The Scandalous Injustice of Grace: St Isaac the Syrian and Pope John Paul II


Back in 2008, “60 Minutes” interviewed the Boston button man John Martorano. The inter­view is unsettling. In a quiet, detached, matter-of-fact tone, Martorano describes the twenty confessed murders he committed during his years as an enforcer for the Winter Hill Gang. At the conclusion of the interview, Steve Kroft asks the soteriological question: Do you regret what you did?

“In some cases, regret can take over a person’s life. I don’t get the sense that that’s the case with you.”

“Well, maybe that’s just not my temperament or my personality. Maybe it is, but you can’t see it. Or maybe I can’t express it the way you want it, but I have my regrets.”

“You seem cold. You killed 20 people and that’s all you have to say about it?”

“I wish it wasn’t that way. I mean, I wish there was none. You know, you can’t change the past. I’m trying to do the best I can with the future and explain it as best I can. I regret it all, I can’t change it.”

“You still a Catholic?”


“I mean, you can burn in hell for killing one person.”

“I don’t believe that. At one point, maybe a couple years ago, I sent for a priest and gave him a confession. It was maybe 30 years since my last confession. But I went through the whole scenario with him, and went through my whole life with him, and confessed. And at the end of it, he says, ‘Well, what do you think I should give you for penance?’ I says, ‘Father, you can justifiably crucify me.’ He laughed and says, ‘Nope. Ten Hail Marys, ten Our Fathers, and don’t do it again.’ So I listened to him.”

This interview has been remarked upon throughout the blogosphere and social media. Most people are dissatisfied with Martorano’s expression of contrition. He seems too cool, too detached. They do not believe he has truly repented and therefore do not believe that God has forgiven him. Many mock the penance assigned by the priest. What struck me most was Martorano’s trust in the sacramental word of the priest: “I listened to him.” Martorano believes that God has forgiven him. He trusts the divine word of absolution that was spoken to him, and that word is sufficient.

Yet our instinctive reaction is “That is not enough.” We want to see deeper sorrow and shame, tears, reparations, a dramatic change in the man’s life before we will consider the possibility that God has forgiven this professional murderer. It’s all too easy, even unfair. Grace is not cheap, as we preachers are wont to say. But then we remember a parable that Jesus once told about the Kingdom of God:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last. (Matt 20:1-16)

So why are we scandalized by the prodigal generosity of God? After all, do we not hope that God will also be outrageously generous with us? We say we do, yet do we?

In his book That Man is You, Fr Louis Evely describes a scene from a play by Jean Anouilh:

The good are densely clustered at the gate of heaven, eager to march in, sure of their reserved seats, keyed up and bursting with impatience.

All at once, a rumor starts spreading: “It seems He’s going to forgive those others, too!”

For a minute, everybody’s dumbfounded. They look at one another in dis­belief, gasping and sputtering, “After all the trouble I went through!” “If only I’d known this …” “I just cannot get over it!”

Exasperated, they work themselves into a fury and start cursing God; and at that very instant they’re damned. That was the final judgment.

Talk about a surprising turn of events, both for the audience but especially for the righteous-damned. Imagine their shock and terror. Surely we would not respond as they did, we think to ourselves. Or would we? do we? It’s quite one thing for God to invite me into the vineyard at the first, third, or sixth hour; but I still want him to mete out justice to everyone else. We talk a lot about the unconditionality of the divine love. We say we believe it; we joyously celebrate it. God is love and mercy, we emphatically proclaim. Yet the law of just deserts lies deep in our hearts, waiting for the right moment to erupt in righteous indignation. “And at that very instant they’re damned.” As the reprobate in our Lord’s parable of the Great Assize are surprised by their condemnation (“Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?” [Matt 25:44]), so the good standing in line to enter into heaven are, and will be, horrified to discover in them­selves their own hatred of God’s unconditional love and thus of God himself. The injustice of grace scandalizes.

(I cannot help but wonder if the scandal of grace underlies the violent opposition engen­dered by the good news of apokatastasis. It violates our deep notions of equity. God is absolute love, but surely there are conditions that must first be met if righteousness is to prevail. Hell is just so damned fair.)

