Mercy as a Path to Salvation

Life_in_Tension_web“Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.
For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:13 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is no accident that we feel the tension with God over the question of mercy. We do not want to admit to our sins (or our need for forgiveness) because we spend most of our lives trying to hide our sin from other people. We deny our sin from morning to night. And it is painful, in turn, showing mercy to other people —we would much rather have them fulfill their promises and pay their debts.

Our problem with mercy is that it requires action.  We would rather talk about love because it is a squishy sort of emotion.  Easy on the action; easy to redefine; easily to confuse with.  We are always in compliance with a law of love, at least in our own minds.  Mercy requires concrete action.  Billy Graham wrote:  “What are some of the areas in today’s world toward which we can show mercy? First: We can show mercy by caring for the social needs of our fellow men…Second: We can show mercy by doing away with our prejudices…Third: We can show mercy by sharing the gospel of Christ with others.” (Graham 1955, 61-65).  Concrete. Doable. Undeniable.  Highly personal.

God’s priority is showing mercy. Jesus cites the Prophet Hosea twice [1] in Matthew after citing the beatitude:

“For I desire steadfast love [2] and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6 ESV)

The heart of paganism in the church lies in trying to bribe God with sacrifices other than the sacrifice of our own hearts.  We prefer to bribe God with sacrifices (”burnt offerings”) than own up to our own sin.   Arguing that we are basically good (denying original sin), in effect, denies Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross.  That is to say, we don’t need Christ’s mercy and, as a codicil, we do not need to practice mercy with those around us. The echo of Cain’s question still haunts us: “am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9 ESV)

It is interesting that in the Gospel of Luke, the double love command (love God; love neighbor; Matthew 22:36-40) is cited, not by Jesus, but by a lawyer (Luke 10:25-28) who then proceeds to narrow the definition of neighbor [3]. He asks Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29 ESV) Jesus responds by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. At the end, Jesus pulls a Jedi mind trick asking: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Luke 10:36 ESV) Notice how Jesus substitutes the question—”who proved to be a neighbor” for the question—”who is my neighbor”. Jesus turns a direct object (neighbor) into a verb (to be a neighbor). To this question, the lawyer responds: “The one who showed him mercy.” (Luke 10:37 ESV)

Notice how in the story of the Good Samaritan we started out talking about love, but ended up talking about mercy? God’s identity—

“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6 ESV)

—includes both mercy and love, but mercy comes first. Jesus’ brother James makes a similar observation saying:

“For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13 ESV)

Judgment requires truth (אֱמֶֽת) which in Exodus 34:6 is translated also as faithfulness. Mercy also comes before truth and judgment. Interestingly, James has in the citation above restated Jesus’ beatitude in the negative—essentially it is now in the form of a curse—it is a curse to be judged without mercy.

The link of mercy and judgment necessarily brings us back to the atoning work of Christ. The Apostle Peter clearly linked these two ideas when he wrote:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5 ESV)

It is the mercy of God to provide us a path of salvation to Himself.

[1] Matthew 9:13 and 12:7.

[2] There is tension in the Greek and Hebrew texts on this word. The Greek reads mercy (ἔλεος) and the Hebrew reads love (חֶ֥סֶד).  The citations in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7 go with the Greek.  The translation of Hosea 6:6 in the English Standard Version (ESV) goes with the Hebrew.

[3] Today, the lawyer would not only try to narrow the definition of neighbor, he would narrow the definition of love.

REFERENCES

Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

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