Justice and Mercy

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He that is without Sin by Liz Lemon Swindle
He that is without Sin by Liz Lemon Swindle

Justice connotes righteousness and in particular righteous judgment as it relates to mankind in keeping the commandments of God. Justice demands payment. God is both just and merciful. Mercy is the benevolent kindness and grace of God shown to His children through the infinite atonement that pays the debt for our sins if we but repent. Mercy overpowers justice and provides the way where mankind can exercise faith unto repentance (see Alma 34:15-17) and be forgiven.

The Scriptures Teach Us

Alma 12:15—…we must come forth and stand before him in his glory, and in his power, and in his might, majesty, and dominion, and 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.

We will stand before the Lord and if we are good we will feel like Moroni in that we meet “before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah” (Moroni 10:34); by contrast, if we have sinned without repenting, we may feel like Alma did prior to his repentance: “. . . the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror” (Alma 36:14). The key is to repent with full purpose of heart—then is the Lord’s mercy extended towards us.

Alma 42:24-25—For behold, justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved. 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.

Let us never forget that to qualify for mercy we must repent, else we must suffer the consequences (see Doctrine and Covenants 19:15-19). It is profitable to read the entire explanation that Alma gave to his son Corianton on this vital subject (see Alma 42:1-31).

Alma 41:3—And it is requisite with the justice of God that men should be judged according to their works; and if their works were good in this life, and the desires of their hearts were good, that they should also, at the last day, be restored unto that which is good.

Remember that we are a result of our thoughts and desires. We do eventually act upon them and they become our “works.” If we are good, the doctrine of restoration is clear: we receive good for being good (see Alma 41:3-15). It is important to remember that our good works are never enough to save us. After we repent, we are worthy of receiving the grace of God through the atonement of His son. That grace makes up for our deficiencies and enables us to be exalted.

Modern Prophets Speak

Those who make one serious mistake tend to add another by assuming that it is then too late for them. It is never too late! Never! While your temptations are greater than were ours, that will be considered in the judgments of the Lord. He said that “his mercies [are suited] according to the conditions of the children of men” (Doctrine and Covenants 46:15). That is only just. A great contribution to Christian doctrine is the explanation in the Book of Mormon of how justice and mercy and repentance and forgiveness work together to erase transgressions (see Alma 42).The discouraging idea that a mistake (or even a series of them) makes it everlastingly too late does not come from the Lord. He has said that if we will repent, not only will He forgive us our transgressions but He will also forget them, will remember our sins no more (see Isaiah 43:25; Hebrews 8:12; 10:17; Doctrine and Covenants 58:42; Alma 36:19).

(Boyd K. Packer, Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991], 51.)

Part of the basis for demonstrating the perfection of God’s justice and mercy will thus be the cumulative record which we ourselves will have made (see Alma 41:7). Out of this we can be justly judged, a judgment that will include our compliance with outward gospel ordinances with all their respective covenants.

(Neal A. Maxwell, Lord, Increase Our Faith [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1994], 75.)

The laws of God achieve their purposes through justice, mercy, and the atonement of Jesus Christ. Church discipline is concerned with all of these, but most particularly with mercy and the atonement…. In its relationship to justice and mercy, the atonement is the means by which justice is served and mercy is extended. For this purpose, the Messiah “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.” (2 Nephi 2:7; see also Romans 5:18-19.) In one of the greatest of all scriptural declarations, Alma explains that because of the atonement, “mercy claimeth the penitent, and mercy cometh because of the atonement.” (Alma 42:23.)

(Dallin H. Oaks, The Lord’s Way [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1991], 216-218.)

Ideas for Daily Living

Here are three ideas to help us understand and apply the doctrines and principles of justice and mercy:

1. Cultivate a broken heart and a contrite spirit.• Remember that we are nothing without the Lord— “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). Mercy comes to those who are humble and teachable. Mercy eschews the proud and the haughty, which must necessarily be caught in the web of justice if they do not repent.. • Remember that we are everything with the Lord— “. . . in his strength I can do all things,” declared Ammon (Alma 26:12). By leaning on the arm of the Lord, we bring ourselves within the embrace of mercy, “which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance” (Alma 34:15). • Receive our prophets and leaders—When those who are inquiring about the church receive the missionaries willingly, as an act of openness and obedience, and when church members similarly receive the counsel of ecclesiastical leaders willingly, they can obtain blessings and mercy from the Lord (Doctrine and Covenants 99:3).

