I learned recently that there are some languages around the world that don’t have a word for “grace.” So to translate the song “Amazing Grace,” for example, that language might instead call it “Amazing Mercy.” However, mercy and grace are two very, very different concepts.
Merriam Webster contrasts the two words this way: “Mercy implies compassion that forbears punishing even when justice demands it. Grace implies a willingness to grant favors, especially when it is unexpected or unmerited.”
Many Christians use the words interchangeably, and I take no issue with that. After all, the divine arena of mercy and grace offers much overlap. Throughout Scripture, the two are often linked, complementary even. But I do think it would serve us well to understand the difference—mostly to give us a deeper understanding of the nuances of God’s personality. Every facet of God’s incredible nature, when realized, rightly causes us to marvel, wonder, and worship, so exploring “mercy” and “grace” individually ought to expand our view of our breathtaking God.
So let’s take a look.
Mercy is the compassionate, lenient treatment of an offense. In layman’s terms, it’s not getting what one’s error actually deserves. If you ran a stop sign and a police officer pulled you over, he might show you mercy if he simply gave you a warning and let you go without a ticket. You didn’t get what you deserved. Mercy.
Regarding God’s merciful nature, Tozer puts it this way: “[Mercy] is an infinite and inexhaustible energy within the divine nature which disposes God to be actively compassionate.”
It is God’s very nature to lavish mercy, to release offenders from their wrongdoings. He does not forgive begrudgingly, or show mercy because someone somewhere has twisted His arm. He does not regret showing mercy—never, not once. God our Father is overjoyed to forgive! His mercy is not attached to a temporary mood which may flicker out, but it is attached to His eternal nature. God’s mercy never began, but from eternity past it always was. And God’s mercy will never cease to be, forever and ever into the future.
Listen, even if no sin ever existed anywhere in creation, God’s mercy would still triumph as part of who He is. He is not merciful because we have sinned—He simply is merciful! To be overwhelmingly compassionate and unreasonably sparing has always been the heart of our heavenly Father, whether or not He had the opportunity to display it. But of course, we are made acutely aware of the mercy of God because we have sinned, because there is suffering in the world, and misery and disappointment—at which God absolutely leaps to display His kind and compassionate nature.
Speaking of sin, Charles Spurgeon once remarked, “God loves to forgive even more than you love to sin.” If it is to “a man’s glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11, emphasis mine), then how much more so does overlooking an offense build God’s glory. Incredible. Just jaw-droppingly incredible. One of my all-time favorite descriptions of God comes from His own lips in Exodus 34:6-7, where He exclaims, “The LORD, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin.”
Now, without question, the culmination of God’s mercy is the sacrifice of Jesus (even though the Old Testament discusses God’s mercy four times more than the New). Hebrews 12:23-24 says, “You have come… to Jesus the Mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” When Abel was murdered by his brother in Genesis 4, God noted that his blood was metaphorically crying out for justice. Abel’s blood was shouting, “Avenge me! I was wronged! Avenge me!” But Jesus’ blood is shouting a better word than justice—and, oh, aren’t repentant sinners thankful for that! His blood is crying out over us, “Mercy! Come to Me, and I will cover you! Mercy!” After all, “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Thank You, Jesus! Thank You! Thank You a hundred times over!
In the simple example I offered above, a driving violation may warrant a ticket. But the penalty of sin is much, much worse. Our sin has earned us the death penalty. However, because of the cross, because of God’s immeasurable mercy, we have been completely forgiven! Hallelujah! God does not give us what we deserve! He is compassionate and kind! This is mercy!
Grace, on the other hand, is synonymous with special favor. It is unearned favoritism from a higher power. Going back to my initial illustration about running a stop sign: could you imagine a police officer pulling you over to actually give you a check for $100? That’s… ridiculous. Unheard of. Dangerous, even.
As crazy as it sounds, that’s grace. And praise God.
Our God is the Champion of amazing grace, the Author of a rich “scandal of grace,” as Philip Yancey coined in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? The King enthusiastically delights to bestow benefits on the undeserving.
