“Mercy paid my debt, but grace has made me rich.”
Have you ever had an experience where someone wronged you or was rude to you, and you felt like you were justified in being upset, but someone in your life encouraged you to “give them grace”? I’ve been thinking about the difference between grace and mercy lately, and about the context in which we use the phrase, “give them grace,” and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is an important distinction between these two concepts. After all, why do we have two separate words for them? There’s obviously a difference, and I believe this difference is important, both in our relationships with God and with other people.
I’ll start with mercy. Look at the quote at the top of this post and read the first part again. “Mercy paid my debt.” The story in Matthew 18 of the unforgiving debtor illustrates this concept of mercy. In this story, the man owes the king millions of dollars. He had a debt with the king, but the king had mercy on him. What mercy means in this instance is that the man was in bad standing with the king, but then he was brought to neutral standing. The man no longer owed the king anything, but he was not necessarily in a position of favor in the positive direction.
Now, contrast this idea with grace. “Grace has made me rich.” Think about the story of the prodigal son. When the son had spent all his money, he thought to himself, “Maybe my father will have mercy on me, forgive my debt, and treat me as a servant.” But when he arrived home, his father not only forgave him, he put a ring and a new robe on him and threw a party. He brought the son from bad standing to neutral, and from neutral to a position of great favor.
See the difference between the two? Mercy is the cancellation of a debt, and grace is the giving of favor beyond the cancellation, or the neutral point. This is an incredibly important point for us Christians to grasp. Why? Well, I see a lot of people living their lives as though every sin they commit puts them in bad standing with God, keeping them from approaching him and inflicting shame upon them so they no longer want to have fellowship with him. In fact, I think this fact turns a lot of people away from God. I think a lot of people begin to compromise their morals, they feel shame, and then their guilt drives them away from God’s open arms because they no longer feel his love, as though their sin separated them from him.
But the fact is, our sin no longer separates us from God.
That’s super important. So many people believe that, even as Christians, sin separates us from God. But that’s not true! It’s our reaction to our sin that separates us. We must either choose to continually live in sin or in grace, and if we choose a lifestyle of sin, we cannot walk with God. Now that we are Christians, we are saints who sin, not sinners trying to act like saints. Because God totally changed our nature, clothing us in Christ’s righteousness which is independent of anything we can do or earn, it is impossible for us to owe God anything any longer. He adopted us, and as long as we choose to accept our adoption, we will never fall out of favor with him. He is our father who always waits for us with open arms, no matter how many times we fail, and all we must do is consent to the embrace.
“We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)
See the distinction once again? We receive mercy for our sins, but grace to help us in the future. He not only forgives our debt, but blesses us richly in excess. If we are ever to love God as he wanted us to–not out of compulsion or guilt, and not fearfully, but truly and freely–we must internalize this concept. We can do nothing that puts us in debt to God! We have only to love him, and that endeavor is in itself the most fulfilling enterprise we could ever commit ourselves to.
How does this affect our relationships with others? Remember the question I asked you above: if a friend wrongs you, have you ever overlooked their offense in an attempt to “give them grace”? Well, I realized with amusement that I’m actually NOT giving them grace in that situation. I’m handing them mercy, resentfully, comforting myself with the thought that I’m being like Jesus. But really, if I were giving them grace like Jesus, I would offer to take them out for a fancy dinner and an opera and buy them a new car while I’m at it! Even when we didn’t know God, even when we despised him, he gave us the greatest gift anyone could give. There is no greater gift than to lay your life down for someone else, and he did it in the moment when we deserved it the very least.
We’re not being like Jesus when we bite our tongues and don’t retort in an argument. We’re being like Jesus when we bring flowers and a sincere card detailing how much we care for our friend right after a big fight, expecting nothing in return and pointing no fingers. This is huge conviction for me where I still feel as if I fall short, but God is helping me. It’s hard enough to give mercy, but it’s harder still to give grace.
In light of all this, remember this week that God not only paid your debt, but made you rich through adoption into his kingdom, giving you a heavenly inheritance with Christ and earthy favor and blessing. You are precious to him. Remember also, in light of this love, to give not only mercy, but grace to others in the same manner he gave. I’ll be right there with you, as I’m nowhere near to mastering this! Have a blessed week =)