All of God’s attributes are wonderful, incredible, adorable, phenomenal, and glorious. But so often I have to meditate on the matchless grace of God – certainly when I look at my own life. How patient, gracious and merciful God has been with me all these years.
It may be hard to separate the mercy of God from the patience of God and the grace of God. So all three may be covered here, although in this series on the attributes of God, I may yet do further articles on the other two. Indeed, we could also include here related concepts such as his goodness, his compassion, his longsuffering, his love, etc.
But let me look further at this wonderful trait and characteristic of God: his abundant mercy. One can put it very simply here: if it were not for the mercy of God, I – and everyone else on the planet – would be toast. But let me offer some biblical and theological discussion of this wonderful aspect of God.
One Hebrew noun quite often used, hesed, can be difficult to translate into English. It is often defined as God’s covenanted love and mercy, whereby he remembers the covenant he made with his people. Thus at least with this term we can speak of covenant loyalty. It can describe covenants between God and man, or between humans.
Obviously because of God’s great mercy shown to us, we need to show mercy to others. But that discussion must await a further article. Here I want to concentrate on God’s mercy to us. John Feinberg in his magisterial work of nearly 900 pages, No One Like Him, notes the various Hebrew and Greek terms used for our English word mercy. He then says this:
The concept of mercy is closely related to grace, and of course it is an expression of God’s love and goodness. However, there is a significant difference between grace and mercy. Both involve unmerited favor, but the difference is that whereas grace may be given to those who are miserable and desperately in need of help, it may also be given to those who have no particular need. On the other hand, mercy is given specifically to those whose condition is miserable and one of great need.
Or as the Puritan pastor Thomas Manton (1620-1677) once put it, “The more affected we are with our misery, the fitter for Christ’s mercy.” It is easy enough to find plenty of biblical passages which speak of his mercy and kindness to us, and his great patience with us.
As we find God saying to Moses in Exodus 34:6: “And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
Or as we find in Deuteronomy 7:9, “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.”
As David says this he confesses his sin: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1). Psalm 116:5 says, “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful.” The Psalms are full of his mercy, but quite amazing is the fact that all 26 verses of Psalm 136 say “For His mercy endures forever.”
Paul often speaks of God’s mercy, as in Ephesians 2:4-5: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” And Peter can speak of his “abundant mercy” (1 Peter 1:3), and so on.
One of the greatest passages – in my view – is what we find right in the middle of a very gloomy book. Lamentations speaks about the fate of Israel under the divine wrath and judgment of God. But in the midst of all this gloom and doom we find this incredible passage, Lamentations 3:21-26 (NIV):
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
The ESV renders verse 22 this way:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
Thank God for that! But let me look a bit further at some theological considerations. Many Christians could be appealed to here, but A. W. Pink’s brief book on The Attributes of God and the brief chapter on mercy (7 pages) offers some helpful thoughts on this.
He points out that there is a general mercy to all of creation, a more specific mercy to all men, but a quite specific mercy shown to those who are his. He also notes that while God is an eternally merciful being, his mercy to the unrepentant is temporary, “confined strictly to this present life. There will be no mercy extended to them beyond the grave.”
But even here, the casting of the reprobate into the lake of fire is an act of mercy, in a threefold sense:
From God’s side, it is an act of justice, vindicating His honor. The mercy of God is never shown to the prejudice of His holiness and righteousness. From their side, it is an act of equity, when they are made to suffer the due reward of their iniquities. But from the standpoint of the redeemed, the punishment of the wicked is an act of unspeakable mercy. How dreadful would it be if the present order of things, when the children of God are obliged to live in the midst of the children of the Devil, should continue forever!
Let me also say a few quick words about mercy and justice. Just what is the relationship between the two? What about law and gospel? What of those who keep sinning? Plenty of questions arise here. With some of the qualifications offered above, we must realise that justice and mercy go together.
God is both fully merciful and fully just. As we read in Nahum 1:3, “The LORD is slow to anger and great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished.” And the work of Jesus at Calvary is the epitome of the meeting of mercy and justice.
The claims of justice were not set aside there. What we deserved, he got. We receive mercy because he received judgement. As J. Budziszewski rightly explains, “The reconciliation of justice with mercy lies in the Cross. God does not balance mercy and justice; He accomplishes both to the full.”
As to those who would presume upon God’s mercy, Paul spoke to this in Romans 6. Consider the words of one great Puritan preacher, Thomas Watson: “To sin because mercy abounds is the devil’s logic; he that sins because of God’s mercy, shall have judgment without mercy. Mercy is not for them that sin and fear not, but for them that fear and sin not.”
But some will point to James 2:13: “because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” However, as C. S. Lewis once said, “Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful.”
As Psalm 119:156 (RSV) says, “Great is thy mercy, O Lord; give me life according to thy justice.” But I speak to this passage in more detail here: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/02/21/difficult-bible-passages-james-213/
Let me finish with a few great quotes from some great saints:
“God’s mercy is so great that you may sooner drain the sea of its water, or deprive the sun of its light, or make space too narrow, than diminish the great mercy of God.” Charles Spurgeon
“No sin is so great but the satisfaction of Christ and His mercies are greater; it is beyond comparison. Fathers and mothers in tenderest affections are but beams and trains to lead us upwards to the infinite mercy of God in Christ.” Richard Sibbes
“God’s mercy with a sinner is only equaled and perhaps outmatched by His patience with the saints, with you and me.” Alan Redpath
Amen and amen. We can say with the Psalmist (in Psalm 89:1, KJV): “I will sing of the mercies of the LORD for ever: with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations.”
Interesting: when I wrote this article two days ago I noted to myself that in my 6600-volume library I do not have one book directly on this issue. Well, I was just in Koorong (yes I know that will surprise some of you), looking in the Old Testament section, and there was a brand new book on the Hebrew word hesed, which as I said above involves God’s mercy and love. It is by the musician (but careful student on the Word) Michael Card: Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God’s Lovingkindness. When I finish reading it I may do a review of it.
(Australians can find it here: www.koorong.com/search/product/inexpressible-hesed-and-the-mystery-of-gods-lovingkindness/9780830845491.jhtml )