Justice or Mercy?

“I will sing of mercy and justice; to You, O Lord, I will sing praises.” (Psalm 101:1)

Justice and mercy are not the same thing. In fact, many of us have probably argued at some point that they are usually opposite ideas. “You don’t want justice for your sins. You have no price to pay for forgiveness. You need God’s mercy in order to be saved.” Yet, God balances justice and mercy perfectly and He does it constantly. He is not the God of mercy today and the God of justice tomorrow.

What Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees indicates that God expects us to balance justice and mercy as well, along with faith and even careful obedience: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” (Matthew 23:23)

Sometimes we may see people being casual about obedience and so we emphasize obedience to the point that people may not realize that obedience means nothing without faith in God. The blood of Jesus makes our obedience effective, but all the obedience in the world can’t pay the price for even one sin. We must trust in God, not in ourselves. Obviously, this doesn’t eliminate the need for obedience. Jesus said: “These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” It does, however, completely eliminate the possibility of glorying in ourselves. This seems to have been a central problem in the thinking of the Pharisees.

Similarly, we may see people acting in a way that seems casual about mercy. “Do whatever you want. God is merciful.” We need to be careful that we do not respond to something like this in a way that would minimize or question God’s willingness or ability to show mercy. Mercy is God’s prerogative, and we don’t have to worry about God making a mistake because God perfectly balances mercy and justice.

This requires some nuance in our thinking. Nuance means thinking about different senses of words and thinking about how to reconcile ideas which may seem incompatible on the surface. How can God be merciful and just at the same time? Paul was doing this when he defended God’s justice while showing mercy to sinners on the basis that Jesus had died. God did not completely ignore our sins. He demanded a price to be paid, and on the basis of that price He offers mercy to everyone through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:25, 26). “Do whatever you want,” is not a nuanced idea. It is extreme. God is not only merciful or only just. He is the perfect balance of both.

Of course, even the idea of living by faith or being saved by faith requires some nuance in our thinking. What about justice, or mercy, or the need to obey God which is implied by the very essence of what it means to repent? We can challenge extreme ideas like the notion that we are saved by faith only. Faith only does not reflect the kind of balanced thinking that we’re talking about (James 2:21-24). Yet, we dare not respond to any bad idea in a way that would even remotely suggest that we are not saved by faith. We should never think it is wrong to say that we are saved by faith or to say that God is merciful.

Without an appreciation for faith and mercy, we may become like the Pharisee depicted in Jesus’ parable who seemed totally oblivious of his own hopelessness without the mercy of God. Instead he trusted in himself that he was righteous (Luke 18:9-14). It can happen, even to people who should know better.

If we do not learn to appreciate justice and the obedience that repentance should necessarily produce, we may deceive ourselves into thinking that we can just do whatever we want because God is merciful.

We need to be balanced in our thinking and in our words. The gospel has all the power to save and it doesn’t need any help from us. If we seem to argue among ourselves because we are unable, or unwilling, to balance justice and mercy we will leave people who need the gospel with the wrong impression, regardless of which way we lean. Let us never be ashamed to affirm what the Bible affirms, no matter how confused the world may be. Proclaim God’s justice; proclaim God’s mercy; proclaim that we are saved by faith; proclaim that we are not saved by faith alone…always, with balance, and without apology for anything that is true.

This is hard, even for people who care deeply about pleasing the Lord. We have weaknesses and emotions that have to be kept in check by the truth of God’s word. Yet, balancing justice, mercy, faith, and obedience is vitally important. Salvation without faith or mercy is not possible, and salvation without justice or repentance is just an empty wish. However, when we take all of these ideas together, we will receive hope from God that is built on an unshakeable foundation: “…he who does these things will never be shaken.” (Psalm 15:5)