when grace meets mercy

Grace. Mercy.

Those two words have become so common in Christian-speak. We talk and sing and teach about the grace of God and the mercy of God, and we use them rather interchangeably. But what do they even really mean?

Simply put, grace is when you get what you don’t deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get what you do deserve. *

Confused?

We must start off by understanding humanity and God. At the heart of it, humans screw up on a daily basis and God is perfect. We have this incredible knack of sinning, and God is holy. We’re broken people breaking the world even more. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

The justice of God is to exact punishment for crimes and sins. After all, that is what we expect our own law systems to do: to catch and punish criminals. If God did not do so,  He would not be a just and fair God. How just would our justice system be if we let violators of the law go free? The wages of sin is death, and that’s what every person rightly deserves, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Justice is when you get what you deserve.

The mercy of God is that He does not always mete out the punishment right then and there. You and I, we deserve punishment and death on a nearly daily basis. How many times have you screwed up this year? This week? Today? Do you ever marvel that God hasn’t struck you down by lightning yet? I do. But it is the mercy of God that He has hasn’t struck us down, not giving us what we duly deserve. Mercy is when you’ve been speeding and the cop pulls you over, but doesn’t give you a ticket. It is the mercy of God that “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:10)

The grace of God is that He gives us salvation and communion with Him. The grace of God is that He gives us Himself in Jesus, even though we don’t deserve it. It is that in spite of who we are and what we do, Christ loves us and died for us to reconcile us to the Father. We don’t deserve to be saved into a relationship with God! We’re getting what we most certainly do not deserve. Grace is when the cop who pulled you over takes you to lunch and offers you an escort to where you’re going so you don’t get pulled over again. “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and it is not because of yourself; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)

Grace and mercy are similar, yes. But also beautifully different. If not for mercy, we would have perished a long time ago. If not for grace, we would be a hopeless lot. Mercy saves us from condemnation. Grace grants us eternal life.

Lucky for us, God is merciful and gracious.

“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Psalm 145:8

And in Jesus, we see where the grace of God meets the mercy of God.

*These definitions aren’t absolute throughout the Scriptures, and sometimes the writers (and biblical translators) used the words for different purposes. For example, in the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10, “mercy” is used to mean compassionately caring for someone’s needs. The definitions I have provided are more to be understood in Paul’s writing, and what we mean when we talk about the terms in our understanding of what Christ has done for us in his death and resurrection; they have judicial implications.

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Angel of Mercy, how did you find me?

We all have those stories. Stories about how things seemed to be going sour, we were helpless, and then… something happened. Coincidental, supernatural, luck, planned… the explanations abound.

Recently, my dad was driving through a part of North Dallas that he wasn’t familiar with. It was the middle of the day, when suddenly one of his tires blew out. His phone was dead and so he couldn’t call AAA or one of us to come help him. He slowly exited the highway and creeped the minivan into a large parking lot, and in the process, nearly stripped everything off the rim of the tire. Looking around, he realized there wasn’t anything around, and the lot was largely deserted. There wasn’t a building to walk to or a gas station to help out. No phone, no people around, and the sun beating down on him.

He decided to try to change the tire, even though he had never done so himself on the minivan. Pulled out the jack, hoisted the vehicle up… and then realized he didn’t know how to take the darn tire off! It wasn’t like taking the tire off a normal car. So he struggled and strained for over 20 minutes, trying to take off the rim of the tire. In the meantime, he was starting to feel faint. See, my dad is diabetic, and he hadn’t eaten in hours. Still no phone, no people around, and the sun beating down on him.

While he was struggling against the stubborn tire, he heard a voice behind him.

“Excuse me sir. Do you need some help?”

My dad whipped around and saw a ragged man in tattered clothing, peering curiously at him from several feet away. Immediately, dad was on his guard. After all, he was in an area he didn’t know, stranded, and without contact with people he knew. And there was a stranger who seemed to come out of an unkempt nowhere. He hesitantly admitted to the stranger his bewilderment and predicament. The man sauntered on over, and by his appearance and the smell radiating off him, dad figured this man had been on the street for quite a while. The stranger proceeded to announce  that he had once been a mechanic, and he could help my dad out, and my dad gladly, yet still cautiously, readily agreed. As he worked on the tire, he revealed that alcohol and bad luck had caused him to lose his job and force him to lose his home and family. He finished up swapping the bad tire with the spare and pointed my dad to an auto shop that was about a mile down the road. My dad gave the stranger some money, thanked him, and thanked God for the stroke of luck. My pops isn’t quite the guy to invite homeless men over for a few nights. Dad got to the auto shop, bought some  new tires, and got some food in his system.

As my dad was telling me this story, he said he was struck by the fact that out of all the people (homeless or not) who could have walked by him at that time of day, it had been someone with knowledge of vehicles and changing tires off a van. It had been someone willing to help. It had been someone who appeared out of nowhere. I offered up that maybe it was a God thing. Dad looked at me and said, “It was definitely a God thing.”

Great story, huh? It oozes of providence. It’s one of those stories that you hear and you say, “Man, God is good! He’s really got your back!”

But I think it’s more than that. It’s not just a sign of our “guardian angel”. It’s more than just a reminder that God is watching over us. I think instances like this one point us to something. I think it points us to the cross.

What? Dude, you’re reading too much into this. Stop making everything so Christian and spiritual.

But really, isn’t this our story? If you’re a Christian, you were like my dad. Spiritually, we were stranded and in need. Except we were stranded in a hot desert with temperatures rocketing above the 100s. And our car was stuck in a deep hole with walls 50 feet high. And there wasn’t a drop of water in sight. And there was quicksand drawing our car and our feet into the belly of the earth. And unknown insects brushed past us as we looked around for help. And as we struggled to get out of the hole on our own, the quicksand sucked us in quicker. We were going nowhere… except down. And this was life for us.

But God.

Such beautiful words, when you see them in the New Testament. They indicate a shift in the course of events, in the course of history.

But God saw us in that predicament, and sent His Son, Jesus, to rescue us. God Himself came down and did what we, on our own, were completely incapable of doing. He pulled us out of the pit and quicksand Himself, washed us, gave us a new car, set us on asphalted roads and adopted us into His family. He sated our thirst with water of everlasting life.

He had no obligations to us. He could have left us stranded. But He sent His Angel of Mercy… His Son.. Himself… to save us. To find us in our life of futility.

Stories like the one my dad experienced aren’t just feel good stories. They serve to remind us about the greatest rescue story of all time. It’s God nudging us and saying, “Hey, does this sound familiar? I did something like this for you. Except I did more.”

Am I reading too much into the story? Am I over-allegorizing it? I don’t think so. It’s like the Old Testament, where Jesus says everything points back to Him.

Remember, we’re not the center of God’s story…

He is.

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in thatwhile we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” -Romans 5:6-8