Aren’t Justice and Mercy Incompatible by Definition?

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Recently at White Fields we have been studying through the Book of Jonah. Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria – a violent and imperialistic nation which posed a clear and present danger to the very existence of Israel. And Jonah was called to take them a message which carried with it the promise of mercy if they would repent of their sins and turn to the Lord.

Archaeologists and historians who have studied the Assyrian Empire report things such as human sacrifice, furniture upholstered with human skin, pyramids of human skulls, how they would put hooks in the faces of captives and leading them around by chains…

So it is not surprising that one of Jonah’s hesitations with going to Nineveh was that he didn’t think it would be fair for God to show mercy to people who did such terrible things. Jonah struggled with the question of how God could still be just if he were to forgive these sins and show them mercy.

This is a question many people struggle with:  If you forgive someone, then what about justice?  Can anyone just do anything they want and then say sorry, and suddenly it’s okay, and there are no repercussions? Where’s the justice in that?

For this reason, some people are hesitant to forgive those who have hurt them: because it kind of feels like in that case, they are getting away with it, or you are saying that it wasn’t a big deal — even though it was. (More on this topic here: Does Forgiving Mean Forgetting?)

One of the great promises of the Bible is that God is just, and even if we don’t see it in our lifetime, there will be justice.  Nothing is hidden from the eyes of God, and He will deal justly with every hurtful action and every wrongdoing. This gives us great comfort in the face of injustice, corruption and unfair and unethical behavior that we see or which touches our lives.

In the Psalms, the Psalmist often bemoans the injustice that he sees in the world: that those who lie, cheat and steal get ahead, at the expense of those who are fair and honest. Nice guys finish last. Good doesn’t always defeat evil. However, the Psalmist then goes on to comfort himself with the knowledge that, in the end, God will bring about justice: there is no wrong deed that will not go unpunished.

There’s only one problem with that:    ALL of us have done wrong things. Without exception…

So the problem with justice is: if God is totally just and judges every wrong deed, then that means that He will have to not only judge those who have sinned against us, but He will have to judge us as well.

But then, the Bible gives us the good news: for those who turn to the Lord, He will give them mercy!

But here’s the thing:   The definition of Justice is:  Giving someone what they deserve. On the other hand, the definition of Mercy is:  NOT giving someone what they deserve.

So, by definition: if you show someone mercy, then you are no longer being just! The two are diametrically opposed. So, if God shows mercy, doesn’t that mean He is no longer being just? Does one of God’s attributes therefore contradict another one of His attributes?

Isn’t mercy therefore a travesty of justice?

One of the great tensions of the Old Testament is the question of how God can be both Just and Merciful at the same time.

In my last post I wrote about another one of these great tensions: the question of whether the covenant with God is conditional or unconditional.

Neither of these tensions are actually resolved in the Old Testament. They only find their resolution in the New Testament – in Jesus.

The way that God can be both just and merciful at the same time, is because Jesus took all of the righteous judgment that we deserved, so that God could show us mercy. In this way, God remains completely just, and yet is able to show mercy without compromising his justice. In this way, He is both just and the justifier of the one who trusts in Jesus by faith. (Romans 3:26)

In Jesus, the Judge of all the Earth came to the Earth and took our judgment HIMSELF, so that we could be saved. It was the ultimate act of grace. 

Whereas justice is giving someone what they deserve, and mercy is not giving someone what they deserve, grace is giving someone something they don’t deserve.

Jesus is the answer to all the riddles.

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