Two of God’s attributes that seem to contradict each other are His mercy and His justice. How can a God who is merciful judge people for their sins? How can a God who is committed to justice have mercy on those who do evil? These two aspects of God’s nature seem to negate each other, and therefore God can’t be both all merciful and all just, can He?
We must first understand what sin is in order to understand God’s mercy and justice. Sin is an offense against God: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight.” (Ps 51:4) Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become “like gods,” (Gen 3:5) knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus “love of oneself even to contempt of God.”(St. Augustine, De civ. Dei 14, 28: PL 41,436.) In this proud self-exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation (Cf. Phil 2:6-9). To choose deliberately – that is, both knowing it and willing it – something gravely contrary to the divine law (Cf. Mk 10:19) and to the ultimate end of man is to commit a mortal sin. This destroys in us the charity without which eternal beatitude is impossible. Unrepented, it brings eternal death (Cf. Rom 6:23).
The sinner cannot do anything on his own to return to God (Cf. Isa 64:6; Rom 3:23; Heb 10:8,11). Jesus, the Good Shepherd (Cf. John 10), will seek him out like a lost sheep and invite him to return to His lovingly outstretched arms (Cf. Luke 15). St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) defined the virtue of “mercy” in his great Summa Theologiae (ST II-II.30.1) as “the compassion in our hearts for another person’s misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him.” God in His infinite love and mercy provided the only sacrifice (Jesus) who could atone for the sins of His people. God’s perfect Son fulfilled God’s perfect requirement of God’s perfect law. It is perfectly brilliant in its simplicity. Hence, St. Paul writes: “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.” (Rom 5:6-11)
God’s mercy is eternal as David sang in Ps 103:17-18: “But the Lord’s love for those who fear him is everlasting; His justice, too, for their children’s children, for those who keep his covenant and remember to obey His commandments.” God embraces all in His fatherly arms, great and small, rich and poor; no one is excluded who turns to Him with contrition. In addition, we read in Holy Scriptures: “But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance.” (Wisdom 11:23) No matter how numerous and grievous our sins, the mercy of God is greater and ready to forgive them. God delays the punishment so that the sinner may be converted.
God’s great mercy for the contrite sinner is testified to by Jesus Christ, especially in the beautiful parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). After this prodigal son had squandered his father’s wealth in wild living, he found himself in want and deprivation. He reflected upon his father’s kindness of heart and was determined to turn to him and ask for pardon. He had not even reached his father’s home, when the father, filled with love and compassion, hastened toward him, embraced him tenderly, and without reproach for his shameful life and the gravity of his offenses clothed him anew, and rejoiced in his return, because he was happy at the conversion of the son who had been lost.
However, the recalcitrant sinner who is overly confident of the Divine mercy will be all the more severely visited by the justice which he heeded not (Cf. Heb 10:26-31). In order to understand this extremely important truth, we must remember that mercy and justice shine forth equally strong in every Divine action: God’s mercy always presupposes His justice. Whether God disciplines or rewards, He does so always with regard to the graces that man has used or misused. For example, Jesus judged Judas in Mark 14:21 and Matt 26:24: ”It would be better for him if he had not been born”, but considering that Judas travelled with Jesus for nearly three years, we know He also gave Judas ample opportunity for salvation and repentance. Even after his dreadful deed, Judas could have fallen on his knees to beg God’s forgiveness. But he did not. He may have felt some remorse born of fear, which caused him to return the money to the Pharisees, but he never repented, preferring instead to commit suicide, the ultimate act of selfishness (Cf. Matt 27:5-8). Hence, as we are confident of Divine mercy, we must not forget that Divine justice will be exacting toward us.
Dear friends, we have abundantly experienced the Divine mercy in our lives. Let us raise our eyes to the crucified Jesus, the God Incarnate, Who bled upon the Cross, in order to deliver us from Hell, and lead us to heaven, may we appreciate the most extreme effort of His love. We have been born in the bosom of His holy Church; we have been led by the light of the Christian faith, received nourishment for our souls in the Holy Sacraments, instructed through His holy gospel. If, instead of responding to these graces by a righteous life, we choose to harden our hearts and disobey God, we become worse than unbelievers, and the misuse of the mercies of Divine goodness will burden us with the wrath of Divine justice (Cf. Rom 2:8).
God is all benevolence and kindness, but when we take this as an indulgence to sin, we forget that God is also just. As His Divine clemency and goodness should encourage us, so too His justice ought to make us change for the better. God is good, but His goodness cannot stand in opposition to His sanctity; it cannot foster weakness, it cannot favour hatred or self-indulgence, it cannot encourage injustice and fraud, nor does it intend to populate heaven with self-serving individuals who cannot love others.
The sinner is given the free will to choose whether God should be the merciful Saviour, or the stern Judge. He can obtain mercy from God through contrition and penance (Cf. 1 John 1:9). There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept His mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss (Cf. Rom 6:23; Isa 3:9; Ps 9:16-17). God is all love, and desires the salvation of all. Nevertheless, He lets us have what we choose, be it corrective punishment or reward. (Cf. Heb 12:5-11; Matt 16:27; 19:29; 1 Cor 3:8)
We must never presumptuously rely upon God’s mercy when doing so involves a violation of His justice. Men are very prone to presumption of this kind. “God is a loving Father,” we say, “He is sure to forgive us,” and so we go on serving ourselves and hurting others, not thinking that this loving Father is also a stern and just Judge. We who continue presumptuously in our sins, always pleading in excuse for them that God is merciful, beware lest we follow the path of the thief and traitor, Judas Iscariot, the one doomed for destruction (Cf. John 12:6,17:12; Mark 14:21; Matt 26:24; Luke 6:16). It is gross presumption and a sin crying to heaven for vengeance, when a man persists in evil, relying on God’s mercy. In such a case a habit of sin is quickly formed, and this gives rise to obduracy and despair, that lead to hell. St. Augustine says: “As, when a stone is thrown upon the mirror-like surface of the sea, at first only one circle appears, then two; the second forms a third and so on, up to the very brim of the water, in like manner, will each sin become the occasion of a greater one to the hardened sinner; he falls from one sin into another, until, at length, it is almost impossible for him to cease sinning.”
At one time, Judas may have believed that Jesus was a prophet, or possibly even believed He was the Messiah. Judas was included in the group when Jesus sent the disciples out to proclaim the gospel and perform miracles (Cf. Luke 9:1-6). Judas had faith, but it was not a true saving faith. For a time Judas was a follower of Christ, but unlike the Apostle Paul he was never converted (or saved) by the love of Jesus. This fulfils the words of Jesus: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt 22:14) We ought then to remember God’s justice, and not rely presumptuously on His mercy. Let us not be careless and lead a godly life for we do not know the day nor the hour the bridegroom will arrive (Cf. Matt 25:1-13). In the words of David, let us pray: “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous (or wilful) sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.” (Ps 19:13-14). It is important that we keep watch and make every effort to lead lives that are spotless, blameless and at peace with God (Cf. 2 Peter 3:14) so that we may eventually meet in heaven around the throne of the Father of Mercies. Amen.
Let us implore Divine Mercy with the hymn “God of Mercy and Compassion”: