Justice, Mercy, and Grace
The doctrines of grace we are studying often bring tension to the biblical concepts of justice, mercy, and grace. In addition, God’s wrath and love are often at the forefront of our thoughts as we wrestle with these doctrines. Hence, we need clarity to see how these concepts come together in the essence of God, the person of Jesus, and the work of the Messiah.
God gives justice when he gives people what they deserve. This is the basis of judicial law, a law that God ratifies and upholds. He could decide to give no one who is fallen an opportunity for salvation. He is holy and just, and as such is not required to love a rebellious creation; in fact, he would be perfectly justified in exercising justice over an unjust creation. There would be nothing wrong with that! The only thing we truly deserve from him is wrath, the just and necessary outworking of his holiness. No one will receive injustice from the hands of God; yet many do not receive justice (or we might say that they receive non-justice) because he extends to them mercy and grace.
God gives mercy when he does not give people what they deserve. Mercy is never obligatory, and God does not owe it to us. But he gives it lovingly and freely. Yet he cannot give mercy without satisfying his justice, pouring out his wrath, and vindicating his holiness, or he would contradict himself, which would be fatal for his holy character. Therefore, justice must be satisfied first. Since the very first transgression, sin needed to be dealt with, and sacrifice was needed to forgive sin. In Christ, we find the ultimate sacrifice. Through his condemnation, justice was made complete and the wrath of God was satisfied. In fact, justice was rendered upon Jesus on the cross where God poured out his wrath. Through justice, God’s mercy and our justification were brought forth. In his forbearance, he means to lead us to repentance (Rom 2:4).
God gives grace when he gives people what they do not deserve. By his sovereign, electing, and saving grace, which he ordained since before the creation of the world, God freely chose who will be reconciled to him through the opening of their eyes to the truth and beauty of the gospel. It is completely underserved, but oh so loving and glorious! It is a grace decreed since before we existed, ratified in the sacrifice of Jesus, and carried through by the sealing of the Holy Spirit unto eternal glory (Eph 1:3-14). It is a life-giving grace, one that renders alive in Christ those who had been dead in sin (Eph 2:1-10).
Justice, Mercy, Grace, and the Cross
Sin must be dealt with and transgression must be paid for. All those who believe in Christ and repent of their sin find the forgiveness for their sin in the just condemnation of Christ on the cross. But those who do not believe in Christ and do not repent of their sin, rather continuing in it, condemn themselves. Their sin still must be paid for. Since their sin is against the eternal God who is eternally holy, their sin is eternally unholy and an eternal affront to him, with eternal consequences and a need for eternal punishment. As such, there is no payment for it, outside of the blood of Jesus, short of just eternal condemnation in a Christ-less hell.
But every day, his call goes out to all people without distinction, yet not without exception. This call can take different forms so that no one has an excuse (Rom 1:20). No one will receive injustice from his hands. It is marvelous that he will give some people mercy, which in fact is non-justice, but is not injustice. No one has ever been a victim of injustice at the hands of God. His justice is different than human justice because God’s justice is perfect. His mercy is also different than ours, again because it is perfect. Human mercy often happens at the expense of justice, when the crime is not punished but the guilty is still pardoned. His mercy does not leave sin unpunished; it is either punished in Christ or in eternity. His mercy takes place through justice, not at its expense. When we are pardoned, God upholds justice in having condemned Jesus.
God would have been perfectly justified in not providing a way for salvation and condemning everyone in hell. But out of his love, mercy and grace, he gave us one way, through his Son Jesus Christ. In truth, without wrath, condemnation, justice, and mercy, grace would not be grace. An eternal sacrifice is a prerequisite for an eternal atonement, and we only find this in the cross of Jesus. God so loved the world and manifested that love in Christ, who did not conquer despite the cross and despite justice but rather through the justice of the cross. On the cross of Jesus, God’s holiness, wrath, justice, mercy and grace converged and were reconciled so that we can be reconciled to him. All hail the victorious Lamb of God!