Is God merciful to all who call upon Him?
The scepter of justice is the scepter of the kingdom… It is necessary that for every injustice, great or small, punishment follows – either by the man himself who repents, or by God who distributes justice. Further, he who repents is already punishing himself. Therefore let us punish our own sins if we want to obtain God’s mercy.
from St. Augustine Answers 101 Questions on Prayer by Fr. Ermatinger
It is unfortunately common in the present age to find mercy and justice as opposed to each other. At the heart of this is a variant of the heresy of Marcionism, that the God of the Old Testament is not the God of the New Testament, or Sabellianism (itself a form of Modalism), that the Three Persons of the Trinity are actually different operations of One God. What is going on in these heresies are misguided attempts to resolve the ‘apparent’ emphasis on justice in the Old Testament and the ‘apparent’ emphasis on mercy in the New Testament.
Firstly, the ‘apparent’ distinction is a fiction. The Old Testament is filled with promises of God’s mercy inasmuch as the New Testament gives weight to the justice and righteousness of God. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s promises of mercy as well as the promises of justice, especially as seen in the books of Hebrews and Revelation.
The root issue in these heresies is both philosophical and moralistic. Justice and mercy are treated separately in Greco-Roman philosophy with mercy often taking the role of vice and a “necessary evil”. The Greco-Roman philosophical mind would have had no problems with the God becoming man, as “incarnate gods” were widespread within Greco-Roman paganism, but would have seen the mercy of Christ as folly and a direct violation of their conception of justice, which was paramount in the concepts of ethics and religion. In a nutshell, the concept was that justice is the right ordering of things while mercy is a permitted disharmony on the part of the lawgiver, amongst other things. Forgiveness of the disorder of justice, mercy, would stem from one’s compassion and emotions, thus a vice, especially in stoicism. If Jesus, who preached mercy and forgiveness of sins, is to be God, then the God of Justice, must either not be God or a different, separate, compartmentalizable mode of God.
The Christian finds resolution, and avoidance of heresy, to the issue of justice and mercy through proper grounding in the text of the Scriptures and through the moral framework presented by Christ. In the Old Testament, mercy is bound to charity as an application of charity in the context of (an in)justice. Charity and justice, along with righteousness, are all united in the same root word צָדַק ṣāḏaq and are thus not opposed to each other. Justice, as a virtue, is the state of correct ordering of things in relation to God’s will; justice, as application, is the bringing about the ordering of things so that they maintain/return to a proper relation to God’s will; charity is the means by which things are ordered so that they are in proper relation to God’s will; mercy, then is the application of charity to those in a state of injustice so that they return to a state of justice in relation to God’s will. Righteousness, then, is simply the being in a state of correct ordering (justice) according to God’s will.
Through this prism, the will of God, even in the Old Testament, is shown not to be the “Do as I say, else you will be punished” of the pagan gods but rather that God’s will is that we actually become capable of doing His will, and thus being in a proper relationship with Him. Jesus, and the moral life that He offers to those who would unite their lives to Him, is the Father’s means for accomplishing this – as promised in the Old Testament and as fulfilled in the New Testament through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Mercy here doesn’t undo or set aside justice but becomes a means for accomplishing justice amongst the unjust. If justice, and all will agree upon this, demands that injustice be punished, it can be seen that its greatest punishment lies neither in the retribution done to the unjust, nor in the restraint of the unjust, but in the elimination of the unjust by the interior transformation of their inner lives and will so that they become just – doers not hearers of God’s will. So, how to obtain the mercy of God? By turning to Him in repentance. How to punish the injustice that one has done? By turning to God, rejecting one’s will, and doing His will. How to be righteous? Do God’s will, no one’s own.
“Mercy Seat”, Flemish Statue, c. 1431.