The first time I came across the idea was while reading the scriptures: “Mercy cannot rob justice.” (Alma 42:25) It has a terribly ominous ring to it! Having grown up in Protestant churches as a child, I had learned that God was an angry, punishing being who would “get you” if you didn’t behave. This idea fell right in with what I had always believed, and I simply lived my life trying to be as good as possible so that I could stay on Heavenly Father’s “good side.” Of course, every time I failed — yelled at my kids, got mad about something my ex-husband was doing, muttered something rude under my breath while driving to work — I just waited for the other shoe to drop.
I’m not sure exactly what prompted me to start praying about the idea. Maybe I had read about the prophet Joseph Smith praying to know his standing before God, and I wanted to know mine, too. Maybe I was just having one of those awful days where I just wanted to feel that maybe God actually loved me. Whatever the reason, I began praying. After a time of praying and watching for answers as I studied my scriptures, I felt the Holy Ghost whisper to me “Mercy may not be able to rob Justice, but neither can Justice rob Mercy.” Since that day, I have held that answer close in my heart, drawing on it when times were bad, when I felt like a hopeless case, or when I just needed comfort.
Lately, without any effort on my part, I have been finding evidence to “back up” what the Holy Spirit told me years ago. Today, I feel it is right to share my discoveries with you.
Who Gets Justice?
The pat, trite answer is that we all do — except that concept isn’t 100% accurate.
In the Guide to the Scriptures, published as an LDS study help, Justice is described in this way: “Justice is an eternal law that requires a penalty each time a law of God is broken (Alma 42:13–24).” Then, a list of scriptures is given to help us understand the concept:
- The soul that sinneth shall die, Ezek. 18:4
- The justice of God did divide the wicked from the righteous, 1 Ne. 15:30
- All mankind is fallen and is in the grasp of justice, Alma 42:14
- The justice of God hangs over you except you repent, Alma 54:6
- Justice and judgment are the penalty that is affixed to my law, D&C 82:4
- Justice continues in its course and claims its own, D&C 88:40
- None shall be exempted from the justice and the laws of God, D&C 107:84
The Atonement and Grace
Because of justice, once mankind fell, all would be lost. After the first sin, no one would be able to “earn” their way back to Heavenly Father’s presence. This was never the design of our mortal existence, so Heavenly Father provided for Atonement and Grace. Suddenly, Mercy comes into the picture!
Mercy makes the difference! One of the best descriptions of Mercy was given in General Conference several years ago:
But as it always does, the day came and the contract fell due. The debt had not been fully paid. His creditor appeared and demanded payment in full.
Only then did he realize that his creditor had not only the power to repossess [take away] all that he owned but also the power to cast him into prison as well.
“I cannot pay you, for I have not the power to do so,” he confessed.
“Then,” said the creditor, “we will take your possessions, and you shall go to prison. You agreed to that. It was your choice. You signed the contract, and now it must be enforced.”
“Can you not extend the time or forgive the debt?” the debtor begged. “Arrange some way for me to keep what I have and not go to prison. Surely you believe in mercy? Will you not show mercy?”
The creditor replied, “Mercy is always so one-sided. It would serve only you. If I show mercy to you, it will leave me unpaid. It is justice I demand. Do you believe in justice?”
“I believed in justice when I signed the contract,” the debtor said. “It was on my side then, for I thought it would protect me. I did not need mercy then nor think I should need it ever.”
“It is justice that demands that you pay the contract or suffer the penalty,” the creditor replied. “That is the law. You have agreed to it, and that is the way it must be. Mercy cannot rob justice.”
There they were: One meting out justice, the other pleading for mercy. Neither could prevail [win] except at the expense of the other.
“If you do not forgive the debt, there will be no mercy,” the debtor pleaded.
“If I do, there will be no justice,” was the reply.
Both laws, it seemed, could not be served. They are two eternal ideals that appear to contradict one another. Is there no way for justice to be fully served and mercy also?
There is a way! The law of justice can be fully satisfied and mercy can be fully extended—but it takes someone else. And so it happened this time.
The debtor had a friend. He came to help. He knew the debtor well. He thought him foolish to have gotten himself into such a predicament. Nevertheless, he wanted to help because he loved him. He stepped between them, faced the creditor, and made this offer: “I will pay the debt if you will free the debtor from his contract so that he may keep his possessions and not go to prison.”
As the creditor was pondering the offer, the mediator added, “You demanded justice. Though he cannot pay you, I will do so. You will have been justly dealt with and can ask no more. It would not be just.”
And so the creditor agreed.
The mediator turned then to the debtor. “If I pay your debt, will you accept me as your creditor?”
“Oh yes, yes,” cried the debtor. “You save me from prison and show mercy to me.”
“Then,” said the benefactor [one who helps], “you will pay the debt to me, and I will set the terms. It will not be easy, but it will be possible. I will provide a way. You need not go to prison.”
And so it was that the creditor was paid in full. He had been justly dealt with. No contract had been broken. The debtor, in turn, had been extended mercy. Both laws stood fulfilled. Because there was a mediator, justice had claimed its full share and mercy was fully satisfied.
So, with the debt paid in full by our Friend, Jesus Christ, justice no longer has any right or claim to punishment for any sin or mistake for which we have fully repented. In the absence of repentance, Mercy cannot rob Justice, and the sinner will suffer full punishment for his or her choices and deeds. But, with repentance, Justice cannot rob Mercy, and the sinner has claim to liberty by living the gospel set forth by the Savior. In the end, Justice and Mercy both stand as witnesses of Heavenly Father’s unfailing love for us.
Guide to the Scriptures: Jesus Christ