How Justice and Mercy Meet at the Cross

Posted August 15, 2017 by Amy Wang

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No one likes to suffer. Yet, it was only because Jesus Himself hung on the Cross that we can be saved from the death penalty we deserve for falling short of God's good standards. The Cross is the one place where God weaves together justice and mercy. Who would have expected that this God of wrath against wickedness could simultaneously be a God of love? Below, we will look at the definitions of justice and mercy, what they reflect about the nature of God, and how God could possibly satisfy the conflicting demands of both.


Justice is getting what we deserve. The Old Testament's idea of justice is similar to the Hammurabi code – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. In other words, justice is like having our own deeds returned on our own head (Leviticus 24:19-21, Obadiah 1:15). While this may sound harsh, some have actually said it limits vengeance proportionate to the offence (Ref).

Some believe God is more loving in the New Testament than the Old Testament. However, the New Testament does not eliminate justice. It says we will all face judgment after death (Hebrews 9:27) and the penalty for sin is death (Romans 3:23, 6:23). Let us distinguish two kinds of death, however. The first kind of death signifies the physical separation from our body (Hebrews 9:27). However, in the New Testament is signified a second kind of death, which is spiritual separation from God because of our wrongdoing (see Isaiah 59:2). Without repentance, that spiritual separation eventually results in eternal punishment in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, i.e., hell (Revelation 21:8). Hell is the destiny for the unrepentant after judgment. Thus, Jesus says it is better to pluck out our eye, if it causes us to stumble, than to have two eyes and be cast into hell (Matthew 18:9). God's moral standards are amazingly high, and only He fulfills them perfectly. Without repentance, we will perish (Luke 13:3). Because of our wrongdoing, we cannot see God's face and live (Exodus 33:20), for God is like an all-consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29).

Even though God is slow to anger, he will not acquit the wicked. He will only delay justice, not deny it.

Is justice something we want? In a sense, yes and no. We would like God to judge those who harm us, but at the same time, we want God to show mercy to us. We may desire immediate justice in the world, but justice will also be fearful for us. We, too, would perish if God judged every evil instantaneously (Matthew 13:24-40, Parable of the Wheat and Weeds). Instead of providing instant justice, God is long-suffering and wishes that all come to repentance (2Peter 3:9). This delay works to our benefit, giving us time to repent. However, it also means we need to patiently endure those who will never repent and wait for God’s own timing for justice. Even though God is slow to anger, he will not acquit the wicked (Nahum 1:3). He will only delay justice, not deny it.


Mercy is not getting what we deserve, e.g., the penalty for our wrongdoing. As it is written, blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin (Romans 4:8).

Mercy reflects God's love (Psalm 145:8-9). God is patient and does not want anyone to perish if they are willing to turn back to do what is right (2Peter 3:9-10, Romans 2:4). God's mercy is demonstrated in this, that God sent His Son to take the penalty of our sins upon Himself on behalf of those who believe in Him. John writes, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. “ (1John 4:10). If we wish to avail ourselves of this mercy, we can repent and believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior. He who confesses and forsakes sin finds mercy (Proverbs 28:13, see also 1John 1:9).

Reconciling the Demands of Justice and Mercy

Can a God who reveals His wrath against wickedness also be a God of love and mercy? Indeed, the demands of justice seem contrary to the demands of mercy. However, justice and mercy were both satisfied when Jesus died on the Cross. There, Jesus took on our penalties (to satisfy the demands of justice) and He took our place so we would not have to die (to satisfy mercy) (2Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 3:18, Romans 5:8-10, 1John 2:1-2).

Only God can judge others fairly without condemning himself because He is perfect. Furthermore, only God can forgive sins without breaking the demands of justice, because Jesus Himself tasted death for every man.

Without God, we cannot execute perfect justice without condemning ourselves. Only God can judge others fairly without condemning himself (John 8:7, Matthew 7:1) because He is perfect. Furthermore, only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7-10) without breaking the demands of justice, because Jesus Himself tasted death for every man (Hebrews 2:9). The scribes and Pharisees once brought before Jesus a woman caught committing adultery and said that Moses had commanded that such be stoned. When Jesus told them to let the one without sin first cast a stone at her, they all left, each being convicted by their own conscience, leaving behind only Jesus, who let her go. Only Jesus could provide justice in this case, but he chose do something even greater— he had mercy on her, without neglecting the demands of justice, which he ultimately shouldered on the cross. Consider Romans 11:32, which observes that God has bound everyone over to disobedience that he may have mercy on them all.

Because of the LORD’s mercy and compassion, we (as believers) are not consumed (Lamentations 3:22). God’s wrath against ungodliness and sin fell instead on Jesus. He paid the price for every man’s sin. Perhaps this is why He was sweating blood in agony, before the crucifixion. However, He adds a condition to the gift of salvation-- that we repent and believe in Him as our Lord. He does not force it on us, but gives us our own choice whether or not to receive it.

God "on the hook" for Allowing Evil

Even if allowing evil is not the same as doing evil, Philosopher Peter Kreeft says that God should still be held responsible for allowing evil. He writes,

"He's off the hook for doing evil, but He's still on the hook for allowing it. He could disallow evil. Instead, He makes evil work for a greater good." -Kreeft

Kreeft explains that God does take responsibility for allowing evil. In fact, God literally put himself "on" the hook, through Jesus Christ who died on the cross. That is, God has accepted the responsibility for evil, by taking upon himself the entire penalty of all men’s sins on the cross, and providing all men who will repent and believe a means of restoration.

God also takes responsibility for evil by providing discipline and justice for wrongdoing, intervening when the righteous pray, warning nations of judgment, and so forth.. Everything is under his sovereign control and He intervenes purposefully according to His will, to work for the good of those who love Him.

Reasons to be Thankful

Some think that God ought to be immune to suffering. However, God is not a stranger to suffering (Hebrews 4:15). Besides bearing the weight of God's judgment on the world on the Cross, He also experiences emotional pain, which causes Him to groan (Hebrews 8:26) and grieve (Ephesians 4:30) over sin and evil. Inasmuch as God’s holy spirit is in His people, God probably also grieves with us when we grieve, just as members of the body of Christ suffer together with the member that suffers (1Corinthians 12:26). When we suffer, let us remember that God's own suffering is what gives victory over death, and what paves the way for us to enter that place where there will no longer be any more suffering.


Jesse Radoslovich says on 2019-01-23T15:16:05-05:00:
Great article!

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