The Bible is very clear that the concepts of mercy and justice are deeply intertwined. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, readers see God’s rich mercy towards sinners as well as His profound desire to see wrong things made right. Time and time again, Christians are also charged to take these virtues into the private and public spheres of their lives. The question is, how do we know that? What do biblical mercy and biblical justice look like? How are we to participate in this kind of justice and mercy today?
MERCY - THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS
What is biblical mercy? In short, it’s the removal - the taking away - of a punishment that was rightly deserved. It’s fundamentally related to forgiveness, and God demonstrates it perfectly. Charles Spurgeon once wrote that “God's mercy is so great that you may sooner drain the sea of its water, or deprive the sun of its light, or make space too narrow, than diminish the great mercy of God.”
In the Old Testament, it is mercy that moves God to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. It is this same mercy that is demonstrated when God created a covenant with the Israelites to protect them and care for them (despite their ongoing disobedience). Biblical mercy is seen as early as Genesis 3 when God made clothing out of animal skins for Adam and Eve so they would be covered after sinning against Him (Genesis 3: 21).
In the ultimate act of mercy, God the Father sent Jesus to die on the Cross for the sins of those that would believe in Him. By living the perfect life and dying a death that was undeserved, Jesus absorbed the punishment for our sin (death) and defeated it. While God would have been entirely justified condemning us to Hell, He, in His merciful love, forgave us and defeated death’s power over us. In 2 Peter 3 we see that “our Lord’s patience means salvation” for us and removes from us the most unimaginable penalty of sin - separation from Him for eternity. God alone could take the first step in this reconciliation to Himself. Without His unwavering mercy, knowing Him would have become impossible.
JUSTICE - INTENTIONALLY PURSUING RESTORATION
Merriam-Webster defines being just as “acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright or good.” However, where does this moral standard come from? As Christians, we believe that this definition comes from God alone - not a court, a legislative body, or the culture. The Bible Project notes that because humans were uniquely made in God’s image, we are to carry His justice forward:
“Humans were created to be God's representatives on earth and carry out His plan, abiding by the morals and concepts of justice that God himself abides by. According to the Biblical justice that God sets forth, all humans are equal, all humans are created in His image, and all humans deserve to be treated with fairness and justice.”
While justice in the Bible can take the form of retributive justice (punishing those that break laws), most instances of justice refer to restorative justice - seeking out vulnerable people and serving them. This also means reforming social, political, and economic structures to prevent future injustices and compensate victims for past instances of oppression or harm.
Both the Old and New Testaments are full of texts in which God’s heart for justice put on display. In Exodus, He sees the oppression of the Israelites by the Egyptians and will act to rescue them (Exodus 3). Books like the Psalms and Proverbs also make several references to the Lord’s defense of the marginalized and downtrodden.
“Don’t take advantage of the poor just because you can; don’t take advantage of those who stand helpless in court. The Lord will argue their case for them and threaten the life of anyone who threatens theirs” (Proverbs 22:22-23).
“Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners;he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin (Psalm 146: 5-9).
Even when God’s people offer up to Him music and sacrifices, He rejects them when oppression remains in their midst. The prophet Amos, speaking of behalf of God Himself, gave such a warning to the Israelites in the Old Testament:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)
God made a covenant with Abraham, and he was to start a new lineage of people who were to learn the ways of the Lord and practice righteousness and justice. However, the Israelities failed to obey God and perpetuated many injustices themselves. Because God is just, wrongs must be made right and punishment has to be given. But the Lord, in His mercy, married love with justice by sending Jesus to take the punishment on the behalf of those that would believe in him - making guilty sinners righteous and blameless through His sacrifice.
PRACTICING MERCY AND JUSTICE TODAY
The biblical mandate to practice and grow in mercy is clear. Believer, you are to “open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, [and] defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9). Paul writes that “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2). Why are we to live like Jesus? Because “a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:16-17). Furthermore, Jesus tells us that showing mercy and pursuing restorative justice for the marginalized and oppressed is analogous to doing those things for him (Matthew 25:35-40). The book of Galatians further reminds us that, however we can, we are to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (6:10).
In his book Generous Justice, Tim Keller writes that a Christian taking no action to promote justice may not truly understand the mercy and grace that has been shown to them:
“If a person has grasped the meaning of God's grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn't live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God's grace, but in his heart he is far from him. If he doesn't care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn't understand the grace he has experienced, and at worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just.”
Showing mercy and pursuing justice isn’t easy. It often means that the one extending mercy must take on the cost of the offense themselves. It may require giving up some of the privileges and resources you enjoy to serve another that has been deceived or exploited. While this charge is a heavy one, we follow a Savior that pursued those that no one else would pursue. He loved the unlovable, advocated for the forgotten, and rewrote the definition of “neighbor” in a way that compels us to see our “neighbors” as anyone in true need. Following Jesus isn’t easy, but it is never in vain. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).
I am the lead data and research analyst with The For the City Network and joined the team in February 2018. I help volunteers, pastors, nonprofit leaders, and business professionals better understand the characteristics and dynamics of their communities so that they can more effectively pursue human flourishing together. I earned my master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Texas - Austin and continue to live in North Austin.