The quality of mercy

In the comments to my post on the Jesus Prayer as a summary of the gospel, Kletos commented on “the distinction between mercy as not getting what you deserve and grace as getting what you emphatically do not deserve”.

I think that’s a useful distinction in many ways. God’s mercy could, in principle, have extended merely to forgiving our sins: remitting the punishment we deserve for rebelling against him, but otherwise leaving us in a “neutral” position. But he has gone further, by adopting us as his sons and daughters, giving us a “living hope” and “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter 1:3-5). Not merely removing the “negative” (mercy), but giving us more “positive” than we can ask or imagine (grace).

However, while I can’t comment on the technical distinctions between the two words and their equivalents in the original biblical languages – and would welcome any input on this from those better qualified – I still think the word “mercy” remains valid as a summary of the whole of God’s saving work and its benefits for us.

A couple of reasons for this:

  • The word “mercy” is often used (particularly in older translations) to translate the Hebrew word hesed, which  other translations render as “steadfast love”. Contrast, for example, Psalm 136 in the NRSV and AV. Hesed is the “covenant love” of God, the love that lies behind the whole of God’s work in creation, redemption and salvation. It is the love by which he not only forgives people, but establishes them as his people (“They will be my people, and I will be their God”) and blesses them.
  • Even if we take “mercy” as being principally a matter of forgiveness, then this still brings all the other blessings of the gospel in its train. As Martin Luther points out in the Small Catechism, Jesus’ promise of forgiveness in the Lord’s Supper is not only a promise of forgiveness, but of “life and salvation” also: “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation”. “Forgiveness, life and salvation” summarise all the blessings of the gospel, and all can in turn be summarised in the single word “mercy”.

Indeed, it will be noted that in the passage from 1 Peter referred to above, it is precisely the positive blessings of the gospel – “new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” – that Peter says we have received “by [God’s] great mercy“.

Hence – to return to the example under discussion – when we pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner,

we are not only praying for relief from punishment – indeed, we can only even begin to pray such a prayer where that fear has already been taken away – but appropriating by faith all the blessings of the gospel: forgiveness, life and salvation; a living hope; an imperishable inheritance.

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One Response to The quality of mercy

  1. Phil Walker says:

    There’s even something which is still “positive” but below adoption, which illustrates how amazing adoption is. As the Prodigal dared to hope, we could have been received into God’s household as servants: “You’re forgiven, you can come back, and you’ve got Christ as your defence, so when I call you into my presence, you may come; but don’t go getting ideas above your station.” But he went further than we could ever think, and adopted us as sons. This was on my mind after preparing 1 John 3 to teach just the other day: how great the love!

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