The Mercy and Grace of God
The academic discipline of Christian apologetics is concerned with offering a reasoned defense of historical, New Testament Christianity. The English word “apology” derives from the Greek apologia, which means to “defend” or “make a defense.” Various biblical writers acknowledged the legitimacy of such activity. The apostle Peter, for example, wrote:
But sanctify in your hearts Christ as Lord: being ready always to give answer [Greek, apologian] to every man that asketh you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear (1 Peter 3:15).
Paul, in his epistle to the Philippians, stated that he was “set for the defense [Greek, apologian] of the Gospel” (Philippians 1:16). Paul’s writings, in fact, teem with sound arguments that provide a rational undergirding for his readers’ faith. Christianity is not some kind of vague, emotionally based belief system intended for unthinking simpletons. Rather, it is a logical system of thought that may be both defended and accepted by analytical minds.
In any defense of Christianity, a variety of evidence may be employed. Such evidence may be derived from science, philosophy, or history, to list just a few examples. It is not uncommon to hear someone mention studies from within the field of “Christian evidences.” Such terminology simply is a reference to an examination of the evidences establishing Christianity as the one true religion of the one true God. Regardless of the source or nature of the evidence, however, the ultimate goal is to substantiate the case for the existence of God, the inspiration of the Bible, the deity and Sonship of Christ, the validity of the creation account found in Genesis 1-2, etc.
Much of the evidence attending the truthfulness of Christianity can be examined within broad categories such as those listed above. But these do not tell the whole story, for within each major area of study there are important subcategories that offer additional insight. An illustration of this point would be a study of the inspiration of the Bible. It is possible to examine various arguments that establish the Bible as being God’s inspired Word. Generally speaking, however, such a study may not examine such things as alleged internal contradictions, supposed historical inconsistencies, and other such matters. In order to respond to such charges, one must “dig a little deeper” into the evidence at hand.
The same is true of the evidence that establishes the case for the existence of God. It is not a difficult task to assemble evidence that represents a compelling case for God’s existence. Yet that evidence often may not touch on other equally important matters that have to do with God’s personality and character (e.g., things like His eternality, His justice, His relationship to other members of the Godhead, etc.). Information on these topics must be derived from separate, independent studies.
One of the areas that Christian apologetics seeks to address in relation to the existence of God is His nature. It is not enough merely to acknowledge that God exists. Rather, it is necessary to know something about Him, what He expects from mankind, and how He interacts with His creation. By necessity, any investigation into the nature of God eventually will have to address the topics of His justice, His mercy, and His grace, because these are a part of His eternal nature. That is the purpose of the present study.
THE MERCY AND GRACE OF GOD
The mercy and grace of God are at the core of one of the most beautiful, yet one of the most heart-rending, accounts in all the Bible—the story of Peter’s denial of His Lord, and Jesus’ reaction to that denial. Christ had predicted that before His crucifixion Peter would deny Him three times (John 13:36-38). Peter did just that (John 18:25-27). First, he was asked by a maid who controlled the door to the court of the high priest if he was a disciple of Jesus. Peter denied that he was. Second, he was asked by servants of the high priest if he was indeed the Lord’s disciple. Again, he denied knowing Jesus. Third, he was asked if he was with the Lord when they arrested Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. One last time, Peter vehemently denied the Lord. The cock crowed, and the Lord looked across the courtyard. As their eyes met, the text says simply that Peter “went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:61-62).
When next we see Peter, he has given up. In fact, he said “I go a fishing” (John 21:3). Peter’s life as a follower of Christ was finished, so far as he was concerned. He had decided to go back to his livelihood of fishing. No doubt Peter felt that his sin against the Lord was so grievous that even though he now believed the Lord to be risen, there could be no further use for him in the kingdom. It was, then, to his original vocation that he would return.
It is a compliment to Peter’s innate leadership ability that the other disciples followed him even on this occasion. As Peter and his friends fished one morning, the Lord appeared on the shore and called to them. When they brought the boat near, they saw that Christ had prepared a meal of fish and bread over an open fire. They sat, ate, and talked. As they did, the Lord asked Peter, “Simon, lovest thou me more than these?” (John 21:15). Peter assured Christ that he did. But Christ appeared unsatisfied with Peter’s response. He inquired a second time, and a third. After the last query, the text indicates that Peter was “grieved because Christ said unto him a third time, ‘lovest thou me?’ ” (John 21:17).
