Communicable Attributes: What Is the Mercy of God?
I remember hearing this question in a Bible study more than once, and this was the common answer: “Mercy is not getting what we deserve.” While it's short and pithy, is mercy as simplistic as that? Is it only the commutation of a sentence or stay of execution? Or is mercy much richer and deeper? To answer that question, “What is mercy?,” we need to go back to God and what his Word says about him.
In Exodus 33-34, Moses is meeting with God on Mt. Sinai. He was called to come up and receive instructions on right worship, the plans for the Tabernacle, and the 10 commadments. After this was accomplished, Moses asks for something extraordinary. He asks to see God's glory. This is quite bold, for as God tells Moses, no one can see him and live. Yet God condescends to grant him this request. He hides Moses in the cleft of a rock, and under the shelter of his hand, Moses can see God's glory pass by. And this is what God proclaims about himself, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth...” Ex. 34:6 (NKJV).
Mercy is first and foremost an attribute of God. According to Louis Berkhof, mercy falls under the heading of God's goodness, one of his moral attributes and “the most glorious of the divine perfections.”[i] Berkhof defines it as “the goodness or love of God shown to those who are in misery or distress, irrespective of their deserts.”[ii]. We see this attribute of a compassionate God on display throughout the pages of Scripture. From the promise of the seed of the woman[iii] to the future hope that he will wipe every tear from our eyes[iv], God shows mercy after mercy to sinners in distress because this is who he is.
One particular high point of God's mercy is the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. For a holy God to dwell among sinful people, their sins must be addressed. Therefore, one day a year, the high priest may enter into the holy of holies to make atonement for his own sins and the sins of the nation. However, he can only come into God's presence with the blood of an innocent animal to be sprinkled on the mercy seat. Through this means, God provided a way for his covenant people to have communion with him through the sacrifice of another. Yet, the Day of Atonement was insufficient to provide a permanent remedy for sin, and this ceremony needed to be repeated year after year, sacrifice after sacrifice. Thankfully a greater reality was to come to replace this shadow.
The mercy of God was embodied in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. On the cross, the spotless Lamb of God laid down his life and died in our place. His blood atoned for our sins, and his perfect life provided the righteousness that we could never achieve. Christ was not only the sacrifice but the greater high priest who did not have to atone for his own sins. He entered into the holy place not made with hands with his own blood, into the very presence of God for us, and secured eternal redemption once and for all.[v]
So in one sense, mercy is not getting what we deserve, as our penalty was paid for by another. But it is so much more. The children of Israel came to a designated place once-a-year through an intermediary. We come to a person. Our mercy seat is Jesus Christ. He has opened the way for permanent and eternal union and communion with God. And because of his continuing work in our lives, he is changing us so that we may become merciful as our Heavenly Father is merciful.[vi]
As those redeemed, we can attest to the words of Scripture and say, “Lord God, you are merciful, gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth. May we love you, worship and honor you for the abundant mercy that you have shown to us in the Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Persis Lorenti is member of Grace Baptist Chapel in Hampton, VA where she serves as bookkeeper and deacon of library/resources. She blogs very sporadically at Persistent Thoughts. You can follow her on Twitter @tea_et_books.
[i] Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1963, pg. 70.
[ii] Ibid. 70.
[iii] Gen. 3:15
[iv] Rev. 21:4
[v] Hebrews 9
[vi] Luke 6:36