Justice, Mercy, and Grace

Posted on August 19, 2011

 Justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is not getting what you deserve, and grace is getting what you don’t deserve.

When we are witnessing to the lost, it is oftentimes important to define the terms we are using to communicate the Gospel.  In one conversation last night during our weekly outreach, after one gentleman expressed he must prove that he was deserving of salvation, I quickly asked him what grace is.  He defined it as love, so I proceeded to explain to him what justice, mercy, and grace is as defined by Scripture.  These terms and their meanings seem to largely be lost among today’s society, so let’s briefly take a look at each in hopes they will help you better understand and communicate the glorious Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Justice is getting what you deserve.

When we hear of justice today, it’s usually in the form of its antonym, injustice.   We hear of social justice and perceived abuses of justice, but it is rare on the streets when someone can provide a correct definition of justice.  The best way to do this is to figuratively take the individual into the courtroom.

If we break the law, there is a consequence.  For example, if we get a ticket for going 55mph in a 35mph speed zone, the right or just thing for the judge of the court would be to fine us for our violation of the traffic law.  If 20 people showed up in the courtroom that day with traffic violations in the same speed zone, the judge should still fine every person for the violation against the law, regardless of “everybody else was doing it”.  We, individually, are responsible to obey the law, and when we violate the law, we each are responsible to pay the debt owed.  The judge is a good and just judge when he gives us what we deserve.

In the same way, we have all broken God’s law.  We have all lied, stolen, blasphemed God’s holy name, lusted and murdered in our heart, among many other offenses against Him.  Because God is a good and just judge, the Supreme Judge of the universe, He must punish the crimes committed against Him.  If He overlooked our crimes as if they never happened, or merely accepted an apology from us on the day of judgment and let us go free out of His holy courtroom, then He would be corrupt and unjust.  It is because of His goodness that our sin must be punished, and it is why we deserve His justice and death sentence to eternal hell.

See this article for more on the justice of God:  Jesus: Holy and Righteous God of Love and Wrath – Part 3

Mercy is not getting what you deserve.

Mercy is deliverance from the justice we deserve.  The Bible says that God is rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4) and saves us not because of anything we have done, but because of His mercy alone (Titus 3:5).  We deserve His justice and His wrath against us in the eternal lake of fire because we have sinned against an infinitely holy God.  Even so, God has chosen according to the counsel of His own will (Ephesians 2:5) to be merciful to some (Romans 9:22-23) to forgive them their debts owed to Him.

It’s important to understand that God does not show mercy at the expense of His justice.  In fact, overlooking these crimes would be a great injustice as mentioned before.  The Bible says that God’s wrath must be satisfied (1 John 4:10), which means every sin, or crime, that has ever been committed against Him by any human that has ever walked the earth, whether thought, word, or deed, must be punished.  That’s why Christ had to die on the cross – to shed His blood to make atonement (to pay the debt) for these sins.  All who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ by repentant faith had their sin transferred to Christ and their crimes were punished through Him.  The very wrath we deserved was poured out on God’s own Son – He bore our iniquities and took our punishment (Isaiah 53).

So though God shows mercy to His sheep, their sins do not go unpunished.  Justice is either served through the shed blood of Christ, or justice is served through the punishment of unrepentant sinners in hell for eternity.  Christ paid a debt He did not owe because we had a debt we could not pay.  Because God’s wrath was satisfied and justice served, His mercy abounds for those He saves.  That is justice and mercy working together.

Grace is getting what you don’t deserve.

The man we spoke with last night believed he had to prove himself worthy of salvation – that is what Catholics and Mormons believe.  Indeed, if we had to work for grace, then it would not be grace at all, it would be merited favor.  The Bible teaches that salvation is absolutely and completely of the Lord (Ephesians 2:8-9; Hebrews 12:2; Philippians 1:6; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31).  Even our faith and repentance are gifts, otherwise they would be works (2 Timothy 2:25; Ephesians 2:1-10).

In the last moments of Christ’s crucifixion, as He hung there in spiritual agony as the result of the weight of sin of the world and God crushing His Son with His full wrath, Jesus said, “It is finished”, and then He gave up His spirit (John 19:30).  Not only was His work to save men from their sins completed, but He affirmed there is nothing left to be done.  No more work, no more sacrifice, nothing at all.  There is nothing any of us can do to add to the finished work of Christ.  It is finished!  The person who believes they have to prove themselves worthy of salvation does not understand the price paid for sin, nor do they understand grace and are still dead in their sins.

We are born spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1), we are blinded by the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4), and it is impossible for us as natural men to understand the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:14).  We are deserving of God’s justice, but according to His will (John 1:12-13) and the glorious riches of His mercy, He has chosen to deliver His people from His wrath and give them what they don’t deserve.

God’s justice and mercy are hinged upon the cross by His sovereign grace.  He gives us what we can never earn, namely eternal life, while meeting all the requirements to satisfy His justice.  Now that is amazing grace!

This article was originally posted at The Speak:Truth Project