There is no doubt that God demands justice. But exactly what is “justice”? What does it look like?
The understanding that springs immediately to our minds is derived from Criminal Law. When a crime has been committed against an individual, the injured party “demands” justice: the perpetrator must be punished and the punishment must fit the crime (e.g. an eye for an eye). If the perpetrator is let off we would be quick to declare that justice has not been served. Yet even if the injured party were to choose to forgive, the law of the land would still require a sentence to be administered in order to satisfy justice. There must be punishment. Justice, then, operates under the “law of retribution” and as such has little room for mercy. Indeed, to show leniency would be to thwart justice. Justice and mercy stand directly opposed.
But is this how God’s justice works too? God self-identifies as our Father. God our Father gave the Law, but the Law was secondary – it was added because of transgression, and then only for a time (Gal 3:19). Yet justice is an eternal attribute of God. So when we hear God’s justice mentioned throughout scripture, we cannot simply presume it is related to law-keeping, and nor can we assume that God is operating, like us, under the law of retribution. We need to dig a little deeper to find out the true nature of God’s justice. We get an indication in the New Testament when Jesus, in criticising the Pharisees, points out that the weightier matters of the law concern “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Mat 23:23)
Jesus is indicating that mercy is not opposed to justice but rather a partner to it. Armed with this insight we can go back and explore the OT. And there we find that God’s justice is often interlinked with his love and mercy:
“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)
“but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” (Jer 9:24)
And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. (Hos 2:19)
“So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.” (Hos 12:6)
God shows mercy because he is a God of justice. ‘Steadfast love’ and ‘justice’ go hand-in-hand. God’s justice, therefore, operates from the position of love and mercy, not retribution or tit-for-tat. And when God defines “true justice” his definition is shocking, for in God’s economy true justice is to show mercy and compassion! (Zech 7:9).
The prophet Micah gives us further insight into the nature of God’s mercy. For what expects from man, his image-bearer, is for us to “do justice”, “love kindness” and “walk humbly” with our God. (Mic 6:8)
So justice is something you do, not something you demand. Justice is to be enacted, not exacted. And doing justice involves the love of kindness (mercy). To “do” God’s justice we must not just act in kindness and mercy but love doing so!
Now we are forced into a contradiction with our previous law-derived definition. Because when mercy, compassion and loving kindness are the expression of just (righteous) behaviour then forgiveness, not retribution, is the inevitable result.
This is repeatedly reflected in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus totally overturns “an eye for an eye” philosophy (Matt 5:38-39). Loving our enemies is what it means to be “children of God” (Matt 5:44-45). When Peter asks how many times we should forgive someone who has sinned against us (seven times?) Jesus ups the stakes to an impossible level. No, seventy-times seven! (Matt 18:21-22) Why? because we are called to be imitators of God and administer God’s Kingdom here on earth… and that is what God’s Kingdom looks like!
Long ago God proclaimed his “name”, his glory and goodness, as the undisputed right to show mercy and compassion to whomsoever he wills (Ex 33:19). We do not get to vet it. Later, Jesus warns us we are not to begrudge God’s generosity (Matt 20:15). God is a God of justice, but his justice ‘looks like’ mercy and compassion.
So does God’s justice demand punishment for sin? Heaven forbid! Indeed we have seen the very contrary is true; for God’s justice demands the forgiveness of sin.
For further reading, including an exploration of “dikaiosuné” (justice/righteousness), see: