I’ve often heard people define grace as “getting what you don’t deserve” and mercy as “not getting what you do deserve”, but this has never been a very helpful distinction. After all, if you get what you don’t deserve, aren’t you by default not getting what you do deserve? Not very helpful. Well yesterday, I learned a much more helpful, biblical distinction between these two terms.
Grace can be defined as “the unmerited favor of God given to those who are totally undeserving of His favor or good pleasure”. One of the ways we know that this is what grace means is because of how often the word “grace” is linked to the word “gift” in the Bible. A gift is not something you earn, like a paycheck. Rather a gift is undeserved and given freely, and so is grace. The key to understanding grace is understanding the undeservedness of the recipient. Some texts:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Eph. 2:8-9
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus – Rom. 3:23-24
Mercy on the other hand can be defined as “the compassion or pity of God, which is expressed to those who are in dire need, who are downcast, ruined, hopeless and helpless”. It is the kindness of God expressed to desperately needy people. It is the compassion of God given to people who cannot make something of themselves or help themselves. And who are these people? Because of sin, it includes all people. We all need mercy. The key to understanding mercy is the ruin and helplessness of the recipient.
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – Eph. 2:1-5
For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit – Titus 3:3-5
Grace and mercy… these are two concepts that are largely lost even in the church today! We have bought into our culture that lives in “entitlement”. We think we are entitled to blessings and comforts, when the reality is that all we deserve is destruction. We think we deserve a break, when all we deserve is hell. The only wage we have earned is death. We don’t deserve any good that comes to us. None of us receive good because of merit or entitlement. All good things in our life (and bad things that God turns for our good) only come by grace alone, and not the least of these is our salvation.
And add to that the foolishness of the self-esteem culture that so much of today’s preaching has adopted. The goal of the Bible is not to increase our self-esteem, but our God-esteem. If we are to understand mercy, we have to realize our condition of utter helplessness and desperation before God. We have much work to do in overcoming the constant bombardment of the self-esteem movement from our culture. The Bible teaches self-repentance, self-sinfulness, self-helplessness and the mercy of God as our only hope.
Our sins and rebellion have incurred the wrath of God and we are utterly undeserving of any good. Not only that, but we have been killed by our sins and have no hope of any life on our own. But the grace of God and the mercy of God have been manifested in Jesus Christ and in them is power sufficient to save even the most desperate of sinners!