Mercy And Justice And George MacDonald

In one of the recent interchanges about God and His justice, one commenter left a link to a sermon George MacDonald is purported to have authored (I have yet to find mention of the source). I’m still working my way through the lengthy document, but so far, the only Biblical text I can find is that from which he seems to have wandered—Psalm 62:12, which states

And lovingkindness is Yours, O Lord, For You recompense a man according to his work.

In the King James, which the sermon quotes, lovingkindness is rendered mercy. The writer then makes a case for his interpretation of justice, leading into a denial of justice as punishment.

How odd this discussion seems to me, but perhaps that’s because I’ve had good Bible teaching all my life.

The cultures around Israel during King David’s time (Psalm 62 is one of his) did not practice justice. They practiced vengeance. Consequently, the declaration that God would recompense a man according to his work was a statement of mercy. He would not punish a man for something his father did or punish the brothers or the children. God’s mercy was demonstrated in His justice, set in opposition to their vengeance.

How simple and straightforward. How righteous.

We are accountable before a Holy God for what we do. He does not pile on more than we deserve.

But here’s the thing. We are required by law to stop at stop signs. If I run a stop sign and get pulled over by a cop, I am guilty of breaking that law. No matter that I’ve not run a stop sign the prior 2000 times, or 200 million times before that. Stopping at the stop sign is what I am required by law to do. Fulfilling my obligation does not earn me points against a future time when I might slip up and run the stop sign.

In other words, there is nothing I can do to make up for my situation. I can only recognize my condition—I am a lawbreaker deserving of the just (and merciful) penalty for my actions.

What great news, then, that Jesus, who was not a lawbreaker, and therefore, faced no penalty, stepped in.

The amazing love of God is beyond comprehension here, because God did not wave His hand and dismiss my sin. He bore it Himself. He transferred my sin in the same way that the sins of Israel were transferred to scapegoats. It’s a mystical process, if you will, something that sounds too incredible, too hard to fathom. The Holy God, unstained in His being, complete in His purity, piled my sin on His shoulders. He bore my sin and carried my sorrow.

He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.
– I Peter 2:24

And in more detail from Isaiah

But the LORD was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.
As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,
And He will divide the booty with the strong;
Because He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors.
– Isa 53:10-12 [emphasis mine]

Paid in full. The blood of Jesus Christ blots out my sin. I receive God’s mercy when I understand that my work is insufficient to pay what I owe, that Christ alone could afford to bear my sin because He bore none of His own. The angel of death passes over me as surely as he once passed over the Jewish homes that bore the blood of the spotless Passover lamb slain on their behalf.

What a clear picture of God’s redemptive work—the marriage of His Justice and Mercy—prompted by His infinite Love.

Published in: on December 30, 2010 at 1:59 pm  Comments (11)  
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  1. I love George MacDonald, but I am afraid that it is true that he was a wee warped on the love side. He did not believe God sent people to hell, I’m pretty sure. At least one of his most trustworthy and holy characters in his novels didn’t believe God sent people to hell.

    Nice post, Becky. The running of the stop sign is an excellent picture.


  2. Thanks for taking time to give feedback on this, Sally. I know you love George MacDonald. I know C. S. Lewis was inspired by his work. But I did see some articles that lead me to believe he became a universalist. The particular “sermon” I linked to, however, doesn’t show any source, though I found it in its entirety several times. That always makes me a little uncomfortable. Where did these people who posted it find it? In a private collection of papers? In a book of sermons? In a volume of complete works? I mean, how hard is it to give the source?

    I suspect even if it is his, it’s been rewritten. It has the feel of an older time, but not of a Scottish minister. Weren’t his novels “translated”?

    OK, I just checked Wikipedia and found this:

    MacDonald states his theological views most distinctly in the sermon Jusitice found in the third volume of Unspoken Sermons.

    One more thing. The stop-sign illustration isn’t original, but as usual, I’ve forgotten where I heard it. It might be Ravi Zacharias, but I’m just not sure. The point stuck, though.



  3. I too love the works of George MacDonald, especially the fantasy works – and while he is, as Sally said, a ‘wee bit warped on the love side’, when you look into his background, that is perfectly understandable. Like the rest of us, he was trying to balance the paradox of mercy and justice – but in his time, the theological scales had tipped in the opposite direction to that of our own culture. Perhaps he went to the farthest extreme to try to counter the God of hyper-justice which was the prevailing view for most of the Victorian age – or perhaps he was simply struggling on paper with ideas that were not always consistent.

    When we are dealing with paradox and wrestling to understand, is it likely our ideas will be consistent? (I hope, for instance, in 20 years time, I won’t look back in horror and repent, as Chaucer did at the end of his life, of some of the things I have written.)

    As for the marriage of Mercy and Justice, ahh! Now there’s a matchless theme. The Kiss of Mercy and Justice is one of the loveliest ideas dominating medieval poetry, drama and even mathematics! I also think it dominates a lot of MacDonald’s thought. And if you trace it through Scripture back and forward from the kiss of heaven and earth in Psalm 85:10-11, you begin to realise the chasm that separates our thought from that of the Gospel writers.

    That, in our time, the balance is so far gone, we’re not even on the seesaw anymore.


  4. I haven’t read any of MacDonald’s nonfiction. I’ve read a lot of fiction–all translated, yes.

    I didn’t get the idea from his fiction that he was a universalist. Rather, I took him to hold to annihilation.


  5. Great post Becky 🙂


  6. It’s so cool to find someone has commented what I wanted to comment and has done a much better job than I could have done.
    It’s even cooler when you click on that person’s name and find they have written books that I really want to read…
    Wow! Thanks Anne Hamilton!


  7. Hmm. So George MacDonald was “a wee warped” toward love over judgement, held a ‘low’ view of Scripture (in y’all’s eyes), and saw God as doing anything to reconcile absolutely everyone in the end – yet he is, in your collective estimation, a sincere Christian brother who was “like the rest of us, he was trying to balance the paradox of mercy and justice” – and became a victim of over-reaction to his times. You all sound pretty nuanced, and willing to worship and pray with misguided brother George.

    And yet I, who essentially hold identical views with Brother MacDonald, am censured as an arch-heretic (only kidding – I hope you saw my retraction on the other thread), one whom you pray for rather than with.

    Holy double-standard, Batman!


  8. Mike, you do like to stir the waters. 😉 Since we are not a collective here, you are putting various words into various people’s mouths, and in the end incorrectly criticizing all.

    Anne, who to my knowledge has never responded to any of your comments, is the one who gave her understanding of MacDonald’s mercy/justice theology.

    I, who did not comment about MacDonald’s standing as a Christian, am the one who said your positions aren’t those of a Christian.

    The others, I don’t believe, spoke to either issue, though some agreed with the thoughts on mercy/justice.

    As near as I can tell, Mike, your way of handling God’s justice is to say He doesn’t have the right to exercise it. In fact, most likely, Jewish storytellers probably made up the accounts detailing God’s wrath poured out on nations or individuals. Rather, God deals with all mankind out of his mercy. He may not always have done so—though it’s unlikely he just started changing his ways in the last 6000 years when he had eons to work out how to treat his creation—or maybe we’re just now figuring out that the wrath stuff was made up and didn’t really tell us about God but about the people who concocted it.

    Do I have your views summarized fairly accurately?

    If I discover that MacDonald held these same beliefs, then I would conclude he also did not hold the positions of a Christian.

    Mike, excising God’s justice from His love and mercy is like cutting out a person’s heart to give more room for his lungs because what he needs is to breath better.



  9. I’m a wee bit scared to reply here, but I do think I need to clarify a few points. I certainly wasn’t having a go at you, Mike, because I have no idea who you are or what your theological stance is. Please accept my apology if I offended you. I assure you it was unintentional.

    I was brought up in a culture diametrically opposed to that of MacDonald: instead of a God of justice, as I was growing up, I heard of nothing but a God of love and mercy. I was taught to be tolerant, kind and forgiving and, to the best of my ability, I always did that. So much so that when I left for university, I was the only person in my entire school who was described on a leaving certificate as ‘gentle’.

    I’ve left that behind because over a long period of time, I came to see the devastating results of my tolerant behaviour. One of my favourite MacDonald quotes is: A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote. I often find that to be true in my own writing. In my first published novel, Merlin’s Wood (no relation to the Robert Holdstock book of the same name), one of my characters is basically told, ‘You’ve never forgiven anyone in your whole life. You only think you have. You’ve excused them instead.’ Even as I wrote the words – which seemed to come out of nowhere – I realised that the character was me: tolerant and always making excuses for other people’s behaviour.

    In mistaking tolerance for forgiveness, I had not been loving at all. When people always expect you to be merciful, the very quality of mercy is destroyed. I had to learn the hard way (and over a long period of time) that cheap grace – mercy without justice – justifies the sin and not the sinner.

    So my remarks above were an expression of my understanding at this point in my journey – the recognition that I have come from a different place, that I am growing and that God isn’t done with me yet when it comes to getting the balance of love and justice right. I don’t fully agree with MacDonald – but I still love his books. Indeed, I say to myself often (as I also do with a particular scene in CS Lewis’ The Last Battle,/i> my absolutely all-time favourite book): I so very much hope that this is so. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was?

    As yet, I am simply not convinced that it is.


  10. Hi All,
    I realize this is an old thread. I hope it’s alright with you all for me to pick it up again. Though it’s an old thread, it’s not an old discussion. Nearly every discussion on MacDonald ends up having a similar theme. I’ve read nearly all of MacDonald’s works and I think I have a handle on his theology.
    MacDonald can’t be truly characterized as a Universalist. The common understanding of a Universalist is one who believes that 1.) everyone goes to heaven when they die, 2.) Sin, therefore, is a non-issue, and 3.) Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are unnecessary. MacDonald, though, believed that Jesus meant everything to and for us, and that belief in him was necessary for anyone to have life with the Father. He also believed that sin is the cause of spiritual death and is the barrier to LIFE. And thirdly, he believed very strongly in the existence of Hell. He did believe that God was loving, but he also believed that God’s love meant that He would often be required to bring great and terrible discipline on those who rejected Him…he couldn’t really love them and let them go on in that which brings them death.
    MacDonald’s difference with the most common view of hell, (that Hell is a never-ending conscious torment,) was that he viewed all of God’s efforts toward us to be such that they would work toward our becoming more and more like him, and that if fire was necessary to “convince” us, then fire would come, because our God is a consuming fire, (Hebrews 12:26-29; 1 Cor. 3:12-15.) Rather than viewing Hell as without a purpose, (or merely as a demonstration of God’s authority and power over humanity,) MacDonald viewed hell as another aspect of God’s effort to redeem us. MacDonald, again, would say that no one comes to the Father but through Christ, so if someone, while experiencing the disciplinary fires of Hell, truly repented and chose Christ, then why would God not bring them to Himself?
    His view is sometimes termed “Christian Universalism,” or “Unlimited Reconciliationism,” but it can’t truly be termed Universalism.


    • John, it certainly is all right for you to pick up this thread, which is why I don’t close comments. Thanks for a clear description of MacDonald’s views. I can see from what you’ve said why there’s so much misunderstanding about his beliefs.

      I wonder, too, whether or not some of his writing came about while he was working out his views–thus, not giving us a clear idea of what he believed because at that point he didn’t have a clear idea. Just a thought.



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