It’s All about Mercy
Christianity is quite different than other religions.
It isn’t about obedience.
It isn’t about self-actualization.
It isn’t about transcending our human nature.
No, Christianity is all about mercy. Mercy grounded in God’s inexhaustible love.
Now, this amazing fact does not mean that God is unconcerned with holy living or personal growth. He created man and woman with those qualities deeply imbedded in our human nature. He created us to walk in the Garden beside him and enjoy the undefiled creation surrounding us.
Unfortunately, our first parents decided to disobey the single prohibition the Lord laid before them. They failed to trust his warning that eating from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” would cause death (Genesis 3).
It’s important to note that it was not knowledge God desired to withhold from his children—in contrast, he instilled within each of us a desire to learn and grow in knowledge and wisdom—it was the knowledge “of good and evil.” Prior to eating the forbidden fruit, humanity had known only “good,” and had lived in right relationship with our Creator.
God, however, was not content to allow woman and man to languish under their self-imposed death sentence. He promised a Savior, one who would freely offer his own pure and unblemished life as the final and complete sacrifice for our sins. Through his substitutionary suffering, we would receive life. Once again, in Christ, we are reunited with God in an unbroken and unbreakable relationship. As the murderer turned saint, Paul of Tarsus, proclaimed,
I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39).
And so it is that imperfect, stumbling Christians seek to follow in the footsteps of their Lord. We do so, not to earn the love of God. That is already ours.
We strive to live holy lives out of gratitude to God for his innumerable gifts.
We do not live as virtuously as possible because we need our good works to outweigh our shortcomings.
We try to be faithful disciples of Jesus simply because we love him and want to please our heavenly Father.
There is no balancing scale, as imagined in so many religions conceived of in the minds of human beings from the ancient Egyptians on into our own day.
It’s not about being “good enough.” It’s about mercy.
The Relationship Between Law & Gospel
Christians describe the interplay between the demands of God that we be holy, even as he is holy (the Law) and the fact that we are unable to do so which requires us to depend on his grace (the Gospel), with various terms.
I happen to believe that the historic Reformation (Lutheran) terms are biblical, and clear.
I described them in the previous section. Now we will look at the same truths with a bit more “theological” language.
God’s Law is composed of his demands for holiness. In the Garden it was simple. There was only a single prohibition, and that existed to allow us the freedom of choice. God did not desire soulless automatons who would go through the motions of relationship without the capacity to genuinely offer it. Even the angels themselves were given free wills, and some chose to trade the glories of heaven for the futile exaltation of themselves.
God eventually provided us with a more comprehensive sense of his desires for how we ought to live. These were literally written in stone, and elaborated upon through his prophets.
But we could not measure up to the requirements of the Law, and sacrifice became necessary to temporarily absolve us of our guilt. These animals died to remind us that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin, because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6.23).
These Passover lambs and other sacrifices reminded us of the serious consequences of our trespasses against our Creator. And, they prepared us for the ultimate sacrifice of the perfect Lamb, whose death (and resurrection) would mark the end of our need for further sacrifice.
Jesus’ death, as gruesome as it was, was the heart of the Gospel miracle. Through it, those who trust in him, recognize the “good news” that we have been forgiven. To complete the verse we just cited from Romans, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
It is a gift. It can’t be earned. It can’t be purchased. It can’t be stolen. It can only be accepted with gratitude and without the illusion that it is anything but an undeserved gift.
And that is why it is all about mercy.
The Role of the Law in Christian Life
The tendency towards being self-righteous is deeply ingrained in the fallen human soul. Even when we admit that we need forgiveness, we are constantly tempted to think “I’m not as bad as my neighbor.” We want to hold onto the lie that there is some intrinsic merit within us that caused us to be chosen by God to become his child.
Because of this, the question of the Law in the Christian life can be a confusing and potentially dangerous subject. It becomes hazardous whenever we are tempted to think that following the dictates of the Law can make us righteous or more deserving of God’s grace.
The Scriptures teach that the Law plays several roles.
The first is restraining evil impulses, “that thereby outward discipline might be maintained against wild, disobedient men.”
The second is reminding us of our need for redemption, “that men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins.”
The third is as a guide for believers in the life to which they should aspire, “that after they are regenerate and [much of] the flesh notwithstanding cleaves to them, they might on this account have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life.”
[The quotations above come from Article Six of the Formula of Concord.]
The Law never supersedes the Gospel. On the contrary, the Gospel trumps the power of the Law to condemn. It’s all about mercy.
A prominent Lutheran theologian emphasized this truth when he taught future pastors: “You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you do not allow the Gospel to predominate in your teaching.”
It is of utmost importance to understand that the so-called third use of the Law is not telling us how to earn God’s love or deserve his grace. It says that we can look to the Law—for example, the importance of avoiding adultery—as a fundamental principle for the kind of life that pleases God. And, too few people understand this, a primary reason a holy life delights our Father is because it brings joy and health to us as well. God, after all, did not forbid things arbitrarily, but because they were destructive to us and our relationships.
In a very pastoral manner, C.S. Lewis offers the following advice to a young correspondent.
One mustn’t make the Christian life into a punctilious system of law, like the Jewish. Two reasons (1) It raises scruples when we don’t keep the routine (2) It raises presumption when we do. Nothing gives one a more spuriously good conscience than keeping rules, even if there has been a total absence of all real charity & faith.
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It is my sincere prayer that reading the pages of Mere Inkling will bring you more than an occasional smile. Likewise, while I hope some of the ideas here will stimulate your creativity, I desire more.
I pray that Mere Inkling will inspire those who share the Christian faith of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. I pray that it will encourage those who are struggling with the trials that assail all of our lives. And I most earnestly pray that it may introduce to those who do not yet know him, the Pascal Lamb upon whom the Lion of Narnia is modeled.
In closing, allow me to share with you one of the most wonderful verses in the entire Bible.
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
Never, ever forget—it is all about mercy.
8 thoughts on “Mercy”
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What about grace? Grace and Mercy – two sides of the the same gospel of Jesus Christ.
Great question, Leroy. I am speaking of mercy here as subordinate to–or more accurately–an essential element of Grace. In a sense the two can be synonyms, but secular society has provided a completely non-religious definition for the former. Grace is the underserved favor of God. Mercy, however, is the clearest way that not-yet-believers are able to perceive God’s love.
Great post, Rob.
There are three kinds of response to wrongdoing:
Justice: Getting what we deserve for the things we’ve done wrong.
Mercy: Not getting what we deserve for the things we’ve done wrong.
Grace: Getting wonderful things we don’t deserve even though we’ve done wrong.
What Jesus did for us goes way beyond mercy to full-blown grace!
Very good article. I find in my fiction that my themes turns to mercy without any intention on my part. It just seems to make sense within the stories.
And that’s a very good thing indeed. Without mercy and forgiveness, no relationship would be possible.
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