God is infinitely just, indeed is justice. So the Bible teaches. Over the centuries theologians have elaborated upon this divine attribute in various ways. All are agreed that the God of the Bible always acts in perfect equity; all are agreed that righteousness 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 extravagant 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. If for the sake of God you are moved to oppose him, weep over him. 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. We are mocked by the devil in many instances, so why should we hate the man who is mocked by him who mocks us also. Why, O man, do you hate the sinner? Could it be because he is not so righteous as you? But where is your righteousness when you have no love? (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 pride, vengeance, and the desire for requital and retribution. Remember the righteous-damned.

St Isaac then makes his famous pronouncement:

Be a herald of God’s goodness, for God rules over you, unworthy though you are. Although your debt to him is so very great, He is not seen exacting payment from you; and from the small works you do, He bestows great reward upon you. Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. “He is good,” He says, “to the evil and to the impious.” (I.51, p. 387; emphasis mine)

Surely this must be one of the most revolutionary statements in patristic literature. Are you tempted to dismiss it as hyperbole? Know that you are not alone. Upon hearing this state­ment, biblical scholars will compile all the verses that speak of God’s covenantal justice, and moral theologians will lecture on the supernatural and cardinal virtues. As far as parish pastors, they will feel uncomfortable and not know what to preach. But all will agree that Isaac has crossed over into rhetorical excess, if not theological error. But it is precisely at this point of excess, Isaac tells 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 Isaac 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. The gospel dramatically turns upside down conventional, and even biblical, understandings of divine justice. The Holy Trinity wills only the good of the sinner, even at the cost of justice.

Latin theologians are loath to speak of a conflict between divine love and divine justice; ultimately they cannot conflict. Yet as Pope John Paul II acknowledges in his excellent encyclical Dives in misericordia, justice must ultimately be interpreted and reinterpreted through love. Speaking of the revelation of God’s loving kindness in the Old Testament, he writes:

In this way, mercy is in a certain sense contrasted with God’s justice, and in many cases is shown to be not only more powerful than that justice but also more profound. Even the Old Testament teaches that, although justice is an authentic virtue in man, and in God signifies transcendent perfec­tion never­theless love is “greater” than justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and funda­mental. Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analy­sis, justice serves love. The primacy and superiority of love vis-a-vis justice—this is a mark of the whole of revelation—are revealed precisely through mer­cy. This seemed so obvious to the psalmists and prophets that the very term justice ended up by meaning the salvation accomplished by the Lord and His mercy. Mercy differs from justice, but is not in opposition to it, if we admit in the history of man—as the Old Testament precisely does—the presence of God, who already as Creator has linked Himself to His creature with a particular love. Love, by its very nature, excludes hatred and ill-will towards the one to whom He once gave the gift of Himself: Nihil odisti eorum quae fecisti, “you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence.” These words indicate the profound basis of the relationship between justice and mercy in God, in His relations with man and the world. They tell us that we must seek the life-giving roots and intimate reasons for this relationship by going back to “the beginning,” in the very mystery of creation. They foreshadow in the context of the Old Covenant the full revelation of God, who is “love.” (III.4)

Like St Isaac, John Paul looks to the parable of the prodigal son as a revelation of the mystery of divine love. Neither justice nor mercy are mentioned in the parable, yet the relationship between the two is stated exactly. “It becomes more evident,” John Paul writes, “that love is transformed into mercy when it is necessary to go beyond the precise norm of justice—precise and often too narrow” (IV.5). Within the order of justice, the son deserved the loss of sonship. He deserved to be hired as one of his father’s servants and to begin the process of rebuilding the wealth he had squandered. But the father shows mercy, not justice. The graciousness of the father reveals his faithfulness to his love, which is the essence of his fatherhood:

Going on, one can therefore say that the love for the son the love that springs from the very essence of fatherhood, in a way obliges the father to be con­cerned about his son’s dignity. This concern is the measure of his love, the love of which Saint Paul was to write: “Love is patient and kind … love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful … but rejoices in the right … hopes all things, endures all things” and “love never ends.” Mercy—as Christ has presented it in the parable of the prodigal son—has the interior form of the love that in the New Testament is called agape. This love is able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin. (IV.6)

