Over the past few years I’ve heard a lot of confusion going around about the terms “grace” and “mercy.” Oh, people don’t say they are confused, but you can hear it in the things they say (and I’m guilty of it too).
One of the most common examples goes like this: “I think you should extend grace to him.” TRANSLATION: “Go easy on him. Let him off the hook.” But that’s not grace, that’s mercy. If that’s what we mean, we should say, “I think you should be merciful to him.” And if that’s what we mean, why do we think it’s “right” to give mercy, especially if a real wrong has been done?
Part of it has to do with our culture. Culturally, we’ve slipped over the precipice of “tolerance” to such a degree that people aren’t willing to say that much of anything is “wrong” or “right.” Adultery has become an “affair.” Sin has become “mistakes.” We’ve gutted our thinking of any real conviction, any lasting moral foundation. As a result, we all feel like the “right” thing to do is to be merciful.
But mercy left to itself makes a mockery of justice. Tell a mother whose child has been abducted, raped, and murdered that she is to “be merciful” to her child’s killer and see how that works out for you. You may be the next murder victim. Why? Because something in that mom tells her, justice should be done.
Let’s carry that out as it relates to God. If God were only merciful (not giving us what we deserve), He’d be nothing but a heavenly softy, and all of us errant “children” (from you to Hitler) would be getting off the hook scott free. Nothing would ever be corrected, justice would never be done. All the sin throughout all of history would be swept under the rug and eternally ignored. Everyone gets amnesty. There is never any “reckoning.” In my thinking, that would be “mercy gone wild,” and it wouldn’t be good.
You might feel the revulsion that idea provokes right now. Wrong needs to be made right, or at least clearly labeled AS wrong and punished as such. Heinous things as child abuse, extortion, kidnapping, genocide, and rape should never go unanswered. Neither should what we might consider “lesser” sins – lying, gossip, manipulation, selfishness, lust. The reason you and I instinctively feel that way is because we are made in God’s image, and God is just. He must make the wrong right. He must call the guilty to account.
That means that all of us deserve His judgment. We have sinned. We are guilty… and justice must be done. There is no way around it… EXCEPT for God’s grace. His grace makes a way when there is no way. Not by practicing mercy gone wild, but by giving to us when we don’t deserve it. In Jesus, God gave us a substitute, to take our place beneath the fiery and punitive gaze of His holy judgment. That is what the cross was all about. Jesus took our punishment, so we don’t have to be punished. God gave us grace, so that we could receive mercy, without doing any violence to His just nature.
When we understand the relationship between grace and mercy, we see the giving nature of God more clearly; we see the great lengths to which He has gone to make a way for us to be forgiven for our sins; we see the miraculous gift it is that He’s done even more in giving us His Holy Spirit to empower us to live above sin’s domination. And when we see all of that, we can revel in the grace of God that brings us the mercy of God.
So here’s how I think of it:
Grace gives – mercy withholds
- Grace is God giving to us who don’t deserve it
- Mercy is God withholding the wrath our sins do deserve
- Grace is God giving us a means of forgiveness in Christ
- Mercy is God withholding condemnation
- Grace helps us to obey God, it is empowering
- Mercy refrains from punishing us because we don’t obey God
- Grace is receiving something you don’t deserve
- Mercy is not getting what you do deserve
Join the conversation: How do YOU see grace & mercy being different?