Mercy and Justice
We have shown that the created purpose of God is a kingdom in which God dwells with His image bearers (us) in a state fostering perfect relationships through the unfettered flow of God’s love in the purity of holiness. And God predestined this necessary state of affairs would be in Christ for all of us who believe. Saint Paul states this explicitly in his letter to the Ephesians:
“Blessed is God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who blessed us in every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ, in that He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world that we might be holy and blameless before Him in love.” (Eph. 1:3,4)
This is the trajectory of God’s re-creative work in Christ: justice for all who believe in Christ. But as we know, the cosmos is not yet there. We who stand in Christ today do stand in this kingdom, today. But His kingdom is juxtaposed on a very dark and fallen world. Both regardless and for this reason, we must live as Christ followers in the reality of God’s kingdom by being good just as God teaches us through His prophet Micah:
“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord really wants from you:
He wants you to promote justice [act justly], to be faithful [love mercy], and to live obediently [walk humbly] before your God.” (Micah 6:8)
The good news is God’s kingdom has come in Christ so we can actually live in this expectation of good because in Christ we now have the wisdom and power to do it (I John 2:7-8). Thus, if we believe in Christ we will be predisposed to love mercy and act justly because we walk humbly before God—that is, we walk in complete dependence on Him.
The question becomes what is the relationship between the final state of love and holiness and the concepts of mercy and justice? To me the former is the end and the latter is the means. The confusion comes in understanding justice in both terms of an end state—God’s righteousness—and a means to that end. Here, we can look to language for help.
In his seminal work, Iustitia Dei, Alister McGrath discusses two Hebrew words relevant to the present discussion (McGrath, Iustitia Dei. Cambridge (2005): pp.6-21). The Hebrew word for righteousness is sedaqa. It means the right order of things; therefore it describes the final state of justice. For this reason, in a broad sense God’s righteousness and justice are synonymous. What’s interesting about this word sedaqa is over time it came to mean almsgiving. Dr. McGarth points out how this rather odd change makes perfect sense when we understand justice as right order of things because a key result of the fall of Humankind is poverty (Ibid. p. 13). In fact, God most frequently speaks of His justice in the Bible as a response to the pleas and needs of the poor (as good bench marks of this consider Is. 58 and Matt. 25:31-46). So we see in the evolution of the word sedaqa it carries both the final state of justice—right order of things—and the means to getting there—promoting justice.
Another word for our consideration is the Hebrew verb hasdiq, which we translate as “to justify.” What God meant us to understand from this word is to acquit—that is, to make something right even though it is wrong and undeserving of such an appellation. The Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek pulled their hair out trying to translate hasdiq because there was no Greek equivalent; the very idea of acquitting someone who was guilty was foreign to the Greeks. In the end they used the Greek verb, δικαιοω, which means “to justify,” but in the Greek sense of giving someone his or her proper due: if you do well, you are rewarded; if you do bad, you are punished. It is this sense of justice and justifying—what is called distributive justice--we have come to understand God’s justice. And such an interpretation has dire implications on how we see our role in a very unjust world and as we shall see (below), how we answer the title question.
When we properly speak of justice from God’s perspective, then, we mean the right order of things. When we speak of God’s justice as a means or response, we mean a movement from the wrong order of things to the right order of things. Unfortunately, we have come to understand justice as a matter of accounting—balancing the scales—and we attempt to accomplish this balancing through retribution. The fallen world defines justice as vengeance, tit-for-tat, or retribution. But this is not Christ’s justice—kingdom of God justice.
Now, it is true the Bible speaks frequently of God’s retribution. God makes it clear to us: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” (Rom. 12:19) But there is no reason to understand this as vindictiveness on God’s part. Instead we should see it in two important aspects. Firstly, God must be the only one to make final judgments because God is the only one who is perfectly righteous. Consequently, the relentless seeking of God to vanquish our enemies, as documented in the Bible, is really a call for us to keep trusting God to do what only He can do without us meddling. We continue to petition God to act so that His justice will be consummated; indeed, this is our certain hope in Christ—a hope, I might add, the rest of the world lacks because they continue to trust retribution as the path to justice.
Secondly, the injustice in the world—that is, the wrong order of things—must ultimately be dealt with for the cosmos to become fully just. Therefore, God must bring final order by the destruction of everything keeping the cosmos in a disordered condition. This is not vindictiveness or even retribution on God’s part; God isn’t sitting in heaven thinking, I’m going to beat the crap out of so-and-so because of what he did; no God’s destruction of everything opposing His kingdom is the Goodness of God ultimately prevailing in the cosmos. God's kingdom will come in fullness, but sadly, many will obstinately refuse to enter it. In the end, as in Jesus’ parable, the weeds shall be gathered and burned (Matt. 13:24-29 and 37-43).
Justice is not vengeance, even though second temple Judaism came to see it that way. When John the Baptist asked Jesus if Jesus was the one promised to come—the Messiah who would bring in God’s kingdom—it was because John doubted. Even though John was certain of Jesus’ Messianic identity, John doubted. I believe John doubted because, for one thing, he was in prison, and under such conditions even the best of us might tend to lose perspective. But perhaps John also doubted because he was holding on to the common idea of the Messiah as a conquering warrior. Jesus responded, in His typical loving manner of both correction and instruction, in terms of kingdom justice, not the fallen world’s retributive justice:
So he answered them, “Go tell John what you have seen and heard: The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news proclaimed to them. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me (Luke 7:22,23).” [NET]
All that had become disordered because of the Death of humankind, Jesus was restoring in order to usher in His kingdom. Consequently, blindness both physical and spiritual was being restored; lameness was being replaced by wholeness; the walls of social division were being broken down; and death was being overcome by life.
We don’t want to miss what the Pharisees clearly missed when they accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan; Jesus cast out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit, which meant the kingdom of God was coming—indeed, has come—in power:
But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has already overtaken you (Matthew 12:28). [NET]
Jesus is bringing order out of the chaos of rebellion, so He naturally begins with restoring the relationship between us and our Creator by the mercy of forgiveness. Demons represent Satan’s only hold over us, which is our guilt. By casting the demons out of people, Jesus relinquished their hold over us. And by His death on the cross and subsequent resurrection, Jesus divested Satan of any accusation against us who believe in Christ, once and for all. It was through an act of the mercy of love and forgiveness that Jesus ushered in justice, not by the end of a sword.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day and many others over subsequent history—including many who have professed the name of Christ—thought people can be legislated into justice. Even today, too many people believe we can bring kingdom justice by the enforcement of rules. In other words, they think we can only establish justice by wielding the sword of retribution. Jesus came and both lived and preached the truth that only through the administering of mercy can people be brought into kingdom justice:
If you had known what this means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent (Matthew 12:7). [NET]
But this mercy is love grounded in justice. The kind of mercy effecting a change from the wrong order of things to the right order of things never condones injustice; rather true mercy, brings the recipient to an understanding of his or her own folly, he or she would have otherwise ignored.
God is bringing about His justice--the restoration of His kingdom—through the kingdom principles of love and holiness manifested as mercy and justice. God is not bringing justice through the present world’s method of retribution and might-makes-right. We see this clearly with Jesus on the cross; even though brutalized and mocked, Jesus prayed,
“Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
Therefore, if we confess Jesus as our Lord, which means we walk in His kingdom, then our theology should have no room for distributive justice, but fully embrace the principles of mercy and justice, the present expression of a holy love inspired and powered by God’s Spirit within us.