Mercy and Grace


Two of the most precious jewels of the divine treasury are mercy and grace. Every believer has some experience of their value and knows that God is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2: 4) and that the “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of offences” is “according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1: 7). He rightly traces these attributes of mercy and grace back to their source in the love of God and knows that they were exercised “because of his great love wherewith he loved us” (Eph. 2: 4). This must be so because “God is love” (1 John 4: 16) and everything must find its source in the divine nature of love. However, although in the enjoyment of the outcome of mercy and grace, many a believer cannot articulate the difference between them. This writer would like to throw out a few thoughts so that each of these priceless gems might sparkle with their distinctive lights in the reader’s soul.

   So what is mercy and what is grace? What is the distinction between them? There are those who would say ‘Does it matter? Why bother with such trivial niceties?’ This regrettable attitude should never be found in believers, the very ones who have been recipients of both mercy and grace for their salvation! It shows a poor state of soul when there is no spirit of inquiry into the things of God. The OT prophets, who prophesied of our salvation, “sought out and searched out” such things. We are also told that “angels desire to look into “(1 Pet. 1: 10, 12) the glad tidings, even though angels will never experience either mercy or grace. If we, as recipients of such costly things, have no desire to look into them, then what condemnation is ours!

The Lexicon

Let us begin our inquiry with the lexicon (Greek dictionary). From it I learn that mercy is compassion shown when an offence meriting judgment and punishment has been committed, but that grace is unmerited favour. While these definitions are somewhat academic, bare, and lacking in substance, they nonetheless provide a foundation on which to build. Yet many a believer would be quite satisfied to end the inquiry there and look no further. However, even these simple definitions tell us something. From them I gather the first difference between mercy and grace and it is this: In mercy I do not get what I deserve but in grace I do get what I do not deserve. Thus mercy is a negative thought while grace is a positive one.

The Concordance

As we have used the lexicon, now let us use the concordance. This will give us some insight into how the Spirit of God employs these words in the Scriptures. The English words mercy and merciful occur 102 times in the OT and 54 times in the NT; the words grace and gracious occur 82 times in the OT and 127 times in the NT. This suggests that mercy is the dominant thought in the OT whereas grace is the dominant thought in the NT. This should come as no surprise for the OT was largely the period of law and Christians “are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6: 14). Some 22 occasions in the OT where the word mercy occurs are in the expression mercy–seat. This was God’s meeting place under the law (see Ex. 25: 22) but in Christianity the meeting place is the “throne of grace” (Heb. 4: 16). However, this does not mean that mercy is redundant today since Heb. 4: 16 also tells us that is there that we “receive mercy”.

   Let us narrow our search down a little further in the NT. The words
mercy or merciful occur 20 times in the synoptic Gospels but never once in the Gospel of John. The word grace occurs six times in the Gospels (Luke 2: 40; 4: 22; John 1: 14, 16, 17). The synoptic Gospels largely link with the OT whereas John, perhaps the last book in the Bible to be penned, looks back on the incarnation of the Lord Jesus in the light of Christianity. What we see in the synoptic Gospels is example after example of people in great physical need because of their circumstances and One there who can meet that need by changing those circumstances. Thus the frequent cry was “Have mercy on us” (Matt. 9: 27; 20: 30) or “have mercy on me” (Mark 10: 47; Luke 18: 38) and the response of the Son of Man to such was that “the Lord … has had mercy on thee” (Mark 5: 19). All who came asked for mercy and not grace for they were occupied with their needs. What do I learn from this? I learn that in mercy the focus is on man. It is man’s needs that are dominant and that those needs are met by changing not the person exactly, but the circumstances in which he is found. By contrast, as we shall see later, in grace the focus is on God.

   One final use of the concordance before we lay it aside. In Acts the words
grace and gracious occur 14 times but the words mercy and merciful are completely absent. Often it is the “grace of God” (Acts 11: 23; 13: 43; 14: 26; 15: 40; 20: 24) or “his grace” (14: 3; 20: 32) or “the grace of the Lord ” (15: 11). Why is this? Ah! A new day has dawned. The dominant thought in the old economy of the OT and its extension in the Synoptic Gospels is of man’s need and hence mercy is largely before us. Christianity, however, is concerned with the revelation in the Gospel of the heart of God and so grace is to the forefront.

In the Gospel

One of the occasions in Acts where the word grace is used is in the phrase “the glad tidings of the grace of God” (Acts 20: 24). Now mercy, grace and love are all embraced in the glad tidings. Why then, do I never read of the glad tidings of the mercy of God or the glad tidings of the love of God? It is because while love and mercy are present in the Gospel they do not characterise it in the way that grace does. Certainly, the love of God is its wondrous source, but what permeates the Gospel is grace. Grace assumes a background of sin (as does the Gospel) but love does not––for “God is love” (1John 4: 16), a fact that was ever true. Mercy also assumes a background of sin, but to speak of the glad tidings of the mercy of God would be an inadequate presentation of what the Gospel is. In the Gospel I get my sins forgiven, all that was against me is removed and I know the blessed truth that I will never come into judgment. However, all this is on the line of mercy, not grace, for it is all negative. Sadly, it is as far as many a believer gets in their appreciation of the Gospel. Mercy is very blessed and I would not weaken the sense of its greatness for a moment, but it is only half the story. It meets my needs and nothing more. Its background is sin and judgment. I needed mercy to be saved from judgment and hence “Mercy (not grace) glories over judgment” (James 2: 13). Again, when Paul speaks of “the passing by the sins that had taken place before” (Rom. 3: 25), he links it with Christ Jesus as the mercy–seat. However, while this would have met me in all my need, it would not have satisfied the heart of God—that required grace. It is grace that brings in all that is positive. Our lexicon told us that grace is unmerited favour and that is its simple meaning as a reference such as Acts 25: 3 shows. Let us see if we can get a better insight by looking at a few Scriptures in the context of the Gospel.

