Duet for a Fallen World

On the differences (and partnership) of grace and mercy

I didn’t think the teachers would notice. Having forgotten to get a parent’s signature on a homework slip, I scrawled in my best first-grade cursive a rather liberal approximation of Mom’s John Hancock and turned it in. It didn’t take CSI-level handwriting analysis to uncover the forgery, so at the end of the day, the teacher issued a strict warning. I feared what would happen when I left. My parents had a rule: If you get in trouble at school, you were in the soup at home, too. And let’s just say that it involved much more than a timeout.

“I scrawled in my best first-grade cursive a rather liberal approximation of Mom’s John Hancock and turned it in.”

But in an unusual twist, my mother let me off with a reprimand and, after some strong cajoling on my part, let me go outside to play with my friend Johnnie for several hours. It’s a lesson I never forgot. To this day, though I have sinned in many ways, never again have I been tempted to forge someone’s signature, even for playful, innocent reasons.

What happened to me that day was a small, imperfect illustration of two essential concepts in the Christian gospel: mercy and grace. These gifts are often misunderstood (and often used interchangeably), but there is a noticeable difference. The Bible frequently mentions these virtues, which form a sort of divine duet that flows from God through Jesus.


A Rich Mercy

Paul describes God’s mercy toward sinners as “rich.” But the truth is that God Himself is truly “rich in mercy.” Why is a mercy-rich God necessary? Because sinners are “children of wrath” who happen to be “dead in [their] trespasses and sins.” The Bible’s view of fallen humans is bleak: image-bearers who have so violently rejected the image-giver that they are actively working for the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:1-4). If we understand the Bible’s assessment of sin as an offense against a holy God—an offense that deserves the ultimate punishment (see Rom. 6:23)—then it helps us grasp the true weight of mercy and how we’ve been spared.

“This is what some police officers do with speeding violations.”

Mercy, then, is the act of God not giving us what we fully deserve. But unlike what my mother did concerning my clumsy first-grade crimes, the mercy we receive from God is more than just Him looking the other way. It is God meting out just punishment against sinners on His own innocent Son instead. It is Christ bearing the full weight of our sin so that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). My mother looked away, winked, waved it off. This is what some police officers do with speeding violations. This is what the library does with overdue fines. This is what the credit card company does in reversing the late fee for a loyal cardholder. But that’s not the full and rich mercy the Bible talks about. It takes a rich and unfathomably deep reservoir of divine mercy to revive sinners from death. It’s a severe kind of mercy that still executes justice against wrongdoing by redirecting the punishment to the innocent Christ.

Mercy is about rescue. Mercy is about not getting what we deserve. We were—and forever are—desperate for it. But that’s only one side of God’s love for sinners. There’s also grace.


Grace Overflows

Many theologians have defined grace as “unmerited favor.” In other words, if mercy is about not getting the punishment coming to us, then grace is about getting good things we don’t deserve. Paul says, “By grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:5). So if mercy rescued us from peril, it is ultimately God’s grace—His extending goodness to us—that initiated His divine plan to “raise us up with Him, and seat us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). God not only freed us from the enemy’s grip and spared us hell’s punishment, but He also lavished blessings on us as His adopted children. To be sons and daughters of the king, to be invited to eat at His table—this is grace.

Grace is also the breath God gives us each day. It’s the little unexpected blessings, even in the midst of suffering and pain. To experience God’s grace is to bask in the warm glow of His fatherly affection, to know Him and to be known by Him. We are not entitled to this, we who possess prodigal hearts. And yet grace awaits in abundant supply for those who avail themselves of it through the Spirit.


Why We Need Both

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus tells us of a father who exhibits this divine duet. Not making the profligate son pay back his wasted inheritance and assume the position of a slave was mercy. But the warm embrace, the welcome party with the fatted calf, the restoration of sonship—this was grace.

“In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus tells us of a father who exhibits this divine duet.”

Mercy rescues us, and grace restores us as sons and daughters. Mercy is Jesus defeating sin, death, and the grave. Grace is Him renewing and restoring sinful hearts. And both work in tandem, for without mercy, there is no opportunity for grace. If we are not His children, God cannot shower fatherly blessings on us for eternity. Yet the mercy of saving us is, in many ways, its own act of grace, as God pursued us in our indifference and initiated our salvation.

And pondering God’s acts of mercy and grace toward us should make us conduits of these blessings. We can offer mercy, forgiving the deep hurts and the annoying slights of our brothers and sisters, because we ourselves have drawn so deeply on that rich reservoir of God’s mercy. And we can also extend love, help, fellowship, friendship, time, and resources as gifts toward others. To demonstrate grace is to give, to extend, and to pour out. Rescued, we rescue. Shown mercy, we show mercy. Recipients of grace, we offer it to others.

We’ll never fully understand these twin traits of the Almighty. But returning to them often is essential for the shaping of our souls. Unless we see ourselves as objects of God’s divine mercy and recipients of His sweet grace, we’ll stumble again and again into either despair or insecurity. If, however, we let our lives be formed by these giant truths, we’ll live as distinct people of God—even in a world crushed by the weight of the fall.


Illustrations by Adam Cruft

Related Topics:  Mercy

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Have Mercy

Wherever Jesus went, He demonstrated divine compassion. And His example demands we do the same.

By Mike Cosper

1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,

2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.

3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.

4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),

6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,

11 And He said, A man had two sons.

12 The younger of them said to his father, `Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.' So he divided his wealth between them.

13 And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.

14 Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished.

15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.

16 And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him.

17 But when he came to his senses, he said, `How many of my father's hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger!

18 I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight;

19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men."'

20 So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.

21 And the son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'

22 But the father said to his slaves, `Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet;

23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;

24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.' And they began to celebrate.

25 Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.

26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be.

27 And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.'

28 But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him.

29 But he answered and said to his father, `Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends;

30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.'

31 And he said to him, `Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.

32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.'"

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