meaning. And it is used most commonly in relation to how people should be treating each other. Especially the lack of justice on the part of the strong toward those who were more vulnerable.
When we apply justice to God then, it is not as a judge so much as it is one who is doing what is right. As a just God, he is one who always acts in accordance with his own moral standard. A standard that is not arbitrary but is defined by who he is. In other words, a just God always acts in accordance with his own nature.
His justice will indeed result in punishment and reward, as appropriate, when he judges us. But justice and judgment are two different things. Judging is the act of determining guilt or innocence. Justice is the standard God uses in making his judgment.
Working Together for Our Salvation
Understanding what justice and mercy are, can help us to better understand how they work together in our salvation. God’s justice is the standard he judges by. And it is a standard we fall well short of. In fact, it is a standard we are incapable of living up to. And so, God’s justice dictates punishment.
But God, in mercy, sees humanity in need. A need that he is capable of filling. And so, he acted on our behalf. In his mercy, he provided a substitute to take the punishment we deserved. The substitute, in order to not be judged for his own sin, had to prove innocent under God’s standard of justice. God chose himself, as the only one capable of innocence, to be that substitute.
And so, in mercy, God sent his Son to receive in himself the judgment demanded by God’s righteousness. God’s mercy and justice came together on Calvary when Jesus, God incarnate, bore in his flesh the punishment we all deserved. And he did that so that all who would believe in him might have eternal life.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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This article was originally posted on Christianity.com on May 3, 2021