Justice, Mercy, and the Gospel
Over the past three decades, ethicists, scientists, and politicians have steadily adapted the institutionalized language of the academy. In turn, they have strategically packaged social agendas and political policies by affixing the word “justice” to them. We now recurrently hear about economic justice, climate justice, racial justice, gender justice, and—the most sinister of all—reproductive justice. To make matters more confusing, in both society and the church the phrase social justice has become a catch-all for any given combination of social agendas. This means that the phrase social justice can function like a trojan horse for whatever agenda is being pushed.
This should deeply concern Christians, not simply because false and dangerous narratives are giving shape and direction to the future of our country, but because God has redeemed His people to be people of truth. He calls us to zealously guard our own hearts and consciences from false philosophies—and most importantly to guard the truth of the gospel.
When approaching this subject, we face several difficulties involving justice. First, the ideas to which the word “justice” have been affixed in our culture sometimes contain matters about which we should care (e.g., racial injustices), sometimes contain a mixture of truth and error, and sometimes—as is the case with reproductive justice—are wicked perversion of truth altogether.
Another challenge lies in the fact that some of the social concerns that our society classifies as justice issues are actually matters of mercy. Caring for the poor and the needy are often matters of mercy in Scripture--rather than civil principles of justice. The context determines the approach. Though the oppression of the poor is a social injustice, the compassionate care of the poor is a matter of mercy. When justice and mercy are comingled and conflated, what ought to be voluntary acts of compassion become civilly coerced and judicially enforced acts of injustice.
The third difficulty we face is that many Christians have not sought to define justice and mercy according to Scripture. Ultimately, such a lack of understanding about these two attributes leads to a failure to understand the Gospel.
In order to lay something of a biblical foundation for this last difficulty, we need to have a biblical understanding of these two specific attributes of God--namely, justice and mercy. We need to know what the Bible has to say about them on the vertical and horizontal levels. We then need to understand how the biblical teaching about justice and mercy undergird our own understanding of the gospel and inform us as to how we are to live as Christians in this fallen world.
The Source of Justice and Mercy
We cannot start with a consideration of justice or mercy at the level of the civil sphere—let alone in relation to our understanding of the gospel—without first establishing the divine source of justice and mercy. We need to recognize that we would never have any concept of “justice” in the social sphere if there were not a just and holy God who reveals what justice looks like. Additionally, we would never have “mercy” in the social sphere if there was not a merciful God.
Proverbs 28:5 states, “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it completely.” This is precisely because the LORD is the source of all true justice. In Isaiah 45:21 the Covenant God declares, “there is no other God besides Me, A just God and a Savior; There is none besides Me.” God is infinitely just. This is one of his manifold perfections. God must deal with evil by punishing it commensurate with its nature. God was just to bring condemnation and pronounce judgment on the human race on account of just one sin. Adam’s sin was against the infinite and eternal God and, therefore, deserved a just punishment commensurate with the being against whom He sinned.
God is also the source of all true mercy. The Bible everywhere teaches that God is merciful and full of compassion. God is infinitely and eternally merciful. We see this principle at work even in the way in which He did not destroy our first parents immediately when they sinned. Instead, He gave them the promise of the gospel (Gen. 3:15) and the sacrificial system that pointed to the redemption He would provide through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. God is "abundant in mercy" (Psalm 103:8), a God who "delights in mercy" (Micah 7:18), and One who is "rich in mercy" (Eph. 2:4).
We are taught to be merciful by way of consideration of the covenant compassion and mercy of God. Jesus said, “Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful” (Luke 6:36). That statement comes in the context of our Lord reminding us that God, in His common mercy and grace, gives the godly and the ungodly, the just and the unjust, sun and rain. Accordingly, mercy is the manifestation of goodness and bounty toward others when they have no claim to it.
