Divine Law, Justice And Grace

Divine Law, Justice And Grace July 6, 2023

Anonymous (no photographer listed): Justice / pxhere

James warns us not to take the divine “law” in any of its variations in a legalistic manner. He wanted us to realize it was established for us and our own good, not us, as he made clear in relation to the Sabbath (cf. Mk. 2:27). When we misunderstand the law and try to embrace it in the most legalistic fashion, establishing rules upon rules which all are expected to follow, any violation of it, however minor an infraction, is treated as a violation of the whole law (cf. Jas. 2:10). The divine law, in all its variations, is meant to instruct us and guide us, encouraging us to embrace the greater good. For the divine law comes to us as a revelation from God, no matter what form of it we are talking about (that is, the natural law comes to us as a form of natural revelation, even as the Law of Moses came as a particular form of revelation providing the people of Israel a special relationship with and insight about God).

All forms of revelation from God contains some element of grace. Legalism tends to cut revelation away from the grace given with it, leaving the people, therefore, with none of the means they need to fulfil the good expected of them. Similarly, without grace, there will be no mercy, which is why people will likely be treated harshly, if not cruelly, for any violation of the legalistic expectations placed upon them. Punished, in this fashion, those who sin, those who violate some form of the divine life, will be doubly wounded, as they will suffer the self-made infliction of sin as well as the punishment which will limit them and their potential further. For without grace, punishment is merely retributive.  Thus, legalism ends up further destroying justice in the world, as it has no means of restoring what was lost.

Thus, the divine law, when understood merely as a legal prescription which must be followed without exception, leads to condemnation. The fault does not lie with the divine law, but with the wrong approach taken concerning it. On the other hand, when the law is understood, not legalistically, but as an aid which requires flexibility and grace for its fulfillment, then it can be used to help point to the greater good, encouraging people not only to embrace it, but to participate in it. They will be able to receive some form of healing grace, the kind necessary for violations of justice to be fixed. Again, it is important to note, this is true with all manifestations of the divine law, so that the Law of Moses, when it was given to the people of Israel, must be understood to have with it some element of grace which it gave to them:

The Law is a manifestation of God, a gift of grace – it is not juridical legislation serving a social purpose. It is a call to the people of Israel to receive and mediate the name of God, to be manifest as the “radiance” of that truth which is God Himself. [1]

Those who would pit the divine law against the mercy and grace of God do so because they have divided grace from the law. The more they do this, the more legalistic and cruel they become, until at last, they become tyrannical, taking away not only mercy, but freedom, from everyone who falls under their power. True justice, true engagement with the divine law, is one which allows for mercy, grace, healing, and conversion, for it is the way of love; we can discern this was true with the Law of Moses because so many within the Mosaic Covenant found grace in and through it, allowing them to become great saints (starting with Moses himself!). Similarly, all moral expositions, as they are engagements with and reflections upon divine law, should work for the greater good, but they can do this only if they contain within them elements of mercy and grace, as they are necessary for true justice. “Justice, whether through conversion or conscience, is not given without grace. So that when one is found to be guilty, through conversion suddenly and without works, he stands justified.”[2] Since many have misunderstood the law, as seen in the way the engage it with a legalistic mindset, the problem is not the divine law, but the way it is misunderstood. When we read various criticisms of the law which suggest it did not contain grace, we must see them, not as criticism of the divine law, but the legalism which tries to have us believe its presentation of the law is the law itself.

Justice, to be sure, certainly stands in opposition to injustice, to evil. But for it to be true to itself, it stands against the evil of legalism. This is especially true for God’s justice, for God uses it to judge in such a manner as provide grace to those who are being judged. God’s judgment is meant to be a vessel for grace so that  those who have been defiled by their actions can detach themselves from that defilement, that is, purified from it, so that they can then be healed from all the harm it caused them, rendering them ready to experience the glory of  the kingdom of God for themselves:

This is the grace which strengthens the righteous, preserving <them> by its being near and removing their faults. It is also near to those who have perished, reducing their torments and in this punishment deals with compassion. In the world to come, indeed grace will be the judge, not justice. <God> reduces the length of time of sufferings, and by means of His grace, makes all worthy of His kingdom. For there is no one <even> among the righteous who is able to conform his way of life to the Kingdom. [3]

Justice, true justice, gives way to grace. God uses justice to present us grace, so that through grace, we can find ourselves being given back what we lost through our own acts of injustice. God does not want to use the law to condemn us and make us suffer. Rather, the law is presented to us as wisdom so that we will be able to better engage the good in the situations which we find ourselves in, even as it is presented with grace, so that we do not end up despairing due to our sin. When we understand this, we should, therefore, treat others similar to the way God treats us, that is, since God engages us with restorative justice instead of mere retribution, we should embrace the way of charity instead of cruelty and revenge and offer others the means to have restorative justice help them in their lives:

Our response with regard to sin is that we should not harm our neighbor. Scripture says “You shall not commit adultery. You shall not kill” and so forth [Ex 20.13-14]. Here the Law is general and the final word on such these matters. It further says that we should love our neighbor as ourselves [Lev 19.18; Mt 22.39], precepts which are carried out each day as well as violated. No one who judges something as evil today, whether murder or anything else forbidden, should regard it as good the following day. Since an evil of this kind always transpires in time, indeed no harmful action would be becoming with respect to time. [4]

This is why the death penalty is fundamentally against greatest expression of the divine law, and as such, should not be embraced by Christians. It promotes a legalistic, retributive understanding of justice, one which knows no grace, no room for mercy. The one who embraces capital punishment, that is, the one who would strike at the supposed monster who stands before them, turns into a monster themselves. For they take on the mantle of the monster, killing without mercy. If they are to be consistent with their legalism, and so, with their retributive justice, they would have to conclude that they, having become the monster, must be next. Just as an eye for an eye will leave everyone blind, so a death for a death will leave no one alive. But once we understand justice is not retributive, but rather, restorative, even if we cannot restore all that is lost due to some violation of the divine law, we can hope that in the end, what was lost in time will be restored. That is, we are to hope God that will restore that which we cannot restore, so that restorative justice, not nihilistic destruction, will have the last say. This is why the resurrection of the dead must be seen as a sign of God’s justice, for it is a sign that true justice will prevail in the eschaton. But until then, we are to engage restorative justice, to embrace it and with it, do what we can in the world to help it spread, even if we know that until the end of time, there will be no complete restorative justice, that is no utopia on earth. For, even if cannot have perfection now, we should never make perfection the enemy of the good, which is exactly happens when legalism is viewed merely along the lines of retributive justice.

[1] Christos Yannaras, The Freedom of Morality. Trans. Elizabeth Briere (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), 54-5.

[2] St. Isaac the Syrian, “The Third Part.” Trans. Mary T. Hansbury in An Anthology of Syriac Writers From Qatar in the Seventh Century. Ed. Mario Kozah, Abdulrahim Abu-Husayn, Saif Shaeen Al-Murikhi and Haya Al Thani (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2015), 329 [VI.9].

[3] St. Isaac the Syrian, “The Third Part, 331 [VI.18].

[4] St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on Ecclesiastes. Trans. Richard McCambly. Ed. John Litteral (Ashland, KY: Litteral’s Christian Library Publications, 2014), 62 [Homily 7].


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