So Mercy forgives sin. But Grace actually offers something in return: blessing after blessing after blessing! It’s amazing beyond amazing. I mean, not only are we removed from our sins as far as the east is removed from the west (mercy), but we have become co-heirs with Jesus Himself! We have been made spiritually alive! More than our sins simply being blotted out, we have received a crown of abundant life! We are sons, daughters—priests of a new and living Way! We have inherited so much grace! So, so much grace!
As we study Scripture, we find that the Apostle Paul never disassociates grace from the crucified Christ. Always in his teaching the two are inseparably, organically wed. We are imputed a holy perfection in front of the Judge, right-standing in life and in the life to come, through Jesus only, as we are taught in Romans 3:22-24: “Righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. …For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
Pause. And give Him praise!
And what’s even more striking is still to come. The more a person has sinned, even more grace is available to him. Listen! The more a person broke the law, even more goodness and favor and redemption is offered to him! It may well be startling and sound incredulous, but Romans 5:20 sings to us, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” Let me explain it to you. The wickedness in a person’s heart may increase, increase, increase to maximum capacity; he could be completely, thoroughly, revoltingly evil—a negative 100 out of negative 100, checking off every box. His sin has reached its absolute limit. He could be no more evil. But while corruption may have reached its maximum possible limit in this man, the grace of God is as infinite as He Himself is! The favor and kindness of God streak past all limitations, boundaries, and ceilings, coursing at full speed into infinity. No matter how much sin exists in a person’s heart, the unbounded grace of God enthusiastically overflows, pummeling richly and gloriously again and again and again into the door of that man’s heart until it breaks open and sweeps into his soul with kisses and delight. Sin cannot outdo the grace of God! I’ll say it again. Sin cannot outdo the grace of God! This shall forever and ever be good news! Where sin may have dared to abound, how much more does grace abound!
Whew! I may need to take a break to go shout some glory to God!
Now, I believe that any proper teaching of grace ought to raise a valid question. “Should I go on sinning so that I can experience even more of God’s grace?” In fact, I believe that if this question doesn’t come up in a person’s mind, then a biblical perspective of grace has yet to be taught. Grace is shocking. Grace is scandalous indeed. Fortunately for us, Paul recognized that this was a reasonable question, and he answered it for us. I am going to spend considerable time exploring that here, because I find it extremely important in a discussion on grace.
Romans 6:2 is pretty straightforward. “By no means!” Paul cries. “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”
Basically, Romans 6 outlines the argument that a dead man cannot sin—he’s dead. Spiritually, if we have truly died to our flesh, then “we should no longer be slaves to sin” (verse 6). Sin reigning (that is, having its way with, or existing without accountability, or living without gradual diminishment) in a believer’s life is incompatible. Paul makes the amazing and challenging assertion that a believer is expected not to sin, simply put, and says, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (verses 16-18). Elsewhere, we are taught, “No one who lives in [Jesus] keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen Him or known Him” (1 John 3:6).
Regarding sin and grace, I think of it this way. An ambassador is representing Nation A while living in Nation B, and he has diplomatic immunity. This means generally he won’t be convicted for laws he might break while in Nation B. While he is on assignment, he receives a parking ticket for violating a certain length of time at a parking meter. Well, because of his diplomatic immunity, he does not have to pay the fine. That’s one of the benefits of being an ambassador, a diplomat. However, if this ambassador decides to take advantage of his perks, he’s proving to Nation A and Nation B that he is actually not qualified for his assignment. Similarly, we are ambassadors to this world representing a heavenly Kingdom, and we have been granted diplomatic immunity for those occasions when we do err—a grace we need to handle very responsibly. We must be found worthy of the “immunity” with which we have been trusted.
God’s mercy removes the stain of sin from our lives, and His grace crowns our head with blessing, favor, and the prosperity of Heaven.
Let me leave you with a final Scripture of encouragement. Hebrews 4:16 declares, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (emphasis mine).
Isn’t God good? Isn’t He better than any of us thought He was? It’s my prayer that this piece strengthens your faith, fills your soul with courage, calls you to worship, motivates you to full obedience, and reminds you of the nature of the Father who loves us.