Justice - the lowest level
All judgements should be just, at the very least. Anything less would not be fair, not right. Justice is achieved when the punishment fits the crime. This is what our civil laws and their penalties are meant to achieve, which is perfectly understandable since they were originally based on the Ten Commandments a long, long time ago.
For example, suppose I am driving on the highway and, being late for an appointment, exceed the clearly advertised speed limit and am apprehended by a police officer.
"Do you realise you are driving 25 kmh above the speed limit?"The police officer remains unmoved by my plea and issues me with a penalty notice.
"Sorry, but I'm late for an appointment."
"That may be so, but you are breaking the law nevertheless."
It is justice that requires me to pay the prescribed penalty. The relationship between me and the officer is an impersonal, legal one. I am the guilty offender and he is the judge.
Even the most ungodly of us have an inbuilt sense of justice and are quick to complain if we feel we have not been treated justly. If we are not exceeding the speed limit, but accused and penalised as if we were, we would be rightly outraged. "That is unjust, not right, not fair!" we exclaim. On the other hand, we don't always allow justice to motivate our thoughts and actions, which is why the Bible calls us "sinners".
But God is a just God. He requires us to live by His laws and has prescribed the death penalty for those who break them. When we sin and break His laws, He is offended and we deserve to die - to be separated from Him, to be out of fellowship with Him. That is justice, a just application of God's law. In these circumstances, the relationship between us and God is an impersonal, legal one. We are the guilty offenders and He is the just judge.
Mercy - the middle level
When we voluntarily forgo the application of a just punishment, but choose to forgive and not require full restitution or payment of the prescribed penalty, we have moved beyond being just to being merciful.
Using our driving example from above, if on exceeding the speed limit the police officer is moved by my plea and gives me a warning rather than impose the prescribed penalty, then I would have received mercy rather than justice.
Even though I didn't deserve it, the officer would have been merciful toward me. And the relationship between me and the officer would have become a bit more personal. I would be having good, kind thoughts about him and even consider him a friend, and he might also be feeling good about helping someone under pressure, rather than making their situation worse. If we met again, casually, not because I broke the law again, the meeting would be quite friendly and the way might even be open for a friendship to develop, if that was desired.
Not many of us operate at this level. We hold grudges, demand payment and restitution, want justice at all costs. Although refusing to be merciful is not breaking the law, it is certainly not following the way of Christ, who showed mercy at every turn.
God is indeed a merciful God. He does not require us to pay the penalty for our sin. He paid the penalty for us by coming to earth as a man to die for our sins in our place. Although we don't deserve it, the sins of everyone have been paid for - no-one has to pay for them any longer. God, in Jesus Christ, is the Saviour of the world. We have all been shown mercy.
Grace - the highest level
When justice is forgone and mercy is extended all obstacles to a relationship between the offender and the offended have been removed. The doorway for relationship has been opened.
But there is more!!! What if the offended person takes the first step towards creating that friendship! That'd be something really special and unexpected! That would be grace in operation.
Again using our driving example, what if the officer instead of imposing a penalty (justice) and instead of issuing a warning (mercy), offered to provide a high-speed escort to our destination so that we could arrive at our appointment on time? That would be grace in operation - overlooking the offence and giving an undeserved, unexpected favour in its place.
The offended one freely offers something above and beyond anything that can be deserved or earned or even hoped for. Grace is undeserved favour or blessing, and, when offered to those who offend, is extremely God-like.
Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" is a well-known novel that has been performed on stage and in movies many times. The story centres around Jean Valjean, a destitute ex-prisoner who is taken in by a kind bishop, from whom Valjean steals expensive silverware. When apprehended, the bishop does not press charges saying that he gave the silverware to Valjean (shows mercy) and then gives him his silver candlesticks as well (extends grace). These acts of mercy and grace change Valjean's life forever.
The following story is told about New York City mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia.
In the middle of the Great Depression, LaGuardia went out of his way to identify with his people. It was not unusual for him to ride with the firefighters, go on raids with the police, or take orphans for outings.On a bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. A tattered old woman was brought before him and charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told the mayor that her daughter's husband had left home, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving.
However, the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. "It's a real bad neighborhood, your Honour," the man told the mayor. "She's got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson."
LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, "I've got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars or ten days in jail."
But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He took out a $10 note and tossed it into his famous hat, saying, "Here is the ten dollar fine which has now been paid; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, take my hat and collect the fines and give them to the defendant."
The following day, New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was given to a bewildered woman who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Fifty cents of that amount was contributed by the grocery store owner himself, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.
Here LaGuardia showed justice (required the penalty to be paid) and mercy (paid the penalty on the woman's behalf). He then used his authority to enable grace to be shown to this poor woman. She was guilty and therefore required to pay the fine. She left the court without paying the fine and with more money in her pocket than she had probably ever seen.
If God's creatures can operate in this way, even occasionally, surely it is not too difficult to believe that the Creator, in whose image we are made, operates this way consistently.
God is a God of grace.
God is not only just (requires a penalty for breaking His laws), and merciful (pays the penalty for us), but is gracious (invites us into a relationship with Him). And this relationship is undeserved and free, and will include all of God's creation eventually.
How gracious is that!
So here's the difference.Justice occurs when offenders get what they deserve.
Mercy occurs when offenders don't get what they deserve.
Grace occurs when offenders get what they don't deserve.
Let's learn to be people of grace.