But it is in the Paschal Mystery that the love and mercy of God is perfectly and fully revealed. The Son of God is arrested, abused, condemned, crowned with thorns, nailed to the cross, and dies in torment. He who had so beautifully communicated mercy is denied mercy. He is not spared from the injustice of man. “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin,” the Apostle declares, “so that in him we might become the righteous­ness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). These words succinctly summarize the the work of divine redemption through the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Christ. The cross discloses the holiness of God:

Indeed this Redemption is the ultimate and definitive revelation of the holiness of God, who is the absolute fullness of perfection: fullness of justice and of love, since justice is based on love, flows from it and tends towards it. In the passion and death of Christ—in the fact that the Father did not spare His own Son, but “for our sake made him sin”—absolute justice is expressed, for Christ undergoes the passion and cross because of the sins of humanity. This constitutes even a “superabundance” of justice, for the sins of man are “compensated for” by the sacrifice of the Man-God. Never­the­less, this justice, which is properly justice “to God’s measure,” springs completely from love: from the love of the Father and of the Son, and completely bears fruit in love. Precisely for this reason the divine justice revealed in the cross of Christ is “to God’s measure,” because it springs from love and is accomplished in love, producing fruits of salvation. The divine dimension of redemption is put into effect not only by bringing justice to bear upon sin, but also by restoring to love that creative power in man thanks also which he once more has access to the fullness of life and holiness that come from God. In this way, redemption involves the revelation of mercy in its fullness.

The Paschal Mystery is the culmination of this revealing and effecting of mercy, which is able to justify man, to restore justice in the sense of that salvific order which God willed from the beginning in man and, through man, in the world. The suffering Christ speaks in a special way to man, and not only to the believer. The non-believer also will be able to discover in Him the eloquence of solidarity with the human lot, as also the harmonious fullness of a disinterested dedication to the cause of man, to truth and to love. And yet the divine dimension of the Paschal Mystery goes still deeper. The cross on Calvary, the cross upon which Christ conducts His final dialogue with the Father, emerges from the very heart of the love that man, created in the image and likeness of God, has been given as a gift, accord­ing to God’s eternal plan. God, as Christ has revealed Him, does not merely remain closely linked with the world as the Creator and the ultimate source of existence. He is also Father: He is linked to man, whom He called to existence in the visible world, by a bond still more intimate than that of creation. It is love which not only creates the good but also grants participation in the very life of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For he who loves desires to give himself. (V.7)

Divine justice flows from love, and through this love justice is restored to God’s creation. The Pope avoids the rhetorical opposition of love and justice of which St Isaac is so fond. He will not speak of such an opposition because, in his his eyes, to divorce love and justice would suggest an approval and indulgence of wickedness and injury. Christ commands us to forgive seventy-times-seven, but this command does not abolish the “objective require­ments of justice,” the need of those who have been forgiven to make compensation and reparation to those whom they have injured. In this sense we may say that justice is the the goal of for­give­ness. “Thus the fundamental structure of justice,” John Paul explains, “always enters into the sphere of mercy. Mercy, however, has the power to confer on justice a new content, which is expressed most simply and fully in forgiveness. Forgive­ness, in fact, shows that, over and above the process of ‘compensation’ and ‘truce’ which is specific to justice, love is necessary, so that man may affirm himself as man” (VII.14).

The mercy of God is infinite and inexhaustible. The Father always stands ready and eager to welcome home his prodigal children. Flowing from the sacrifice of Christ—“that ‘kiss’ given by mercy to justice”—the power of God’s forgiveness breaks through all boundaries. “No human sin,” proclaims the Pope, “can prevail over this power or even limit it. On the part of man only a lack of good will can limit it, a lack of readiness to be converted and to repent, in other words persistence in obstinacy, opposing grace and truth, especially in the face of the witness of the cross and resurrection of Christ” (VII.13). Conversion is not a precondition for God’s mercy but the discovery of his mercy, a discovery of a love that is always patient and kind. Those who attain to this knowledge of the merciful love of God live in a state of perpet­ual repentance, constantly turning to God and re-experiencing the tender forgiveness of the Father.

Despite differences in emphasis, St Isaac of Nineveh and John Paul II (now canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church) clearly share a deep common faith in the God who is love, the God whose prodigal mercy scandalizes the righteous and redeems the ungodly.

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 since my ordination to the priesthood in 1980. But be assured that it is precisely the scandal of grace that opens the hearts of our people to faith and repentance.

