Understanding God’s Love: A Primer on Mercy and Justice

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America).

This article addresses the question of how God is both just and merciful in the light of some insights of Pope Francis’ recent book entitled, The Church of Mercy, Walter Cardinal Kasper’s new book, Mercy, and St. John Paul II’s 1980 encyclical, Dives et misericordia. Walter Cardinal Kasper has written recently that since the sixteenth century the “relation of justice and mercy [is] the fateful question of Western theology.” Perhaps, more simply, the question here is how we avoid both despair when confronted with the gravity of our sins, on the one hand, and a sentimental view of God and of his love, on the other.

Liberal Christianity
Kasper is critical of the view of liberal Christianity, which is famously described by Niebuhr in the epigraph to this article. Sin, judgment, wrath, and cross—muting or suppressing these has given rise to a sentimental view of God and his love. Says Kasper, “Mercy becomes pseudomercy when it no longer has a trace of trembling before God, who is holy, and trembling before his justice and his judgment.” Turning for a moment to Pope Francis, he is quick to add here that sorrow for our sins must be tempered with the reality of God’s mercy so as to avoid despair. “Are we often weary, disheartened, and sad? Do we feel weighed down by our sins? … Let us not close our hearts, let us not lose confidence, let us never give up. There are no situations that God cannot change; there is no sin that he cannot forgive if only we open ourselves to him.”

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Summarily stated, “God always thinks with mercy: do not forget this. God always thinks mercifully.” We hear in Francis an echo of the promise in 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And yet, adds Kasper, insightfully completing the Pope’s thought, we must temper God’s mercy with his judgment and holiness, so as to avoid “falling victim to the banal and trivializing image of a saccharine ‘dear God,’ which turns God into a good-spirited pal and no longer take seriously [his] holiness.” Yes, God is merciful, indeed, rich in mercy (Eph 2:4), as Francis rightfully urges, but, Kasper insists, “Our merciful God is not simply the saccharine ‘dear God,’ who lets our negligence and malice pass.” Not at all.

God’s Two Feet
John Paul II puts Kasper’s point differently, “forgiveness does not cancel out the objective requirements of justice.” Indeed, Bernard of Clairvaux makes clear that mercy and judgment are the two feet of God, warning us not to neglect either foot. Neglecting the latter leaves us with “cheap grace,” says Kasper, “and not authentic mercy.” Authentic mercy must be at the service of justice. Neglecting the former, leaves us with despair, hopelessness, and a sense of being abandoned. But the New Testament teaches that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Kasper echoes this biblical thought. “Mercy is victorious over justice in God.” Elsewhere he writes, “God’s mercy is, so to speak, superproportional. It exceeds every measure.” Still, although mercy exceeds the demand for justice, surpassing it, justice is not undercut, but rather is fulfilled. What, then, is the relation of divine mercy and divine justice?

Kasper responds, “Mercy is insolubly bound up with God’s holiness and gives expression to it.” Given his holiness, then, God’s response to sin and evil is resistance, revulsion, his holy displeasure to all that opposes him, and this response the Sacred Scriptures call—says Kasper rightly—“the wrath of God” (Eph 2: 3). He adds: “But God’s wrath does not mean an emotionally surging rage or an angry intervention, but rather [his] resistance to sin and injustice. Wrath is, so to speak, the active and dynamic expression of his holy essence. For this reason, the message of judgment cannot be expunged from the message of the Old or New Testament or be harmlessly interpreted away. God’s holiness conforms to his justice.” In sum, muting or suppressing God’s wrath, judgment, and holiness, in short, the justice of God, turns “the message of God’s mercy,” Kasper concludes, into “a message of cheap grace,” and hence we will not know the greatness of mercy.

Jesus’ Disfigurement
In this connection, the then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote of Jesus’ disfigurement, of reducing the Jesus in the Gospels” to that of a bland philanthropist.” “Today in broad circles, even among believers, an image has prevailed of a Jesus who demands nothing, never scolds, who accepts everyone and everything, who no longer does anything but affirm us.” Adds Ratzinger, “The Jesus of the Gospels is quite different, demanding, bold. The Jesus who makes everything okay for everyone is a phantom, a dream, not a real figure. The Jesus of the Gospels is certainly not convenient for us…. We must again set out on the way to this real Jesus.”

In light of this distortion of Jesus, which sets aside God’s word of judgment by muting or suppressing it, we will never understand the seriousness of sin, and hence the need for the atoning work of Christ for it to be overcome. The latter manifests the immense grace of God, which Francis refers to as the logic of God, that is, “the logic of the cross, which is not primarily that of suffering and death, but rather that of love and of the gift of self that brings life.” He describes the greatness of mercy, echoing Pope Benedict, saying “True revolution, the revolution that radically transforms life, was brought about by Jesus Christ through his resurrection.” He adds, “He changes your heart, from that of a sinner—a sinner: we are all sinners—he transforms you into a saint. Is there any one of us who is not a sinner? If so, raise your hand! We are all sinners, each and every one. We are all sinners! But the grace of Jesus Christ saves us from sin: it saves us! [It is] this immense grace that changes our heart.” The Gospel, then, is the message of immense grace that has its origin in the redemptive work of Christ, and the Church, which is holy, but does not reject sinners, “calls everyone to allow themselves [by God’s saving grace fully revealed in the cross] to be enfolded by the mercy [of the cross], the tenderness, and the forgiveness of the Father, who offers everyone the possibility of meeting him, of journeying toward sanctity.”