Peter’s uneasiness was saying, in essence, “What are you trying to do to me, Lord?” Jesus was asking: “Peter, can you comprehend—in spite of your denying heart—that I have forgiven you? Do you understand that the mercy and grace of God have been extended to you? There is still work for you to do. Go, use your immense talents in the advancement of the kingdom.” Jesus loved Peter. And He wanted him back. Jesus simply was putting into action that which He had taught personally. Forgive, yes, even 70 times 7 times!
Perhaps during these events one of Christ’s parables came to Peter’s mind. He no doubt was familiar with the teaching of the Lord in Luke 7:36-50 (see the similar account found in Matthew 18:23-35). Jesus was eating with Simon, a Pharisee. Simon saw a worldly woman come into the Lord’s presence, and thought: “This man, if he were a prophet, would have perceived who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him, that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). Simon’s point, of course, was that Christ should have driven away the sinful woman. But Jesus, knowing Simon’s thoughts, presented a parable for his consideration.
Two servants owed their lord; one owed an enormous debt, and the other only a small amount. Yet the master forgave both of the debts. Jesus asked Simon: “Which of them therefore will love him the most?” (Luke 7:42). Simon correctly answered: “He, I suppose, to whom he forgave the most” (Luke 7:43). Jesus, through this parable, was saying to Simon: “I came here today and you would not even extend to me the common courtesy of washing my feet. This woman entered, cried, washed my feet with her tears, and dried them with her hair. I have forgiven her. She, therefore, should love me the most.”
This woman had been a recipient of God’s mercy and grace. She gratefully expressed devotion for the forgiveness offered by the Son of God. Simon was too religious to beg, and too proud to accept it if offered. It is a sad fact that man will treat forgiveness lightly so long as he treats sin lightly. The worldly, fallen woman desperately desired the saving mercy and grace of God, and accepted it when it was extended. Christ’s point to Simon was that man can appreciate to what he has been elevated (God’s saving grace) only when he recognizes from what he has been saved (his own sinful state).
In this context, Christ’s point to Peter becomes clear. “Peter, you denied me, not just once, but three times. Have I forgiven you? Yes, I have.” Peter, too, had been the recipient of God’s mercy and grace. He had much of which to be forgiven. Yet, he had been forgiven! The problem that relates to mercy and grace is not to be found in heaven; rather, it is to be found here on the Earth. Man’s first problem often is accepting God’s mercy and grace. His second problem often is forgiving himself. We do not stand in need of an accuser; God’s law does that admirably, as the seventh chapter of Romans demonstrates. What we need is an Advocate (1 John 2:1-2)—someone to stand in our place, and to plead our case. We—laden with our burden of sin—have no right to stand before the majestic throne of God, even with the intent to beg for mercy. But Jesus the Righteous has that right. He made it clear to His disciples, and likewise has made it clear to us, that He is willing to be just such an Advocate on our behalf. The author of the book of Hebrews wrote:
Having then a great high priest, who hath passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin (4:14-15).
The entire story of the Bible centers on man’s need for mercy and grace. That story began in Genesis 3, and has been unfolding ever since. Fortunately, “the Lord is full of pity, and merciful” (James 5:11). Even when Cain—a man who had murdered his own brother—begged for mercy, God heard his plea and placed a mark on him for his protection. God never has wanted to punish anyone. His words to this effect were recorded by Ezekiel: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked? saith the Lord Jehovah; and not rather that he should return from his way, and live?... I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord Jehovah” (18:23,32). Similarly, in the times of Hosea sin was rampant. Life was barren. Worship to God had been polluted. The effects of Satan’s rule were felt everywhere on the Earth. The Lord, suggested Hosea, “hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor goodness, nor knowledge of God in the land” (4:1). Evidence of God’s mercy and grace is seen, however, in the words spoken by Hosea on God’s behalf:
How shall I give thee up, O Ephraim! How shall I cast thee off, Israel!... my heart is turned within me, my compassions are kindled together. I will not execute the fierceness of mine anger, I will not return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man; the Holy One in the midst of thee; and I will not come in wrath (11:8-9).
