Our reflections on the attributes of God continue with another pair of characteristics: mercy and righteousness. These two attributes of God are often set alongside each other, and so it is not controversial to treat them together. However, there is no consensus on how to treat them in tandem. Consider the following as one way to think through the matter of their interrelationship in God.
Let's look first at God's righteousness. What does it mean to say God is righteous? Righteousness is liked to matters of justice, rights and law. To be righteous is to be found in accordance with law. When we say that God is righteous, we are saying that his being and action are in full accordance with law. But what law? Since God himself is the standard of justice and the ultimate law-giver, this attribute must be necessarily reflexive: God lives according to the standard of his law.
With such an understanding of righteousness, it should be obvious why we might encounter some choppy waters when we turn to God's mercy. Mercy is most basically understood as withholding the execution of what is just or right. You deserve one thing, but get another -- that's the heart of mercy.
If mercy is so understood, how can God be both merciful and righteous? For God to be perfectly merciful, there must be a lessening of his righteousness. For God to be perfectly righteous, there is a definite limit set on his mercy -- if he can be said to be merciful at all.
There are a number of solutions to this puzzle. We could abandon divine righteousness. We could abandon divine mercy. We could say God moves from righteousness to mercy (maybe by means of some kind of crude OT/NT distinction). We could try to hold them together as inherently paradoxical affirmations that bear witness to God's mystery. We could just give up on the theological task altogether, opting to speak haphazardly of both attributes in so-called "balance."
In the contrast of these alternative solutions, my approach (big surprise!) would be to redefine mercy and righteousness according to the history of God's dealings with us. Where is God in his mercy and righteousness revealed? In Jesus Christ, God deals with us rightly and merciful.
In Jesus Christ, God's righteousness is not a subservience to an abstract law. God's right is precisely his freely chosen covenant of mercy whereby humble and even sinful human beings are brought into fellowship with God and each other. God doesn't speak his law into a vacuum, but gives his law to his people. That God even has a people is a consequence God's merciful decision. Thus, God's mercy is the content of God's righteousness.
In Jesus Christ, God's mercy is not a lessening of the demands of righteousness. God's mercy is executed by God's righteous right hand, whereby he takes sin seriously and opposes it as his enemy. That God is righteous -- that God takes a stand for what is right between him and us -- is good news for us. It is through his righteousness that God enacts his mercy. Thus, God's righteousness is the form of God's mercy.
So, when understood in tandem with each other and in correspondence to God's history with us, the divine attributes of mercy and righteousness bear witness to the character of God as the one who is in himself for us and with us.
Have I misrepresented the general definitions of righteousness and mercy offered as foils at the beginning of this post?
Do my reformulations of mercy and righteousness sound right? On what basis would you judge them?
Has this exercise served to commend my preferred procedure (used throughout this series) of defining God's attributes in accordance with God's history with us in his covenant with Israel fulfilled in his Son, Jesus Christ? Does this particular example indicate any flaws or dangers in this procedure?