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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