Defining Justice and Mercy
Moving from what the Scriptures teach about God being the source of all true justice and mercy, we need to establish accurate biblical definitions of justice and mercy. In Micah 6:8—a passage to which just about every proponent of social justice appeals—we discover a very clear distinction between justice and mercy. Justice and mercy—though not at odds with one another—are very distinct biblical chatacteristics. Micah says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” According to this verse, doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly before God are three distinct traits. This means that even when we find principles of mercy embedded in the Mosaic Law, that does not make them principle of justice. It has become common for some to conflate justice and mercy, speaking of a merificul justice or a just mercy. Micah teaches us that these two attributes are distinct from one another--though not in opposition to one another.
When the Old Testament speaks of justice in the civil sphere, it is referring to rendering unto others their due according to God’s law. By way of contrast, mercy is voluntarily showing others compassion when they have no right to demand it of it. Justice is built on owing something to another. Mercy is built on showing compassion to those who do not deserve it.
In his book Social Justice: How Good Intentions Undermine Justice and the Gospel, Cal Beisner defines biblical justice in the following way,
[Justice is] “rendering impartially and proportionally to everyone his due in accord with the righteous standard of God’s moral law.”
- Impartiality. Those God has placed in authority in the civil sphere are obligated to render fair outcomes and judgments without discrimination on the basis of social status, ethnicity, or socio-economic considerations. That is the principle of impartiality.
This is clearly seen in Old Covenant Israel’s civil law. In Exodus 23:2–3, we read,
“You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.
Then in verse 6, we read:
“You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit
- Proportionality is the principle that the punishment must fit the crime; and the reward should be commensurate with the good.
Concerning the first, Scripture states,
“He who sheds man’s blood, by man should his blood be shed since he is the image of God” (Gen. 9:6).
Concerning the latter, the Proverbs teach that a man who works diligently will reap from His diligent labors, but that a lazy man will not eat on account of his laziness.
The Old Testament law gave a certain number of principles to help us understand what civic justice is. While the Mosaic Law was for theocratic Israel, and is not binding on us today, the principles of justice within it are timeless principles.
Herman Bavinck set out the three guiding principles of biblical justice:
“1) the guilty person may by no means be considered innocent (Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; 24:24; Isa. 5:23);
(2) the righteous may not be condemned (Exod. 23:7; Deut. 25:1; Ps. 31:18; 34:21; 37:12; 94:21; Prov. 17:15; Isa. 5:23); and
(3) the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the day laborer, the widow, and the orphan especially may not be perverted but, on the contrary, must be upheld for their protection and support (Exod. 22:21f.; Deut. 23:6; 24:14, 17; Prov. 22:22; Jer. 5:28; 22:3, 16; Ezek. 22:29; Zech. 7:10).”
Scripture also sets out principles of mercy. In the Old Testament civil law, the owner of a field was not to cut the corners of his property (Lev. 23:22). This was a principle of mercy to the poor and the needy. There was no civil punishment if a field owner decided not to obey this principle of mercy. He would surely be held accountable for his actions on the day of judgment; however, it was not a civilly punishable law--therefore, it was a principle of mercy rather than a principle of justice. To make it a principle of justice would be to deny the eighth commandment and personal property. If one were to claim that your neighbor had a right to that portion of your land would be to say that a percentage of everything you owned belongs to your neighbor. This is untenable, since it would be impossible to place such a percentage on your personal property on the whole.
Christians are, however, called by God to be a generous people. Jesus says, “Give and it will be given to you.” The Apostles everywhere talk about caring for the poor and the needy. This generosity is to be uncoerced, joyful acts of mercy. A further principle of mercy is that we are called by God to “do good to all, especially to the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). This means that we have a responsibility to care for those within the church, first and foremost. Augustine developed his theory of “moral proximity" in order to address this matter. We cannot care for all the needs of everyone in the world since we have limited time and resources. Therefore, a man is to provide for his family, a family is to provide for the members of the church, and a church is to seek to care for the needs of the community within which God has placed them. Augustine wrote,
“All men are to be loved equally. But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you…since you cannot consult for the good of them all, you must take the matter…according as each man happens for the time being to be more closely connected with you."
