Justice, mercy and the love of God

I’m taking a short diversion away from Universalism, but only down a parallel street to look at related issues of justice and mercy.

Conventional wisdom has it that justice means getting what you deserve, mercy means not getting what you deserve, and grace means getting what you don’t deserve. It’s a nice, neat set of definitions, but it’s also a huge over-simplification which makes justice and mercy seem utterly opposed to one another.

Justice and truth

Justice (in my understanding) has to do with restoring and maintaining right, rightness, truth, goodness and harmony – in the universe and (within that) in human lives and relationships. It therefore involves righting wrongs, healing harms, correcting misjudgements and redressing injustices.

Justice towards people then has a twin focus: firstly on the victim of wrong or injustice, to restore them, compensate them or justify them. Secondly on the perpetrator, to hold them to account for what they have done, and as far as possible to make them responsible for righting the wrong they have perpetrated or participated in – for making amends to their victim. However, this shouldn’t be seen as something harmful to them but as a positive chance to participate in the redressing of wrong and to be absolved of their debt.

Justice may involve an element of retribution or revenge against the wrong-doer, or at least of natural consequences (karma if you like) – of the perpetrator ‘getting what they deserve’. However, I would argue that this form of tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye karmic justice is the lowest level or last resort, only to be used where no other or better form of redress is available (which for the Christian there always is). In the majority of cases it  seems to me that retributive punishment is far from the best way that justice can be served.

Some go as far as to argue that justice can be fully served by the perpetrator simply being forced to face up to the truth of their misdeeds and their consequences; that accepting the full responsibility and attendant shame/sorrow for what they have done does away with the need for further punishment. I’m not convinced about this in terms of earthly justice, but as regards heavenly justice it may have something going for it. Some would even see hell as the place or state where the sinner feels in full – though perhaps only for a time – the weight of the sins they have committed.

Mercy and reconciliation

Mercy is not the reverse or opposite of justice; it is the natural companion of true justice, which springs from love and goodness rather than desire to harm. Mercy is directed primarily to the perpetrator of wrong, of injustice, and has to do with their healing, forgiveness, restoration and rehabilitation.

Mercy goes hand in hand with justice; it doesn’t mean that someone is let off from the responsibility or the just consequences of what they have done, but rather that the administration of justice also make provision for forgiveness and restoration.

I’ve suggested that justice is primarily for the sake of the victim, but also can be beneficial to the perpetrator. Similarly, mercy is primarily for the wrongdoer but also beneficial for the victim of wrong. Mercy provides a way for the wronged to leave the destructive cycle of revenge, to offer forgiveness and restoration to the one who has wronged them. It provides a means for reconciliation to take place between wronged and wrong-doer, benefiting both parties. And in so doing true justice is served – rightness and harmony are fully restored.

Justice with mercy – truth and reconciliation

South Africa got it right when in the aftermath of apartheid they set up a Truth and Reconciliation commission (rather than a Truth and Retribution one, which would have been far easier and more natural). The Truth part dealt with the need for justice; that those who had oppressed, bullied, beaten and killed under the old regime be brought to book and held to account for their actions; forced to face those they had wronged and receive their verdict. The Reconciliation part dealt with the need for mercy and forgiveness, opening up the way for restored relationships in a new community.

In all human relationships things inevitably go wrong at times, and when they do there is almost always right and wrong on both sides (even if most of the balance is in one direction). At this point we need justice and mercy on both sides. Justice to acknowledge both the wrongs and also to hear the rights on each side. Mercy to forgive and be forgiven. Humans are messy and messed-up creatures and each of us needs mercy every bit as much as (probably more than) the justice we think we have a right to.

Justice, mercy and the love of God

For the Christian, justice and mercy both spring alike from the love of God, or from the God who is love. They are not merely abstract concepts; they are realities which can only be understood when they are embodied, enfleshed, incarnated. And they find their fullest expression and deepest fulfilment in the incarnation, cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ – in and through which enemies are reconciled, the guilty are shown mercy, wrongs are righted, harms healed and the goodness and innocence of God ultimately vindicated.


About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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3 Responses to Justice, mercy and the love of God

  1. Jenny Rayner says:

    Just a couple of brief points – my intial thoughts, and not very profound really:

    1. Did you ever read “The Water Babies” (Charles Kingsley) ? I read it as a child, and re-read it recently. “Mrs Do-as-you-would-be-done-by” and “Mrs Be-done-by-as-you-did” are wonderful examples of Mercy and Justice (or maybe Grace and Retribution) and have had a profound effect on my thought processes over the years. Do read it, if you haven’t already.

    2. Do you think that Fairness and Justice are the same? I have been arguing that the dealings of God with man are hardly fair when we don’t start off with a “level playing field”, if we believe that we are all judged on the same criteria (i.e. faith in Jesus). The assertion that God is just, in reply to this, hardly seems to hit the mark, unless “justice” means that we are judged on what we have done with what we know. But the way “justice” seems to be defined is, as you say, “getting what you deserve”. It may be “just” of God to give most people what they deserve and choose to pour His grace on a few, but it is hardly “fair”.


    • harveyedser says:

      I’ve not read The Water Babies but I’ve meant to for at least 20 years! I’ll have to see if I can get hold of a copy – it sounds great.

      I don’t think Justice and Fairness are quite the same. Fairness has to do with equity/equality – getting exactly the same treatment or same amount as someone else. So kids are forever saying ‘that’s not fair’ whenever someone else gets different to them, though there may be very good reasons for the ‘unfairness’ e.g. parents getting a bigger helping of dessert than kids!

      Good question about whether we get ‘fair’ treatment from God, or whether we have a right to expect it. I would say yes and no – we may not feel we get fair treatment, and we certainly won’t all get exactly the same, because we’re all different and have different needs and abilities. But I don’t think anyone will have just cause for complaint against God in the end.


  2. dsholland says:

    One phrase that struck me in this post was
    “true justice is served – rightness and harmony are fully restored.”

    The aspect of Justice that deals with balance (as in scales) has pretty much been the basis of my view. You raise a very interesting point by exposing the harmony (a more profound balance if you will) of true (Divine) Justice.

    One eye may not be equal to another the same way the life of an innocent victim who may have a husband and children is not “equally” paid for by the life of a selfish brute who contributes little but pain and sorrow to society. In that context “getting even”, as in balance, is an elusive state (which may not be unrelated to the admonition to let God deal with retribution). Embracing the idea of Divine Justice as harmony appeals to me as an attainable and more satisfying condition. I can trust the Lord not only to deal with the one who has wronged me (from an eternal perspective) but to weave the damage done to my life into a profound harmony. My mental image here is the difference between a single tone and a symphony – and it is glorious.



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