Summary: There has been much discussion about the relationship between mercy and justice, and at the heart of this debate is wondering how can God extend mercy while at the same time not robbing justice? Put another way, if the demands of justice must be met then doesn’t showing mercy to someone, whereby they don’t have to pay the full demands of the law, prevent justice from fully being done? This article examines the relationship between mercy and justice.
Alma explained to his son, Corianton, “Now the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also… What do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:15,25).
There has been much discussion about the relationship between mercy and justice, and at the heart of this debate is wondering how can God extend mercy while at the same time not robbing justice? Put another way, if the demands of justice must be met then doesn’t showing mercy to someone, whereby they don’t have to pay the full demands of the law, prevent justice from fully being done?
On the other hand, since Christians believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world and thereby paid the penalty for our sins that justice requires, then shouldn’t his mercy extend to everyone, and not just those who believe on him? Isn’t it unjust to punish unbelievers for sins that have already been atoned for?
In fact, this is the thinking of many people today. There are those who feel that as long as someone has lived a good, decent life, God will allow them to live with him in heaven. In their mind, they think it is cruel and unjust that they should suffer the fires of hell along with those who have truly been wicked. They reason that since God loved us, even while we were sinners (Romans 5:8), then surely he will overlook our small, petty sins and mercifully ignore them. Their attitude is that God knows that we are not perfect, therefore, he justifies us when we commit a little sin, and if it so be that we are guilty of some particularly serious transgression, he will beat us with a few stripes but, in the end, we will all be saved in the kingdom of God (2 Nephi 28:8).
Then what is the truth about mercy and justice? To some, this seems like a confusing subject, however, the explanation Alma gave in his old age to his son Corianton was the very same one he gave many years earlier when speaking to a large crowd of unbelievers in the city of Ammoniah, and it is that sermon that best clarifies how mercy satisfies the demands of justice. And in explaining this relationship, Alma also gives us a better understanding of Christ’s atonement and what it is able to do and what it cannot do.
In the 12th chapter of Alma he explains “that all shall rise from the dead, both the just and the unjust, and are brought before God to be judged according to their works” (verse 8). And once we “come forth and stand before [God] in his glory, and in his power, and in his might, majesty, and dominion, [we will] acknowledge to our everlasting shame that all his judgments are just; that he is just in all his works, and that he is merciful unto the children of men, and that he has all power to save every man that believeth on his name and bringeth forth fruit meet for repentance” (verse 15).
What this tells us is that on the day when each one of us will stand before the throne of God to be judged according to the things we have done we will see “that all of his judgments are just.” But in order for God to be just in his judgments he must therefore be a God of law because it is the law that defines what is just and what is unjust. And in order for God to be just and fair, he must judge all of us by the same standard. He can’t judge one group of people by one set of rules and another group of people by a different set of rules.
But Alma says that we will also discover that God is merciful to all men. In other words, his mercy is not extended arbitrarily to one group of people and not to another group. Everyone is entitled to God’s mercy. However, in order for God to extend his mercy, he must do it according to the law. In other words, in order for God to show us mercy when we sin he must do it according to the requirements that the law prescribes. If he doesn’t then he himself is violating the law and is as much subject to its punishment as anyone else and, as Alma told his son, Corianton, “If so, God would cease to be God.” But because God obeys the law, this gives him the “power to save every man that believeth on his name,” and the way he is able to do this is when people “bringeth forth fruit meet for repentance.”
What this tells us is that repentance is what legally allows God to show us mercy when we sin, and that without genuine repentance on our part God cannot be merciful without violating to the law. To understand why, let’s look at some other laws.
In chemistry, hydrogen and oxygen are both gases, but if we take one atom of oxygen and combine it with two atoms of hydrogen, we get water. But, if we take one atom of oxygen and combine it with one atom of hydrogen we get hydroxide instead of water. If we combine one atom of oxygen with one atom of carbon we get a poisonous gas called carbon monoxide. Therefore, if we want to have water then we have to follow an exact formula. If we vary the formula just a little, we don’t get the desired results.