The wise king, Solomon, said that those who practice mercy and truth will find “favor and good understanding in the sight of God and man” (Proverbs 3:4). Many are those in the Bible who desperately sought the mercy and grace of God. Cain needed mercy and grace. Israel needed mercy and grace. Peter needed mercy and grace. And to all it was given, as God deemed appropriate. We must come to understand, however, several important facts about God’s mercy and grace.
God is Sovereign in His Delegation of Mercy and Grace
First, we must realize that God is sovereign in granting both His mercy and His grace. When we speak of God’s sovereign nature, it is a recognition on our part that whatever He wills is right. He alone determines the appropriate course of action; He acts and speaks at the whim of no outside force, including mankind.
When humans become the recipients of heaven’s grace, the unfathomable has happened. The apostle Paul wrote: “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.... For the wages of sin is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 3:23; 6:23). God—our Justifiable Accuser—has become our Vindicator. He has extended to us His wonderful love, as expressed by His mercy and His grace.
Mercy has been defined as feeling “sympathy with the misery of another, and especially sympathy manifested in act” (Vine, 1940, 3:61). Mercy is more than just sympathetic feelings. It is sympathy in concert with action. Grace often has been defined as the “unmerited favor of God.” If grace is unmerited, then none can claim it as an unalienable right. If grace is undeserved, then none is entitled to it. If grace is a gift, then none can demand it. Grace is the antithesis of justice. After God’s grace has been meted out, there remains only divine justice. Because salvation is through grace (Ephesians 2:8-9), the very chief of sinners is not beyond the reach of divine grace. Because salvation is by grace, boasting is excluded and God receives the glory.
When justice is meted out, we receive what we deserve. When mercy is extended, we do not receive what we deserve. When grace is bestowed, we receive what we do not deserve.
Perhaps no one could appreciate this better than Peter. It was he who said: “And if the righteous is scarcely saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?” (1 Peter 4:18). Paul reminded the first-century Christians in Rome that “scarcely for a righteous man will one die: for peradventure for the good man some one would even dare to die. But God commendeth his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8).
Yet because it is a free gift, and unearned, it remains within God’s sovereign right to bestow it as He sees fit. A beautiful expression of this fact can be seen in the prayers of two men who found themselves in similar circumstances—in that both were under the sentence of death. In Numbers 20, the story is told of God’s commanding Moses to speak to the rock in the wilderness, so that it would yield water for the Israelites. Rather than obey the command of God to speak to the rock, however, Moses struck it instead. The Lord said to him: “Because ye believed not in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (Numbers 20:12). Years later, God called Moses to the top of Mount Nebo, and allowed him to look across into the promised land, but He vowed that Moses would not enter into Canaan with the Israelites. Moses begged God to permit him to go (Deuteronomy 3:26), but his plea was denied.
Yet king Hezekiah, likewise under a sentence of death, petitioned God to let him live, and God added 15 years to his life. Moses wrote: “The Lord would not hear me...,” and died. But to Hezekiah it was said: “I have heard thy prayer” (2 Kings 20:1-6), and his life was spared. What a beautiful illustration and amplification of Romans 9:15: “For he saith unto Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” God is sovereign in His mercy and His grace.
God’s Grace Does Not Mean a Lack of Consequences to Sin
Second, we must recognize that God’s granting mercy and grace does not somehow negate the consequences of sin here and now. While mercy may ensue, so may sin’s consequences. Perhaps the most touching story in the Bible of this eternal truth is the story of king David. How could a man of David’s faith and righteousness commit the terrible sins attributed to him? David was about 50 years old at the time. Fame and fortune were his as Israel’s popular, beloved king. He had taken his vows before God (see Psalm 101). He had insisted on righteousness in his nation. The people had been taught to love, respect, and honor the God of heaven. David, their king, was also their example. He was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14).
But he committed the sin of adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12), and then had her husband, Uriah the Hittite, murdered. One cannot help but be reminded of the sin of Achan (Joshua 7), when he took booty from a war and hid it under the floor of his tent after the Israelites were commanded specifically not to take any such items. Achan said, “I saw..., I coveted..., I took..., I hid...” (Joshua 7:21). Is that not what king David did? But Achan and David also could state, “I paid.” Achan paid with his life; David paid with twenty years of strife, heartbreak, and the loss of a child that meant everything to him.