(17 March 2013/27 Oct 2014; rev.)

(Go to “The Punitive God of the Scriptures”)

This entry was posted in Grace, Justification & Theosis, Isaac the Syrian, Preaching. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to The Scandalous Injustice of Grace: St Isaac the Syrian and Pope John Paul II

  1. Rob says:

    Sorry to contradict Saint Isaac, but I must side with George MacDonald on this. Justice does not contradict love because justice is a result of love. It is about setting things right, as they ought to be. A man who sins ought to be genuinely repentant, and a repentant man ought to be forgiven. These do not contradict but compliment one another.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cameron Davis says:

      Came here to say this (or something like it). The failure of Christian theologians to see justice and mercy as working in tandem (I.e. God’s mercy is just and God’s justice is merciful) perpetuates a lot of the problematic conflicts and bifurcations that continue to plague Christian thought. God’s mercy towards humanity and the cosmos is just because it is the good and right response to what ails creation.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Alex says:

      “’Mercy may be against justice.’ Never–if you mean by justice what I mean by justice. If anything be against justice, it cannot be called mercy, for it is cruelty. ‘To thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy, for thou renderest to every man according to his work.’ There is no opposition, no strife whatever, between mercy and justice. Those who say justice means the punishing of sin, and mercy the not punishing of sin, and attribute both to God, would make a schism in the very idea of God.”


  2. I actually think GM would have eventually seen it as Issac does. (Remember time, place and context also.)Because Mercy is the fruit of love. And justice is not. Issac is not saying if you carry on sinning you just get mercy! That makes God a liar! God makes it clear sin has consequences. But Isaac is saying that mercy is higher than justice. Deeper than justice. Mercy is Love. That covers all. It does not allow it to be got away with! Mercy will burn the sin, because mercy is behind the love. Mercy saves. Mercy perfects. Mercy both endures and purifies. Mercy is the foundational stone! Without it justice would not be. It is mercy that will lead the sinner to cry out in repentance! Father Kimal. It’s brilliant. Thankyou.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Rob says:

      “Because Mercy is the fruit of love. And justice is not.”

      I totally disagree. Justice is a fruit of love, because justice is about setting things as they should be, which is done because of love. Justice, properly speaking, is a means to an end exerted on behalf of the best interests of both the perpetrators and the victims of sin.

      Liked by 2 people

      • In that case what ‘Justice’ do you see The Father doing to the prodigal son? Nothing other than Restoring the prodigal son! I see no punishment there, other than the son doing it to himself, thinking himself unworthy. His father most certainly does nothing ‘justice’ at all. He forgives and blesses. Gives him back the ring of authority and sonship immediately! One could say the punishment was already paid in the pig pen. But that was none of the Fathers doing. That was the sons doing! It depends on your definition of ‘justice’ mine is that justice is to do with the law. Mercy triumphs over that.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      I don’t think Issac and George Macdonald actually disagree. George Macdonald says mercy and justice are the same thing by completely redefining what is meant by “justice”: he is utterly scathing about the idea of retributative justice, which is what “justice” is usually taken to mean. He redefines “justice” as restorative justice, fixing broken relationships, making amends and putting everything back where it is supposed to be.
      You said:
      “[Mercy] does not allow it to be got away with! Mercy will burn the sin, because mercy is behind the love. Mercy saves. Mercy perfects. Mercy both endures and purifies.”
      George Macdonald says pretty much the same thing, but calls it “justice”. The difference is of terminology, not substance.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Tom says:

    I suppose it depends on how one defines justice. Is justice a kind of sidelining of mercy, where mercy is not operative? Does one cease being just when one is merciful, or cease being merciful when just? I don’t make a distinction between the two which would enable me to answer ‘yes’ to these. As I recently read somewhere: Justice is just mercy taking the long way around.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. jjs says:

    I feel compelled to poke my head out from my lurking hole for the first time to say that these words—“mercy is in opposition to justice”—are the most provocative and persuasive expression of God’s love I have ever heard. They goosebumped my heart and tingled my spirit over my morning coffee, and I have returned to them throughout my day, only to again feel a deep appreciation and gratitude. They are it. They are the Gospel.

    They explain a salvation that Glaucon and Adeimantus couldn’t grasp, nor could Socrates teach it to them, for he himself didn’t know. For only Christ—and no one else–could point the way.

