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While there may appear to be a conflict between justice and mercy from our human perspective, it is not so with God. It has been said that "justice without mercy is cruelty; mercy without justice is licentiousness." God is neither cruel nor licentious. His mercy and justice work in perfect harmony.
Jesus' call for repentance is a form of mercy. Most dictionaries define "repent" as "to feel regret or remorse." The word has negative connotations in our society that tells us to live life "with no regrets." However, the original meaning of the word, as it is used in the Bible, simply means "to change one's mind," or literally, "to turn."
What are we turning from? And what are we turning to? Before we answer that, we should take a step back and ask, how is it that we can turn at all?
The Bible tells us that we are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). That means many things, one of which is that God made us with free will, and respects our free will. The Catechism teaches, "God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions" (CCC 1730). Or, as St. Irenaeus put it, "Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts."
Free will gives us the capacity to choose, and also makes us responsible for our choices. If we were like the irrational creatures, we wouldn't have to worry about hell, but neither could we be worthy of the glory of heaven. It is our free will that allows us to become saints, because it is only in freedom that one can love. By giving us freedom, God has given us the capacity to love.
We can choose to do good or evil. We can choose to act in accord with God's will, or against it. We can choose heaven or hell. While few, if any, would choose hell outright, many may choose it by their actions. We can choose to reject God implicitly, even while claiming to have faith in Him.
Think of it this way. Let's say there is someone you call your best friend. You want them to be your best friend, and believe sincerely that they are. But you never call them. You don't spend any time with them, except maybe for an hour a week (but even then you are thinking about other things you'd rather be doing). You don't bother getting to know anything about them. You spend your days and hours in other pursuits and don't really think about your "best friend" all that much. Is that person truly your best friend?
Far too many people view their relationship with God in this way. They express belief in God. They may even go to Mass on Sundays. They know that God is loving and merciful and so presume that God will make sure they go to heaven in the end. But otherwise they don't give God a second thought. They live their lives largely as if God didn't exist.
This is the sin of presumption (CCC 2092). If we presume that God will grant His forgiveness without any conversion on our part, it amounts to saying, "God will save us no matter what we do." But this would be a violation of our free will. This is something God will never do. God is Love. Love asks, it does not coerce. Love invites, it does not invade. Love draws us by attraction, not by force.
Jesus' call for repentance is an act of mercy. He beckons us away from our sins and towards the God who is the source of all our love and joy. To repent, is to turn towards God and away from whatever we are putting ahead of Him in our lives. This is not always a 180° turn. Perhaps we are only a few degrees off course; but as any navigator knows the longer you continue down the wrong path, the father you are from your goal. Repentance involves a daily reorientation towards God.
Jesus warns us of the dire consequences of unrepentance not to scare us, but to save us. He wants us to turn towards Him in freedom, and so gives us knowledge of the consequences of our acceptance or rejection of God's love. Jesus does not want the fate of those who perished to be ours. He offers us eternal life. It is up to us to accept the offer
“He who made you without your consent does not justify you without your consent. He made you without your knowledge, but He does not justify you without you willing it.”
-St. Augustine, Sermon 169, 13