That God is just is a truism of Christian faith. The Old and New Testament texts that speak of divine justice are innumerable. Theologians have unanimously claimed that justice is a relative divine attribute (Western tradition) or a divine energy (Eastern tradition). All have agreed that the God of the Bible is just … all, that is, except one. All have agreed that justice should characterize the Christian life … all, that is, except one.
“Mercy is opposed to justice,” declares St Isaac of Nineveh.
Mercy and justice in one soul is like a man who worships God and the idols in one house. Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is the equality of the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves; and when it makes recompense, it does not incline to one side or show respect of persons. Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and it compassionately inclines a man in the direction of all; it does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion. If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot co-exist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul. As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy. (Ascetical Homilies I.51. p. 379)
A little later in the same homily, Isaac provocatively states, “Justice does not belong to the Christian way of life, and there is no mention of it in Christ’s teaching” (I.51, p. 382). The disciple of Christ seeks to emulate in his life the mercy of God, for it this mercy that God has so graciously showered upon us. Hence the holy mystic instructs his readers, “Do not hate the sinner; for we are all laden with guilt. … Why do you hate him? Hate his sins and pray for him, that you may imitate Christ Who was not wroth with sinners, but interceded for them. Do you not see how he wept over Jerusalem” (I.51, p. 387). What do we know of the justice of God, when all we know is his unmerited grace and forgiveness? The disciples of Jesus seek to become like their Lord and thus to become like God. As a counselor of souls, Isaac knows that when a person turns his heart toward justice, he inevitably becomes consumed with vengeance and the desire for requital. But this is not who God is.
St Isaac then makes his famous pronouncement: “Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you” (I.51, p. 387). Surely this must be one of the most revolutionary statements in all of patristic literature. Are you tempted to dismiss it as hyperbole? Know that you are not alone. Moral theologians and philosophers will immediately begin their disquisitions on the virtues and the significance of justice in the good life. Biblical scholars will immediately begin to compile all the texts in Scripture that speak of the justice of God, perhaps with reference to the atoning death of Christ and the Pauline doctrine of justification. Parish pastors and preachers will feel uncomfortable. But virtually everyone will agree that Isaac has crossed over into rhetorical excess. But it is precisely at this point of excess, Isaac would tell us, that the gospel begins:
How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? “Friend, I do thee no wrong: I choose to give unto this last even as unto thee. Or is thine eye evil because I am good?” How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it, and thus bore witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice?—for while we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change. (I.51, p. 387)
If you hear in these words echoes of Martin Luther, you would not be wrong; but St Isaac the Syrian is no sola fide Protestant. Luther would find the way that Isaac combines his understanding of the unconditionality of the divine love with a rigorous asceticism quite unacceptable—and he would be the poorer for that. Yet I think Luther would rejoice in this powerful proclamation of the gospel that triumphs over every legalism, every justice.
A special word to preachers: Do not be reluctant to proclaim the gospel of God’s love in its full radicality. Yes, I know all the conundrums it poses. I have wrestled with them the past 35 years. But be assured that it is precisely the scandal of grace that opens the hearts of our people to faith and repentance.