Several weeks ago, I was afforded the opportunity to lead the Bible study and prayer group for the Christian Legal Society at my law school. As part of the study we’re going through, I made the point that I had only recently thought through: justice and mercy are incompatible.
I suppose the beginning of my meditation on the concept was born from the discussions in my criminal law class. We looked at competing theories of punishment. One is utilitarian—punish only if the good to society will outweigh the harm caused by the punishment. As with the utilitarian ethical worldview, this can lead to very undesirable conclusions. If there is no societal benefit from punishing a murderer, he can walk free.
The other theory, the camp which I am much more inclined toward, is retributivism. This theory is simple: we should punish people because their actions are worthy of punishment. Deterrence is a nice benefit, but it is not the driving force. Retributivism is the theory of pure justice. I support the death penalty because I believe murder and rape are crimes worthy of death. Executions can deter, but whether or not they do is a secondary topic. Murderers and rapists deserve death; it is the just reward of their heinous act(s).
I use that as an example of retributivism, but that’s not my purpose in writing. The shortcoming (depending on one’s perspective) of this theory is that there is no place for mercy. Utilitarianism can offer mercy, but only at the expense of justice.
You may not see the mutual exclusivity of mercy and justice. Let’s define them:
Just: based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair; deserved or appropriate in the circumstances
Merciful: compassion or forgiveness toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm
Mercy forgives someone whom it would be just to punish, and if justice is administered it is without mercy.
The Bible tells us that God is actively just:
I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and the right of the poor. –Psalm 140:12
Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God: And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ. But he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons. –Colossians 3:22-25
So that we ourselves glory in you in the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that ye endure: Which is a manifest token of the righteous judgment of God, that ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which ye also suffer: Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you; And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power… –I Thessalonians 1:4-9
And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh. –Isaiah 66:24
…[F]or it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. –Romans 12:19
This might seem harsh, especially to those who aren’t Christians (and thanks for reading). However, keep in mind that justice requires punishment for sin, and God as a just judge not only will, but must punish sin.
Yet in this same Bible, we also read of God’s mercy:
But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us… –Ephesians 2:4
And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let us fall now into the hand of the Lord; for his mercies are great: and let me not fall into the hand of man. –II Samuel 24:14
Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. –Luke 6:36
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost… –Titus 3:5
Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. –Hebrews 4:16
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead… –I Peter 1:3
Now, the explanatory problem for Christians is this: God is both just and merciful. How can this be when the two are mutually exclusive?
If I were an atheist, I would say that this proves Christianity is irrational and not explore things further. However, I’m not an atheist. The Bible has many paradoxes, and one of the greatest is this: How can a merciful God punish people, and how can a just God forgive sin?
Thankfully, there is an answer. The key that unlocks our understanding of this paradox is Jesus.
See, since God is just, He must punish sin. We don’t like it, but without punishment of sin there is no justice, and God is not God. But God also desires to show us mercy. There had to be a way to have both.
God’s just wrath had to be channeled somewhere in order for us to avoid it and obtain mercy. This was Jesus’s purpose:
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. –Isaiah 53:4-12
This prophecy from Isaiah came to pass centuries later on Calvary:
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? –Mark 15:34
What happened on the cross is that Jesus faced only the terrifying aspects of God. Jesus received no mercy, instead bearing the full weight of God’s justice and, consequently, God’s wrath. This was the role of the “scapegoat” on the Day of Atonement:
And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat: And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness. –Leviticus 16:20-22
The scapegoat took upon it the sin of Israel, and then it had to be expelled from the community, probably facing death in the wild since it was domesticated. And so Jesus became the scapegoat to face God’s just wrath so that we could experience His mercy. Salvation is not the absence of God’s justice. It is the removal of God’s justice from our shoulders and the placement of His justice on Christ’s:
…[I]f any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. –I John 2:1b-2
“Propitiate” is an old English verb, but one that I think is important to still have in the Bible. It essentially means, “to satisfy”. Jesus was the propitiation for our sin. When He died, taking the world’s sin upon Him, He propitiated God’s wrath. God’s demand for justice was satisfied in the death of Christ. With that, the door was opened for us to experience God’s mercy.
I think Romans 3 does the best job of summing this up:
But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. –Romans 3:21-26
The paradox is answered. Neither God’s justice nor mercy is compromised. Through Jesus, God is both “just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.”