Justice and Mercy: What are they?

This is the first post in a three-part series on Justice, Mercy, and the Gospel.

The word, “justice” is getting some strong reactions these days, but do we actually know what it means? How it is related to mercy and where does it fit as we live out the Gospel of Christ? Most of us would agree justice is one of God’s characteristics and a significant part of the Gospel message. We would probably also be able to recognize an injustice done to us. But when it comes to practicing justice in the world, it can be confusing. How necessary is justice to our Christian walk? What does it look like to “do justice” in everyday life? And doesn’t mercy replace justice in the New Testament? Sometimes we use the words “mercy” and “justice” interchangeably, and sometimes they seem to be opposites. What does Scripture have to say about these important concepts and the ways they relate to the Gospel?

Justice defined

First, let’s take a look at justice. There are two words generally translated as “justice” in Scripture. The first means a correct, legal decision, and the second is the personal quality of righteousness. So, to do justice and to be just. As a highly qualified, sitting judge once told me, justice is “the right response,” whether for punishment or restitution, guilt or innocence. Justice is a quality of wisdom, the product of discernment and a righteous mind. Justice is an outcome that is, humanly speaking, deserved. For a few examples, see Exodus 23:2, Deuteronomy 24:17, or Luke 18:3.

I Kings 3:16-28 famously demonstrates Biblical justice. King Solomon devises an ingenious test to determine the parentage of a disputed child. Because of his wisdom, he is able to determine guilt from innocence and truth from deception. In the end, he gives each applicant what she deserves. Solomon’s wisdom is a divine gift to help him enact the justice of God on earth.

A modern example of justice comes from Bryan Stevenson of The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). In His book, Just Mercy, Stevenson tells the story of Walter McMillian who was sentenced to die for a murder he did not commit. After decades in prison, EJI conclusively proved his innocence, and he was released. He sued the law enforcement agencies responsible and received an undisclosed amount of restitution, becoming the catalyst for Alabama’s current compensation statute. Although no one could return the years he spent behind bars, the injustice done to McMillan was corrected as far as humanly possible. This is the backward-looking justice referred to in passages of Scripture like Leviticus 6:2-5 or Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

Mercy defined

What, then, is mercy? In the Bible, there are multiple words that can be translated as “mercy,” with alternate meanings of compassion, kindness, atonement, love, or grace. Although it is sometimes, mistakenly in my view, referred to as a subset of justice, mercy is, by definition, undeserved. It is always something more generous than what has been earned (props to Skye Jethani‘s writings for this idea). In the negative, mercy reduces or eliminates a deserved punishment. In the positive, mercy means unmerited, over-flowing blessings. Note, too, that mercy arises primarily from the heart rather than the head. For a few examples, see Exodus 33:19, Matthew 18:33, and Ephesians 2:4.

Psalm 51 is David’s plea for mercy after he has committed adultery and murder. Spiritually and humanly speaking, he cannot appeal to justice, having no right to ask anything of God or man. So, he asks for mercy and forgiveness for his heinous crimes. This kind of mercy is not a subset of justice; it is a different animal entirely.

Here’s a small but real example from culture today. Tipping big and anonymously has become a viral trend recently (gotta love a positive, viral trend!). Some tippers are going above and beyond, leaving tips in thousands of dollars for a café lunch for one. This is a great, human example of forward-looking, undeserved and over-flowing favor which falls squarely into the category of mercy.

Biblical justice and mercy

In summary, we can say biblical justice is deserved and biblical mercy is undeserved. In addition, justice is primarily a quality of the mind, while mercy springs from a heart of pity and compassion. Both justice and mercy have a backward-looking application to things that have already occurred. Justice corrects a wrong, supplying the dignity and fairness which was missing in a specific situation. Mercy applies compassion, producing joy and abundance where abundance was never deserved or anticipated. And both have a forward-looking face. Justice brings about a right and equitable result for the future, while mercy produces over-flowing blessings.

In short, justice makes a person whole. Mercy makes a person new.

Join me again next time when we examine these concepts as they meet at the cross.


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Trust Is a Credit Card

I originally posted this essay in 2012. I’m rerunning it while I work on some freelance writing. Stay tuned for more on that!

My mother had her identity stolen recently, and she doesn’t even own a computer. Now every teller, every store clerk, every credit card company and even some casual acquaintances are suspect. Someone violated her trust, and she will not easily give it again.

Trust is earned – or is it?

