Do you ever hear pastors, teachers, or other people in the Christian faith throw around words like “grace” and “mercy”, but it isn’t clear what they mean? These are important concepts, but I admit that sometimes when I hear a word that I don’t understand, I just sort of gloss over it and hope that the rest of the conversation makes sense. As a result, I won’t judge you if you’re not an expert on every word that I use on this site. Today’s article intends to start to make some sense of these two key terms, grace and mercy.
I have found it helpful to explain these terms like this:
- Mercy is not getting the punishment that we deserve. If I do something terrible (like robbing a bank), and I deserve punishment (like jail time), mercy would be if the judge allowed me to not serve any time. On other cases, a convicted criminal or a conquered soldier might beg for mercy. This doesn’t mean that they are innocent: mercy doesn’t argue that the other party has done something wrong. Rather, it is the gift of sparing someone from punishment that they deserve.
- Grace is getting something that we don’t deserve. If I was contracted to do a job for someone, and I did really bad work – so bad that my boss was going to have to pay someone else to do it right – but I still received full pay (because the boss felt compassion for me), that might be considered grace. Grace is a gift; something that we don’t earn, but still receive from someone. A gracious host doesn’t have to take your coat or spend time in the kitchen preparing good food. Instead, she (or he) does so as a gift to you.
To be clear, both mercy and grace are “unfair”. Justice demands that there be consequences for breaking the law, and if we see a criminal receiving mercy or grace, we might become a little judgmental of our system.
Let’s return to a passage that was also quoted in the previous article:
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Romans 3:21-24 NIV
The law – whether the Law of Moses given to the Hebrew people, or the internal law of conscience that even Gentiles (non-Jewish people) understand – couldn’t make us righteous. (Sorry, but no amount of rule-following will get anyone to Heaven, since none of us are good enough to keep the requirements perfectly.) We are fallen people in a fallen world, and we sin. However, there is a path to righteousness that is separate from keeping the law, through God’s grace.
To study this further, let’s consider a few key points to remember when we see God (or even other people) extending mercy and grace to others:
For one thing, we all need mercy and grace ourselves, in order to be restored to God. (In fact, we probably all need mercy and grace in our relationships with other people, too. I know that I do!) We need mercy to not be punished immediately upon sinning, so that we can have time to repent. And, we need the grace of God to be considered to have righteousness before Him. If we are the recipients of mercy and grace, we shouldn’t be too quick to judge others who receive the same blessings.
In addition, God didn’t break principles of justice in order to give us righteousness. Justice was served when Jesus Christ lived a perfect life, and instead of keeping it to Himself, He exchanged His blessings for the punishment that we deserved. Punishment for our sins was still carried out – just on Him, rather than us (if we have faith in Him). This brings us to Romans 3:25-26, where God is “just” (He is fair and righteous, because justice was served) and the “justifier” (He is the one who pronounces us righteous through Jesus’ sacrifice).
In the same way, many people who receive mercy from other human beings are doing so only because someone else – like the person forgiving them, a benefactor, or society as a whole – is paying the debt that they owe. Someone who receives grace is often the recipient of another person giving up what they have, in order to bless the recipient.
I hope that you know this, but we cannot be good enough to attain God’s righteousness through good works. Righteousness through some sort of law-based system, where we are “51% good” or even “99.999% good”, is not achievable since the law requires perfect compliance.
The great news is that God – knowing our sinful nature – made another way. Through His mercy, He didn’t punish us right away. Through His grace, He made a way for us to receive a salvation that we totally didn’t deserve. And, He maintained His role as a just God by paying the price for the sentence that our sins deserved.
And, this isn’t something new: it has been God’s plan all the way back to Abraham (and probably from Creation). Let’s take a look at this plan in more depth over the next few articles.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for January 16, 2022
- The Lookout, January 16, 2022, © 2022 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- The College Press Commentary, Romans, Volume 1, by Jack Cottrell. College Press Publishing Company, © 1996.