One of the most publicized events of the last century was the execution of a Texas woman who had been convicted of murdering two people 14 years earlier. During her time in prison, she became a Christian. The evident genuineness of her conversion elicited calls from all over the world to spare her life. Even the Pope pleaded with the Governor of Texas to intervene. In the end, those who sought justice for the crime she committed prevailed. With a lethal cocktail running through her veins, Karla Fay Tucker “coughed twice, let out a soft groan, and fell silent.”(1)
The debate raised by this case was gripping enough, but what I found to be most fascinating was the intense contest that was unfolding outside the premises where the execution was scheduled to be carried out. Both the proponents as well as opponents of the death penalty camped outside, each side trying to drown the other’s voices. The news of the execution was greeted by a boisterous cry of triumph from those who had so vehemently sought justice for the crime. Others were left wondering where, when, and how mercy applies when the life of an individual hangs in the balance.
This drama was a classic representation of the two most disparate poles of justice and mercy. How are the guilty to be spared in cases where absolute justice is administered? If there are no shortcuts, no bribes, and no turning of a blind eye against evil, what hope is there for those wedged between the jaws of justice? The tension between justice and mercy is a reality with which we all live, and depending on the circumstances, our hunger for vindication is only matched by our plea for mercy and forgiveness.
The biblical solution to this conundrum is uniquely ingenious in both logical and relational terms. It was at the Cross of Jesus where God’s justice was perfectly administered and his eternal mercy publicly displayed when God took upon Himself the punishment meant for the guilty. The perfect, sinless, infinitely just God devised the means whereby sinful, guilty human beings could be justly reconciled to God without an ounce of guilt being swept under the carpet. No other proposed means of liberation for humanity in the world even begins to address this dilemma. The rhetorical force of the question posed by the author of Hebrews ought forever to haunt every seeker of justice, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation”?
Unfortunately, some stumble over the gospel of Christ even while incessantly seeking either justice or mercy in matters they deem themselves entitled to judge. When our sense of justice is threatened, we rarely hesitate to demand answers, whether the object of our wrath is a mere child or a perfect God. This is nowhere more evident than in attacks on the character of God based on his administration of justice, especially in the Old Testament. But at the root of this reaction lies the failure to appreciate the full implications of what one really asks for when one demands justice. If justice is to be absolutely served, the guilty cannot go unpunished. The only recourse for the guilty is to seek mercy, and mercy cannot be demanded.
Old Testament saints harbored no illusions about God being subject to their standard of justice, for they were no strangers to his terrifying holiness and hence the gravity of sin. The fact that the Israelites were his chosen people did not keep them from facing the consequences of their own disobedience, as even a casual reading of the book of Lamentations will show. It was not without reason that the script writer for the motion picture Fiddler on the Roof, which chronicles the struggles of a Jewish family, has the lead character suggest that God choose other people the next time around.
Part of the reason why we are disinclined to recognize our own need for mercy may be due to the fact that our clamor for justice, however impassioned, is almost always skewed in our favor. Narrow indeed is the path to the dark recesses of our own hearts. But there the light of the gospel must shine, and our strong sense of justice demands that we agree with God’s assessment of our true condition. Nothing short of the kind of repentance that produces humble love within those who turn to Christ can ever point humanity towards their identity and purpose. Without a clear glimpse of our own sinfulness, not even God can measure up to our lopsided, self-righteous standards.
But if God is anything like the Scriptures say, then not only should we expect God to judge sin but we can also be confident that, in the end, no one will be able to find fault with his verdict. That is why Abraham was able to trust in God’s righteous judgment, even beyond the grave, when he chose to sacrifice Isaac at the behest of his Creator. He reasoned that God is able to raise the dead. Whenever we demand justice and obedience, we affirm the same standard that also condemns us. They are blessed indeed whose passion for justice is informed by the mercy of the Cross.
J.M. Njoroge is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Jesse Katz, “Texas Executes Born-Again Woman After Appeal Fails” LA Times, February 04, 1998.