God’s Mercy, God’s Judgment (Augustine)

This morning I found a wonderful exposition about God’s mercy and judgment based on Psalm 33:5. In these comments, the North African theologian Augustine (d. 430) was reflecting on the truth that God is just and merciful at the same time. (Note: Augustine was using the Septuagint/Vulgate so the wording and chapter/verse numbers are different than our English translations.) The following is an exposition of Psalm 32:5, which in the LXX/Vulgate, says “…He loves mercy and judgment/justice….” (Vulgate: Diligit misericordiam et judicium; LXX: ἀγαπᾷ ἐλεημοσύνην καὶ κρίσιν). Anyway, here are Augustine’s comments:

Look carefully at these two, mercy and judgment. This present time is the season for mercy, but the season for judgment will come later. Why do we say that this is the season for mercy? Because at this present time God calls those who have turned away from him, and forgives their sins when they return; he is patient with sinners until they are converted, and when they are converted at last he forgets everything in their past and promises them a future, encouraging the sluggish, comforting the troubled, guiding the eager and helping the embattled. He deserts no one who struggles and calls out to him; he bestows on us the wherewithal to offer him sacrifice; and he himself gives us the means of winning his favor. Let us not allow this time of mercy to pass away, my brothers and sisters, let it not pass us by. Judgment is coming…. This present time is the season of mercy, but then will be the season for judgment. 

Make no mistake, brothers and sisters: in God these two realities cannot be separated. We might think that they are mutually exclusive, so that a person who is merciful is not allowing judgment its rights, while someone who insists on judgment is forgetting mercy. But God is almighty, and he neither loses sight of judgment when exercising mercy, nor abandons mercy when passing judgment. He looks mercifully on his image, taking our frailty into account, and our mistakes and our blindness; he calls us, and when we turn back to him he forgives our sins. But he does not forgive those who refuse to turn back. Is he merciful to the unjust? He has lost sight of judgment, has he? Is he not right to judge between the converted and the unconverted? Or does it seem just to you that the converted and the unconverted should receive the same treatment, that one who confesses and one who lies, the humble and the proud, should all be welcomed without distinction? Even as he exercises mercy God has a place for judgment…. 

Saint Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms 1–32, ed. by John E. Rotelle, trans. by Maria Boulding, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015