Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

God’s Mercy and Justice

One of the many controversies of our time is the debates between “feel-good religion” and the Prosperity Gospel on one hand, and fire-and-brimstone, fundamentalist types on the other.

 

The former are known for emphasizing the love of God as their theological leitmotif, without analyzing the love of God with any level of depth. Opponents claim that they emphasize God’s blessings – and particularly tend to overemphasize the notion of God’s blessings being made manifest in a physical, material, worldly sense – without properly emphasizing our moral responsibilities, our obligations to God or neighbor, or the reality of punishment or even damnation for not living up to our obligations.

 

The latter are known for focusing only on God’s wrath and punishment. They are often accused of making God seem like an angry, vengeful God, which often overshadows the reality of God’s love and mercy, which is just as infinite and unbounded as God’s justice. Some say that this over-emphasis on God’s wrath or justice is a facade for a judgmental attitude (“righteous indignation” becomes a code-word for “I am judging you”), or is possibly an outward projection of a guilty conscience.

This adds another level of meaning to the question of how to reconcile God’s mercy and God’s justice. And that seems to be one theme for this week’s readings. [1] The Bible upholds both Divine mercy and Divine justice side-by-side, without watering down either. This can be seen in the responsorial psalm for this week, which is taken from Psalm 85, one verse of which reads: “Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss. Truth shall spring from the earth; justice will look down from heaven.” (Psalm 85:10-11)

 

God revealed certain truths to man, and to assent to and live in accordance with these truths is necessary for salvation. Justice is rectitude (right order). Right order can only result from an adherence to the truth. When God’s Kingdom comes, truth and justice will reign in the land. Yet, this truth and justice does not preclude, but includes, mercy. In God, justice and a strict adherence to the truth on the one hand, and peace and mercy on the other, are brought together. St. Augustine, commenting on this verse, wrote,

 

 

“Truth in our land,” in a Jewish person, “mercy” in the land of the Gentiles. For where was truth? Where the utterances of God were. Where was mercy? On those who had left their God, and had turned themselves unto devils. Did He look down upon them? Yea, as if He said, “Call those who are fugitives afar off, who have departed far from Me: call them, let them find Me who seek them, since they themselves would not seek Me.” Therefore, “Mercy and truth have met together: righteousness and peace have kissed together.” Do righteousness, and you will have peace; that righteousness and peace may kiss each other. For if you love not righteousness, you will not have peace; for these two, righteousness and peace, love one another, and kiss one another: that he who has done righteousness will find peace kissing righteousness. They two are friends…Ask all men, “Willest thou peace?” With one mouth the whole race of man answers you, “I wish, I desire, I will, I love it.” Love also righteousness: for these two, righteousness and peace, are friends…[I]f you love not the friend of peace, peace will not love you, nor come to you. [2]

 

What Augustine is saying here is that the author of the text saw truth as reigning among the Jews, since, at the time in which the Psalm was being written, only the Jews had God’s Revelation, and truth exists where God’s Word is. Yet, mercy was the chief manner in which God interacted with the Gentiles, since the Gentiles, in Old Testament times, did not have God’s Revelation, and it is out of God’s mercy that He brings us to an understanding of the truth. Thus, in God’s Kingdom, both truth and mercy reign, since God’s Word will be known to all who enter into it, but the fact that God leads us to His Kingdom is a manifestation of His mercy.

 

Further, St. Augustine writes that peace and justice/righteousness go hand-in hand, since one cannot have true peace without righteousness, and to reject righteousness is to reject true peace. All people desire peace, even evil men; yet, one who desires peace without also desiring righteousness will never attain true peace.

 

Thus, peace, mercy, righteousness and truth will all reign in God’s Kingdom. This is paralleled in Isaiah 45:8, wherein it is written, “Let justice descend, like dew from above, like gentle rain the clouds drop it down. Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let righteousness spring up with them! I, the Lord, have created this.” God’s plan of salvation brings about a situation where both justice and salvation wash over man. That God brings about salvation is a manifestation of His mercy; yet, God bringing about salvation is also coextensive or simultaneous with His establishing of justice on the earth.

