In our study through the attributes of God, we've looked at what are called "incommunicable" and "communicable" attributes. The latter of these are those perfections which God shares or "communicates" to His creatures. Among the communicable attributes are a subdivision of what we could term "moral attributes".
Perfections such as love, faithfulness, and goodness are examples of communicable, moral attributes. Such moral perfections highlight for us the moral character of God. In today's post, we are interested in considering one of my favorite attributes of God - mercy.
What is meant by God's mercy?
Theologian Wayne Grudem comments on God's mercy, "God’s mercy means God’s goodness toward those in misery and distress." Certainly, the mercy of God expresses the goodness of God toward those who don't deserve it and who did nothing to merit such a bestowal of goodness. This writer and you the reader fit under that categories of "undeserving" and "unable to merit" God's mercy. We read for instance in Exodus 33:19 of God's promise to Moses' request to show him His glory,
"And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.”
The reader can note that the underlying Hebrew words translated "gracious" is the same word elsewhere translated "mercy". At this point, it may prove useful to distinguish between God's compassion and mercy. We've noted in past posts how each of God's attributes gives us "all of God", meaning each is a true and entire expression of His Divine being. To have one attribute entails having access to all the others.
Mercy and compassion do have much overlap, so we won't press their distinction too far. Mercy is God witholding from us what we do deserve. Grace is God giving to us what we don't deserve. In noting those distinctions, we find that God's compassionate love, expressed in grace and mercy, is what underlies their commonality to one another. Baptist theologian J.P. Boice in his "Abstract of Systematic Theology" notes the distinction. He first writes of God's compassion,"The third form of love is the love of compassion. This corresponds to our idea of pity. It is benevolent disposition to those who are suffering or in distress.
This also may be exercised towards the guilty or the innocent, if it be possible to suppose that guilt and suffering are separable."
In the Bible, we find a close connection between God's compassion and mercy, making them at times virtually indistinguishable. If we consider mercy as God withholding what we do deserve, then compassion is God showing Divine pity as a consequence of His mercy. The Hebrew Old Testament uses the same word to render our English "compassion" and "mercy".
We saw above the NASB translation of the underlying Hebrew text of Exodus 33:19. As the Holy Spirit led Paul to write what he wrote under Divine inspiration, He would use the Greek translation or Septuagint translation of Exodus 33:19 to capture the nuance of God's mercy in Romans 9:14,
"or He says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.'”
The infinite richness of God's mercy
As mentioned already, the common way mercy is defined, which I still find helpful and soothing, is this, "mercy is God not giving us what we deserve". Thomas Watson, that great 17th century Puritan author, notes the following about the superabundance (i.e. "richness") of God's mercy,
"The Lord has treasures of mercy in store, and therefore is said to be ‘plenteous in mercy’ (Psa 86: 5), and ‘rich in mercy’ (Eph 2: 4). The vial of God’s wrath drops only, but the fountain of his mercy runs. The sun is not so full of light as God is of love."
Watson goes on,
"God has mercy of all dimensions. He has depth of mercy, it reaches as low as sinners; and height of mercy, it reaches above the clouds. God has mercies for all seasons; mercies for the night, he gives sleep; nay, sometimes he gives a song in the night (Psalm 42:8). He has also mercies for the morning. His compassions ‘are new every morning.’ (Lamentations 3:23)."
Twentieth century author A.W. Tozer writes of God's mercy in his classic book, "Knowledge of the Holy", page 64, reminds us that God's mercy, like all of His attributes, is an eternal perfection,
attribute of God’s eternal being, we would no longer fear that it will someday cease to be."
"Mercy never began to be, but from eternity was; so it will never cease to be. It will never be more since it is itself infinite; and it will never be less because the infinite cannot suffer diminution. Nothing that has occurred or will occur in heaven or earth or hell can change the tender mercies of our God. Forever His mercy stands, a boundless,