have always been afflicted with the desire to see what something is really about. To take a statement or belief and drill down to what it really means. How does salvation really work? How does it relate to God’s justice, mercy, and forgiveness?
Whatever sense of justice we have as humans is only a dim reflection of the perfect justice that flows out from the giver of life. God is infinite and perfect in his character, so all his attributes are infinite. He isn’t only partly just, he is as just as it is possible to be. He doesn’t only exercise justice some of the time; he is always infinitely just, because He himself is infinite. To quote George MacDonald, “His justice is the live, active justice, giving existence to the idea of justice in our minds and hearts.”
If you ask the average Christian what God's justice means, they will probably say that it means the punishment of sin. We think justice is done when a crime is punished according to the law, and we see in scripture that God punishes sin, so we assume that God's justice is the same. This view of justice is very much mistaken. It doesn't align with the way justice is defined in the Bible, and it doesn't stand up to reason. Only a low form of human justice would be satisfied by merely punishing sin. God's justice is much bigger and more beautiful than that. God will not relent until sin is destroyed completely.
The Biblical idea of justice is about restoring all of creation back to its original purpose. It is about redemption and freedom from the slavery to sin and death. Punishment may be a part of that process, but it is never the end goal.
'Punishment, deserved suffering, is no equipoise to sin. It is no use laying it in the other scale. It will not move it a hair’s breadth.' - George MacDonald
God is good. Every action he takes is always for a good purpose. What possible good could we say God is doing by holding billions of people in existence for punishment for all of eternity? Some of us might actually like this idea thinking: people who don’t agree with us are going to pay the ultimate price. Our enemies may have a better life now, but they will burn for all eternity. The problem with those sorts of feelings, in fact any feeling I can think of that would justify this doctrine, is that it cuts directly against our Lord’s own commands. He tells us to love our enemies. He tells us to pray blessings on those who mean us harm. We are told to be imitators of God. To love like he loves. To bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the royal law. These ideas simply do not fit together. The justice of God is not satisfied by eternal suffering. Resentment, human revenge, human hate may be satisfied by it, but not God’s justice. God’s justice is so much bigger, so much more beautiful, so much more relentless than this weak idea.
Imagine for a moment that a child has stolen money from his mom’s purse. Once this is discovered, obviously punishment must be dealt. Does this punishment balance out or in any sense “fix” the problem? What if we ground the child for a month...does this “pay” for the sin? If the child is still defiant, even a year of grounding isn’t enough to pay back the wrong done. In fact, there isn’t any amount of punishment that “fixes” the problem. Even if the money is taken from the child and given back to you, does that fix the problem? Does this bring justice? No! The wrong is still there. There is only one way that the sin can, therefore, be made right, and that is if the child repents and turns to the parents and asks for forgiveness. When this happens, true justice is served. When sorrow and repentance come, wrongs are made right, God’s true justice comes. Sin is utterly destroyed. Punishment can play a part in bringing this about, but it is not the end goal. Even if it is not possible for the child to pay you back, of course you would forgive. Indeed, we are commanded to forgive. Does this mean that punishment is not important? Of course not. Punishment may play a vital part in bringing repentance, but we can see that punishment does not “balance out” or “fix” or “bring justice” to the problem. Think of the prodigal son. The Father did not demand payment or punishment. The reason is obvious: Repentance had already come. Sin had already been destroyed.
There are many stories of this sort of thing happening. Corrie Ten Boom met a guard who had been in the concentration camp where her sister had died and she survived. He asked her for forgiveness. Take a look at what she said:
“Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” - Corrie Ten Boom
There was a powerful making right, a powerful good had happened. She didn't demand the punishment of the guard. She forgave. And the power of God was there. This is how wrongs are made up for. Sin had been destroyed and reconciliation had come.
We can all see that Corrie Ten Boom did the right thing in this situation. We know that this incredible act of forgiveness came from God. God’s end goal is not to punish every sin, but to utterly destroy it.
Just like a loving father, God knows exactly when punishment will produce good results and when it will not. He is always working to draw us to himself, to form us into His image, to restore us back to our original purpose. He doesn’t “have to” punish sin. It is only when true repentance comes that wrongs are made right. Only then is there an "atonement," a "making right."
Justice does not mean the punishment of sin. Instead, it means that God gives all of his creatures "fair play." It is worth noting here that in Hebrew, the words for righteousness and justice are linked tightly together, and that justice and mercy are used in tandem, showing that they do not conflict with one another.
and that to you, O Lord, belongs mercy.
For you will render to a man
according to his work.
For the Psalmist, the fact that God renders to each man according to his work is merciful. Most of us would not associate this idea with mercy. We think rendering to each of us according to our work is just, but not merciful. But the Bible has an altogether different idea. God deals with each person according to their work. He gives us “fair play.” Another way to say it would be that God does right by us. He relates to us rightly.
8 The Lord has shown you what is good.
He has told you what he requires of you.