In cooking, if we want to bake a cake but leave out the sugar, or the baking powder, or put in too much flour or don’t bake the ingredients at the proper temperature for the right amount of time, the cake is not going to come out the way we want. And it’s the same with repentance. It is the crucial ingredient needed that will allow mercy to be applied, and without it our sins cannot be forgiven.
The reason why repentance is so important is because in order to live in heaven we have to be sinless, which means that by committing even just one sin we are no longer clean enough or worthy to live in a sinless heaven. That’s the law, and nothing can change it. If sin were allowed into heaven, then it would no longer be heaven.
Because of the atonement of Christ, repentance is what allows all of our sins to be forgiven through the mercy of Christ, and when our sins have been forgiven then we are deemed to be sinless. If it were possible for us to somehow undo the sins we commit so that it’s like they never happened, then we could become sinless without Christ’s, but it is impossible to undo a sin.
To illustrate why, suppose someone dropped an heirloom ceramic dish onto the floor where it breaks into a number of pieces. It doesn’t matter whether the person broke the dish on purpose or by accident because either way, the heirloom dish has been destroyed. The person responsible for breaking the dish might be able to glue all the pieces back together but it wouldn’t look the same as the original dish. They might be able to replace the dish with a different one, but it wouldn’t have the same sentimental value as the original. In the same way, there is nothing someone can do to undo the sin they’ve committed nor truly undo the hurt they caused in others. Therefore, justice requires that they pay a penalty for the wrongs they’ve committed
In some way that we don’t fully understand, Jesus paid the debt for our sins and he paid them in full. However, it would still be unjust to let someone willingly sin without them paying some sort of a penalty for their actions. What the atonement of Christ does is allow us to try and undo the mistakes we make. Although we can never truly undo them, as long as we are making a genuine effort to do that, by law Christ is able to count our effort as being sufficient and is able to forgive us of our sins. This is why Jesus “has all power to save every man that believeth on his name [when they] bringeth forth fruit meet for repentance.”
On the other hand, if someone doesn’t want to repent then they are not truly sorry for what they’ve done. In that case, it would be unfair and unjust for Jesus to show mercy to someone who doesn’t care that they’re sinning, while likewise showing mercy to someone who is striving hard to undo the mistakes they’ve made.
But why must we believe in Jesus in order to be shown mercy? If we are all sinners and God loves all of us, then why shouldn’t he be merciful to everyone? To understand why, let’s look at a familiar situation.
Suppose someone borrowed $100,000 from Bank X but in time they realized that their monthly payments are more than they can afford, so they decide to see if they can renegotiate their loan agreement. But, instead of talking with someone from Bank X, they go to Bank Z. Unless Bank Z buys the loan from Bank X, there is nothing bank Z can do to lower the lender’s payments. To do that the lender has to go to Bank X because that’s who they owe the money to.
In the same way, since it was Jesus who paid the penalty for our sins, we are indebted to him, therefore, if we want to have mercy extended to us, we have to go to Jesus because he is the only person who can forgive us the debt we owe him. For this reason, if we want mercy shown to us, then it has to be obtained according to the terms that Jesus has given, and his terms are fair and just.
Alma went on to explain that when Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, God set a cherub to guard the way to the tree of life for “if it had been possible for Adam to have partaken of the fruit of the tree of life at that time, there would have been no death… nevertheless there was a space granted unto man in which he might repent; therefore this life became a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God; a time to prepare for that endless state which has been spoken of by us, which is after the resurrection of the dead” (verses 23,24).
Because of his great mercy towards the children of men, God allows each of us the opportunity and the time to repent and prepare ourselves for when we will stand before him to be judged according to our works. God has it within his power to let the demands of justice fall swiftly upon us but, instead, he grants all of us the time to meet the terms of repentance so that we are able to receive his mercy. This is both eminently fair and ultimately just. And so “we see that his arm is extended to all people who will repent and believe on his name” (Alma 19:36).
But how do we know what the terms are that Jesus requires in order for him to accept our repentance and thereby mercifully forgive us of our sins?
