I have always thought of God’s justice as something that tempered, even opposed, God’s grace. I put it in these terms (not verbally, mind you, but in my head): “It’s a good thing God is gracious, because if He were merely just we’d all be dead.” I had always thought of God’s grace as something He gave us in spite of His justice (or instead of His justice). I had always thought, “Please keep being gracious to me, God, because if you turn on Your just side I won’t be able to stand.” But now I see that God is much more mysterious: He doesn’t have one “on/off” switch for His grace and another for His justice. He’s a person, not a machine. His justice and grace don’t come packaged in separate containers with pop-open tops (“Whatever you do, don’t go rummaging around the Justice Cupboard, because that stuff will kill you! Better to open up a can of Grace.”) God’s justice and mercy don’t go through a distillation process, they come mingled together.
Of course, I’ve always known (intellectually) that God doesn’t turn one side of His character off when a seemingly-opposing-side is operating. I’ve always known, for example, that God’s sovereignty doesn’t cancel out His openness to let us choose. I’ve always known, also, that when God is gracious, He never stops being just.
St. Anselm (ca. 1033-1109) knew this. He knew that God could not show grace while violating His justice. For that reason, Anselm explains in his pivotal treatise “Cur Deus Homo” (trans. “Why Did God Become Man?”) that God satisfied His justice in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Specifically, Jesus as Man paid a debt to God that Man had to pay (because it was Man that owed the debt in the first place), but Jesus as God paid a debt that could only possibly be paid by only God because of the debt’s size. In this way, God was able to show mercy and grace while still maintaining His justice. A perfect solution, no?
I admit, Anselm does make sense, but I must also confess there has always been one part of me that looks at that way of putting together God’s justice with God’s grace as a bit unsatisfactory. There’s part of Anselm’s explanation that still separates out God’s justice from His mercy. And, since it is most unwise to dissect the Supreme Deity, I have still been searching for a way of thinking about this.
And here is what I’m thinking now. Read this text that influenced me:
“The Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice.” (Isaiah 30:18)
Did you catch the word “For”? The prophet tells us that God gives us His grace because He is just. God’s grace is not given to us in spite of His justice; God’s grace is given because of His justice. In other words, mercy is the way God shows His justice. Grace is the vehicle God uses to show justice. Justice is what God gives, and mercy is the means.
Normally, I can’t relate to this way of thinking about it. I suspect that’s because I’m living in an upside down world, though. To understand this, I need to live in God’s country. When I live in His world, in His reality, I see that forgiveness is the cornerstone of His perfect economy. Grace and mercy are His currency. So, when I try to pay others what I normally think of as “justice” (translation: when I try to "settle the score") it’s like I’m paying them with black market cash. To do right in God’s country means I should (and must and ought to) use legal tender: Checks of mercy, Bills of grace and Coins of compassion. That’s the only currency the Ruler even recognizes as legitimate. To do right, to do the just thing, God gives grace. Grace creates a just society.
The prophet Micah confirms this. The following is not a list (!):
“He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
Remember, the Hebrew culture sometimes used repetition to emphasize a single point. Micah is telling us: “To act justly, you need to love mercy. To love mercy, you need to walk humbly.” So, by walking humbly, I will be able to love mercy. By loving mercy, I will be bringing justice.
Here’s how to create a just society: give grace, love mercy, walk humbly, show compassion.
As a human, I have to remind myself of that daily. I suspect we all need that reminder.