Justice—there is an aura of nobility about the word. It calls to mind other words like equity, fairness, and truth. It speaks of honor and exactness. It speaks of righteousness. But, sadly, in today’s world its application is often anything but noble, honorable, or righteous. A high school student has penned these provocative lines about the age-old conflicts that have troubled mankind for centuries:
Prophesying of the latter days, Jesus put it succinctly: “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold” (Matt. 24:12). This high school lad has captured the chilly phenomenon on poetic “film.” It is a stark photograph of a cascading social malaise of our time, a warped concept of justice that “waxes cold.” In the poem, justice is portrayed as an attitude of retribution devoid of charity. Each of the men around the fire withholds his log because his sense of justice prevents his doing anything to benefit someone else he regards as undeserving or as having wronged him. In the end, all succumb to the “cold within.” The poem implies a very different ending had each or even any been moved by a charitable warmth that is the soul of true justice.
Like the tragic souls in the poem, for some in today’s world justice bespeaks revenge, exacting the last pound of flesh for a real or imagined insult or injury. In the name of justice, too many are imbued with the materialistic philosophy that a remedy must exist for every wrong and compensation for every loss. Such a cheerless perspective—devoid of human kindness or warmth—is really not justice at all but only ruthlessness. Instead of peace it brings anger and vindictiveness. Instead of happiness it brings despair, a “cold within.”
In such times, it is well to remember that the same Lord who is the author of the divine mercy for which we each hunger is also the author of divine justice. Mercy and justice are each the products of His divine charity—the “pure love of Christ” (Moro. 7:47). Neither the justice nor the mercy of God can be understood, enjoyed, or emulated without also understanding—and practicing—the charity that is their essence.
“Justice Exerciseth His Demands”
The dynamic interaction between the divine principles of justice and mercy that captures center stage in the great drama of mortality is succinctly described by Lehi:
“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.
“Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.
“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” (2 Ne. 2:5–7).
We are indebted to Alma the Younger for what may be the most profound insight anywhere in scripture on the interplay between justice and mercy in the great “plan of redemption” (Alma 12:25), or “the great plan of mercy” (Alma 42:31). The occasion was his interview with a wayward missionary son, Corianton. As the interview proceeded, the young man came face to face with the horror of the requirements of justice in the wake of his transgression. Seemingly appalled by his father’s plain-spoken description of the “restoration” demanded by justice in the eternal worlds beyond the grave of “evil for evil … [and] good for that which is good” (Alma 41:13), Corianton thought it “injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery” (Alma 42:1). Every modern parent has heard similar expressions from his own errant child: “It’s not fair, Dad.”
But “fair” is exactly what it is, for God is nothing if not fair and just. Indeed, as Alma explained, “I say unto thee, my son, that the plan of restoration is requisite with the justice of God; for it is requisite that all things should be restored to their proper order” (Alma 41:2; emphasis added). But God is more just than men. For under man’s law it is frequently said that “ignorance of the law is no excuse”; man’s justice then exacts the penalty anyway. But with God, “where there is no law given there is no punishment” (2 Ne. 9:25). Man’s justice can be “fair.” God’s justice is more than fair; it is charitable. Indeed, the root of the Hebrew word tzedakah, often translated as “charity,” means “justice” and “righteousness.” 2 Unfortunately for Corianton, as for us, he knew the law and could not claim the ignorance exemption. He was subject to the law of restoration—justice.
“Mercy Claimeth the Penitent”
Once Corianton was reminded of the doctrine of justice, Alma delivered the “good news” of the doctrine of mercy, both doctrines being fundamental to the gospel of Jesus Christ: “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; emphasis added). The plan of justice is “fair.” The plan of mercy moves beyond fairness—and that is the wonder of it! Justice delivers what we deserve; mercy delivers a charity we do not deserve.
It has been described this way: “It really isn’t fair that one person should suffer for the sins of others. It isn’t fair that some people can commit horrible crimes and then be completely forgiven and cleansed without having to suffer for them. It isn’t fair that those who labor for only an hour will get the same reward as those who labor all day. (See Matt. 20:16.) No, the gospel sometimes isn’t fair, but that is actually part of the good news. It isn’t fair—it’s merciful, and thank God it is so, for no human being can stand acquitted before the demands of absolute justice.” 3
Mercy is extended not because it is earned, not because it is just, but because it is rooted in love, even the pure love of Christ: charity.
