Is God’s Love Only Merciful or Is God’s Love Also Full of Justice?

Posted on Jul 4, 2016 in Theology blog | 0 comments

By Jack Irwin, M.Div., Elder, First Presbyterian Church of Newhall, CA (PCUSA)

It is my premise that one cannot talk of God’s love as concerned only with mercy, but one must also at the same time speak of God’s love as fully concerned with justice. It is my observation that the emphasis on God’s mercy in some Christian communities ignores God’s concern with justice. Both love AND JUSTICE come equally from the same root of God’s love for God’s Creation.

Injustice in Our World

We have no doubt that injustice rules around the world? Need I give you examples?

  • People who are hungry
  • Those who have dirty water or no water
  • Those children with no access to education
  • Children who are forced to work in horrible conditions
  • Those who are discriminated, enslaved, raped, falsely imprisoned, killed
  • The list could go on….

These are issues of injustice, or to use a synonym, unrighteousness. People all over the world who are sensitive to injustice, who are not in-bed with injustice, whose hearts are not hardened to injustice, are upset by stories of injustice and some band together to fight it.

Injustice as a Concern of God Expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures

What about the Lord God, the Creator? Is the Creator God concerned about injustice? Upon reading the Jewish Scriptures, you cannot deny that the God of the Jewish religion is concerned more about justice than anything else. In fact, justice was more important than the religious worship of the Jews at their Temple in Jerusalem, since the prophets warned that injustice would invalidate the purity of worship.

If you look at the Jewish Law, the Torah, you will see that God, through Moses, laid down the basis for the Jews to be a just society, a righteous nation. “God’s People” were to be a contrast to the empire of Egypt, which was a land of injustice, military might, and political control through the dictatorial Pharaoh. Through the “Exodus,” God had rescued the Jews from the unjust empire of Egypt where they were slaves of the Pharaoh. Who can deny that these words from Leviticus mean that they were to practice justice in their society:

“You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18)

In the 8th century BC, Micah was warning the nation of Israel about social injustice and religious corruption in the economic, political and religious life of the nation. The Hebrew prophet Micah said,   “He [God] has told, O Man [and Woman], what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you but TO DO  JUSTICE, to love kindness [or, mercy] and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Here are the Prophet Amos’ criticisms of “God’s People (Israel). Amos was a prophet like Micah in the 8th Century BC, who warned of the rampant injustice in the nation of Israel. Here is what was written in the book of “Amos” to describe these injustices:

  • “you who impose heavy rent on the poor”
  • “you who exact a tribute of grain from the poor”
  • “you distress the righteous and accept bribes”
  • “you turn aside the poor”

but Amos wrote, you should

“Hate evil. Love good, and establish justice in the gate.”  See Amos 5:11-15

Injustice in the Christian Scriptures of the New Testament

But what of the Christian Scriptures, represented in the New Testament? Do they present God as a God of Justice? Do they connect the Love of God with the Justice of God? Here we take a look at Paul and the Reformation.  Paul’s emphasis was on God’s love as mercy. Read Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, where he says this about love, repeated in many, many wedding ceremonies:

“Love is patient; love is kind, is not jealous; love does not brag, is not arrogant; does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, it not provoked, does not take into account a wrong, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices in the truth, bears all things, believes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13:4-7, NASB)

Justice? Injustice? Working for justice? Fighting injustice?  Barely mentioned by Paul in his definition of love. Paul was dominated by God’s love being merciful. After all, Paul, formerly as Saul the Pharisee who persecuted the new followers of Jesus through imprisonment and even death, was forgiven by Jesus and commissioned by Jesus to be an apostle. Imagine the impact on Paul of this mercy – Paul, who wrote that he was “the chief” of sinners! No wonder, the merciful love of God was predominant in Paul’s theology.

Where does justice show up in Paul’s 13 letters? It shows up in what the Reformation took up from him in the doctrine “Justification by faith.” It does not show up as the justice expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures, in which Paul as a Pharisee steeped. Rather, for Paul the justice issue is one of individual salvation, the restoring of the relationship between the sinner and the Creator. Paul wrote in his letter to the Christians at Rome:

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24, NASB)

Paul sees God’s concern with justice as the problem of how to forgive the sin of all while still maintaining God’s holiness. God is holy and righteous and hence cannot allow sin to co-exist with His holiness and righteousness. He cannot wink at sin in order to accept the sinner. Sin must be dealt with to maintain God’s holiness, and that, according to Paul, was done through the sacrificial death of the Son of God, Jesus. And even the author of the Letter to the Hebrews [to Jewish Christians] expresses this doctrine of justification of the sinner through the sacrifice of Jesus obtaining the forgiveness of God, that is, obtaining God’s mercy. So justice of God for Paul is consumed with the individual, and not with injustice toward one’s neighbor or injustice in society.

