Some of the social concerns that our society classifies as justice issues are actually matters of mercy. Caring for the poor and the needy are often matters of mercy in Scripture–rather than civil principles of justice. The context determines the approach. Though the oppression of the poor is a social injustice, the compassionate care of the poor is a matter of mercy. When justice and mercy are comingled and conflated, what ought to be voluntary acts of compassion become civilly coerced and judicially enforced acts of injustice.
Over the past three decades, ethicists, scientists, and politicians have steadily adapted the institutionalized language of the academy. In turn, they have strategically packaged social agendas and political policies by affixing the word “justice” to them. We now recurrently hear about economic justice, climate justice, racial justice, gender justice, and—the most sinister of all—reproductive justice. To make matters more confusing, in both society and the church the phrase social justice has become a catch-all for any given combination of social agendas. This means that the phrase social justice can function like a trojan horse for whatever agenda is being pushed.
This should deeply concern Christians, not simply because false and dangerous narratives are giving shape and direction to the future of our country, but because God has redeemed His people to be people of truth. He calls us to zealously guard our own hearts and consciences from false philosophies—and most importantly to guard the truth of the gospel.
When approaching this subject, we face several difficulties involving justice. First, the ideas to which the word “justice” have been affixed in our culture sometimes contain matters about which we should care (e.g., racial injustices), sometimes contain a mixture of truth and error, and sometimes—as is the case with reproductive justice—are wicked perversion of truth altogether.
Another challenge lies in the fact that some of the social concerns that our society classifies as justice issues are actually matters of mercy. Caring for the poor and the needy are often matters of mercy in Scripture–rather than civil principles of justice. The context determines the approach. Though the oppression of the poor is a social injustice, the compassionate care of the poor is a matter of mercy. When justice and mercy are comingled and conflated, what ought to be voluntary acts of compassion become civilly coerced and judicially enforced acts of injustice.
The third difficulty we face is that many Christians have not sought to define justice and mercy according to Scripture. Ultimately, such a lack of understanding about these two attributes leads to a failure to understand the Gospel.
In order to lay something of a biblical foundation for this last difficulty, we need to have a biblical understanding of these two specific attributes of God–namely, justice and mercy. We need to know what the Bible has to say about them on the vertical and horizontal levels. We then need to understand how the biblical teaching about justice and mercy undergird our own understanding of the gospel and inform us as to how we are to live as Christians in this fallen world.
The Source of Justice and Mercy
We cannot start with a consideration of justice or mercy at the level of the civil sphere—let alone in relation to our understanding of the gospel—without first establishing the divine source of justice and mercy. We need to recognize that we would never have any concept of “justice” in the social sphere if there were not a just and holy God who reveals what justice looks like. Additionally, we would never have “mercy” in the social sphere if there was not a merciful God.
Proverbs 28:5 states, “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it completely.” This is precisely because the LORD is the source of all true justice. In Isaiah 45:21 the Covenant God declares, “there is no other God besides Me, A just God and a Savior; There is none besides Me.” God is infinitely just. This is one of his manifold perfections. God must deal with evil by punishing it commensurate with its nature. God was just to bring condemnation and pronounce judgment on the human race on account of just one sin. Adam’s sin was against the infinite and eternal God and, therefore, deserved a just punishment commensurate with the being against whom He sinned.
God is also the source of all true mercy. The Bible everywhere teaches that God is merciful and full of compassion. God is infinitely and eternally merciful. We see this principle at work even in the way in which He did not destroy our first parents immediately when they sinned. Instead, He gave them the promise of the gospel (Gen. 3:15) and the sacrificial system that pointed to the redemption He would provide through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. God is “abundant in mercy” (Psalm 103:8), a God who “delights in mercy” (Micah 7:18), and One who is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4).
We are taught to be merciful by way of consideration of the covenant compassion and mercy of God. Jesus said, “Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful” (Luke 6:36). That statement comes in the context of our Lord reminding us that God, in His common mercy and grace, gives the godly and the ungodly, the just and the unjust, sun and rain. Accordingly, mercy is the manifestation of goodness and bounty toward others when they have no claim to it.
Defining Justice and Mercy
Moving from what the Scriptures teach about God being the source of all true justice and mercy, we need to establish accurate biblical definitions of justice and mercy. In Micah 6:8—a passage to which just about every proponent of social justice appeals—we discover a very clear distinction between justice and mercy. Justice and mercy—though not at odds with one another—are very distinct biblical chatacteristics. Micah says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” According to this verse, doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly before God are three distinct traits. This means that even when we find principles of mercy embedded in the Mosaic Law, that does not make them principle of justice. It has become common for some to conflate justice and mercy, speaking of a merificul justice or a just mercy. Micah teaches us that these two attributes are distinct from one another–though not in opposition to one another.
When the Old Testament speaks of justice in the civil sphere, it is referring to rendering unto others their due according to God’s law. By way of contrast, mercy is voluntarily showing others compassion when they have no right to demand it of it. Justice is built on owing something to another. Mercy is built on showing compassion to those who do not deserve it.