Nonetheless, in the process of receiving justice or mercy our works are vital—not because they could ever satisfy the demands of justice but because they give evidence of our following Him whose mercy redeems us. As He said, “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20). Alma also taught Corianton these truths:
“Mercy claimeth the penitent, and mercy cometh because of the atonement; and the atonement bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead; and the resurrection of the dead bringeth back men into the presence of God. …
It is the penitent, those who repent of their sins, upon whom mercy has her claim. Justice cannot reach them, for their debt is paid by mercy. And this is the ultimate manifestation of the divine, charitable justice of God. As President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has said: “Justice can seem to be so very demanding. But we must learn that when we put everything as right as we can put it right, it is Justice who invokes the Atonement, orders the adversary off our property, and posts the notice that his agents will make no more collections from us. Our debt will have been paid in full by the only perfect pure person who ever lived.” 4
The Law of Mercy in Our Lives
These principles that are at the heart of the great plan of redemption are also the very essence of the higher law of personal behavior taught by the Savior. 5 He sought to teach that law in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matt. 5–7) and repeated it for the Nephites (see 3 Ne. 12–14). He sought to call us in our daily living from pedestrian plodding through what is merely just—that is, from giving to each what is due—to the stratospheric flight of mercy. He has called each of us to give to each person our love whether or not it is due. Unless we understand this, His mandate to “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48) is subject to gross misunderstanding.
“For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
“And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:46–48; emphasis added).
Or, as Luke recorded, “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Truly, loving others more than self is the essence of the gospel of Christ. It is the soul of mercy.
Moreover, that same sentiment of love and goodwill should invest our ideas of justice. All too often in this rude telestial sphere it does not. There is a shrillness, a stridency, an insistence on retribution—on “rights”—that characterizes man’s demand for “justice” in the twilight period of this dispensation. But it need not be so.
One experience emerges from my hall of memories. Years ago, while practicing law in California, I was representing a friend in an ugly dispute. His wife had left him for another man, and now her adulterous corespondent had brought an unthinkable lawsuit. This man claimed that my friend’s youngest child, a daughter, was not my friend’s child at all but rather the offspring of the adulterous affair. Having now married the child’s mother, the adulterer sought by blood testing to have my friend’s rights of fatherhood legally terminated; he sought to end all association between this man and the little girl. He insisted this was his “right” under the law. The case eventually wended its way to the Supreme Court of California.
I shall never forget the day we stood before that panel. I made my presentation and sat down. The plaintiff’s counsel then arose and began to present his arguments. He had spoken only a few lines when he was sharply interrupted by a venerable, silver-haired jurist who had spent many years on the bench. “Counsel,” he demanded, “what does your client hope to accomplish by this unfortunate action?”
Then, leaning over the bench and in a voice softened by wisdom and kindness—a sense of justice tempered by charity—he said, “Counsel, this little girl could be so fortunate. But for your lawsuit, she could have the blessing of two fathers who love her.” To this simple declaration, no answer could be given. The court ruled in favor of my friend, and the ruling was ultimately sustained by the United States Supreme Court.
The Prophet Joseph Smith was once approached by a woman, a faithful member of the Church, who believed firmly that she had been defamed by one of the brethren. She demanded redress. She wanted justice. The Prophet gently inquired whether she was quite sure that what the brother had said was utterly untrue. She was quite sure it was. The following is the account of what happened next:
“Then he offered her his method of dealing with such cases for himself. When an enemy had told a scandalous story about him, which had often been done, before he rendered judgment he paused and let his mind run back to the time and place and setting of the story to see if he had not by some unguarded word or act laid the block on which the story was built. If he found that he had done so, he said that in his heart he then forgave his enemy, and felt thankful that he had received warning of a weakness that he had not known he had possessed.” 6
How small would be the mote in our brother’s eye—how equitable our opinions—if always we sought first to remove the beam that is in our own! Mercy means learning to love others more than we love ourselves—and so does justice. They guide us to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, and render to others more than they justly deserve—because we love them. “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged,” taught Jesus immediately after His admonition to be merciful (Luke 6:37). Some evaluation of others in our daily affairs is inevitable, even necessary, but always these estimations should be the children of our charity.
