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Nature and Grace: Selections from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas
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Article Four

Whether Justice and Mercy are Present in all God’s Works

We proceed to the fourth article thus:

1. Justice and mercy do not appear to be present in every work of God. For some of God’s works are attributed to his mercy, as for example the justification of the ungodly, while other works are attributed to his justice, as for example the condemnation of the ungodly. Thus it is said in James 2:13: “he shall have judgment without mercy that hath showed no mercy.” Hence justice and mercy are not present in every work of God.

2. Again, in Rom., ch. 15, the apostle attributes the conversion of the Jews to justice and to truth, but the conversion of the Gentiles he attributes to mercy. Hence justice and mercy are not present in every work of God.

3. Again, many just men are afflicted in this life. But this is an injustice. Hence justice and mercy are not present in every work of God.

4. Again, justice is payment of a debt, and mercy is delivery from a misery. Thus justice, no less than mercy, presupposes something as the condition of its operation. But the work of creation does not presuppose anything. There is therefore neither justice nor mercy in the work of creation.

On the other hand: it is said in Ps. 25:10: “All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth.”

I answer: mercy and truth are bound to be present in every work of God, if mercy means delivery from any defect whatsoever—though we cannot properly call every defect a misery, but only the defects of a rational nature which is capable of happiness, the opposite of misery. The reason why they are bound to be present is that divine justice renders either what is owed to God, or what is owed to a creature.

No work of God can lack justice in either of these senses. For God cannot do anything which is not in accordance with his wisdom and goodness, and this accordance is what we mean when we say that it is owed to God. Similarly, God cannot create anything in the realm of things which is not in accordance with order and proportion, which is what we mean by justice to creatures. Justice is therefore bound to be present in every work of God.

Further, a work of divine justice invariably presupposes a work of divine mercy as its foundation. For a creature has a right to something only on the ground of what it already possesses, or on the ground of what is already intended for it, and if this in turn is owed to the creature, it can be owed only on the ground of what is previous to it again. But this regress cannot be infinite. There must therefore be something which the creature possesses only by the goodness of God’s will, which is the final end. For example, we say that a man has the right to possess hands because he has a rational soul. But his right to a rational soul depends in turn on his being a man, and he is a man only by the goodness of God. Thus mercy is present from the very beginning of every work of God. Moreover, its power persists throughout all that follows, and is the more effective since a primary cause has a greater influence than a secondary cause. Thus it is that God in his abundant goodness bestows what is owing to a creature more liberally than its relative status deserves. The order of justice would indeed be maintained by less than is bestowed by the divine goodness, which exceeds the deserts of every creature.

On the first point: the reason why some works are attributed to justice and others to mercy is that justice is more thoroughly apparent in some of them, and mercy in others. Yet we can see that there is mercy even in the condemnation of sinners, reducing their punishment to less than they deserve, though not altogether remitting it. Justice is likewise present in the justification of the ungodly, since God remits their guilt for the sake of their love, even though he himself bestowed this love in mercy. Thus Luke 7:47 says of Magdelene: “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much.”

On the second point: the justice and mercy of God are apparent in both conversions. Yet in one respect justice is present in the conversion of the Jews and not in that of the Gentiles, since the Jews were saved for the sake of the promise given to their fathers.

On the third point: justice and mercy can be seen even in the punishment of the just in this world. Their afflictions purge them of trivial faults, and they are the more drawn to God through deliverance from worldly affections. As Gregory says in 26 Moral. 9: “The evils which oppress us in this world compel us to draw near to God.”

On the fourth point: even though the work of creation presupposes nothing in the nature of things, it does presuppose something in the divine knowledge. It maintains the character of justice in that it brings things into being in accordance with divine wisdom and goodness. It also in a sense maintains the character of mercy, in that it transforms things from not-being to being.

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