    “Justice” is a philosopher’s red herring, a merry-go-round, a magician’s trick. It sounds promising and true, but requires the sleight-of-hand of philosophers acting as kings to achieve, and that only with knowing the solution to some enigmatic mathematical equation. THIS is the Δικαιοσύνη of Greek philosophy, and it is in opposition to mercy.

    It could never comprehend the cross, for the cross is decidedly unjust. The cross can only be understood as mercy.

    But that’s like, you know, my opinion, man! So…back to the lurking hole I go.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Robert Fortuin says:

    Hmmm this got me thinking – can forgiveness be considered justice? It would certainly seem to require a substantial redefinition of what normally is understood by justice, to such an extent that I am not so sure anyone would recognize it. But hey, it’s 2021 and all kinds of things are being rewritten 😉


  6. brian says:

    Justice is the perfect flourishing of being constituted by innumerable harmonious relationships between unique and irreplaceable beings. It will not be realized fully until the eschaton. I might perhaps reverse Tom’s aphorism. Mercy is justice taking the long way round and unlike finite beings, God has infinite patience.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Perhaps that is indeed the meaning of justice Brian (I do hope so!). In any case, it seems to me that the whole kerfuffle in regards to the scandal is that justice such as you describe is so categorically unlike justice as we know it, that it is more fitting and accurate to describe it as an injustice. That is to say I am with St Isaac the Syrian on this: I don’t see a identification of mercy with justice. It is wholly scandalous, offensive indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

      • brian says:

        Yes, I see your point, Robert. In the same way, a mystic like Eckhart will say that God is non-existence or No-thing to differentiate what is unique and incommensurable from all our attempts at definition from a finite, creaturely perspective.


      • Tom says:

        Some adjustment to our prevailing notions of justice are called for, that is if we take justice to describe inflicting upon the guilty a sentence involving pain and suffering as the consequence of some choice. That certainly can be justice. But I can also certainly be a merciful thing to do. It all depends on the possibilities which intentionality opens us up to. It’s certain not ‘unjust’ to forgive someone. Nor must it be ‘unmerciful’ to sentence the guilty to hard time (i.e., Hell?) IF the purpose of such justice is finally reconciliation, and IF the extension of mercy and forgiveness don’t amount to dismissing all manner of accountability and truth.

        To me – the two, properly understood, are a single thing, a single divine reality realized under two different conditions decided by us.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Robert Fortuin says:

          I see forgiveness (and mercy) as inherently opposed to the notion of justice – forgiving a debt for instance is not making things just and right as far as what is owed, nor a setting things straight, nor a balancing of the scales. Forgiveness is rather a setting aside of the scales of justice all together, a disregard of the law, of the ledger that keeps track of credits and debts. In the larger scheme of things, and perhaps this is what is intimated, forgiveness and mercy are a making of things right and good. I get that. But as far as the current accounting of things, mercy remains a scandalous affair, offensive in its jarring calculation based not on justice, but on sympathy. It is good news that the rich go empty away.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Tom says:

            Robert: I see forgiveness (and mercy) as inherently opposed to the notion of justice…

            Tom: If they’re inherently opposed (modes of relation), then it would be unjust to forgive, which can’t possibly be true; likewise it would amount to a setting aside of mercy for God to establish a moral order in which the guilty and unrepentant suffered in consequence of their choices, which also can’t possibly be true.

            Put otherwise, it is a merciful thing that God established a moral order which included painful consequences for sinful actions. But once we see the mercy and love behind this arrangement, we acknowledge it is intended for nothing else but to direct us to own the truth of our choices before God and to cry out to him, the mercy of it is seen. Justice may focus more narrowly on the balance between choice and consequence, and mercy may be more readily seen in the gracious avoidance of painful consequence which the repentant enjoy, but again, I think these are two aspects of a single divine goodness viewed differently under terms we decide.

            If ya’ll haven’t read Flemming Rutledge’s book ‘The Crucifixion’ (which discusses the relationship b/ justice and mercy/forgiveness), it’s – what shall I say? – provocative. Pardon the link:


          • Tom says:

            Sorry, I posted Part 1 of that Rutledge review. It was Part 3 I was more concern about. Sorry.