Application of Justice and Mercy by Judges in Israel
In another passage, the Joseph Smith Translation significantly expands the admonition to “judge not”: “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged: but judge righteous judgment” (JST, Matt. 7:1–2, footnote 12a). At times, priesthood officers acting in their appointment as judges in Israel are called upon to make judgments in the Lord’s behalf. The humble servant of Christ may at first recoil from such a weighty and solemn obligation. Such was the experience of Alma the Elder, as recorded in Mosiah 26. Among the rising generation were many transgressors—those in a “carnal and sinful state” (Mosiah 26:4). Perplexed, Alma first delivered them to King Mosiah, but the king demurred. This was a matter for ecclesiastical, not civil, authority.
“The spirit of Alma was again troubled; and he went and inquired of the Lord what he should do concerning this matter, for he feared that he should do wrong in the sight of God” (Mosiah 26:13). Alma did not want to render judgment, even upon transgressors who had “many witnesses against them” (Mosiah 26:9). But the voice of the Lord came unto him. It offered commendation for his faith, his baptism, and his having established the Church among the people. And then the Lord reminded Alma of the significance of baptism and Church membership; it is a covenant between the Lord and each penitent soul: “For behold, this is my church; whosoever is baptized shall be baptized unto repentance. And whomsoever ye receive shall believe in my name; and him I will freely forgive” (Mosiah 26:22).
Then the Lord said in effect, those in the Church who have broken this covenant, who have rejected a place at His right hand, have no place in the Church:
“Therefore, I say unto you, that he that will not hear my voice, the same shall ye not receive into my church, for him I will not receive at the last day.
“Therefore, I say unto you, Go: and whosoever transgresseth against me, him shall ye judge according to the sins which he has committed” (Mosiah 26:28–29). In other words, the same obligation that rests upon the shoulders of the Lord’s servants to usher repentant souls into the kingdom of God through the doorway of baptism’s covenant requires the discipline of those who have materially broken that same covenant.
President Stephen L Richards (1879–1959), First Counselor in the First Presidency, spoke of this responsibility of the constituted officers of the Church to render judgment in the line of duty:
“Now the Church of Christ is commissioned with the authority to interpret the law and pass judgment on infractions thereof. This is a heavy responsibility, one which many officers of the Church would forego, if they could justify themselves in so doing. In civil government it is not uncommon to hear references to the majesty of the law, by which it is contemplated, we may assume, not only its supremacy and binding force, but also the deference and respect which should be shown for it, and the obligation to sustain its sovereign power. Certainly this applies with greater force and extended meaning to the majesty of divine law. It is God’s law. It must be supported.” 7
Priesthood officers stand as surrogate judges of others. In effect, they stand in for the Lord in their duty to render righteous judgment. Accordingly, as justice cannot rob mercy, neither can mercy rob justice. Certain transgressions are “covenant breakers,” meaning that a material violation of a transgressor’s covenant with the Lord results in forfeiture of the associated blessings promised by the Lord. Without an opportunity to repent and reestablish that covenant—to go out, as it were, and reenter through the baptismal door—the transgressor’s eternal progression is halted. Hence, the Lord’s system of government establishes disciplinary councils and provides for penalties. Priesthood officers must sometimes apply justice by exacting such penalties in order to enable transgressors to avail themselves of the Lord’s mercy.
Mercy is hinged to repentance, which allows mercy to be applied justly. The Lord said to Alma, “And if [the transgressor] confess his sins before thee and me, and repenteth in the sincerity of his heart, him shall ye forgive, and I will forgive him also” (Mosiah 26:29). President Richards taught that repentance is evidenced by “godly sorrow,” by “confession,” and by “sufficient time [elapsing] to permit a period of probation.” 8 And when there is this genuine repentance, there the law of justice yields to the law of mercy. As the Lord’s surrogate in such matters, the priesthood officer has the sacred obligation to open the arms of mercy and fellowship. If mercy cannot rob justice in the face of transgression, neither can justice rob mercy in the face of true repentance.