“You have to earn my trust!” It’s the message Americans everywhere are sending telepathically through their television sets as our political conflicts air onscreen. Who hasn’t heard it said to them as a new driver or used that phrase to scold their own child? We want our loved ones and politicians to establish a track record that will help us believe. There’s wisdom and value in that perspective, but there’s also a problem. What is the price of trust? How much is enough to earn it?

Trust makes us vulnerable

When someone says, “Trust me,” they ask for our confidence in a way that makes us vulnerable to pain, treachery, and being made a fool. There is no trust without the possibility of loss. By “earning” our trust, we mean that someone must give us good odds before we take that bet. Like a savvy card shark at an all-night poker game, we want a sure thing. But the risk is never zero.

Trust is a credit card

Imperfect people can never be wholly trustworthy. When you earn something, you receive payment for the work you have already done, but trust is given in exchange for work you have yet to do. Trust can be enticed and invited. It can be justified or betrayed, but only in hindsight. Trust is a credit card, not a debit card; you can’t fund it upfront. We give our trust to an imperfect person with the built-in capacity to fail us. If we are going to wait until it’s been wholly earned, we will never trust anyone.

Trust considers the past

On the flip side, we are not required to trust everyone. In fact, we are warned against it in Scripture (see Psalm 118:8 or 1 Cor. 15:33, for example). If it turns out a retail company was careless with my mother’s financial information, I hope she cuts up their charge card. Trust is a resource we are expected to administer with wisdom, and that makes it more valuable. When deciding to give your trust, consider the past. But consider, too, the unearned favor that has made a difference for you. Trusting another person is always, in some measure, kindness.

Trust is grace

The next time you feel you must earn someone else’s trust, remember that it’s impossible. You are obligated to love them well regardless, but their trust will always contain an element of risk. Their trust is a form of grace. The next time you are tempted to tell someone trust must be earned, tell them, instead, trust is a gift given in imitation of Christ who risked Himself for the sake of relationship with us.


Related Resources:

Here’s an interesting sermon on the difference between faith and trust: https://www.ronedmondson.com/2012/07/faith-and-trust-a-sermon-message.html

A blog on trust disappointed: https://www.crosswalk.com/11575641/

I would love it if you would add your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

The Samaritan and the Truth

We live in a time when Christians seem militantly concerned about the truth. What is the truth? Who is telling the truth? Who agrees with my truth? Of course, God Himself is concerned about the truth, since He invented it. But when a desire for truth causes dissension and discord among brothers and sisters, what do we prioritize? That was a problem for a contentious lawyer in the Gospel of Luke, too.

The Law

An expert in the Mosaic law approached Jesus to test Him (see Luke 10). This lawyer asked about the legal criteria for gaining Heaven, and then he answered his own question: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus approved his understanding, but the man needed more information: “Who is my neighbor?”

The Good Samaritan

In response, Jesus told one of His most famous stories, the parable of the ‘good Samaritan’:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 

He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

The lawyer to whom Jesus spoke this story sought the truth so he could act on it correctly and be assured of eternal life. Except the lawyer already knew the truth. So Jesus told him a story about something deeper than knowledge.

The Road

The men who passed by on the other side of the road were acting wisely, at least from a human perspective. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous. The bandit attack recounted in Jesus’ parable was oft repeated in real life. To stop for an unknown person along the way was to make yourself vulnerable. And to walk close to a problem, to look or listen for more than a moment, was a potential trap. The priest and Levite acted on the truth when they hurried on their way.

The Heart

The Samaritan, however, ventured close enough to see and hear human suffering. He was moved by a compassionate heart. His sacrificial acts of mercy were not done for the sake of Heaven but for the sake of a severely injured man.

Is it better to be right or to be loving? Of course, we should know the Scriptures and the world (Matt. 10:16). But cultivating mercy for the hurting and oppressed around us is even better. To act on our knowledge is often commendable, and at times it is all we have. But much more desirable, something to pray for and to work at, is to become a listening, loving person.

The Application

Christian friends, I encourage you to prayerfully apply this parable to two difficult, contemporary topics: masking and racial justice. Is your particular view of science more important than loving those who fear disease? Is your interpretation of the world more important than getting close enough to listen to your black and brown brothers and sisters in Christ? What would it mean in each of these situations to take the side of the good Samaritan rather than the side of the contentious lawyer? A voice of pain is crying out from the ditch. Don’t pass by on the other side.

Lord, bless your children with a stronger resemblance to their brother, Jesus, and help us abide always in Your love.

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