2. View justice and mercy as attributes of our Father in Heaven.• In God are blended perfectly the qualities of justice and mercy—Alma taught his son Corianton: “And 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” (Alma 42:15). Our daily thoughts and deeds should always be placed in the context of our relationship with a just and merciful God. We forsake evil and sin that justice no be constrained to condemn us; we embrace the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ that mercy can have hold on our being. • We “fear” God’s justice—The fear of God as this term is used in the scriptures implies that we obey God out of reverence and respect, knowing that He cannot “. . . look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:31). We shall be judged according to our works according to the justice of God (see Alma 41:3). • We have hope in God’s mercy—Knowing of our nothingness before the Lord (Mosiah 4:11), we reach out in humble contrition to ask for a blessing of mercy. Such should be the essence of our daily prayers and supplications. God is a God of mercy and will show mercy unto the meek (see Doctrine and Covenants 97:2). His mercy is extended to us through His Only Begotten Son (see Alma 12:33). We receive the mercy of God as we exercise faith unto repentance (see Alma 34:16) and as the demands of justice are satisfied through Christ’s atoning sacrifice (see 2 Nephi 9:26).

3. Treat others with mercy and charity—We can learn more about mercy and its operation by acting in mercy toward others; we can learn more about justice and its operation by withholding judgment and criticism of our fellows. • Let God be the judge—Forgive others their trespasses. Take upon yourself the divine essence by practicing understanding and forbearance (see Doctrine and Covenants 76:68). • Extend mercy unconditionally—Without condoning misdirected and hurtful behavior in others, we can nonetheless reach out in the spirit of mercy, giving others the benefit of the doubt and allowing them the chance to rise to the level of their potential (see Doctrine and Covenants 88:40). As we are merciful we shall obtain mercy (see Matthew 5:7). • Teach by principle—In dealing with others (especially our own children), we need to amplify for them the principles to follow and the consequences that flow naturally from our compliance or lack thereof. Often the greatest application of mercy is to teach with clarity and precision the operation of principles and values in one’s life. As every parent knows, the greatest joy comes from seeing children “walk in truth” (3 John 1:4). Likewise, the greatest sorrow comes from seeing children suffer the ill consequences of violating the laws of God. We can rejoice with them, and we can sorrow with them, as they learn by experience the doctrine of justice and mercy.

Illustrations for our Time

“The Allowance of Mercy”

On Thursday, June 9, 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith delivered an address regarding mercy to the sisters of the Female Relief Society in Nauvoo—one filled with delicious spiritual food. Here is a sampling of his wisdom: “Nothing is so much calculated to lead the people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what power it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind” (HC 5:23-24). And also, “God does not look on sin with allowance, but when men have sinned, there must be allowance made for them. All the religious world is boasting of righteousness: it is the doctrine of the devil to retard the human mind, and hinder our progress, by filling us with self-righteousness. The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them on our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs . . . if you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another” (HC 5:24). And finally: “How oft have wise men and women sought to dictate Brother Joseph by saying, “O, if I were Brother Joseph, I would do this and that;” but if they were in Brother Joseph’s shoes they would find that men or women could not be compelled into the kingdom of God, but must be dealt with in long-suffering, till God shall bring such characters to justice. There should be no license for sin, but mercy should go hand in hand with reproof” (HC 5:24).

The message is clear: we are to feed God’s sheep with mercy and long-suffering. The Savior declared: “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). (Richard J. Allen)

More Thoughts on Justice and Mercy

• “The Savior thus becomes the master of the situation—the debt in paid, the redemption made, the covenant fulfilled, justice satisfied, the will of God done, and all power is now given into the hands of the Son of God—the power of the resurrection, the power of the redemption, the power of salvation, the power to enact law for the carrying out and accomplishment of this design. . . .” —John Taylor (The Mediation and the Atonement [1892], p. 171). • “Justice is truth in action.” —Benjamin Disraeli • “The quality of mercy is not strain’d.” —Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice)


What greater summary statement can there be than the one that Alma the Younger—himself a first-hand authority in the operation of justice and mercy—gave to his sometimes misguided and deviant son Corianton: “O my son, I desire that ye should deny the justice of God no more. Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point because of your sins, by denying the justice of God; but do you let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart; and let it bring you down to the dust in humility” (Alma 42:30). Thereupon Alma gives to Corianton the same counsel that applies to us all: Repent and go and serve in the Kingdom of God, teaching others the doctrines of justice and mercy, that they might make covenants of salvation with the Lord and honor them through faith and valor, even unto the end.

  • This article was adapted from What We Need to Know and Do, by Ed J. Pinegar and Richard J. Allen.