Nathan the prophet was sent by God to the great king. He told David the story of a rich man who had many sheep in his flock, and of a poor man who had but one small ewe that was practically part of the family. When a visitor appeared at the rich man’s door, the rich man took the single ewe owned by the poor man, and slaughtered it for the visitor’s meal. Upon hearing what had happened, David was incensed with anger and vowed, “As Jehovah liveth, the man that hath done this is worthy to die” (2 Samuel 12:5).
Nathan looked the powerful king in the eye and said, “Thou art the man” (2 Samuel 12:7). The enormity of David’s sin swept over him, and he said, “I have sinned” (2 Samuel 12:13). David, even through his sin, was a man who loved righteousness. Now that Nathan had shown him his sin, he felt a repulsion which demanded a cleansing that could come only from God. His description of the consequences of sin on the human heart is one of the most vivid in all of Scripture, and should move each of us deeply. His agonizing prayer is recorded in Psalm 51. David cried out: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness.”
David needed a new heart; sin had defiled his old one. He likewise realized that he needed to undergo an inner renewal; pride and lust had destroyed his spirit. So, David prayed for a proper spirit. He could do nothing but cast himself on the mercy and grace of God. David laid on the altar his own sinful heart and begged God to cleanse, recreate, and restore his life. God did forgive. He did cleanse. He did recreate. He did restore.
But the consequences of David’s sin still remained. The child growing in Bathsheba’s womb died after birth. In addition, the prophet Nathan made it clear to David that “the sword shall never depart from thy house,” and that God would “raise up evil against thee out of thine own house” (2 Samuel 12:10-11). David’s life never would be the same again. His child was dead. His reputation was damaged. His influence, in large part, was destroyed.
David learned that the penalty for personal sin often is felt in the lives of others as well. He had prayed that those who loved and served the Lord would not have to bear his shame. But this was not to be. The shame of the one is the shame of the many; as God’s people, we are bound together. More often than not, what affects one of us affects all of us.
It is to David’s credit that once his sin was uncovered, he did not try to deny it. Solomon, his son, later would write: “He that covereth his transgressions shall not prosper; but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall obtain mercy” (Proverbs 28:13).
Mercy and Grace are Expensive
Third, we should realize that the mercy and grace God uses to cover mankind’s sins are not cheap. They cost heaven its finest jewel—the Son of God. The popular, old song says it well:
I owed a debt I could not pay
He paid a debt He did not owe
I needed someone to wash my sins away.
So now I sing a brand new song—amazing grace
Christ paid the debt I could never pay.
Jesus’ death represented His total commitment to us. As Isaiah prophesied:
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and Jehovah hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.... He bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors (53:4-6,12).
Paul wrote that “Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Grace does not eliminate human responsibility; rather, grace emphasizes human responsibility. Grace, because it cost God so much, delivers agonizing duties and obligations. It is seemingly a great paradox that Christianity is free, yet at the same time is so very costly. Jesus warned: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Paul summarized it like this: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I that live, but Christ liveth in me: and that life which I now live in the flesh I live in faith, the faith which is in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me. I do not make void the grace of God” (Galatians 2:20-21).
Grace does not make one irresponsible; it makes one more responsible! Paul asked: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid” (Romans 6:1-2). God’s grace is accessed through willful obedience to the “perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25). It is God’s law that informs us of the availability of grace, the manner in which we appropriate it, and the blessings of living within it. The testimony of Scripture is abundantly clear when it speaks of the importance of the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5). We are to be obedient to God by returning to Him from an alien, sinful state, and, once redeemed, through our continued faithfulness as evinced by our works. Grace and works of obedience are not mutually exclusive.
Neither are grace and law mutually exclusive. One who is “in Christ” does not live under the dominion of sin, since Christianity is a system of grace. The apostle to the Gentiles stated: “Ye are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). He cannot mean that we are under no law at all, because in the following verses he spoke of early Christians being “obedient from the heart to that form of teaching” delivered to them (6:17). These Christians obeyed God’s law, and were living faithfully under that law. They understood that “faith worketh by love” (Galatians 5:6). The terms “law,” “works,” and “grace” are not at odds, but like all things within God’s plan, exist in perfect harmony.
