As I was listening to an online sermon and reading a blog, a weird case of simultaneity (my new favourite word, even though I can't pronounce it) occurred - both the preacher and the blogger were talking about God's justice and mercy in antithetical terms. "God is just" and "God is merciful" were put forward as mutually exclusive descriptions of God's character, and so the puzzle is how can He be both; how do we reconcile these two opposites?
In the above mindset, a simple definition of justice and mercy is the following:
Justice is getting what is deserved.
Mercy is not getting what is deserved.
Given these definitions, it is quite natural to pit one against the other and therefore wrestle with God's embodiment of both. The problem, however, is that when it comes to justice, "getting what is deserved" (especially in the punitive sense) is not the entire biblical perspective. Far from it, in fact.
We tend think of justice almost exclusively as retributive justice - the criminal receives fitting punishment for his crime(s); he gets what's coming to him. But when it comes to justice as it is portrayed in Scripture, retributive justice is not the dominant form, both before Christ and most certainly after Him. Consider these passages from the Old Testament:
The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. - Psa. 103:6
It is well with the man who deals generously and lends; who conducts his affairs with justice. Psa. - 112:5
Hear my voice according to your steadfast love; O LORD, according to your justice give me life. - Psa. 119:149
Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore He exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for Him. - Isa. 30:18
There are dozens of other verses that could be examined, but a quick look at these chosen few will lead to some surprising conclusions.
Psalm 103:6 describes God's actions towards the oppressed, whom He treats with "righteousness" and "justice". These two words crop up together numerous times, and are almost synonymous in some instances. For example, Amos's famous passage calling for justice to roll like waters and righteousness to flow like a stream. Therefore if we don't think of righteousness in terms of punishment befitting a crime, we shouldn't jump to that conclusion with regards justice. The psalmist is clearly not saying that God punishes the oppressed in a just manner, but that His justice brings healing and restoration to their desperate condition.
The next verse (from Psalm 112) equates dealing generously and justice. We think of dealing justly with people in a "balance the books" way, but here the psalmist says that generous giving is an act of justice; not grace, not mercy, but justice.
Psalm 149 brings justice together with God's steadfast love. The psalmist is pleading to God for life, and makes his plea on the basis of God's justice. To our ears this sounds foolish -- "Getting justice from God means getting what you deserve, and since you're a sinner you deserve death" -- but this particular writer did not possess our narrow-minded view of justice. For him, God's justice and God's steadfast love could be mentioned in the same sentence without any need for a reconciliation between the two words, and so he felt free to appeal to God on the basis of His life giving justice. This is all a far cry from our death-sentencing God of justice.
Finally, if it's not already clear, Isaiah does my job for me by actually saying that God's graciousness and mercy flow out of His justice. He declares that YHWH waits to show grace and mercy to His people "for (or 'because') YHWH is a God of justice", which wreaks havoc on our either/or approach to justice and mercy.
As I said, this is just a small sample of passages that deal with justice, but they help make the rather surprising point that God's justice and God's mercy are not to be thought of antithetically. Retributive justice should not be all we know of the subject. Scripture is pregnant with a "restorative justice" motif, whereby the lame are made to walk, the captives are set free and the broken-hearted are healed. Jesus brings to fulfillment God's vision and promise of healing justice, coming as He did not to condemn the world, but to "let justice roll down like waters" (Amos 5:24), to "proclaim justice to the nations" (Matt. 12), to "put the world to rights" as N.T. Wright might say. (Yep, I just equated what N.T. Wright might say with Scripture.)
An important question remains - How might all of this relate to the cross? I'm still scratching my head on this one slightly, because this is usually the place where justice and grace (or mercy) are pitted against each other, and there is certainly a case to be made for it. For example, Jesus got the punishment we deserve (thus God's justice is satisfied) and we are therefore able to receive God's grace. But is there another way of looking at the atonement in light of some of the above? Is this where Christus Victor comes in? To be continued, perhaps...