The Protestant Reformation: Excluded Societal Justice Issues

Martin Luther in 1517 posted his theses on the Wittenburg church door, openly starting the Protestant Reformation, which had been brewing since William Tyndale translated the Latin Bible into the English vernacular in the 1300’s and was advanced by Guttenberg’s press in the 1450’s. Luther led the Reformation onslaught against all the “works” that the Roman Church required of church members to supplement faith and gain assurance of salvation. So the mantra of the Reformation leaders, like Luther, Calvin, Knox and others, was Paul’s emphasis on God’s mercy expressed in Paul’s theology of “Justification by Faith” and not by “works.” What was a “work”? It was an action of the believer that sought to make sure that God saved the believer, whereas the Reformation stated that salvation was a gift of God, that needed no act of the believer except to “believe,” to accept the gift in “faith.”

In fact, Luther was so against “works” that he refused to regard the Book of James as part of the New Testament Canon. The book of James was an antidote to “justification by faith” which was expressed in Paul’s letters. James, a leader of the early Christians in Jerusalem, a brother of Jesus, and was martyred, wrote: “But prove yourselves doers of the ‘word’ [of faith], not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22) and “You see a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. … For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (James 2:24 and 26)

This Reformation mantra of “Justification by Faith” has dominated Protestant Christianity for almost 600 years, from 1517 to today. And like Paul, it excluded a concern about justice toward our neighbors and in our societies. No wonder battles ensued between and within denominations over social justice! Battles over the position of slaves in the USA. Battles over the position of women in the church and in society. Battles over discriminated groups, like African Americans and women. Battles over “social agendas” to engage in social justice issues in society, which many conservative Christians saw as displacing the evangelical doctrine of salvation in Jesus Christ, although after many years even the conservatives have accepted the necessities of working for justice in society.

(Note: This article on “Justice” only looks at certain parts of Paul’s writings. This is not a full study of Paul or of the entire New Testament writings. A full study of “justice” in the New Testament is necessary, but not part of this article.)

Today’s Reformation: Christians Coming to Know God’s Love is Both Mercy and Justice, Coming to Represent Both the Mercy and Justice of God’s Kingdom

Today there is another paradigm shift in Christian faith and practice that corrects Luther’s one-sided view of God’s love. Pastors, theologians and denominational leaders are coming to see that the Gospel, the Good News, is both justice and mercy. See N.T. Wright’s writings. See Russell Moore of the Southern Baptists.

What is this new Reformation saying? It repeats Jesus, who said at the start of his ministry, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15, NASB) While this new Reformation still regards salvation as a gift of God, it says when a person enters into God’s salvation, that person, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit, becomes a co-worker with God the Father and Jesus the Son in bringing the Kingdom of God into this world. Christians pray “the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught, “…thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven….” Christians, those who desire to follow Jesus, are enlisted into cooperating with God in bringing the Kingdom of God into all the earth.

We recognize that Christians are to be a light to the world of what God desires: both mercy and justice. The apostle John wrote, “In Him [Jesus] was life, and the life was the Light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5) This is the struggle we see in our contemporary world: the struggle between the darkness of injustice and the light of justice, between the darkness of unrighteousness and the light of righteousness.

We say that we are to spread the love of God, both within our community of faith, as well as to our neighbors, but does this include working for justice and against injustice?  We may overemphasize love as mercy, and ignore the justice side of love.   We may hesitate to even discuss justice issues for fear of political division, but are we missing or ignoring something of the full good news, of the full love of God?.

So when we say in worship that Christians are to spread the love of God to each other and into the world, it does not only mean to be merciful and kind to others. It also means to work for justice and against injustice, as harbingers of the Kingdom of God, which arrived in Jesus, continues through His followers and will be consummated when He returns as King of kings and Lord of lords.

So what must we do to work for God’s justice?

What injustices is your church fighting? Play your part in bringing the Kingdom of God into the darkness of injustice. That darkness seeks to command and control the world around us. How are our leaders teaching and leading followers of Jesus in the good news of the justice of the Kingdom of God? How are we who claim to be saved bringing the salvation of justice into the world? May the Spirit of God encourage, empower and speed us on the task of justice that Jesus has given us.

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