For years, there have been many people in our culture crying out for justice, and it seems that every day there is a new type of “justice” for which we are expected to fight. While not everything the world demands may truly be an issue of justice, this shows how we all have an innate sense that people ought to be treated fairly and evil must be punished. This is because all humans—believer and unbeliever alike—are created in the image of God. We desire justice because God is just. Since we are fallen, our moral faculties often function improperly. However, God is perfectly just and will always do what is right. The Bible tells us:
Still, our world is far from perfectly just. Evil runs rampant and many people suffer. In the same way a government that allows crime and corruption to go unchecked can hardly be considered good, how much more can God, who is perfectly good, allow injustice to continue? We must remember that although God is just, he is also loving and merciful. God does not immediately punish all evil because he is patient and compassionate. God shows mercy to sinful people, but isn’t this a contradiction? Mercy is refraining from punishing an evil act, while justice demands that evil be punished. How can God be merciful and still be perfectly just?
Justice and Mercy
Let’s look at God’s first act of judgment—and mercy—in the Bible. In the creation account, God told Adam he could eat from any tree in the Garden of Eden except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If he did, he would die (Genesis 2:16-17). Yet, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God did not immediately strike them down. While it is true that they died spiritually at that moment, having severed their perfect union with their Creator, God spared their lives. He showed them mercy, although it was temporary. Physical death would take them eventually, and it will claim each one of us someday. The Bible tells us that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). We all deserve that punishment since “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned
However, that is not the complete verse. It continues, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The famous John 3:16 tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Even though we deserve death for our sin, if we place our faith in his Son, he will show us mercy and grant us life instead. This is wonderful news for us, but doesn’t this still pose a problem for God’s justice? Even though God has placed a condition on his mercy—faith in Jesus—how does this negate the need for justice?
If God simply showed complete mercy for our sins with no consequences, he would not be just, and we would not appreciate the severity of our sin. Indeed, unchecked sin would run rampant throughout the world, bringing more pain, suffering, and separation from God. However, if God forced us to pay the penalty for our sins—which would be perfectly just—we would be hopeless. Without mercy, God would not show the full measure of his love and compassion for us. So how can God be merciful while still maintaining justice? The solution to this apparent dilemma is the Cross. God showed us mercy by sparing us from having to pay the penalty for our sin, and justice was served by Jesus bearing the punishment instead.
Without mercy, God would not show the full measure of his love and compassion for us
Yet doesn’t this just create another problem for God’s justice? Death is the punishment for sin. Since Jesus was sinless, he did not deserve death. Everyone knows it is unjust for an innocent person to be punished for a crime he did not commit. Even worse, Jesus was punished in our place. How is this just? The key difference is that Jesus is not some random person who was forced to pay the penalty for someone else’s crime. Jesus is the judge. He was not forced to die; he did so willingly (John 10:18). Jesus chose to pay the penalty for our sin so that through his death, we may live forever.
We must wonder, then, what about those who don’t place their faith in Jesus Christ? In that case, they don’t receive God’s mercy; they only face his judgment. Thus, the Cross is also a promise that justice will eventually be served to the wicked. God poured out his wrath on his own Son to spare us from the consequences of our sin. Nevertheless, it shows us the proper punishment for sin; it should be a warning to all of us. If we reject God’s mercy, then we are condemned and will face God’s wrath ourselves. As Hebrews 10:31 says, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Sin must be punished—either Jesus pays for our sin or we do. Justice must be served.
Justice Will Prevail
As a good government protects its citizens and promotes justice by punishing crime, so will a good God protect his children by banishing evil forever from his presence. God’s justice is a wonderful thing for those who love him, but a terrible thing for those who reject him. Although death is the punishment for sin, God is compassionate, patient, and merciful. God told the prophet Ezekiel, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). God “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God withholds our punishment so that we can come to him. Thus, it is our choice which side of God’s justice we fall on. We all face the same decision that God presented to the Israelites: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
It is our choice which side of God’s justice we fall on
Our world cries for justice. Deep down, we know things are not as they should be. In our fallen state, we may not receive justice for every evil deed committed against us. We may see the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. We look at the world and we see so much suffering and injustice. But when the great injustice of the world makes us despair, let us turn to the Cross where Jesus suffered the ultimate injustice to satisfy God’s perfect justice. It is a reminder that God hates injustice more than we ever could and that he alone can deliver true righteousness to the world. The Cross is a symbol of God’s love and mercy, and a promise that ultimately, justice will prevail.