A rhapsody on a theme of grace and mercy

Mercy is God NOT giving us what we deserve. Grace is God GIVING us what we do not deserve.

Like that? It’s the truth, but it’s not the whole story.

Think of mercy as the restraint of God, His holding back on the judgment we have coming.

Think of grace as the generosity of God, HIs pouring out His blessings on the undeserving.

After God gives us mercy (forgiving us), we are still in need of grace (transforming us).  Mercy is the judge not sending the defendant to prison but suspending all charges and setting him free. Grace is the judge then recommending him for a training program and inviting him to his church where he will share a pew with a banker and his family.

God is a God of grace and mercy.

Mercy: “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10).

The sinner first asks for mercy.  David prayed, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1). The publican in the temple prayed, “God, have mercy on me, the sinner” (Luke 18:13).

Grace: “He richly gives us all good things to enjoy” (I Timothy 6:17). In grace, God showers us with gifts and honors, makes us His child, writes our name down in Heaven’s book, indwells us, calls us and sends us and accompanies us. “…in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that He lavished upon us with all wisdom and understanding” (Ephesians 1:7-8).

I was lying in bed early one morning recently, thinking about my dad, Carl J. McKeever, who left us in November of 2007 at the age of 95+ years.  This lifelong coal miner and farmer was a hundred things, many of them contradictory, all of them strong-willed and done with his whole heart.  He sinned enough for several people, loved to read his Bible and to sit in front of the radio and listen to preachers for hours on end and to soak up good gospel singing. Yet, he was not much of a church-goer.  The few times preachers came to our home, perhaps for Sunday dinner, and called on Dad to lead a prayer, I was blown away by the potency and familiarity of what he said.  Clearly, he was on speaking terms with the Heavenly Father. He was many things, chief among them an enigma.

But, as wonderful as he was and as much as his family adored him, my dad was not good enough to go to Heaven.

Fortunately, that’s not what it takes to get there.

It occurred to me, lying in bed an hour ago, that apart from the mercy and grace of the Lord, I will never see Pop again. My eyes teared up at the thought.

If he got what he deserved, my dad would be in hell.

Then, it hit me: So would I.

Unless the Lord is merciful to me, forgiving my sins, putting them underneath the blood shed on Calvary, having them nailed to the cross, and unless He graciously claims me as His son and gives me a place in Heaven, I am sunk forever.

It’s grace or nothing.

A picture of mercy: John 8:1-11.  A woman has been caught in the very act of adultery and thrust into the crowd where our Lord was teaching.  “Moses said to stone such a harlot!” the self-righteous critics said. “What do you say?”  These religious experts had planned this.  They had Jesus here, they surmised, on the horns of a dilemma.  If He upholds Moses and says to stone the woman, the common people are going to pull back from so harsh a teacher. But if he goes against Moses, He is teaching contrary to scripture.

What He did is legendary, as good as Solomon’s verdict to the two women fighting over a baby. “He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”  One by one they drifted away, beginning with the oldest (presumably, those with the greatest awareness of their sinfulness), until finally no one remained but the woman. Jesus said, “So, woman, where are your accusers? Does no one condemn you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then, neither do I condemn you.  Go and sin no more.”

We love that story. We treasure its tenderness, revel in the striking contrast of our Lord with the hypocritical sin-seekers of His day, and admire the wisdom He displays.

It’s a story about mercy.  As far as we can see, Jesus did not save her and did not change her life, other than refusing to condemn her.  For this to be a demonstration of grace, He would have (at this point) done something more for her–taught her, redeemed her, changed her heart, given her a new calling or a home in Heaven, something.

One can argue that His mercy alone did all those things, and this may be correct. But we’re not told.

When, from the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), that was mercy.

A picture of grace: Luke 23:43.  One thief calls from his cross to his counterpart on the opposite cross where both are dying, impaled just as cruelly and as painfully as was our Lord between them. “You and I are getting what we deserve. But this man has done nothing amiss.”  They deserved judgment. Then he said to the Man in the middle: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  The Lord said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.”

That’s grace.  (The mercy is there too, although unstated.)  The Lord is giving to the dying thief that which he does not deserve, a home in Heaven’s paradise.

Sometimes, Scripture blends the two concepts, overlaps them, and uses them interchangeably. (So, we don’t want to draw the lines separating them too fine.)

Consider this from the opening to Peter’s first epistle: “In His great mercy He has given us new birth to a living hope….” (I Peter 1:3). Salvation stems from His mercy? Sure. It’s all the same loving heart of an Almighty God.

Paul said to Titus, “He saved us, not on the basis of works of righteousness which we have done, but by His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6). Then, he proceeds to say we are “justified by His grace” (3:7).

Again, we don’t want to be too strict in differentiating the two, although the opening dualism helps.

Even the worst of us can be saved by His mercy and grace.

Even the best of us will be saved only by His mercy and grace.

Everyone’s favorite parable–The Prodigal Son of Luke 15–combines the two concepts seamlessly.  As the son returns home, dirty and disheveled, hungry and a real mess, he is given a royal treatment. In fact, the father scarcely gives him a chance to get out his little speech of confession and repentance.  Interrupting him, the old man calls back to the house, “Hey!  You back at the farmhouse!  Somebody bring a robe! Someone go in the house and bring this boy some sandals!  Bring him a ring for his finger and go kill that fatted calf we’ve been saving for a special occasion! We’re going to have a celebration like you’ve never seen! This son of mine was dead and he’s now alive!  He was lost and is now found!”

That’s my story. Yours too?  I am a sinful, rebellious, but repentant recipient of His grace and mercy, all showered upon me at one time in such abundance that it’s impossible to tell where the mercy stops and the grace begins.  He introduces us to a lifelong process of grace and mercy, and assures us that Heaven is just more of the same.

Anyone not going to hell will be the beneficiary of His mercy; everyone who arrives in Heaven will be there by His grace.

That has been God’s plan from the beginning.  He is a God of all grace and a God of infinite mercy.

Blessed be the name of the Lord.




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