The inspired writers of the Bible recorded a remarkable amount of material about two characteristics of God: mercy and justice. These two qualities, at first glance, might seem contradictory. Can a gracious, merciful God punish people?
First, observe a portion of the biblical record of God’s mercy. Just after the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea, Moses led them in a song of praise to God, which included this verse: “You in Your mercy have led forth the people whom You have redeemed; You have guided them in Your strength to Your holy habitation” (Exodus 15:13, emp. added). It was not long after this that God gave the Israelites instructions to build the Ark of the Covenant, the lid of which was called the mercy seat. The mercy seat was made of pure gold, and was the place where God communicated with Moses (Exodus 25:22; 30:6). The Greek word used to name the mercy seat is hilasterion (Hebrews 9:5), a word that also is used to designate Jesus (Romans 3:25; McCord, 128:527). In a sense, Jesus is the “mercy seat” for Christians—His merciful sacrifice and eternal presence allow us to communicate with the Father (see 1 John 2:1; Hebrews 7:27), and through Christ we receive God’s mercy (Isaiah 53:4-6; 1 Timothy 1:2; 1 Peter 1:3).
When revealing the Ten Commandments to Moses, God Himself proclaimed both His divine mercy and justice:
You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth, you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love me and keep My commandments (Exodus 20:4-7).
Just as God’s mercy continues to exist, the justice of God likewise is not limited to the long ago. God is still serious about people serving Him, and about the consequences for people who choose not to serve Him. It is fascinating and startling to study the numerous passages where God’s vengeance is under consideration. For example, Hebrews 10:30 records: “For we know Him who said, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ ” In Romans 12:19, Paul wrote: “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Our perfect God cannot allow sin to go unpunished (see Matthew 25:41; 2 Peter 2:9). God always has been just—He punished Adam, for example, because sin has consequences (Genesis 2:17). Norman L. Bales observed of God’s punishing Adam: “Had He not done so, our relationship with Him would be as unpredictable as the relationship the ancient pagan people imagined they had with their numerous deities” (1989, p. 33). We can depend on God’s system of ethics because God has never treated the righteous and the wicked in the same way (p. 34).
Many sincerely ask: “How could a merciful God allow souls to be eternally lost?” Some people conclude that mercy and justice must be mutually exclusive characteristics of God, and, consequently, God never could exercise justice or wrath on anyone, because His mercy prevails. Their picture of God is skewed, because they picture Him as akin to a benevolent, grandfather who constantly gives generous gifts, but is extremely hesitant to discipline. In God’s dealings with humans, both mercy and justice are present, with the two characteristics balancing each other.
If God is truly good (and He is), then He cannot tolerate or overlook evil. He did not overlook the sin of Adam (Genesis 3:17-19), Cain (Genesis 4:11-13), Saul (1 Samuel 15:26), or David (2 Samuel 12:8-10), and He certainly will not overlook sin in the modern world. However, God has mercifully provided a way for sinners to escape His wrath: He sacrificed His spotless, sinless Son. Christ was the only One Who was qualified to be a sacrifice for sin, and because He never sinned, His pure blood can wash away our sins (Revelation 1:5; Hebrews 13:20), allowing us to stand justified before God on the Day of Judgment (Titus 3:7; Hebrews 10:19). However, we must take the necessary steps to appropriate that blood to our souls (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12).
The justice and mercy of God have never contradicted each other. In fact, our perfect Creator balances the two qualities masterfully. If that were not true, the psalmist would not have been able to proclaim, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; Mercy and truth go before Your face” (Psalm 89:14, emp. added).
Bales, Norman L. (1989), How Do I Know I’m Saved?: A Study of God’s Grace (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate)
McCord, Hugo (1987), “The Mercy Seat,” Gospel Advocate, 128:527, September 3.
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