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What Is Mercy?

by Tom Stewart

December 28, 1999

A common adage says that Grace gives what we do not deserve, i.e., Eternal Life, while Mercy withholds what we do deserve, i.e., Eternal Punishment; but, Mercy goes much deeper, in that it is the Lovingkindness of God. "Shew Thy marvellous lovingkindness [Hebrew, checed, meaning mercy], O Thou that savest by Thy Right Hand them which put their trust in Thee from those that rise up against them" (Psalm 17:7). In the Old Testament, of the 248 times that the Hebrew word checed is found in the Authorized Version (KJV), 149 times it is rendered mercy, 40 times it is rendered kindness, and 30 times it is rendered lovingkindness. "How excellent is Thy lovingkindness, O God! therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Thy wings" (36:7).

Of the two Greek words in the Authorized Version that are translated as mercy in the New Testament, eleeo and eleos are used 59 times. Mercy is not simply the withholding of punishment, but it is the act of giving help or having compassion on someone who is afflicted.
"Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy [Greek, eleeo]" (Matthew 5:7). The lovingkindness of Jesus Christ gives to us Eternal Life. "Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy [Greek, eleos] of our LORD Jesus Christ unto Eternal Life" (Jude 21). Our Salvation is an act of the mercy of God, completely unwarranted by our past actions. "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost" (Titus 3:5). Not only are we the objects of God's mercy, but we are enjoined to be the givers of mercy. "Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful" (Luke 6:36). Only as we demonstrate mercy, do we receive God's mercy. "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy" (Matthew 5:7).

But, is our motivation in showing mercy merely a ploy to receive mercy from God?
"Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed Me" (Malachi 3:8). If we do not love God simply because He is God, and not because of what He can do for us, then our service to God is based upon fear of punishment or hope of reward. "32 Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: 33 Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?" (Matthew 18:32-33). Likewise, to truly love our fellow man and to demonstrate True Mercy, we are willing to put ourselves out, to the extent we are able, that we may demonstrate the same lovingkindness to our neighbour that God has to us. "27 Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it. 28 Say not unto thy neighbour, Go, and come again, and to morrow I will give; when thou hast it by thee" (Proverbs 3:27-28).

Mercy is not always within our power to give.
"As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10). For instance, God will not show mercy to Satan, because Satan's judgment has already been prepared and ordained. "Then shall He say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from Me, ye cursed, into Everlasting Fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41). So, though we may be bound to will mercy to all, we may not be bound to will to do or perform that mercy, as God may providentially limit us. "And God said unto him in a dream, Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against Me" (Genesis 20:6).

God's lovingkindness was demonstrated in giving His Only Begotten Son to die for us.
"16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His Only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have Everlasting Life. 17 For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved" (John 3:16-17). It is Christlike to extend mercy to the undeserving, if we are in the position of foregoing judgment-- and, God has not providentially limited us to the execution of judgment. "For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment" (James 2:13). Not always can the governor stay the execution of the convicted murderer, without turning the law against murder into only a suggestion not to murder, without the possibility of punishment. "Therefore as the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff, so their root shall be as rottenness, and their blossom shall go up as dust: because they have cast away the Law of the LORD of Hosts, and despised the Word of the Holy One of Israel" (Isaiah 5:24).

Though we are not saved by the keeping of the Law, we are saved that we might keep the Moral Law of Supreme Love of God and an equal Love of our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39).
"He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (Micah 6:8). May the mercy that caused the Father to send the Son, be found in us to break the cycle of retribution for offenses received at the hands of those who hate us. "Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful" (Luke 6:36). And, may we always remember that mercy is more than the withholding of punishment, but it is the Lovingkindness of God. "Because Thy lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise Thee" (Psalm 63:3).


Tom Stewart

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