We Are Saved Through Grace
Fourth, let us remember that our salvation is by atonement, not attainment. Because salvation is a free gift (Romans 6:23), man never can earn it. Unmerited favor cannot be merited! God did for us what we, on our own, could not do. Jesus paid the price we could not pay. From beginning to end, the scheme of redemption—including all that God has done, is doing, and will do—is one continuous act of grace. The Scriptures speak of God “reconciling the world unto himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses, and having committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Peter stated:
Knowing that ye were redeemed, not with corruptible things, with silver or gold, from your vain manner of life handed down from your fathers; but with precious blood, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot, even the blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19).
God has promised mercy and grace to those who believe on His Son (John 3:16), repent of their sins (Luke 13:3), and have those sins remitted through baptism (Acts 2:38; 22:16). Subsequent to the Day of Pentecost, Peter called upon his audiences to: “Repent ye therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). The word for “blotted out” derives from the Greek word meaning to “wipe out, erase, or obliterate.” The New Testament uses the word to refer to “blotting out” the old law (Colossians 2:14), and to “blotting out” a person’s name from the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5). One of the great prophetical utterances of the Old Testament was that “their sin will I remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).
Our sins were borne by Jesus on the cross. He paid our debt so that we, like undeserving Barabbas, might be set free. In this way, God could be just, and at the same time Justifier of those who believe in and obey His Son. By refusing to extend mercy to Jesus on the cross, God was able to extend mercy to me—if I submit in obedience to His commands.
There was no happy solution to the justice/mercy dilemma. There was no way by which God could remain just (justice demands that the wages of sin be paid), and yet save His Son from death. Christ was abandoned to the cross so that mercy could be extended to sinners who stood condemned (Galatians 3:10). God could not save sinners by fiat—upon the ground of mere authority alone—without violating His own attribute of divine justice. Paul discussed God’s response to this problem in Romans 3:24-26:
Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood...for the showing of his righteousness...that he might himself be just and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus.
Man’s salvation was no arbitrary arrangement. God did not decide merely to consider man a sinner, and then determine to save him upon a principle of mercy. Sin placed man in a state of antagonism toward God. Sinners are condemned because they have violated God’s law, and because God’s justice cannot permit Him to ignore sin. Sin could be forgiven only as a result of the vicarious death of God’s Son. Because sinners are redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, and not their own righteousness, they are sanctified by the mercy and grace of God.
Our Response to Mercy and Grace
What, then, should be our response to mercy and grace?
(1) Let us remember that “blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). It is a biblical principle that unless we extend mercy, we cannot obtain mercy. Jesus taught: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). We would do well to recall the adage that “he who cannot forgive destroys the bridge over which he also must one day pass.” If we expect to be forgiven, then let us be prepared to forgive.
(2) Let us remember that mercy and grace demand action on our part. Mercy is to feel “sympathy with the misery of another, and especially sympathy manifested in act.” Luke recorded an example of Christ’s mercy in healing ten lepers who “lifted up their voices saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us’ ” (Luke 17:13). Did these diseased and dying men want merely a few kind words uttered in their direction? Hardly. They wanted to be healed! When the publican prayed so penitently, “God, be thou merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13), he was asking for more than tender feelings of compassion. He wanted something done about his pitiful condition. Mercy and grace are compassion in action.
(3) Let us remember that nothing must take precedence over our Savior. If we have to choose between Christ and a friend, spouse, or child, Christ comes first. He demands no less (Luke 4:25-35)—but His demands are consistent with His sufferings on our behalf. He insists that we take up our cross: He took up His. He insists that we lose our life to find it: He lost His. He insists that we give up our families for His sake: He gave up His for ours. He demands that we give up everything for Him: He had nowhere to lay His head, and His only possession—the robe on His back—was taken from Him. Yes, the costs sometimes are high; but the blessings that we receive in return are priceless. He dispenses mercy and grace, and offers eternal salvation to all those who will believe in and obey Him.
In Luke 15, Jesus spoke of a wayward son who had sinned against his father and squandered his precious inheritance. Upon returning home, he decided to say to his father: “make me as one of thy hired servants” (15:19). He was prepared for the worst.
But he received the best. His father, “while he was yet afar off,...was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). The son did not receive what he deserved; he received what he did not deserve. He received mercy and grace. His father wanted him back!
Does our heavenly Father want us back? Oh, yes! Paul wrote: “For ye were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20). Let us yearn for the day when we can stand before His throne and thank Him for granting us mercy and grace—and for paying the debt we could not pay, and the debt He did not owe.
Vine, W.E. (1940), An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell).