My God of Mercy

Text: Ephesians 2:1-10

Several years ago I taught High School math and science in a private school. As occasionally happens, one student copied from another and turned in the assignment. The school’s policy was to give zero grades to both the cheater and the one from whom he copied. This was felt to be the only fair thing to do since it was hard to determine who did the work and who copied. It also encouraged students to retain control over their work. Fortunately, the school did not have a “zero tolerance” plan. Teachers were allowed to modify the policy as they saw fit.

On handing out the grades, I informed both boys that I had caught them, that they received zero grades as per the school policy, and that they were to write a short paper on a set of verses that I gave them as a punishment. To the boy that I was fairly certain cheated I gave a list of verses on the subject of laziness. To the other boy, I gave a much shorter list of verses on responsibility.

When they turned in the assignments, I privately asked each boy what he had learned from the assignment. The cheater took the opportunity to complain that I had given him a longer list of verses. He went on to grumble about how unfair life was for him. The other boy, when asked, won’t look me in the eye. He humbly explained that he realized he bore responsibility for the result because he let the other boy borrow his notebook that contained the finished assignment.

I told the second boy that I was restoring his grade. He looked up at me in complete surprise. “You don’t have to do that! I was wrong!”

“Yes, you were,” I replied, “and you are exactly right, I don’t have to do this. But I am going to do it because I want you to learn another lesson: I want you to understand the meaning of ‘mercy.’”


When a person breaks the law, justice demands that the lawbreaker be punished, but mercy overrides judgment. “For He who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:11-13).

The public school system has gone through a fad of issuing “zero tolerance” policies. For example, there is a problem of violence in the schools, so the schools have issued a zero-tolerance plan: “Any student caught with a knife with a blade over one inch will be suspended for the remainder of the school year.” These plans sounded real good until an honor student was brought in because she had a butter knife in her lunch bag to spread peanut butter on some crackers. It was a knife. It did have a blade and the policy didn’t say anything about the blade having to be sharp. It was over one inch long. So since it was a zero-tolerance plan, the girl was suspended.

But the policy was foolish and the school looked foolish – not because knives should be allowed in schools – because “zero tolerance” means there is no room for mercy.

“Mercy” means giving less than what was deserved. “The LORD executes righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the children of Israel. The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Psalms 103:6-14).

Making application:

  • What does sin deserves as punishment (Romans 6:23)?
  • Who is guilty of sin (Romans 3:23)?
  • What would be the result of a zero-tolerance plan for dealing with sin?
  • What doesn’t God enjoy (Ezekiel 33:11; II Peter 3:9)?
  • What does make God happy (Jeremiah 9:24; Micah 7:18-20)?

Perhaps you are now sighing with relief. “God will save me, even when I sin” you might say. “Why, there is no need to change because God’s mercy will excuse my sins!” Paul had an answer to this: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” (Romans 6:1-2). The flaw in the thought is that it is the one wanting mercy who is deciding he is going to get mercy.

It is up to the judge to decide who will get mercy, not the defendant. God told Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19). The application of mercy is God’s choice, not man’s. Paul quoted this passage from Exodus and then makes this conclusion, “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy” (Romans 9:16). Just because you want mercy doesn’t mean you will receive mercy.

Jonah thought to manipulate God’s mercy in a negative way. God told Jonah to preach to the people of Nineveh. But Nineveh was the capital of Israel’s most feared enemy. Jonah didn't want there to be any possibility for Nineveh to be saved, so he ran off in the opposite direction. He thought that if Nineveh didn’t hear about their danger, then God won’t extend mercy to them. “Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm” (Jonah 4:2). But Jonah was forced into preaching at Nineveh, they did turn from their sins, and Jonah couldn’t stand it. Yet, one of the points in the story of Jonah is that man cannot stand in God’s way. It was God, not man, who decided who would receive mercy.

While mercy overrides justice, it does not eliminate justice. God is full of mercy, or as Paul put it “the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant” (I Timothy 1:14). As a result of His mercy, God went out of His way to offer men salvation. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (I Peter 1:3-4). This was the reason Jesus came into the world. He did not come to condemn the world – it already stood condemned by their own sins. Jesus came to bring mercy by offering salvation (John 3:17).

So if God wants the world saved and Jesus paid the debt of sin, why doesn’t God just declare that everyone is saved? The answer is: because it wouldn’t be just!

Digging deeper:

  • What does justice require of sin (Hebrews 2:2)?
  • Will God pervert justice (Job 34:10-12)?
  • Would it then be just to save sinners who remain sinners?
  • How does God, then, balance justice and mercy (Exodus 34:6-7)?

The center of the problem is sin. God wants to offer mercy, but our sins require a just response. Hence, God’s solution is to offer a way for sin to be removed or forgiven. “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-7). To satisfy the need for sin to be punished, Jesus died on our behalf. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:8-10). Notice in particular that Paul said we were justified by the blood of Jesus. God could justly save us because Jesus offered His life on our behalf.

God then gave the requirements needed to benefit from that gift. The requirements sort out the righteous from the wicked.

What are the requirements to received God’s gift?

  • II Thessalonians 2:13
  • Ephesians 2:8
  • Ezekiel 18:30-32; Luke 13:3, 5
  • Romans 10:8-10
  • Romans 6:3-7; I Peter 3:21
  • Hebrews 5:9

You will find some in the religious world who would object to the idea of meeting requirements in order to gain salvation. To these people, such an effort on man’s part is an attempt to earn salvation. But the reality is that all of man’s efforts have earned us death. We are not saved by our works because they remain insufficient to save us from our sins (II Timothy 1:9). Instead, we should be thankful that God is not saving us according to our deeds (Titus 3:4-7). Jesus once pointed out to his disciples that it was difficult for a rich man to be saved. This startled the disciples. After all, the rich can buy anything that they wanted, so they asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus' reply is important, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:25-26).

The standard for the offering of salvation is not our works, but the works God requires of us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Think about it. Which of those things that God requires of us can really save a person from his sins? None of them alleviate the problem of sin. It is Jesus’ shed blood that takes care of the problem and saves us. But justice is satisfied because something that is within our capability to do is used to determine that which is beyond our ability to accomplish. “He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much” (Luke 16:10).

Justice, though, demands more. For mercy to remain just, it must be applied equally to all people. This is a point that the Jews had a hard time understanding. They grew up thinking that God would save them simply because they descended from Abraham.

Digging deeper:

Read Romans 11:30-32

  • Because the Jews had sinned, who did God give salvation?
  • But to remain fair, that same salvation was also offered to whom?
  • Does nationality make a difference in how a person is saved (Acts 15:11)?
  • To whom is the promised extended (Romans 4:11; Titus 2:11)?

Some religions teach that God picks in advance the individual people whom He plans to save and condemns those He plans to be lost. Yet this would not be just or fair because the choice would essentially be arbitrary on God’s part. But by offering the same conditions for salvation to all men, conditions that all men can easily handle, then justice is satisfied. God chooses who will be saved, not by selecting specific individuals, but by the type of person He wants to be saved. When a person demonstrates the proper character through obedience in small demands, God can justly show mercy on the type of people He wants to save. “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth--in Him. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:7-14).

There is one other way that God demonstrates mercy to us. Have you ever thought about what would happen if God zapped us right when we broke His law? How many people would still be living? In fact, mankind wouldn’t have made it past Adam and Eve, would they? “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). God shows mercy by His forbearance and His patience with our sins. He wants people to be saved, so He gives people opportunities to repent. “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9).

For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You” (Psalm 86:5). God stands ready to forgive you of your sins. Don’t waste the opportunity.

Class Discussion:

  • Can mercy be shown if there is no obligation or debt?
  • Can a person still be punished and have received mercy?
  • Can mercy ever be owed to a person?
  • Explain in your own words how mercy and justice interact with each other.
  • Are Christians required to show mercy toward others?
  • Come up with some situations in which you could show mercy to another person.

Class Activities:

  • Find songs dealing with the mercy of God. Ask one of the boys to lead one of the songs.
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