We also are called to recognize that there will not be perfect justice or mercy in this fallen world. Jesus said, "the poor you will have with you always" (Matt. 26:11). When Augustine wrestled with the place of God’s attributes of justice and mercy in this fallen world, he concluded that God measures out enough justice to assure us that there will be a day of perfect justice, and that He shows just enough mercy to sinners so that we can know that there will be a day of the full realization of God’s mercy toward those he has redeemed. This is not to dismiss our responsibility to live as just and merciful people in this world. Rather, it is to remind us that there will not be a utopian world of justice in this life.
Additionally, there will always be different outcomes in this life. We may call these inequalities, but they are not necessarily injustices. In God’s sovereignty there are differing outcomes for any number of reasons. Some are physical, some are intellectual, and some are circumstantial in nature. We have to consider the differences of the lives and experiences of individuals based on God’s sovereignty, family, physical potential, intellectual capacity, and circumstantial variables. It is not injustice that some people are better looking than others, or that they have more physical strength than others. Those are realities of inequality that we have to live with in this fallen world.
Justice and Mercy in the Gospel
There was one nation in human history that had perfect laws--Old Covenant theocratic Israel; and yet, generation after generation were just as wicked--or more wicked--than the nations around them. So bad were the injustices in Israel that the prophet Habakkuk cried out, "the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth" (Hab. 1:4). The problem persisted to the exile and then into the coming of Christ into the world. The law could never produce righteous and merciful men and women. There had to be a better way. Bavinck explains,
“Prophets, psalmists, and the writers of proverbs incessantly complain about the dreadful reality that there was no justice for the poor, widows, orphans, aliens, and the needy, even though the right was completely on their side and they were righteous and pious. Hence, frequently there was no justice for the truly faithful; in the courts and in daily life they were routinely judged wrongly, ignored, oppressed, and persecuted. Accordingly, they hope eagerly for the future, the Messiah, who will be the righteous Branch (Jer. 23:5ff.), the righteous One (Zech. 9:9), who will not judge by what his eyes see but with righteousness (Isa. 11:3–5). His judgment above all will consist in helping and saving the needy, who are now being ignored and oppressed and call in vain for justice; in having pity on the poor; and in redeeming their life (Ps. 72:12–14). Hence, the exercise of justice would especially be apparent in the redemption of the wretched. Thus, doing justice with an eye to the needy becomes an act of grace and mercy.”
The word from which we get our English word injustice is related to the Hebrew and the Greek word that we translate, “righteousness.” When we come to the New Testament, we quickly learn that the great problem of injustice in the Old Testament was never solved. The New Testament explains that the problem is that all men are pervasively unjust. The Apostle Paul wrote, “There is none righteous, no not one” (Rom. 3:10). This means that by nature we are “injustice.” The problem of sin is the problem of unrighteousness, and the problem of unrighteousness is the problem of human existence in this fallen world.
The solution to the problem is found exclusively in the Gospel. In the fulness of time, the eternal Son of God came into the world to be born under the law and to die on the cross. Paul summarized this solution when he wrote, "God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh" (Rom. 8:3). In the Gospel there is a perfect harmony of divine justice and mercy. In order to extend mercy to unjust sinners like us, Jesus kept the law of God perfectly and then died in our place for our injustices. Our sins were imputed to Him, so that His perfect righteousness would be imputed to us who believe in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). The greatest injustice the world has ever known (i.e., the crucifixion of the sinless Son of God) is the great solution to our injustice and our need for mercy. Without setting aside His justice, God dealt with injustice and justified believers. By pouring out His wrath on His Son on account of our sin imputed to Him, God may now be "just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26).
When we come to Christ by faith alone, we are then taught to live as just men and women in this fallen world. We become salt and light. God calls His people to live according to biblical principles of justice and mercy. By His Spirit, God enables us to be upright in our dealings with our neighbors and to be full of mercy toward those in need. We become a forgiving people, a kind and compassionate people, and an upright people. We continue to need the mercy Jesus extends to us in the Gospel, and we stand ready to be merciful to those who—like us—do not deserve mercy.
As discussions and debate continue in the church and on social media, let's resist the urge to blindly support whatever goes by the name of justice. Instead, let us be men and women who apply the principles of Scripture consistently wherever there is true injustice and wherever there is a real need for mercy. To fail to do so will inevitably undermine the principles of the gospel itself.