            The Crucifixion—Part 3


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Tom I read that link – and it really demonstrates my point that the meaning of justice is redefined to go way beyond its ordinary meaning, truly passed the point of coherence. Now we are talking about such things as proportional forgiveness and the innocence of the victim.


        • Sonya says:

          Mercy seems to me to be justice arrived at from the other side. When I think of real life situations in which I’ve seen people horrendously wronged, genuinely and completely forgive the perpetrator, it feels like justice has been achieved. Real satisfaction is enjoyed. Somehow the victim has managed to erase the ‘debt’, not needing the wrong-doer to do or suffer anything in the process. What magic is this?

          Liked by 1 person

          • JBG says:


            The question of justice really depends upon what one hopes is ultimately accomplished. This largely falls into two buckets: vengeance/punitive or rehabilitative/transformative.

            Forgiveness is often the very spark needed to initiate change in an offender— the catalyst for dramatic transformation. Also, forgiveness (and transformation that often ensues) is incomparably more satisfying than retaliation/vengeance. It may be incomparably more difficult for us to effectuate (against our instinctive, reflexive desire for retaliation) but incomparably more satisfying.

            P.S. There was a short lived a tv series called The Redemption Project with Van Jones that deals with this topic. It was the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful docu-series I have ever seen.


  7. eandrewschenk says:

    Isn’t the Hebrew concept of justice something like “God’s power to save” rather than the legal idea of justice? Can anyone confirm? If so, maybe St Isaac is upending the legal understanding of justice which has been so much with the Church to make way again for the understanding which the patriarchs and prophets might have been familiar with

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Grant says:

    Or simply put another way, if it is not forgiveness and mercy it is no justice, but just monsterous injustice, human notions of justice and God’s justice have very little to do with each other and are pretty much fundementally opposed. That includes all our courts, criminal and civil justice and most of the principles they are based upon, they are actually unjust and ungodly, but that Comos of the current age, but then He overcome it. But we are all easily seduced by the false justice of the present age and make it part of how we think about Christ and create all the distorted chimeras of the Gospels that we do.

    It can’t be helped entirely I guess, thankfully His Mercy is greater than our ‘justice’.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Some MacDonald quotations from Unspoken Sermons, in addition to the one quoted above by Alex from ‘Justice’ (the whole of which invites (re)reading):

    ‘The Last Farthing’:

    “If God were not inexorably just, there would be no stay for the soul of the feeblest lover of right: ‘thou art true, O Lord: one day I also shall be true!’ ‘Thou shalt render the right, cost you what it may,’ is a dread sound in the ears of those whose life is a falsehood: what but the last farthing would those who love righteousness more than life pay? It is a joy profound as peace to know that God is determined upon such payment, is determined to have his children clean, clear, pure as very snow; is determined that not only shall they with his help make up for whatever wrong they have done, but at length be incapable, by eternal choice of good, under any temptation, of doing the thing that is not divine, the thing God would not do.

    “There has been much cherishing of the evil fancy, often without its taking formal shape, that there is some way of getting out of the region of strict justice, some mode of managing to escape doing all that is required of us; but there is no such escape. A way to avoid any demand of righteousness would be an infinitely worse way than the road to the everlasting fire, for its end would be eternal death. No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of hell in it—no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather! Neither shalt thou think to be delivered from the necessity of being good by being made good.”

    ‘The Voice of Job’:

    “God must love his creature that looks up to him with hungry eyes—hungry for life, for acknowledgment, for justice, for the possibilities of living that life which the making life has made him alive for the sake of living.”

    “Might he not trust him to do him justice?”

    “The true child, the righteous man, will trust absolutely, against all appearances, the God who has created in him the love of righteousness.”


    “Christ died to save us, not from suffering, but from ourselves; not from injustice, far less from justice, but from being unjust.”


    “For the righteousness of God goes far beyond mere deeds, and requires of us love and helping mercy as our highest obligation and justice to our fellow men—those of them too who have done nothing for us, those even who have done us wrong.”


    • Robert Fortuin says:

      It shall remain to ask – what equality of the scales is there in forgiveness, in mercy, in love? None, I say. The balancing of the scales and the accounting of justice are matters wholly unfit and improper in the face of empathy and compassion, the stirrings of love.

      Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.