Since the Easter season is a time for celebrating the infinite mercy God has shown through His redemption of man from the eternal consequences of sin, now is an appropriate time to reflect on the interaction between God’s mercy and His justice. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate some interactions between divine mercy and justice and promote personal reflection that may be profitable in the spiritual life.
Mercy and justice are part of the one, simple, and indivisible divine nature. Therefore, the divine attributes of mercy and justice are not in opposition because they are one and the same in God. When God’s actions are viewed from various human points of view, distinctness appears and this motivates man to enumerate divine attributes and speak of them individually. Since mercy and justice in God are infinite, neither limits the other. (Denzinger 1782) Both are perfectly expressed without encroaching on the other. Therefore, when man observes a divine act that appears as merciful, it is also just, and when man observes a divine act that appears to be just, it is also merciful. (Summa Theologiae I, 21, 4, ad 1)
Pope John Paul II teaches in his encyclical letter Dives in Misericordia that the font of mercy and justice is love. (DM 8) Since God is love (1 John 4:8), God’s self-expression contains mercy and justice. Divine mercy seeks to remove the tribulations of man, especially the tribulations of sin. Divine justice gives what is due to each person. (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, §27) The mystery of divine mercy and justice, when viewed from the perspective of human sin, is God’s simultaneous giving to and removal from man what is due because of sin.
This mystery is perfectly manifested in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While God’s justice required atonement for man’s sin, God’s mercy moved Him to provide it Himself rather than insist that man do what is impossible for man to do alone. Simultaneously, justice required atonement and mercy provided the means for atonement. This interplay between mercy and justice is omnipresent throughout the entire Christian life. Consider these following points:
- Jesus Christ is the perfect manifestation of the harmony between God’s mercy and justice. Through God’s mercy, Jesus saved mankind from the just eternal consequences of sin by becoming the only suitable expiation for man’s sin.
After the grace of baptism, every additional sin is met by God’s mercy and justice. Through divine mercy, eternal consequences of sin are forgiven and communion with God and the Church are repaired. Through divine justice, temporal punishment remains. This justice requires that all sin is punished. (ST I-II, 87, 1) However, justice is not an act of vengeance but a consequence that is part of the very nature of the sinful act itself. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1472) Sin causes inordinate attachment to earthly creation and punishment seeks to mercifully purge this stumbling block to holiness.
In God’s mercy, God ensures that this punishment (the purification of purgatory) leads to the holiness that is necessary to enter heaven. (ST III, 69, 2) In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that temporal punishment should be viewed as a grace. (CCC 1473) Since grace is a gift from God, God’s justice is a gift to mankind.
Furthermore, this just and merciful punishment can be accomplished on earth, mercifully avoiding the pains of purgatory. (CCC 1472) Reception of the Eucharist can remit temporal punishment due to sin proportionate to the love of the receiver of the sacrament. (ST III, 79, 5) Acts of charity, mercy, prayer and penance can also remit temporal punishment due to sin. (CCC 1471, 1473) However, this opportunity requires that the person take ownership and responsibility for his sins now and seek the fulfillment of divine justice through conversion of life.
Augustine, speaking about the opportunity for man to take advantage of the gift of satisfying divine justice on earth, exhorted:
Sin cannot go unpunished; it is not seemly for it to go unpunished, it’s not proper, it’s not fair. So then, because sin ought not to go unpunished, let it be punished by you, or you will be punished by him [God]. Let your sin have you as its judge, not as its defending counsel…Your sin is punished either by yourself or by God; if by you, then on its own without you, but if by God, then it is punished together with you. Let it have you as its punisher then, in order that you may have God as your defender. (Augustine, Sermon 20, 2, New City Press, page 16)
Augustine warns that the merciful opportunity to accuse ourselves now and undergo temporal punishment now is the better option. Delay will only yield a punishment greater than what is necessary presently. In other words: converting your life now is less painful than waiting for the purification of purgatory. Besides, neglecting the acts of charity that are part of conversion jeopardizes the possibility that purgatory will even be achieved.
In conclusion, the divine mercy that brought Easter has also enabled divine justice to be accomplished now. There is no reason to delay satisfaction of temporal punishment and conversion of life. Seek out indulgences; be liberal with acts of charity, prayer, and penance. Embracing divine justice now leads to the ultimate gift of divine mercy—eternity in heaven.
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