We have established that without justice and righteousness, mercy cannot be mercy. Those who universalize mercy are therefore adversaries to true biblical mercy, and are simply apostles of sentimentalism.
But we must do more than simply list God’s attributes, as though they are all simply lined up like cans on a shelf. The Bible teaches that God’s attributes are hierarchically arranged, and that we must reflect an understanding of this hierarchy in our own lives. We have faith, hope, and love, but the greatest is love (1 Cor. 13:13). The greatest two commandments are both commands to love (Matt. 22:37-40). Justice, mercy, and faithfulness are the weightier matters of the law (Matt. 23:23). This means that we cannot say that every attribute that God has can be given equal weight or importance. He is the Holy One of Israel, and not an isocoles triangle.
Certain characteristics that God displays — wrath, severity, and straight justice, for example — cannot be wished out of existence by the sentimentalist. But neither may they be moved into a position of prominence that Scripture does not give to them.
“For the Lord will not cast off for ever: But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies. For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men. To crush under his feet all the prisoners of the earth” (Lam. 3:31-34).
What direction is the story moving in? How does the story resolve? The Bible teaches us plainly, and in a multitude of places, that the last chapter of this sorry world’s history will be a chapter overflowing with compassion, mercy, kindness, and love. The last chapter of our world’s history will not be one of corpses everywhere. Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
One of the ways that God teaches us how His attributes are to be arranged is by telling us what God is quick to do, and what God is slow to do. In the passage above, God does not afflict willingly. There is such a thing as divine reluctance, and there is such a thing as divine readiness.
“They shall abundantly utter the memory of thy great goodness, and shall sing of thy righteousness. The LORD is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy. The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works” (Ps. 145:7-9).
Think how different the world would be if this read that God “was full of anger, slow to compassion, and of great severity.” There are passages that describe the wrath of God, and those who are embarrassed by those passages are simply liberals (whatever they may call themselves). So we should set such passages in a place where we may read them clearly. But whenever the Bible talks about God’s attributes together, it always arranges them this way. Whenever the Scriptures set before us the divine justice and the divine mercy, we see that mercy and grace are the context within which justice operates, and not the other way around. “
For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Judgment serves the interests of mercy; mercy does not serve the interests of justice. Now the cross occurred so that God could be fully just and the one who justifies, but notice that even the two elements are harmonized in the process of our salvation (Rom. 3:26). The story is driving toward mercy, all the time. That mercy will be fully just and the sinners will be saved.
Another way this is described in Scripture is by saying that God is merciful in abundance. God is rich in mercy.
“But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)” (Eph. 2:4-5).
Or in this place . . .
in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory (Rom 9:23).
And this provides us with our final observation. Mercy is a gift from the treasury; mercy is a function of abundance and wealth. God is merciful to us, and God is infinitely rich. He became poor our sakes, but this demonstrates for us the nature of mercy, not the limited amount of it (2 Cor. 8:9). He became poor so that we could become wealthy, and after the poverty of His death, He entered into the riches of His resurrection inheritance, inviting us to follow Him there. Bankrupt mercy is therefore an oxymoron.
When mercy ministers imitate the Lord in this, they should only give what they expect God to multiply. Mercy can only be extended by those who really understand what it means to be rich.