Attributes of God: Lesson 8: God is Merciful

What is Mercy?

In Luke 18, Jesus taught a parable (“an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”) about a Pharisee and a tax collector. In the parable, the Pharisee proudly boasted about his “righteousness,” while the tax collector humbly confessed his sinfulness. The tax collector’s plea was: “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13). This man understood that because of his sin, he deserved nothing but God’s displeasure. However, he also understood that God is merciful (Ps 86:15, 145:8, 2 Cor 1:3), that is, He doesn’t always give us what we deserve (Ezra 9:13, Ps 103:10).  Therefore, the tax collector appealed to God’s mercy, begging God not to give him what he deserved. As a result, God mercifully withheld His judgment (Luke 18:14).

Like the tax collector, we deserve nothing but God’s judgment for our sin. Romans 6:23 tells us that “the wages of sin is death.” Because we are sinners, we deserve death, both physical and spiritual. Every breath we take is a testament to God’s mercy (see Lam 3:22 in the NIV, KJV, and NASB margin) . Because of our sin, we don’t deserve to live another day (Luke 13:1-5). Yet, God in His mercy doesn’t give us that which we deserve.  Even more amazing is God’s mercy in salvation. All of us deserve to spend eternity in Hell because of our sin, yet God mercifully spares some therefrom (Eph 2:4, Titus 3:5, 1 Pet 1:3).[1] No wonder God’s mercy is called “great” (2 Sam 24:14, 1 Pet 1:3)!


Related Concepts

Grace. Whereas mercy may be defined as not getting what one deserves, grace may be defined as getting what one does not deserve. In other words, mercy is the withholding of deserved cursing (such as Hell), while grace is the bestowing of undeserved blessing (such as Heaven). Grace goes one step beyond mercy. We will examine God’s grace more thoroughly in our next lesson.

Pity and compassion. Pity may be understood as the emotional aspect of mercy, while compassion may be viewed as its volitional aspect. Because God is merciful, He “feels sorry” for us in our miserable condition. His compassion is that which causes Him to do something about it. In His mercy, He relieves the misery caused by our sin. The Lord is full of compassion and is merciful (Jas 5:11).

Longsuffering. To be longsuffering is to be patient with people. Because God is merciful, He patiently “puts up with” sinners (Rom 9:22, 1 Tim 1:16, 1 Pet 3:20, 2 Pet 3:9). He is “slow to anger” (Ex 34:6, et. al.). It is God’s longsuffering which prevents Him from immediately unleashing His justice on sinners.

Forgiveness. God in His mercy forgives or pardons those who have offended His holiness by their sin. If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You (Ps 130:3-4a).

Some Implications of God’s Mercy

Because God is merciful, we should be merciful. Believers are to make every effort to reflect God’s attributes of goodness. Thus, we should be merciful because God is merciful (Luke 6:36). Jesus emphasized this very point in a parable He taught in Matthew 18:23-35. Though shown great mercy by his master, the wicked servant showed no mercy to a fellow servant. In like manner, we have been shown great mercy by our Master. May we respond by freely showing mercy to others. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you (Eph 4:32; see also Col 3:13).

Because God is merciful, we should be grateful. Being a recipient of God’s mercy is a privilege, not a right (Rom 9:15). God in His mercy unconditionally saves some, sparing them from the calamitous consequences of their sin.[2] If this fact does not produce in the believer an “attitude of gratitude,” nothing will. “We should be amazed that we suffer so little for the consequences of our sin” (Dan DeHaan, The God You Can Know, p. 56). The question isn’t: Why do bad things happen to good people? There aren’t any good people (Mark 10:18, Rom 3:10-12). The question is: Why does anything good ever happen to bad people, i.e., anyone? The answer: Because God is merciful.

Because God is merciful, we should be humble. Like the tax collector in the parable referred to earlier, we should be humbled by the thought of God’s mercy. The more we fully understand what mercy is all about, the more humbled we should be that God has chosen to shed it upon us so abundantly. Thomas Hooker, one of the Puritans, was told by his friends while on his deathbed: “Brother Hooker, you are going to receive your reward shortly.” Hooker’s response was this: “No, no, I go to receive mercy” (Dan DeHaan, The God You Can Know, p. 58).

When . . . we children of the shadows reach at last our home in the light, we shall have a thousand strings to our harps, but the sweetest may well be the one tuned to sound forth most perfectly the mercy of God@ (Tozer, p. 90).

[1]“That any are saved at all is, however, the amazing thing. If God gave to all what they deserve, none would be saved. Everyone would be lost and condemned” (Erickson, p. 295).

[2]The “calamitous consequences of sin” are seen most vividly in the Tribulation and in Hell.

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