God's Duty - Both Just and Merciful (no updates made to original article; extracts from original article 'God's Love Towards All" found in ARISE Journal -Vol 3 Nbr 04 dated 10/1995)
Do you believe that God is just? By which I mean, one who acts as our Judge? Equally I ask, do you believe that God is merciful? By which I mean, one who acts with deeds of loving kindness and pity? According to many of the doctrines prevailing in Christendom today, there is opposition between mercy and justice. Basically they would have us believe that justice is the punishment of sin without the slightest hint of mercy. Likewise, mercy is the forgiveness of sin without the least indication of correction. They attribute both to God, making a schism to His very character and nature.
But there is perhaps no thought stressed as strongly in holy script than God's duty as being both just and merciful. I am reminded of the words of Jesus when he said, "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children...". If man is capable of doing good to their children, then how much more capable than man is God! He is much more capable of doing good than man, He is not less. His thoughts are not the thoughts of man nor are His ways. I would even dare to say that more is required of God than man. And why shouldn't there be, after all, He as Creator has a sense of obligation towards His own creation. Therefore, His duty must be much higher and more of goodness than ours is or shall be.
This brings us to the question: what then truly is meant by His justice and mercy? I think all reading so far would agree that the answer should be found in the Bible. And indeed, it is found there. But only with careful examination and a complete reverence to the Lord can it be discovered. In our search for truth and none other, our minds must be rid of the opinions of so-called religion. We must train ourselves to discard past theories and learn afresh by sitting at the feet of the Master. We must with a broken spirit and contrite heart draw nigh for the place whereon God dwells is forever holy and always righteous.
First of all, we find in scripture that mercy belongs to the Lord. The psalmist helps us to see this with his words, "Also unto thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy: for thou renderest to every man according to his work". (Ps. 62:12). The word 'mercy' in Hebrew is checed (gheh-sed) having the meaning: kindness, beauty, goodness or lovely. Now give close examination as to which characteristic the inspired psalmist attributed to the Lord when considering how He renders to every man according to their work. Was it the attribute of justice as is so commonly taught by preachers? No, it is rather one of mercy. The verse is very clear on this point, yet we would have some try to convince us that it should read justice. The Lord, out of mercy or loving kindness will answer every man! Praise the Lord!
Scripture is pregnant with words regarding the mercy of our Lord. A few examples include: His mercy is everlasting; great is His mercy towards me; He has granted us life and mercy; how excellent is thy mercy; the earth is full of the mercy of the Lord; the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth; O satisfy us early with thy mercy; by mercy and truth iniquity is purged; the desire of a man is His mercy; according to His abundant mercy, according to His mercy He saved us, and of God that sheweth mercy.
Often, there is no difficulty for most to understand His mercy. Presumably, all reading this article have tasted of His grace and salvation, and therefore are familiar with His mercy. But what do we know of His justice? According to many, God on one hand is merciful, gracious, forgiving and long-suffering. Yet on the other hand they would that the same God is so severe and just, that it requires a never-ending, eternal death for those who have sinned and not repented in this life time. I appeal to your conscience and common sense with the question - 'are not these two sets of traits in conflict with one another?' Yet, the more I study the Bible the clearer it becomes that salvation is essentially linked with justice without any tension at all. They fully compliment one another, working hand in hand. To this point, even St. Basil the Great (330 A.D - 379 A.D) said, "Everywhere scripture connects God's justice (righteousness) with His compassions" (Ps. 116:5).
So, what then do we mean by justice? Permit me to answer two ways. First oft, normally one would think justice to mean that the proper penalty is paid to meet the crime or wrong that was committed. The judge who administers the penalty would be considered just if he acts in accordance to the law without any prejudice. If the law is right, it would set the sentence to punish the offender to fit the crime, no less and no more. However, I would argue that true and complete justice has not yet been done. The offender may have had justice done to him but what about the victim in whom the wrong was committed? Say it was a thief who had stolen my wallet.... Until my wallet and its contents are returned, I am truly not satisfied. Has justice been done to me? I am still a man that was wronged. Suppose the thief returns my wallet, am I now justified? Probably not, since I was still wronged. Now assume the thief repents and seeks my mercy, although he spent the contents of my wallet. He desires to make amends in whatever feeble way he can. It is at this point that I would say justice is truly complete and finally met. Why? Because the one who committed the offence has made up for it and only he alone. By having followed this simple illustration, we should be able to see that justice is not merely having the offender pay for the offence. Justice requires a complete restoring of all parties involved.
Permit me to draw a second illustration, this time from the instruction and wisdom of the apostle Paul. Let us turn to I Corinthians, chapter 5 and review the story. Here we find that a man in the church was in sin, even to the degree that there was not even a name for it among the Gentiles. Paul corrects the brethren at Corinth for not having mourned over nor corrected this man. He goes on to say that he has already passed sentence or judged the offender and then gives the formula for excommunication. Please note the qualifications prior to the removal of this brother. Verse 4 reads, "in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, ye being gathered together, also my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver up such a one to the Adversary (Satan) for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (I Cor. 5:4 YLT). The order is important and ought to be recognized. First, they had to be gathered in the nature of Jesus Christ before ever attempting to sit in judgment. Then, and only then, by the power of Christ were they to deliver such a one to Satan that his spirit may be saved.
