What Is Mercy?
Mercy is one of the fundamental attributes of God. In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem notes that we often see God’s mercy, patience, and grace mentioned together in the Scripture. For instance, in Exodus 34:6–7, the Lord revealed Himself to Moses saying,
The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.
In Psalm 103:8, David says that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Grudem says that, “because these characteristics of God are often mentioned together, it may seem difficult to distinguish them. Yet the characteristic of mercy is often emphasized where people are in misery or distress.” With this in mind, we can define mercy as compassion for people who are in need. To further clarify what we mean by mercy, we can compare and contrast it with three other characteristics: grace, meekness, and love.
Mercy is related to grace
Mercy is closely related to, but slightly different from, grace. Martyn Lloyd-Jones catches this difference when he says, “while grace looks down upon sin as a whole, mercy looks especially upon the miserable consequences of sin. So that mercy really means a sense of pity plus a desire to relieve the suffering. That is the essential meaning of being merciful: it is pity plus the action.” We can use our salvation as an example of this distinction. In our salvation, grace extends pardon for our guilt, whereas mercy provides us with relief from its consequences. The apostle Paul connects these two closely related concepts in several of his greetings (see 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; and Titus 1:2). It may be helpful to understand these two terms as referring to disposition and action. Grace refers to the disposition or attitude within God, which compels Him to take action by offering us mercy. Mercy is the action God takes in response to His disposition of grace. Allow me to use a personal example to illustrate what I mean.
In addition to being the senior pastor of a Southern Baptist church, I’ve also served as a professor at two Bible colleges. As a teacher, I’ve gained a reputation for being rather gracious in the way I work with my students. A couple of semesters ago, I had a student who had fallen behind in his work. Honestly, he was so far behind, he should have failed the course. I had every right to give him an F for being lazy and slothful, but my desire was to help him get a good grade, so I gave him a second chance. My basic disposition toward this student was one of grace, which in turn led me to show him mercy. Instead of flunking him, I gave him an extension on his course work and helped him to end up with a B in the class. Hopefully, he learned an important lesson.
Do you see the relationship between my gracious disposition and merciful actions? Please don’t take this to mean that I think that I am as gracious or merciful as God, because I am not. But this does illustrate a key point that I want to make about the relationship between grace and mercy, namely that every act of mercy flows from the disposition of grace. God’s merciful actions toward us always flow from His disposition of grace. These two concepts are captured perfectly in the opening words of the most famous of all Christian hymns, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” God’s disposition of grace caused Him to show mercy on wretched sinners like you and me.
We don’t have to look very far in the Bible before we encounter the mercy of God. In Genesis 3, just after the fall of Adam and Eve, God provided animal skins to cover their nakedness, but there is more here than meets the eye. In addition to covering their naked bodies, this event also marks the first example of animals being sacrificed for the covering of sin. In essence, the death of this animal temporarily covered the sin of Adam and Eve. God’s disposition of grace motivated Him to show mercy by covering Adam and Eve’s sin through the sacrifice of an animal. This temporary remedy for sin is carried throughout the Old Testament, and eventually the Israelites were instructed to build the tabernacle—and later the temple—for the purpose of offering sacrifices to God. Within the innermost portion of the tabernacle sat the Ark of the Covenant, and on top of the ark rested the “mercy seat” (Exodus 25:17). It was upon this mercy seat that the high priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice, thus making atonement for the sins of the nation for another year. Once again, it was God’s gracious disposition that led Him to take actions necessary to show mercy, but it is not until the New Testament that we see the preeminent display of God’s mercy.
In the New Testament, God’s mercy is most clearly and decisively displayed by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. In Titus 3:5, the apostle Paul reminds us that our salvation was secured “not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration, and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Once again, this passage shows us the interrelationship between God’s grace and mercy. God’s gracious disposition is expressed as He shows mercy to us by sending His Son to bear the penalty for our sin.
Mercy is related to meekness
Mercy is related to meekness because while being meek causes us to take full responsibility for our own sin, mercy leads us to be sympathetic and compassionate toward other people who are themselves struggling under the burden of sin. We will not have the attitude of mercy until we first cultivate the attitude of meekness. We can never show mercy unless we first come face-to-face with the enormity of our own sin and the greatness of God’s grace shown to us on the cross.
Matthew 18:21–35 provides us with another picture of the interaction between grace and mercy. In this parable, Jesus tells us about a man who owed an enormous debt that he could never repay. The Bible says he owed ten thousand talents. To put that in perspective: in Jesus’ day, a denarii was worth one day’s wage and a talent was the equivalent of six thousand days’ labor, in other words, sixteen years’ worth of an average salary. This man owed ten thousand talents, which means it would have taken him 160,000 years to pay off the debt he owed.
In an attempt to recover some of his loss, the master to whom the debt was owed ordered the man, his family, and everything he owned be sold off to pay the debt. Facing the horrible consequences of his debt, the man only had one possible way out: he pleaded with the master, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything” (verse 26). This man was trying to plead his case and buy more time, but the master does something remarkable. In verse 27 the Bible says, “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” With a single sentence, the massive debt, which this man could never hope to repay, was erased. The slate was cleared, and the debt forgiven.
