The importance of knowing God cannot be stressed too much. The ancient world at one time had God in their knowledge but gave up on God with the consequence that God “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts” and to “dishonorable passions.”
How we think about God makes all the difference in the world in how we behave, what we do and why we do what we do. That goes for our so called “secular” lives as well as our “religious” – as if there is a difference. Even that concept of the sacred and the secular derives from our thinking about God. It betrays a dualistic belief in a kind of god who is not involved in the everyday affairs of creation or of his creatures.
Our concept of salvation – what it consists of and how we obtain it – is likewise connected to our perception of God and His nature. And from that perception there also comes differing ideas of how we are expected to respond to God.
For those whose view is a vengeful God such as portrayed in the Puritan sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” preached on July 8, 1741by Jonathan Edwards, He will be viewed with dread and terror. While it is true that God will judge the unrighteous and the ungodly, He judges those who have rejected Him and His goodness. He judges on the basis of His divine nature of purity and holiness. Such judgment is necessary because of these qualities. But there is more to His character than judicial wrath. In fact, the quality of mercy actually mitigates against justice.
In a complex teaching related to our being subject to the “royal law” or the law of love (James 2:8-13), James shows that when we show no mercy to our fellow man God will show no mercy toward us (James 2:13). But if we are merciful – if we show the same nature as God himself possesses we will receive mercy from God. “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Compare this with what the Lord taught his disciples to pray about the forgiveness of our debts – as we forgive others. He said that if we do not forgive others the Heavenly Father will not forgive us our own debts or trespasses (Matthew 6:12).
This is not a “tit for tat” matter. It is not that we do so much and God will do so much. It is a matter of becoming like God because He has been merciful to us. It is His nature to be merciful and it is to become our nature as well.
But what is meant by the word mercy? The mercy of God is expressed in many ways and described by several different terms.
The four Hebrew and three Greek words associated with this term appear a total of 454 times [in the Bible] and are also translated as “kindness,” “lovingkindness,” “goodness,” “favor,” “compassion,” and “pity.” (God’s Everlasting Mercy by Henry Morris III, D.Min.)
Many of these words are found in the Old Testament as the following passages illustrate:
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23).
“The Lord is good to all,
and his mercy is over all that he has made.” (Psalm 145:9).
Essentially, mercy has to do with the idea of withholding punishment from someone to whom it is due. Dictionary.com says it is “compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence”: “Have mercy on the poor sinner.”
After reviewing the past state of the Ephesian Christians – that of spiritual deadness and hopelessness – Paul then relates to them what God had done.
Ephesians 2:4-7 “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
He did these things because He was “…rich in mercy.” In pardoning us of our transgressions, God does not do so grudgingly or reluctantly. In our humanly limited concept of fairness or justice, we suppose things should balance out. If someone has done wrong, justice is called for. The guilty must be punished. The scales have to be balanced. But God looks at things differently. He makes it possible for us to not have to “pay the price” for our sins.
This is difficult for us as human beings to grasp since there is another element that enters into consideration in regard to our sin. People in the day of Isaiah had difficulty in understanding things of this nature as well as we. Isaiah reveals to them – and to us – that the element that makes the difference is the character of God.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:6-9).
God has always been merciful. People today have difficulty understanding this. Some even speak of the God of the Old Testament as a God of violence and vengeance, mercilessly destroying wrongdoers. That is not the God of whom Isaiah speaks. What God has always asked – what He still asks – is that people turn away from evil and turn to him, accepting what He offers freely and abundantly.
The mercy of God does not invalidate His law. It does not leave the scales of justice unbalanced. It does not do away with the consequences of transgression for those who do not seek His mercy. The demand of the law for punishment was satisfied in the death of Jesus on the cross that God “might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). Because of this we do not have to fear punishment for our sins when we turn to Him and receive His mercy.
Next we will see how grace relates to mercy and goes beyond it.
Co-authored with Bill Van Dyke, Ph.D, Give Me Liberty: Restoring the Spirit of Jubilee examines the mission of Christ as viewed from the fulfillment of Jubilee and how legalism robs the church community of the joy Jubilee brings.
A Better Way is an exploration and critique of the traditional method of determining Bible authority and suggestions for a better approach to understanding the Bible.