If there’s one principle in the gospel we love, it is mercy. And if there is one that we fear, it is justice. Yet both of these principles are of God, and so we must assume that both of them are good. Though Satan has many creations in this world, Justice is not one of them.
In fact, the more I think about these two principles, the more I start to think that they are far more similar to one another than they first appear. Honestly I think they might just be two sides of the exact same coin. Distinct from one another, yes, but rooted in the exact same law.
Throughout this study we will take a closer look at each, the systems by which they operate, the opportunities to use both for our advantage, and the way that each intersects at the moment of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
John 1:9, Romans 2:14-15, Alma 42:17-18
That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:
Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness.
Now, how could a man repent except he should sin? How could he sin if there was no law? How could there be a law save there was a punishment?
Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man.
That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world
The law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness
To each of us is given a light, or in other words a conscience. When any of us do something that is wrong it pricks at our conscience.
Though we vary in some of our moral beliefs, it is universal to feel bad about stealing, lying, and killing. By our very nature we also know that it is wrong to make someone else feel bad, to make a vow and then break it. It feels wrong even to silently think ill of another, or to speak poorly of them behind their back. Mistreatment of our own selves feels wrong as well.
In short all of us have at least one “law written in [our] hearts,” a law of nature. It guides us from harm and leads towards fulfillment, and is therefore a wonderful blessing to us. And it is a blessing that is given freely to us all.
Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man
However the blessing of the law only applies so long as we adhere to its principles. If not, then justice demands that we suffer the consequences of our transgression. The very first of these consequences is a “remorse of conscience,” and other penalties may follow depending on the severity of the crime. Thus even those that have not received the higher law of the gospel are still responsible for how well they adhere to the law of their own conscience, and the demands of justice are felt by us all.
Deuteronomy 30:19, Doctrine and Covenants 82:3-4
I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live:
For of him unto whom much is given much is required; and he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation.
Ye call upon my name for revelations, and I give them unto you; and inasmuch as ye keep not my sayings, which I give unto you, ye become transgressors; and justice and judgment are the penalty which is affixed unto my law.
I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death
Ye call upon my name for revelations, and I give them unto you
Thus far we have observed that all people have a basic law written in their hearts, that which we call a conscience. This basic guide leads us towards the “just” life, which has its own natural rewards.
However there are higher laws as well. To each of us God offers the opportunity to follow His personal principles, and by so doing achieve spiritual enlightenment and fulfillment. Whereas the conscience is given to all at birth, this higher way is given out only as we choose to receive it. The more we choose to receive, the greater blessings we can enjoy.
Life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live
For of him unto whom much is given much is required; and he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation… justice and judgment are the penalty which is affixed unto my law
If one receives a law and then breaks it, though, the promised blessing instead becomes a curse. The pattern of justice is that every law carries both a blessing and a curse.
Consider the example of communication. This ability is a great blessing, as it allows us to collaborate and share information. But then we also have the option to misuse that blessing and twist our words into lies. For this we suffer the consequences (curses) of hurt feelings and anxiety.
What is more, the greater the promised blessings are, the greater the curses are as well. Going back to our example, some have a greater range of communication than others. Those with a larger following have more power and influence in their words. They have a greater potential to accomplish good with what they say…or to cause damage.
Therefore one needs to approach God’s laws with proper respect for the weight of justice that is inseparably attached to them. They are given to us as an act of love, but one should not subscribe to these laws unless they intend not to break them.
The problem is…we have all broken them.
Galatians 3:11, Romans 3:23, 2 Nephi 2:5
But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever.
But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God
And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off
As we previously discussed, the gospel is given as God’s highest law, one for which the promised blessing is salvation, the greatest of all His gifts. But given the facts that this law demands perfection and that we are all incapable of perfection, the only logical conclusion is that one would be better off avoiding this gift entirely! Who cares what the reward is if you have a 0% chance of obtaining it? Better that you don’t make any promises to God and therefore never break them. Right?
But even those that reject this higher law still are culpable for their inability to keep even the basic law of their own conscience, a law which is inescapable. As the above scriptures make abundantly clear: if salvation is the reward for obeying the laws, then damnation must be the punishment for breaking them. And we have all broken them, and so we are all damned.
Now obviously I am pausing for dramatic effect. You know and I know that this isn’t the end of the story. Each of these doom-and-gloom verses are immediately followed by declarations of hope. Next we’ll examine how mercy enters the scene, and does so in a way that still preserves the sanctity of justice. Before we do that, though, I think it is worthwhile to pause and consider the sober realities of what life without a Savior would be like.
