Samples from Seminary – What is Mercy?

At seminary, the professors stress the importance of coming up with clear definitions whenever we develop a concept. Recently, we had a discussion over the idea of mercy.

The question arises: what exactly is mercy?

Some speak of mercy as it relates to grace. Grace is God’s undeserved favor toward those who deserve the opposite. In other words, because God is gracious toward us, we receive something we do not deserve. Some assert that mercy is just the opposite. Namely, that out of his mercy for us, God withholds what we rightly deserve. For example, while we deserve to be condemned for ours sins, in his mercy, God withholds that condemnation from us.

While this is an attractive way to keep these two concepts straight, I’m not sure that it gets at the heart of mercy. Certainly this explanation is not unbiblical; however, it is more of an example of mercy rather than a definition.

So what is mercy? Well let’s look at an example of mercy from the Bible.

Matthew 20:30-34 records the instance of Jesus healing two blind men who cried out for mercy. As Jesus was departing from the city of Jericho, two blind men heard that Jesus was passing by. Scripture indicates that they “cried out, saying, have mercy upon us, O Lord, thou Son of David.” When the multitude rebuked them for shouting, they cried out all the more: “Have mercy upon us.”

In the following verses, Scripture records that Jesus approached these men and asked them what they wanted him to do. They replied: “that our eyes may open.” Then in Matthew 20:34, we read –  “So Jesus had compassion on them, and touched their eyes: and immediately their eyes received sight.”

So how does this help us understand the meaning of mercy, you may ask. Well, Jesus showed mercy to these men. Importantly, prior to Jesus restoring their sight, these men were in a miserable state: they were blind. Thus, we can say mercy is something shown toward those who are in a state of misery.

In addition, in this example mercy consists of two things. First, Matthew 20:34 indicates that Jesus had compassion on these men. In other words, he was conscious of their miserable state and desired to deliver them from it. He had pity on them. Second, Jesus took action. He actually healed them so that they received their sight. In other words, he delivered them from the state of misery that they were in and unto a state of blessedness.

If we take all of this together, we can say that mercy is compassion on those who are in misery and the subsequent action of delivering them from a state of misery unto a state of blessedness.

Perhaps that is a mouthful to remember though. If so, remember two key words: compassion and action. And then, remember that the action part of mercy delivers from a state of misery and unto a state of blessedness.

So why is it so important to have all of this straight. Well, remember that we are the objects of God’s mercy. On account of our sin, we are in a miserable state. However, in his mercy, God looks upon us with compassion. But he does more than merely pity us. His mercy takes action, delivering us from our sin and misery and unto a state of blessedness, namely, unto covenant fellowship with him as our God.

Matt Kortus


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