This story is full of questions which are beyond our purpose of using it as an illustration. Suffice it to say, it is about a Christian man among the church who was caught up in a terrible sin and had not repented. Paul tells the Church that they are to judge the situation. The judgment was to take place only with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul is also to be present in spirit. Therefore, it was a sentence by Jesus, Paul and the Church to deliver this man to Satan for his destruction. And for what intent I ask? Was the sentence for his utter destruction? Was he to be lost forever? No, this punishment was not his final sentence. This judgment had salvation in view. Thus are all of God's judicial acts. They are not vindictive, without any consideration for the welfare of those involved, but are of such a nature as to correct the evil.
Two examples, both having illustrated that punishment does not mean justice. It may have a part in the act of judgment, however it is not justice in itself. As students of the Bible, we often read that the punishment of sin is often exercised. Yet, we should not deny the many facts that it leads to the redemption of a man from the very power of sin.
Much that the Bible says about God's justice has been grossly misunderstood, and has, over time, become a theology and tradition of man, influencing the ideas of the way many think of God. And to believe a lie against His character is to be against God, not for Him. So what do we find in scripture regarding justice? First of all, divine justice is always right. Moses helps us to see this with his words, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Gen. 18:25). The word 'right' in Hebrew is mishpat having the meaning: verdict, sentence, discretion, determination, manner, right or judgment. The verse could have just as easily read, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?". In other words, Abraham knew that God would not permit anyone to suffer unjustly, else that would not be judgment (right). There is never injustice in divine judgment. The justice of God is that He gives every man, woman, child and creature a fair verdict. It involves a God who cares, and tries to help the one guilty of the sin. The wrong-doing is always confronted with a righteous sentence. And if the Judge of all the earth is sentencing the person, then there would never be unjust or perverted judgment.
At a glance, it may appear that God's judgments should only be that of punishment, without any further intent, purpose or plan. Yet a closer survey of holy script would provide several illustrations which beg to differ. The book of Genesis provides the first account of a divine judgment. God, as Judge set the matter right after man had sinned in the garden. The final outcome was never final punishment. We ought to train ourselves to read "the rest of the story". Paul acknowledges that by one man's offence, death was sentenced upon all. However, we cannot stop with the judgment that came upon all men as the final verdict. "Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life" (Rm. 5:18).
Another exercise of divine judgment is found in the days of Noah as God saw the wickedness of man all upon the earth. As such, out of divine judgment, He sent the flood and spared only eight people. Now most reading this story would see the flood as the final sentence upon those that were in rebellion. Likewise, the manner in which God judged them is also viewed by some as having no mercy at all. Again, we ought to consider the entire counsel of the Bible before drawing a conclusion on a matter. Peter wrote, "By which (the Spirit) also he (Jesus) went and preached (ministered) unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah......." (I Pet. 3:19-20). The punishment (flood) was one of destruction. The final outcome was one of salvation. God, out of His mercy had rendered to every man according to their works. Out of His lovingkindness, He had spared them from doing one another any more harm. He wiped their wickedness away, never to be exercised again. He placed them in prisons of darkness until the time of their redemption.
Scripture is loaded with the linking of mercy and judgment. David was given a choice of being judged by either man or God. His experience with both led him to the conclusion, "....let me fall now into the hand of the Lord; for very great are his mercies: but let me not fall into the hand of man" (I Chron. 21:13). Again we see judgment in the story of Job, yet the final outcome was "God hath taken away my judgment" (Job 34:5). The purpose of God's judgment is never to render evil for evil. Nor is it to simply make the offender suffer endlessly for their offence. God will punish to correct and remove any hindrance. At times, the punishment may be swift and severe, but when compared with the benefits that spring from it, we can only conclude that He does all things well.
God is a complete, integrated and unified being whose personality is a harmonious whole. There is no schism in His nature, no conflict in His person and no opposition in His character. Therefore, His attributes must also be in harmony with one another. Mercy or lovingkindness must be just in all of its way, or as some have said, JUST LOVE. Likewise, justice must be merciful in all of its way, or as said, LOVING JUSTICE. The idea that they conflict or never will merge and work together usually results when one tries to define these attributes in isolation from one another.
Love without justice is sentimentality and lacks character and backbone. It is weak and usually fails under pressure. It is that syrupy, lovey-dovey, namby-pamby person who just loves Jesus, everybody and everything. They love the red ants who just bit their baby, the teenage boy who raped their daughter, the insurance fraud who stole all of their grandparents' savings and the tree in their back yard whose roots are destroying the foundation of their newly built home!
Likewise, justice without love and any sense of compassion is usually distributed with hatred and is not designed to correct or restore and make right what was wrong. It is over-bearing and never forgiving. It is that hard, stone-faced, self-righteous person who judges everybody and everything. These are they who second and third guess every decision you make, always thinking themselves to be right. These are they who would judge that kind, old man down the street simply because he attends a different church. These are they who judge an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, sentencing a man to the electric chair. These are they who would cast the vast majority of God's creation to an eternal, never-ending place of torment and torture beyond the most cruel of imaginations of any beast.
I confess that I do not know how to best answer every argument one may have on this subject. Some may find an argument by developing a case by using the words of James, "For he shall have judgment without mercy...." (Jas. 2:13). To such, my answer may be feeble, yet it bears some truth. And that is, 'we ought not to simply look at the surface of the subject but rather ponder the essence behind it. For example, a death appears to be tragic, yet it serves as the pathway into life itself'. And besides, shouldn't we finish the verse, "....and mercy rejoiceth against judgment."
To close, I'd rather that men hold their opinion and theory on this subject until they have given it fair and thorough consideration. Suffice it to say, it is a dangerous thing to lay any other burden on the shoulders of men and women than the yoke of our true Master, our Lord Jesus Christ. My conclusion after careful examination is in accord with the words of Paul, that God has shut up all men in unbelief, that He may have mercy upon all!