   Peter states that it is “the God of all grace who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ Jesus” (1 Pet. 5: 10). Paul tells us “the grace of God which carries with it salvation for all men has appeared” (Tit. 2: 11). Mercy is concerned with the removal of what is against me; grace involves giving that which I never had before. So in the same epistle Paul says that we have been “justified by
his grace” (Tit. 3: 7). Justification is the declaration of righteousness and it is by God’s grace (not mercy). Again, take Rom. 5: 17: “For if by the offence of the one, death reigned by the one, much rather shall those who receive the abundance of grace, and of the free gift of righteousness, reign in life by the one Jesus Christ”. The abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness go hand in hand. One more Scripture: “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sakes he, being rich, became poor, in order that ye by his poverty might be enriched” (2 Cor. 8: 9). Yet again our positive enrichment is linked to divine grace. Thus grace in the Gospel gives the very best to the very worst. Under law we have what God demands from man; under grace it is what God gives to man. Thus law is contrasted with grace (see Rom. 6: 14, 15; Gal. 3: 18). Grace does not put a man back to where he was before the fall. It is much, much higher. Grace always goes way beyond the need. It was the magnitude of the grace that stirred up the jealousy in the elder brother in Luke 15. For his brother to be reinstated might have been bearable (which would have been mercy), but to be given the ring, the robe and the fatted calf was too much for him—for that was grace. Mercy is the depths from which I am recovered; grace is the heights to which I am brought. Thus in concluding his treatise on sovereign mercy Paul breaks out with “O depth of riches …” (Rom. 11: 33—my emphasis) but when the completeness of our salvation is before him we have both “height” and “depth” (Rom. 8: 39). Hence Paul tells the Galatians that those who “are justified by law” have “fallen from grace” (Gal. 5: 4—my emphasis).

On the Pathway

Grace and mercy in the NT are not restricted to the Gospel. In nearly all the salutations and benedictions of the Epistles we get sentiments like “Grace shall be with you, mercy, peace from God [the] Father and from [the] Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love” (2 John 1: 3). This gives us to realise that there is another dimension, especially as to grace. For example, “God sets himself against [the] proud, but to [the] humble gives grace” (1 Pet. 5: 5). Grace is not only the principle on which God acts in the Gospel but is what God gives to maintain believers on the pathway of faith. As ever, it assumes contrary circumstances, but instead of changing the circumstances (which would be mercy), God provides the wherewithal to overcome them. We are told that “even as sin has reigned in [the power of] death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5: 21). Thus grace is on the throne so much so that the throne is called “the throne of grace”. Let us look at that Scripture. We read “Let us approach therefore with boldness to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and find grace for seasonable help” (Heb. 4: 16). The throne is characterised by grace, not mercy, but it is where both grace and mercy may be obtained. Notice the order: mercy and then grace. Mercy is my first thought in approaching the throne for I would have relief—that is what I ask for. But I may find what I have not sought, and that is grace. Mercy would change the circumstances but grace would provide the resources to go through the circumstances according to God. Mercy would deliver me from the trial altogether, but grace would sustain me through it. Hence grace is more what is effected within me whereas mercy changes my outward conditions. Now let’s look at a few well–known examples.

   Zacharias and Elizabeth “had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years” (Luke 1: 7). But God intervened and changed those circumstances and thus we read “that [the] Lord had magnified his mercy with her” (Luke 1: 58). It could not be described as grace for the circumstances were altered.

   Epaphroditus “was sick; for he was also sick close to death, but God had mercy on him, and not indeed on him alone, but also on me, that I might not have sorrow upon sorrow” (Phil. 2: 26, 27). Epaphroditus was recovered from his sickness and hence we read of mercy. Mercy brought him out of the circumstances––brought about his return to health. If he had died, then Paul would have needed grace, not mercy, to sustain him in the loss of his brother.

   Paul had been caught up into paradise and had heard unspeakable things. But that he might not be exalted by the greatness of these revelations, he was given a thorn for the flesh. He says “For this I thrice besought the Lord that it might depart from me. And he said to me, My grace suffices thee; for [my] power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12: 8, 9). If the thorn had been removed then that would have been mercy, but the thorn was left in place and instead Paul was given the means to go on in power in spite of the thorn. Hence the word is
grace and not mercy.

In Conclusion

Looking over what I have written, I feel that I have only scratched the surface. For example, I have only mentioned that wonderful section (Rom. 9–11) where Paul deals with God’s sovereignty exercised in mercy, for both mercy and grace have to do with God’s sovereign ways. Nonetheless I shall be satisfied if what I have written creates a thirst in my readers to know more so that we might join together with the Apostle and exclaim “O depth of riches both of [the] wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable his judgments, and untraceable his ways! For who has known [the] mind of [the] Lord, or who has been his counsellor? or who has first given to him, and it shall be rendered to him? For of him, and through him, and for him [are] all things: to him be glory for ever. Amen” (Rom. 11: 33–36).