Galatians 3:7, 2 Nephi 2:7, Alma 42:22
Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree:
That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.
But there is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; otherwise, justice claimeth the creature and executeth the law, and the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.
Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law
Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law
But there is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth
Because of our imperfections, each of us must face the punishment which justice demands for breaking God’s laws. At least so it would be if God had not already foreseen this dilemma and provided an escape from it. His plan was always to introduce a Savior that could intercede between us and the law, pay the penalty of our sins, and thus grant us mercy instead.
As Christ was able to perfectly fulfill the demands of God’s law, he was able to author for us a new law to follow, one that each of us is actually capable of fulfilling. This law is the law of repentance.
Christ’s mercy is freely available, but only to those that subscribe to this new law. To those that do, they do not only receive the reward tied to that law (forgiveness), they also receive the reward of God’s higher law of perfection as well (salvation).
Whereas before we could only ever see the curse of the law and never the blessing, now we have the opportunity to enjoy only the benefits of justice and never the penalties.
Matthew 7:2, 12
For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law
We have discussed how the intervention of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice allows the demands of justice to be satiated in regards to our failures to follow’s God law. Which of course means we can be shown mercy, forgiveness, and all other blessings God has to bestow.
And that includes enjoying all of the positive sides of justice. Once we are no longer under fear of its punishment, then we see really it is a principle given for our own empowerment.
Following the golden rule is the right way to treat others, it is what God wants of us and it cultivates the best qualities in our soul. But even after all that, it also allows for justice to tip the scales in our favor. If we do unto others as we would wish to receive, then sooner or later we will receive that which we wish. We will knock and it will be answered, we will seek and we will find. If we forgive freely, then justice demands we be forgiven freely. If we look for the good in others, we will find the good in our selves as well. This is the side of justice God always meant to show to us. The justice of His mercy.
I began this study with the thought that justice and mercy might simply be two sides of the same principle. As I worked through the scriptures, though, I’m starting to think I was wrong. Each is distinct from the other, but both work together for our good.
The way I would define them now is that justice is the principle of fairness by which sin is punished and virtue is rewarded. Mercy is the conduit by which the punishment of justice can be diverted to Jesus’s atoning sacrifice, and the blessing of justice can be received by us.
In any case, I’ve certainly gained a deeper appreciation for why both of these principles needs to exist. Without both, God’s plan for us could not be fulfilled.
Laws Provide Blessings When Followed, but Curses When Broken
Commandments are not given to restrict or condemn. They are given to enable our betterment. It is by receiving and following law that we receive blessings. Every blessing comes as the result of adhering to some law of God’s, and our spiritual maturity is developed by bending our will to His.
However a law cannot simply include a principle and a reward for when it is followed. A law must also detail a punishment for when that principle is defied. Once both consequences, one good and one bad, are affixed to the principle, then the demands of justice will swing one way or the other dependent upon our behavior.
Doctrine and Covenants 130:20-21- There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated. And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.
2 Nephi 2:11- For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.
All of us Have Fallen Short of God’s Laws
This certainly seems like a straightforward plan to receiving all that is good, and avoiding all that is bad. All one has to do is keep the law perfectly. And it would be a simple path to perfection, if not for the fact that we are born with a tendency to sin. We are imperfect beings, with imperfect minds and bodies, susceptible to coercion, deception, and misunderstanding.
We all have our particular strengths, areas by which Satan always seems to fail in his efforts to sway us. But also have our weaknesses. And Satan does find them, exploit them, and sooner or later each one of us tastes of forbidden fruit and now stand condemned by the law that was supposed to have liberated us.
With all of the human race failing to attain perfection, we would be doomed as a whole to eternal damnation.
Romans 3:23- For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God
Moses 6:55- And the Lord spake unto Adam, saying: Inasmuch as thy children are conceived in sin, even so when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts, and they taste the bitter
Jesus’s Sacrifice Restores us to the Benefits of Justice Via Mercy
Except there was one man who didn’t break a single one of God’s laws. Jesus of Nazareth was the only human ever to walk a perfect life. I do not know how much of that was due to the extra dose of divinity that ran through his veins, or whether it was simply due to his personal nature. In either case, the fact is he was born a human, was therefore put under the same law of perfection, and he actually managed to fill that measure in its entirety.
While I do not know the reasons why, one requirement for being able to replace one law with another seems to be fulfilling the first. As the only one to manage that particular feat, Jesus was free to take the punishment for all of our failings on himself, supplant the demands of perfection, and grant us mercy instead.
Alma 34:14, 16- And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal.
And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice.