Divine Mercy 101: St. Thomas Aquinas Defines Divine Mercy

A weekly series by Robert Stackpole, STD, the Director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy 

WEEK 19: St. Thomas Aquinas Defines Divine Mercy  

What, then, is the mercy of God, according to St. Thomas Aquinas? It cannot be an emotion or a passion, since God in His infinite, immutable perfection cannot be subject to changing passions that "happen" to Him or "overcome" Him, or that reduce His fullness of Being in any way. Thus, St. Thomas argues that God's mercy is "effective," not "affective." In other words, His mercy is expressed in the positive action that His love takes to remedy the miseries and meet the needs of His creatures, communicating to them a share in His own perfections. St. Thomas writes (ST I.21.3):

"To feel sad about another's misery is no attribute of God, but to drive it out is supremely His, and by misery here we mean any sort of defect. Defects are not done away with save by an achievement of goodness, and as we have said, God is the first source of goodness."

According to St. Thomas, it is above all the forgiveness of sins that manifests God's mercy. The forgiveness of our sins is an act of God's omnipotence: God's love showing itself to be more powerful than sin and evil. When human beings forgive one another, we control our anger, curb our resentment, and annul any claims of revenge. But we cannot remit the fault itself. God alone can change the will of the malefactor and turn his heart toward repentance. In this sense, God alone can remit sins. Thus, God's mercy is infinitely powerful to destroy sin and regenerate and sanctify the sinner.

In fact, St. Thomas claims that "forgiving men, taking pity on them, is a greater work than the creation of the world" (I-II.113.9). As regards the mode of action, bringing the world into being out of nothing is the greater work, but in terms of the greatness of the work done, the justification of the unrighteous is the greater work, because it has an eternal effect. The justified and sanctified soul lives forever in God's kingdom, whereas this created world, as we now know it at least, passes away.

Mercy and justice in God
St. Thomas argues that in God's nature, Divine Mercy and Divine Justice coincide: they are one in the simplicity of God's essence. God is always and everywhere just and merciful, at one and the same time. When God acts mercifully, He does not act against justice, but goes beyond it. Aquinas writes (I.21.4): "The work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy and is based on it." In other words, God's justice must always further His purposes of mercy, and never detract from those purposes. In his essay "Disputed Questions on Truth," for example, St. Thomas explains that God is more properly merciful than punitive. To articulate this truth, St. Thomas draws upon a distinction made by St. John Damascene: a distinction between God's "antecedent" and "consequent" will.

Antecedently, that is, from all eternity, God's will "before the foundation of the world" is to make us all His adopted children, and sharers of His divine life. His antecedent will is that "all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (I Tim. 2:4) [note: it would seem that St. Thomas has misinterpreted this passage, for the reference here by St. Paul to God's desire for all to be saved seems to mean, in context (verses 5-7) "saved" form sin and its effects which would seem to relate to God's "consequent," not His "antecedent" will. See below].

God's consequent will, however, is what He wills as a response to the choices made by His human creatures. He gave human beings the freedom to reject His love and spurn His mercy. If we choose to do so, then God's consequent will is to forgive the penitent and punish the hard-hearted: temporal punishment in this life, and for the stubbornly impenitent, eternal punishment in the life to come. Hence, God's antecedent will is grace and mercy for all, while His consequent will is punishment for the wicked. However, even divine punishment, St. Thomas claims, is a work of mercy as well as of justice, because God rewards the righteous and penitent far beyond their merits, and punishes the impenitent far less than they deserve. Thus, even in His consequent will, Divine Mercy at least tempers Divine Justice.

Effects of Original Sin
In his essay "Disputed Questions on Evil" (I.4), St. Thomas writes: "The tradition of Faith holds that rational creatures would not be able to incur any evil in the soul or in the body unless sin had taken place." St. Thomas here refers to the effects of original sin on the human race. God did not want His people to suffer, so He created Adam and Eve incapable of suffering, along with the gift of bodily immortality. But Adam lost those gifts for himself and for his posterity by his disobedience to God.

As C.S. Lewis once wrote, a new kind of human existence, a kind God had never intended, thereby sinned itself into existence. As a result, Adam and Eve and all of their descendents became subject to suffering and death. All of this was certainly not God's antecedent will for His people! Nevertheless, God permits the Fall of man, with all its tragic effects, because these miseries, paradoxically, can be part of the remedy for sin for all of humanity.

In fact, it is possible for the sinner to have a right relationship with God restored if he embraces the sufferings of this life as a "satisfaction" to God for sin. The problem is that making satisfaction to God for sin is precisely what man, by his own power, cannot do. He cannot make up for sin (for the past cannot be undone, and a man has nothing "extra" in the present or future to offer to God for his past sins, since a life of perfect obedience was owed by each of us to God our Creator anyway). Besides, man owes to God an infinite compensation for sin, since by sin he has betrayed and offended Infinite Love. Yet we have nothing infinite to offer God to make up for our sins. Moreover, human nature, corrupted by sin, needs to be regenerated and renewed, for only a renewed, regenerated soul could possibly offer any pleasing satisfaction to God: but again, the regeneration of the soul is beyond our human power. 

Given that both the satisfaction for our sins, and the regeneration of our sinful souls, is entirely beyond our power, the human race is desperately in need of a Savior. Of course, St. Thomas argues that God Himself is our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This series continues next week on the theme, "The Saving Work of the Son of God." 

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of The John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.

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