You must act with justice.
You must love to show mercy.
And you must be humble as you live in the sight of your God.
This famous verse commands us to act with justice, and in the next breath tells us to love to show mercy. Clearly, the prophet does not think that mercy and justice are opposed to one another. For the writers of the Bible, mercy and justice are two sides of the same coin.
Jesus constantly refers to God as his loving father—his Abba. God deals with us as a loving father would deal with his children. When we fall, he will help us up. But ultimately, he wants us to walk. He wants us to learn. Sometimes we must feel the pain of a fall in order to learn to walk. Other times we need the loving hand of our father guiding us. At other times he lets us go in order that we may walk on our own.
We can certainly see in the scriptures that God does have wrath against sin and He sometimes does punish sin, but He only does so when it is the most loving and merciful thing to do. It is always for our good, not simply to inflict pain. God’s punishment is meant to show us our sin and point the way back to his loving arms, the kind embrace of his love and forgiveness. As a loving father, God does not punish in spite of his mercy and love, but because of them. His love is a consuming fire. He is relentless in his pursuit.
In the same way, God’s forgiveness does not go against his justice. If our sin is a debt to God that must be “paid for” by punishment, and if Jesus pays that price, then what does God forgive? If you owe me money, and then someone else pays it for you, am I really forgiving the debt? Would that be “amazing grace?” If someone demands to be paid their due in full before they are willing to forgive, we don’t usually think of that person as loving or forgiving.
Yet atonement is linked tightly with forgiveness in the scriptures. I propose that something more is going on. Something far more beautiful, something that aligns with the character of God as shown to us by Jesus – the Jesus who cried out “Father forgive them, they know not what they do!” as they were nailing him to the cross. Notice Jesus didn’t cry out “Father, forgive them, but only if they have faith in my death as a payment for their sins!” No—he freely forgives.
God wants our hearts. Think of Psalm 51: “A broken and contrite heart I will not despise.” In the same Psalm it says that God doesn’t even want the sacrifice. In Micah 6, the author rhetorically talks about sacrificing his own son to “pay for his sin.” God isn’t the slightest bit interested in that. That is what pagan gods are like. Not our God.
When God does accept sacrifices, it is because of his love. He is reaching out, allowing this ritual to reach into the heart of His child and speak and show his child a new way. It shows that sin leads to death, and that God provides a way out. There is redemption in Him—we get out of Egypt and away from our bondage to sin—that is what sacrifice means! It doesn’t pay off a demanding God. It doesn’t propitiate an angry deity. God has everything he needs. He doesn’t need to collect on a debt owed him. God longs to forgive and restore us. But he also wants us to repent and turn to him. He loves us enough to use whatever means necessary to bring us back to his heart, whether that be punishment or forgiveness.
But God reaches out to us and offers us a new way. This way involves dying to ourselves so we can live a new and different way in Him.
God actually wants us to learn to follow him. His punishment and mercy both have their place in that process.
‘Mercy is a good and right thing, and but for sin there could be no mercy. We are enjoined to forgive, to be merciful, to be as our father in heaven. Two rights cannot possibly be opposed to each other. If God punishes sin, it must be merciful to punish sin; and if God forgive sin, it must be just to forgive sin. We are required to forgive, with the argument that our father forgives. It must, I say, be right to forgive. Every attribute of God must be infinite as himself. He cannot be sometimes merciful, and not always merciful. He cannot be just, and not always just. Mercy belongs to him, and needs no contrivance of theologic chicanery to justify it.’ – George MacDonald
I really believe that because of our flawed view of God’s justice, we minimize the beauty of his mercy, his forgiveness—and, yes, even his punishment. God’s character is pure, self-giving love, and his justice and mercy flow out of this character and are not opposed to each other.
'There is no opposition, no strife whatever, between mercy and justice. Those who say justice means the punishing of sin, and mercy the not punishing of sin, and attribute both to God, would make a schism in the very idea of God.' - George MacDonald
The great Christian hope is that God will come back and set the world to rights. He will judge the world with justice. He will redeem the world. He is the creator of the world, and he will redeem it. He hasn’t given up on his good world, and his purposes will come to pass. All things will be summed up and made complete in Christ. Can we really say that this hope is possible, and also believe that many of our loved ones will be damned forever? Doesn’t the agony of the damned seem more of a victory for the Satan than it would be for the God revealed in Jesus? My friends, we have been very much mistaken.
Yet Jesus is our atonement. He gave his life that we might live. We are to take up our own cross and follow him with everything that we have. This is part of the making right of all things, the restoration of the world. It is part of God’s perfect justice.
Open your mind to the possibility that God is indeed more beautiful than you can imagine. You are not obligated to believe anything else.
'But where an evil thing is invented to explain and account for a good thing, and a lover of God is called upon to believe the invention or be cast out, he needs not mind being cast out, for it is into the company of Jesus.' - George MacDonald