 

Thus, in God, justice and mercy are brought together. The contradiction, tension, or competition between the two is thus merely illusory. We have been “blessed…in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens,” and God, as a result of His love, “destined us for adoption to Himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of His Will, for the praise and glory of His grace.” (Ephesians 1:3, 5-6)

 

In Christ we have the blessing of God. Christ was given to mankind to be the vessel of God’s redemption and blessing, and thus of His mercy. In God’s plan of salvation, justice and mercy are brought together, united in a mysterious way; this is seen in Christ in particular. Part of the process by which salvation comes to us in and through Christ is that we are justified, that is, made righteous in the sight of God. Justification, as St. Thomas Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologiæ I, Q. 21, A. 4, reply to Objection 1, makes manifest both the justice and mercy of God. Justification manifests the justice of God, since God forgives us our sins on account of us turning from our sins and towards God, and forgiveness of sins is something due to repentance; and to give one what is due is to manifest justice. Yet, it is God who brings about that repentance within us, by infusing a love of God into our soul by grace, and this was something done freely or gratuitously, and thus manifests His mercy.  [3] The Council of Trent’s Decree on Justification, chapter VII, emphasizes this union between God’s justice and God’s mercy even more, when it says that the efficient cause of our justification “is a merciful God Who washes us and sanctifies us gratuitously, signing, and anointing with the Holy Spirit of promise, Who is the pledge of our inheritance”; yet, the formal cause “is the justice of God, not that where He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just, to wit, with which each of us are endowed by Him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind…receiving justice within us…” God making us righteous is a manifestation of His righteousness, for God renews our souls and makes us righteous by making us partakers of His righteousness; yet, God making us righteous is also a manifestation of His mercy, for we are sinners, and the fact that God makes us righteous is gratuitous. [4]

 

Therefore, justification, and all other aspects of our salvation, make manifest both God’s justice/righteousness AND God’s mercy. Yet, our personal response to God’s salvific plan plays a pivotal role in God’s plan. The same section of the Decree on Justification also says that God justifies us “according to each one’s proper disposition and cooperation.” [4] One can only accept God’s justifying decree if God first prepares or disposes him to it. For the man who does not accept God’s plan of salvation, for the human who is not properly disposed to God’s grace, the harmony between justice and mercy is offset. Jesus says in the Gospel reading for this week, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave. Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and dust the dirt off your feet in testimony against them.” (Mark 6:11). In the following verse, it is written, “So they went off and preached repentance” (Mark 6:12), and in the following verse it says that they cast out many demons in those who were possessed by demons and cured many people of sickness (Mark 6:13). The Apostles made known God’s healing power, which is both physical and spiritual. Yet, to reap the fruits of this saving power requires us to make the choice to turn from our sin and turn towards God. They didn’t just heal, but they also “preached repentance,” which is not merely the making known of God’s healing, but also includes making known our duty to turn from our sin and towards God in order to make known the fruits of this healing. God’s grace heals us, but only if we turn from our sin and accept it. Thus, if we refuse to do so, this will serve in witness against us, and we will experience God’s justice. Here, God’s justice includes the preserving of right order, insofar as it is in line with the right order of things that the wicked be punished; nonetheless, in this case, God’s justice is directed against us, and that is wrath.

 

Yet, for those who accept God’s plan of salvation, we experience God’s justice not as something directed against us, but as something being established within us. We overcome our sin, and rectitude is therefore established within the soul. And this is something born out of God’s mercy. Thus, for those who accept God’s plan, mercy and justice are brought together in a mysterious and incomprehensible way for the sake of our salvation.

 

 

Sources:

  1. To read the readings for this past week, visit: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/071518.cfm
  2. St. Augustine, Exposition on the Psalms, exposition on Psalm 85. Published in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 8, translated by J.E. Tweed, edited by Philip Schaff (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing, Co., 1888). Accessed on http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1801085.htm.
  3. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ I, Q. 21, A. 4. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (originally published 1920). Accessed on http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1021.htm.
  4. The Council of Trent, Decree Concerning Justification. Promulgated during the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent, January 1547. Accessed on: http://www.thecounciloftrent.com/ch6.htm

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