At first glance the concepts of God’s justice and mercy seem to be at odds with each other. I mean, if you think about it justice has to do with doling out punishment for those who do wrong, and mercy has to do with forgiveness and compassion for one who offends or does wrong. However, these two characteristics of God do are not diametrically opposed, in fact they actually form a unity within His character.
We find in the Bible over 360 references to the mercy of God. More than 290 of them are found in the Old Testament and some 70 in the New. These references contain direct statements regarding the mercy of God toward His people.
Think back to the Ninevites. They repented as a result of Jonah’s preaching, who described God as “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2). We also find David saying that God is “gracious and merciful; Slow to anger and great in loving-kindness. The LORD is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works” (Psalm 145:8–9, NASB).
But Scripture also talks about the justice of God and His wrath in regard to sin. In fact, God’s perfect justice is one of His defining characteristics: “There is no other God besides me, a just God and a Savior” (Isaiah 45:21). “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4).
We find Paul explaining in the New Testament why God’s judgment is coming: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:5–6).
So, as we have seen, Scripture clearly displays the fact that God is full of mercy, but Scripture also shows that God is just and will one day exercise justice on the sin of the entire world.
When we look at every other worldwide religion that also hold to the concept of a divine being, that being’s mercy is always exercised “at the expense of justice.”* For example, in Islam, it is possible for Allah to show mercy to an individual, but it’s done by dismissing, or “brushing under the rug” (so to speak) the penalties of whatever law has been broken. “In other words, the offender’s punishment that was properly due him is brushed aside so that mercy can be extended.”** The Allah of Islam, as well as every other deity in the non-Christian religions, set aside the requirements of moral law in order to for them to exercise mercy. Mercy is seen in opposition to justice. In a very real way, these religions allow for the old adage, “Crime does not pay” to be switched to “Crime can pay.”Imagine if a human judge carried out this behavior, the majority would complain and most likely the judge would be disbarred and taken off the bench. It is the responsibility of a judge to make sure that the law is followed and that justice is provided. “A judge who ignores the law is betraying his office.”***
Christianity is unique in that God’s mercy is shown “through His justice.”**** There is no brushing justice under a rug in order to make room for mercy. Christianity correctly teaches that penal substitution took place when sin and injustice were punished at the cross of Christ, “and that only because the penalty of sin was satisfied through Christ’s sacrifice does God extend His mercy to undeserving sinners who look to Him for salvation.”*****
And it is true that while Christ did die for sinners as an act of mercy and grace, He also died as an act demonstrative of God’s righteousness, in order to show His justice. This is precisely what the apostle Paul says: “All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:24–26).
Or to put it another way, God didn’t automatically punish sin before the time of Christ; instead, He extended mercy. But He did not merely gloss over justice. His righteous justice was demonstrated by Christ’s cruel death on the cross. At the cross, God’s justice was poured out in full directly on Christ, and God’s mercy was extended in full to all those predestined to believe. This was an act of God’s perfect mercy being exercised through His perfect justice.
So, how do we sum all of this up, by Jesus’ sacrificial death, all those who respond to God’s call of salvation, who trust in Christ and what He accomplished, are saved from God’s wrath and brought into His grace and mercy (Romans 8:1). As Paul says, “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Romans 5:9).
*GotQuestions.org, “How do God’s mercy and judgment work together in salvation?”
This was a guest post from Dr. Jeff Hagan.
Jeff is an ordained Christian minister with over 23 years of ministry experience. He has attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Luther Rice Seminary, Tyndale Seminary and a handful of other institutes as well. He has earned several degrees including the Doctor of Christian Education and the Doctor of Theology.