Justice and Mercy as Aspects of God’s Love
Thus far we’ve been talking about justice—judgment, wrath and holiness—and mercy, not making clear that both originate from the one loving God. In sum, both mercy and justice (wrath) are aspects of the love of God. John Paul II says, “[L]ove 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.” Alternatively put, God’s love itself, given his essentially holy nature, implies his justice, and hence God’s judgment and wrath are aspects of his love. How so?

On the one hand, there is no true divine love without God’s responding to human evil, which is an offense against him, his holiness, with divine wrath, judgment; the former without the latter degenerates into a sentimental view of God and of his love. British Evangelical historical theologian Anthony Lane rightly notes the basic indisputable point here, namely, “that lack of wrath against wickedness is a lack of caring which is a lack of love.” This is evident to us from the following example Lane gives: “A husband who did not respond to his wife’s infidelity with a jealous anger would thereby demonstrate his lack of care for her.” His jealous anger is a consequence of his spousal love. How much more than human spousal love does the infinite love of God—a love that is perfect, absolutely pure and holy—respond to sin and evil with a righteous wrath. As Lane adds, “Failure to hate evil implies a deficiency in love.”

On the other hand, says John Paul, “The primacy and superiority of love vis-à-vis justice—this is a mark of the whole of revelation—is revealed precisely through mercy.” This is a particularly important point because it makes clear that God does not begin to love us until the demand of justice is met. Rather, adds John Paul, “[L]ove is transformed into mercy when it is necessary to go beyond the precise norm of justice.” That mercy and justice are aspects of the love of God is brought out most clearly in the parable of the prodigal son, also sometimes referred to as the parable of the merciful father.

The Parable of the Merciful Father and Prodigal Son
Referring to this parable solely as being about the merciful father—as Pope Francis does—underscores the possibility of avoiding the despair that may come with sorrow for our sins. But referring to it as the parable of the prodigal son, as it has traditionally been called, and as St. John Paul II calls it, brings out most clearly the humiliation and shame that the prodigal son is ready to suffer, the dimension of judgment and justice that the prodigal son deserves. It also shows us that mercy—which, as John Paul puts it, “has the interior form of the love that in the New Testament is called agape—is God’s own justice, and, furthermore, makes possible the fullest realization of mercy in and through the call to conversion, which restores man in an integrally existential way to God the Father, in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Both aspects of mercy and justice then are needed if we are to understand God’s love.

Says John Paul, “The prodigal son, having wasted the property he received from his father, deserves—after his return—to earn his living by working in his father’s house as a hired servant…. This would be demanded by the order of justice, especially as the son had not only squandered the part of the inheritance belonging to him but had also hurt and offended his father by his whole conduct.” Still, adds John Paul, “The father of the prodigal son is faithful to his fatherhood, faithful to the love that he has always lavished on his son…. We read, in fact, that when the father saw the prodigal son returning home ‘he had compassion, ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him’.” In this action of the merciful father, mercy triumphs over judgment, and the former is an expression of the father’s love. “The relationship between justice and love, which is manifested as mercy, is inscribed with great exactness in the content of the Gospel parable.” In sum, love, particularly in light of judgment, is transformed into mercy.

Justice and Mercy Meet at the Cross
God’s mercy and justice, whose origin is the love of God, is manifested above all in the saving work of the cross. Put differently, mercy and justice meet at the cross of Jesus Christ. This is the view of Cardinal Kasper. “God’s mercy, which is decisively revealed on the cross, allows us, who have deserved judgment and death, to revive and to live anew, without having earned it. It bestows on us a hope against all hope (Rom 4:18).” Still, there remains to ask how God’s mercy comports with his justice, his wrath with his love? In the Letters of St. Paul, we read that even when we were dead in our sins, indeed, enemies of God, and therefore under his wrath, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son—in this way God showed his own love toward us (Rom 5:8-9).

In this biblical light, we can easily understand why the cross of Jesus Christ is then the ultimate and definitive revelation of not only the holiness of God but also the “fullness of justice and of love,” says John Paul, “since justice is based on love.” He adds, “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.” Yes, God’s justice is superabundant, or superproportional, as Kasper also puts it, because justice is in service to mercy, and God’s mercy is beyond measure, which is another way of referring to the wideness of God’s grace.

Moreover, continues John Paul, the redemptive work of Christ not only brings justice to bear upon sin, but also “restores to love that creative power in man thanks to 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.” Most simply, then, the cross of Christ not only renders full justice to God but also is a revelation of mercy. Indeed, it is also the revelation of “the love that goes against what constitutes the very root of evil in the history of man: against sin and death.” Praise God! He is rich in mercy and because of his great love with which he loved us in Christ, while we were still sinners, he made us alive together with Christ, and so by grace we have been saved (Eph 2:4-5).

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery” was painted by Lucas Cranach the Younger after 1532.


  • Eduardo Echeverria

    Eduardo Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his S.T.L. from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. He is the author of several books, including Dialogue of Love: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic Ecumenist (Wipf & Stock, 2010).

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