The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Distinguishing Between Grace & Mercy


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What is the difference between grace and mercy? Since both of these terms refer to showing someone undeserved favor, they are often used interchangeably by Christians. But there is a slight difference. Mercy has a strong association with suffering, whereas grace emphasizes favor. Mercy is about not giving someone the punishment they deserve, while grace is about giving them favor they do not deserve. To make this more clear, let’s run through some examples.

Suppose the law says that all murderers must be punished by the death penalty. When a judge decides to let a murderer live, he is being merciful. According to the law, the murderer deserves to die. Mercy is when we choose not to give someone the negative consequences that their choices deserve.

Now let’s take a millionaire who decides he wants to share his great wealth with others. This millionaire chooses the names of ten poor families who he has heard about, then he sits down and writes each of them a check for $10,000. These families don’t even know the millionaire. They’re just ordinary people—they haven’t done anything special to deserve getting a share of someone else’s stuff. They’re no better than the other poor people in their community. The millionaire isn’t sharing his money with them because he thinks they have earned it. Instead, he’s sharing just because he delights in being generous. This is an example of grace: grace is when we show someone favor that they have not earned.

So then, both mercy and grace are motivated by a desire to be generous. But mercy focuses on shielding someone from something negative, while grace focuses on blessing someone with something positive.

God’s salvation is an act of both mercy and grace. God says that you deserve to burn in Hell because of your willful soul defiance. So when God grants you salvation and says He will no longer throw you into Hell, He is being extremely merciful. He is generously shielding you from the negative consequences you justly deserve. Why does He do this? Because He delights in being generous.

Now if God were to just save you from Hell, that would be awesome enough, but then He takes things a step further and grants you admission into a wonderful paradise called Heaven. You certainly don’t deserve to go to Heaven. This is an incredible reward which God is dropping into your lap simply because He delights in being generous. So then, God is being merciful to spare you from Hell, and He is being gracious to take you to Heaven. They are very similar concepts, but they do have different nuances to them.

Now to the man on death row, being allowed to live seems like a very great reward, and this is why we often call acts of mercy acts of grace. When Christians think of salvation and eternity, they tend to focus on the gift of being allowed into Heaven, not their escape from well-deserved torment. Then they talk about being saved by grace alone, when in reality they were saved by grace, mercy, love, and many other things. But because the definition of grace is undeserved favor, and both salvation from Hell and admittance into Heaven feel like great favors to us, it is reasonable to sum up salvation as an act of grace.

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