As a young man and a junior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Heber J. Grant learned a great lesson on mercy from President John Taylor. On one occasion, a prominent man had been excommunicated from the Church. Years later, he pleaded for baptism. President Taylor referred the matter to the Twelve in a letter, stating that if they unanimously consented he could be rebaptized. Initially, five of the Quorum expressed approval for his baptism and seven felt otherwise. Time passed. Expressions were given again: eight for baptism and four against. Finally, all agreed that the man should be baptized—all but one, that is. Elder Heber J. Grant still objected. He recorded the words of President Taylor:
“‘Heber, I understand that eleven of the apostles have consented to the baptism of Brother So and So,’ naming the man, ‘and that you alone are standing out. How will you feel when you get on the other side and you find that this man has pleaded for baptism and you find that you have perhaps kept him from entering in with those who have repented of their sins and received some reward?’
“I said, ‘President Taylor, I can look the Lord squarely in the eye, if He asks me that question, and tell Him that I did that which I thought was for the best good of the kingdom. … I can tell the Lord that he had disgraced this Church enough, and that I did not propose to let any such man come back into the Church.’
“‘Well,’ said President Taylor, ‘my boy, that is all right. Stay with your convictions; stay right with them.’
“I said, ‘President Taylor, your letter said you wanted each one of the apostles to vote the convictions of his heart. If you desire me to surrender the convictions of my heart, I will gladly do it. … But while I live I never expect to consent if it is left to my judgment.’ …
“‘Well,’ repeated President Taylor, ‘my boy, don’t you vote for him as long as you live, while you hold those ideas; stay right with them.’”
Elder Grant left the President’s office and went home for lunch. As was his practice, he opened the Doctrine and Covenants, but the book did not open to his marker. Rather, it fell open to this passage: “Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord. … I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:9–10).
Elder Grant immediately saw another side of the matter. Later that day, after Elder Grant reported a change of heart to President Taylor, the latter inquired: “‘Do you know why I wrote that letter?’
“I said: ‘No, sir.’
“‘Well, I wrote it, just so you and some of the younger members of the apostles would learn the lesson that forgiveness is in advance of justice where there is repentance; and that to have in your heart the spirit of forgiveness and to eliminate from your hearts the spirit of hatred and bitterness, brings peace and joy; that the gospel of Jesus Christ brings joy, peace and happiness to every soul that lives it and follows its teachings.’” 9
This discussion of mercy that is extended to repentant sinners would not be complete without an excerpt from the letter of the Prophet Joseph Smith to the penitent W. W. Phelps, whose treacherous betrayal of the Prophet and the Saints in Missouri had added measurably to their travail in those dark and cheerless days:
“Dear Brother Phelps: I must say that it is with no ordinary feelings I endeavor to write a few lines to you in answer to your [letter]; at the same time I am rejoiced at the privilege granted me. … It is true, that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior—the cup of gall, already full enough for mortals to drink, was indeed filled to overflowing when you turned against us. … However, the cup has been drunk, the will of the Father has been done, and we are yet alive, for which we thank the Lord. And having been delivered from the hands of wicked men by the mercy of our God, we say it is your privilege to be delivered from the powers of the adversary. … Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal. … ‘Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, For friends at first, are friends again at last.’
“Yours as ever, Joseph Smith, Jun.” 10
It seems only appropriate to conclude this consideration of divine, charitable justice and mercy as it began—with poetry, but from lines penned by Brother Phelps:
James Patrick Kenny, “The Cold Within.”
Chris Conkling, “The Book That Built a Better World,” Ensign, Jan. 1998, 9.
Stephen E. Robinson, Believing Christ: The Parable of the Bicycle and Other Good News (1992), 58; emphasis added.
The Things of the Soul (1996), 59.
The book of Mosiah contains two superb sermons on this point. The first is the “farewell address” of King Benjamin to his people (see Mosiah 2–5). The second is Abinadi’s bold declaration to King Noah and his wicked priests. When the latter asked Abinadi the meaning of Isaiah’s poetic statement, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, thy God reigneth” (Isa. 52:7), Abinadi used the question as a springboard for teaching the fulfillment of the Mosaic law in the advent of the Savior (see Mosiah 12:20–15:31).
As told by Jesse W. Crosby in The Teachings of Joseph Smith, ed. Larry E. Dahl and Donald Q. Cannon (1997), 361.
In Conference Report, Apr. 1954, 11.
In Conference Report, Apr. 1954, 11–12.
Gospel Standards, comp. G. Homer Durham (1941), 259–62; emphasis added.
History of the Church, 4:163–64.
“Come, All Ye Saints Who Dwell on Earth,” Hymns, no. 65.