Alma explained that God “saw that it was expedient that man should know concerning the things whereof he had appointed unto them. Therefore, he sent angels to converse with them… [and] gave unto them commandments, after having made known unto them the plan of redemption, that they should not do evil” (verses 28,29, 32).
Not only did God give man the time to repent but he sent angels and holy men to teach them why “they should not do evil,” then taught them to know how to behave by giving them commandments and making “known unto them the plan of redemption,” which explains why and how we should repent. In this way man was given everything he needed to know in order to receive mercy according to the law. Thus, when men receive mercy from God they are not avoiding the penalties of justice but are fulfilling the requirements of the law.
In his explanation, Alma exhorted his listeners not to have a “hard heart.” By this he meant that their hearts should be softened towards the things of God. When something is soft it is easily molded or is malleable and thereby can be changed. It is something that when pressed upon leaves an imprint or an impression. On the other hand, something that is hard resists being changed and an imprint can only be made upon it using great force.
A soft heart is one that God can easily make an impression upon by his Spirit. It is one that is willing to listen to the things of God and be obedient to his commandments. It is also one that God can shape and mold into his own image. But a hard heart is one that resists changing, is cold and unfeeling to the impressions of the Spirit, and cannot be moved to do what is right nor abandon doing what is wrong.
Alma explained, “And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he knows them in full. And they that will harden their hearts, top them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what it means by the chains of hell” (verses 10,11).
God is like a potter who shapes and molds us into the kind of being who is worthy to live with him in heaven and, like a potter, he carefully makes those changes a little at a time. As such, he gives us commandments that are suited to our circumstances and ability to keep, and as we progress in keeping the lesser commandments, he then gives us greater commandments. In this way we grow in our knowledge of godliness, which Alma calls “the mysteries of God until he knows them in full.” In this way we are able to receive grace upon grace, or mercy upon mercy, until we are able to receive a fullness of mercy, which is God’s grace.
But those who harden their hearts by refusing to keep even the lesser commandments, find themselves progressing backward to the point where they eventually know nothing about godliness. When this happens, they become willing subjects to the devil who then claims them as his captive servants. Therefore, instead of following a path that leads to God and fulfilling his plan for mercy, they choose to follow a path that leads them to their spiritual destruction.
Alma taught, “Therefore, whosoever repenteth, and hardeneth not his heart, he shall have claim on mercy through mine Only Begotten Son, unto a remission of his sins; and these shall enter into my rest. And whosoever will harden his heart and will do iniquity, behold, I swear in my wrath that he shall not enter into my rest…. For on such the plan of redemption could have no power, for the works of justice could not be destroyed, according to the supreme goodness of God” (verses 34,35, 32).
Just like we must obey the laws of chemistry in order to create water, we must likewise obey the eternal laws of justice in order to obtain mercy. That law states that those who have repented of their sins and call upon the Son of God for mercy are entitled to it and can legally claim it because of Christ’s atonement. And it is through his mercy that their sins will be wiped away as though they had never happened.
However, those who harden their hearts and refuse to fulfill the requirements necessary to receive mercy have no legal standing to receive it. This isn’t because God doesn’t want to be merciful to them but because they choose not to fulfill the requirements of the law governing mercy. As such, it’s not that God doesn’t want to forgive them of their sins but rather that he cannot without violating the law. And because their sins remain, the cannot live in a sinless heaven. That’s not only the law but it is also fair and just, especially when they had the opportunity to repent but choose, of their own free will, not to do so.
As such, the plan of redemption has no effect upon those who harden their hearts. For them it’s as though Christ never died for their sins. Therefore, since they are not entitled to mercy, they must pay the full penalty for their sins that the law requires, and part of that penalty is to spend eternity somewhere other than heaven. This is what Amulek meant when he said, “And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice… while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice” (Alma 34:16).
Thus, we see that instead of mercy doing away with justice, it is the law that makes it possible to have both mercy and justice.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Salvation and Teachings from the Book of Mormon