In explaining the cross, the apostle Paul demonstrates that it reveals both God’s righteousness and His mercy, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom.3:25-26). At Calvary, Christ satisfied the justice of God, and opened up the mercy of God. That ought to make sense to anyone who has repented of sin, and taken refuge in Christ for salvation. This then raises the question of the attributes of God. What is God like?
Clearly, God is just, and must be so; otherwise, He is not God. God reveals many things to us, but He does them in an orderly way. We need to know that He is the creator of all things (Gen.1:1), that He is the eternal I am, without beginning or end (Ex.3:14), and that He is totally holy (Ex.33:20; Isa.6:1-3). Whoever touched the mountain of God would die, let alone anyone who sought to draw near to God Himself (Ex.19). It is true – wonderfully true – that God is love, but He is eager to explain that His love for His people Israel was His choice and simply because He loved them (Deut.7:7-8; 9:4-5).
Justice is a basic divine attribute, if we can put it like that. Mercy, by definition, cannot be basic. If God were obliged by His own merciful character to be merciful to all His creation, all would be saved. That is clearly contrary to what God tells us about His judgment in Scripture, where, for example, the sheep are separated from the goats forever (Matt.25:31-46). God must be just; He does not have to be merciful. The apostle John heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven when the anti-Christian city of Babylon (representing all those down through the ages who are hostile to the true God) was destroyed:
Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for His judgments are true and just; for He has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of His servants (Rev.19:1-2).
So God is just, and can rejoice in His justice.
Yet, if God is just, how does His mercy relate to His justice? Many Christians today come close to setting up grace as God’s defining attribute, as if He must be gracious and merciful because that is what delights Him. After the devastation of Jerusalem by the marauding Babylonians in 586 B.C. – and it was the Lord who determined to lay in ruins the wall of the daughter of Zion (Lam.2:8) – it is said that He does not afflict from His heart or grieve the children of men (Lam.3:33). God who acted in justice carried out what He would have preferred not to have done! Elsewhere, God says that He has no pleasure in the death of anyone (Ezek.18:32), and His heart recoils at the thought of executing His burning anger against Ephraim (Hos.11:8-9).
Judgment is thus said to be God’s strange or alien work (Isa.28, notably v.21). Further on in the book of Isaiah, God speaks:
For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you (Isa.54:7-8).
Thomas Goodwin seems to have good cause to assert that ‘though God is just, yet his mercy may in some respect said to be more natural to him than all acts of justice’.
Faith is not opposed to reason, but there is a tension here between what might be called a basic attribute of God (justice) and the attribute which most delights Him (mercy). There may have been some far greater mind than mine in the history of the Church that has explained how these two fit together in the character of God Himself. For the moment, one can see how they meet together in the cross, but not so easily in the depths of the Godhead. Calvin was writing on the subject of the Trinity, but he warned against departing from God’s Word and indulge our curiosity in a labyrinth: ‘And so let them yield themselves to be ruled by the heavenly oracles, even though they may fail to capture the height of the mystery.’
To be God, God must be just, but He does not have to show mercy. Yet He loves mercy in a way that is not quite true of justice. We cannot fully understand this, but at the cross we can be still and meditate and adore.
– Peter Barnes