Mercy and Justice in One Package
NIV Exodus 34:6–7
6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.
Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”
This passage presents God as both an “all-just” and “all-merciful” judge. When we assess this in human terms, it is hard to reconcile. We are quick to criticize judges who are too lenient, letting hardened criminals off with a lecture and wrist slap. But, we also criticize the so-called “hanging judges” who hand out severe sentences for minor infractions. By our human assessment, the ideal judge does one or the other according to the severity of the crime committed. A murderer deserves time in prison if there are mitigating circumstances, or the death penalty if the murder was pre-meditated and cold-blooded. We expect no less from God.
Our thought process runs something like this: an all-just judge will always “treat every offender with exactly the severity” deserved, while an all-merciful judge “treats every offender with less severity” than deserved. And as both cannot be true, the god described in Exodus 34 cannot be the God we worship. Yet the Bible we hold to be without error presents this contradiction as fact. How can God, like a corrupt judge that ignores the law and leaves the guilty unpunished, remain righteous if He ignores the demands of His justice to have mercy on sinners?
So how can this be? Granted, God is free to do as He wills, when He wills, to whom He wills, and no finite and fallen creature can tell Him otherwise. “‘Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Let him who reproves God answer it.’ Then Job answered the LORD and said, ‘Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to Thee?’” (Job 40:2–4). Nonetheless, God cannot violate His flawless character, including His perfect justice. Should He pervert justice in a single case, He would cease to be perfect and thus cease to be God. Moreover, if He applied His strict justice without exception, He could be merciful to none. After all, Adam and Eve were cast from paradise for one sin. Thus, the argument that an all-just and all-merciful God cannot exist would seem to have merit. It would also appear that Scripture has created an unsolvable dilemma, calling into question its own coherence and trustworthiness, and the existence of the God it proclaims.
Unlike our human concept of justice or mercy, God’s judgement has both embedded together. God has given us the freedom to make our own decisions. He has also given us bountiful advice on how to manage that free will. So when we reject that advice and go our own way, why do we blame God for the judgement we bring upon ourselves? Our free will is God’s mercy. We are never forced to make bad choices nor should we expect rewards for making good choices. God’s ways are not our ways. God gives us justice and mercy in the same package. Yet, even when we, like spoiled children, continue to make bad choices, God mercy is infinite. So if death leaves us in an eternal prison of our own making, that will have been our choice — not God’s.