What happens next in the story, however, is a disappointing but far too common reaction. In verses 28–30, we are told that when the man returned from having been forgiven this enormous debt, he refused to show mercy toward one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred denarii. In fact, he even had his fellow servant arrested and thrown in jail. Let that sink in for a minute: he had been forgiven the equivalent of 160,000 years’ worth of salary, but he refused to show mercy toward someone who owed him the equivalent of little more than three months’ wages.
The Bible says when the master heard what this ungrateful servant had done, he had him summoned, saying, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Verses 32–33). Then he ordered the ungrateful servant arrested and thrown in jail. Having tasted the grace and mercy of his master, we would think he would have reciprocated and shown mercy toward his fellow servant, but mercy is not a natural part of our fallen condition. An attitude of mercy is cultivated in the life of a person only when he or she gains a deep appreciation for the gospel.
One of the members of our church is a young man who went through a difficult struggle with alcohol, but with the help of a Christian-based rehabilitation program, he came to know Christ and experienced a dramatic transformation in his life. His life is a testimony to the grace of God and the transforming power of the gospel. On several occasions, I have invited this young man to share his story with people who have come to me for counseling because of a similar problem. In these situations, I am always amazed by the way he is able to sympathize with their plight and demonstrate compassion toward them while at the same time remaining firm in the godly, spiritual advice he gives them. The awareness of his own struggle with alcohol has produced within him genuine meekness and granted him an attitude of mercy toward other people who are going through the same battle.
Having served for nearly twenty years in the pastorate, I wish I could say that everyone in the church is like this young man, but the reality is that many people within the church are more like the ungrateful servant. One of the difficulties facing the modern church is that we’ve gained a reputation for not being very merciful. In fact, it’s been said that the church is the only army that shoots its own wounded.
If we want to make an impact on our world, this must change. The church must be a place where broken and desperate people can find the grace and mercy they need. We need people who are aware of the enormous debt of sin that has been forgiven in their lives. This awareness will allow them to cultivate the attitude of meekness, which in turn will result in the cultivation of an attitude of mercy. When meekness and mercy are combined, people will begin to see the love of God reflected in our lives and be drawn to the message we preach.
Mercy is related to love
Mercy is really an outpouring of love. Love is constant and flows regardless of whether or not there is a need, whereas mercy always comes in response to a need. In other words, love provides the motivation for mercy. Perhaps one of the best verses to display this relationship is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Here we see that God’s love is manifested in action: “He gave his only Son.” In other words, it is the love of God that compels Him to act in mercy by giving His own Son on the cross to die for our sin. God pours out His mercy on us because He loves us.
Jesus told His disciples in John 13:34–35, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is one of the most important concepts the church needs to grasp today. Jesus says the way people will know we are His followers is through our actions, not our words. Merely saying we love other people doesn’t prove anything; our love must be manifested through genuine acts of mercy. I am convinced that one of the best ways to regain our voice in the public arena is for Christians to once again be known for the way we love one another and the people who live around us.
We are facing one of the most jaded and skeptical generations the church has ever encountered. People in our culture are looking for something genuine and real they can believe in, but sadly, what they often see in the church looks nothing like the Christianity portrayed in the Bible. Instead of seeing genuine love manifested by acts of mercy, people outside of the church are used to seeing hypocrisy and uncaring ambivalence. If we want to make an impact on the culture, we are going to have to return to biblical Christianity, both in doctrine and practice. A major part of this return must be in the area of mercy ministry. The old saying goes, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Many outside of the church have concluded that Christians are uncaring and harsh, but this can change if we will cultivate the gospel-shaped attitudes listed for us in the Beatitudes.
As a pastor, one of the things I’ve tried to lead our church to do is to be actively involved in ministering to our community. We started by holding a couple of major events each year intended to minister to needs in our community. One year, for instance, we held a free health clinic at the church where people could come and have their blood pressure, cholesterol, and other vital health issues tested for free. The next year, we did a program called “Let My People Mow,” the brainchild of one of our summer interns who got a dozen or so teenage boys to dedicate their Saturday mornings to cutting grass for some of the senior adults around our community.
As this desire to reach out and minister to our community grew, God sent two major ice storms and the worst flood to hit the Ohio River since 1937. In each of these situations, our church took the initiative in providing volunteer workers to fill sandbags, pick up fallen branches, and feed those whose homes had been damaged. Over a period of several years, we began to see a noticeable shift in how people perceived our church, and we found that people in our community were becoming more and more open to the gospel message when we shared it.
At first, our staff had to plan and organize every project, but over the past two years, our church members have begun to spontaneously come up with ways to meet the needs of our community. For instance, this spring and summer, a group from the church caught a vision for setting up a community garden on the rear property of our church building. More than a dozen men volunteered to give their time and effort to till, plant, and tend this garden, while dozens more have come out to help distribute the produce and present the gospel to those who come each week to receive vegetables.
I share this with you not to sound arrogant or to suggest that every church should do things the way we are doing them, but simply to say that God uses the ministry of mercy through the church to open opportunities for sharing the gospel. The more we cultivate this attitude of mercy, which results in acts of love, the more people will be able to see the character of Christ in our lives. In other words, mercy that has been received needs to become mercy that is shared.
The above is an excerpt from my book “Cultivating A Gospel-Shaped Attitude.” Click here if you would like to know more about this book.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 200.
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 84.
 John Newton, “Amazing Grace! How Sweet the Sound.” (No. 104) in The Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Lifeway Worship, 2008)