God’s Justice and Mercy

Posted on July 26, 2018
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There seems to be a common misconception regarding the nature and characteristics of God when viewed in the Old Testament as opposed to the New Testament. Many seem to believe that the God of the Old Testament was a vengeful, punishing God, bent only on justice. They also believe that the God of the New Testament is a loving, merciful God. It is sometimes difficult to convey the message that there is only one God, and His nature and characteristics are unchanging. However, there are hints interspersed throughout the Old Testament that show that God was both a God of justice and a God of mercy.

One such example can be found in the giving of the law concerning cities of refuge.

Cities of refuge were a part of the cities that were given to the Levites upon the conquest of the Promised Land. They were to be given 48 cities total, six of which were designated as cities of refuge (Numbers 35:6). These six cities would serve as a sanctuary for the manslayer; one who had accidentally killed another person, without malice.

The law concerning murder was very clear. There was no sanctuary for the one who used a weapon and killed another (see Numbers 35:9-34). The murderer was to be put to death!

God provided a way for the family of a person who was killed by another to exact justice from the murderer. A relative could operate as the “avenger of blood,” and could take the life of the one who had slain his family member. However, if one who had slain another fled to a city of refuge, he was to be protected until he could stand trial before the congregation. If he was found guilty of murder, he would be put to death. There was no protection for the murderer! If he was found to be guilty of manslaughter (an accidental killing), then he was required to stay inside the city of refuge to which he had fled until the death of the sitting High Priest. If he left the confines of the refuge city, then the avenger of blood was permitted to take vengeance on him. Only after the death of the sitting High Priest could the manslayer return to his home without fear of the avenger of blood.

Demonstrating God’s Characteristics…

The creation of these cities of refuge demonstrated God’s characteristics of both justice and mercy. Especially under the theocratic system that God instituted for Israel, there was a need for moral justice. Those who did wrong, who violated the Law, had to be punished. Those who were guilty of the vilest and most violent crimes had to be punished with death. For the sake of those wronged, there needed to be a punishment commensurate with crime committed. That is justice. God ensured that there was a just punishment for the one who killed another.

God’s mercy was demonstrated when He made an exception for the one who killed another unintentionally. Taking the life of another is no less terrible just because it was not intended. This is evident by the fact that God had to put restraints on the avenger of blood, to keep him from killing the manslayer. Justice would demand that when a life was taken, the one responsible would lose his life as well. God was, however, merciful. He provided an exception which would allow for leniency in limited cases (though it would still bear some serious consequences for the guilty).  Mercy is the characteristic of God that keeps Him from giving the consequence that is rightfully deserved.

God’s mercy and justice were both demonstrated throughout the Old Testament. The way that God interacted with His people showed these characteristics over and over. God promised, for example, that He would deliver His people into captivity if they failed to be obedient to Him. He did not send them into captivity the moment they were disobedient. In fact, He gave them multiple opportunities to repent of their wickedness and return to faithful service. The message of the prophets Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah were all tailored toward the repentance of the people. This was a manifestation of His mercy. Eventually God had to bring the punishment that He promised. His people, both in the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, were taken away into captivity. This was a manifestation of God’s justice.

It is clear that God was not lacking in either mercy or justice under the first covenant. He expressed both, providing every opportunity for His people to be obedient to Him. He showed both characteristics at various times.

God’s Mercy And Justice in the New Testament Covenant…

The misconception many hold concerning the God of the New Testament is that He is only concerned with mercy, and His punishing justice is a thing of the past. Looking to the writings of the New Testament make it evident that this is simply not the case. The God of the New Testament is exactly the same God (with the same characteristics) as the God of the Old Testament. He provides both mercy and justice!

Nothing displays both God’s mercy and justice like the institution of His plan for the salvation of mankind from the consequences of sin. Justice demands that we be punished for our sin, our disobedience.

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).

But, like with the cities of refuge, God has set a plan in motion that will provide mercy. This plan, when followed, makes it possible to avoid the punishment that is just, and receive that “gift of God” that Paul referenced in the verse above.

And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned…” (Mark 16:15–16).

God’s mercy is made available to those who are willing to be obedient to Him. He is willing to remove the consequence for sin, but only for those who are willing to turn to Him with obedient hearts. Those who refuse to be obedient will still suffer the appropriate punishment that comes with justice. There will even be many who act like they are obedient, but are actually rejecting the instructions of the Lord. The punishment of disobedience is the same for them as for those who reject Him completely:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (Matthew 7:21–23)

God is a God of mercy. But He is also a God of justice. We cannot separate these two characteristics. If we want His mercy, we must be obedient. If we refuse to be obedient, then we will receive His justice. There is no escaping it!