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God’s mercy isn’t just mercy  

Robin Schumacher
Courtesy of Robin Schumacher

Did you know that God’s mercy really isn’t just mercy? At least not how you and I normally think about it.

One of the key distinctives of Christianity over all other religions is how the God of the Bible handles the important relationship between compassion and justice. Take your pick of any non-Christian faith that involves a deity and you will find a god that dispenses mercy at the expense of justice.   

For example, in Islam you have the concept of the scales: “Then those whose balance (of good deeds) is heavy, they are successful. But those whose balance is light, will be those who have lost their souls, in Hell will they abide” (Quran 23:102-103). Allah grants mercy and eternity to those whose good outweighs their bad with just one small problem: it’s done without regard for righteousness; no justice is required for any wrongs committed.

Besides not being a works-based salvation like all other religions, Christianity goes farther in this important way — God delivers mercy, but He does so through His justice. This is communicated many places in Scripture, but let me show you an important one that you may have missed.

'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!'

Luke contains my favorite New Testament story by Jesus regarding salvation.

“He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

There is an incredibly rich contrast in this passage between the Pharisee and the tax collector. In one of his messages, Tim Keller points out the ridiculous nature of the Pharisee’s prayer.

He begins by saying, “God, I thank You…” but then goes on to extol himself versus the One he’s addressing. The reason for that is he wants God to know all the sacrifices he’s made for his religion, with the implication being, “God, you owe me.”

In essence, the Pharisee believes he is his own savior.

But with the tax collector, we get an entirely different prayer. Rather than praising himself, he is ravaged by and ashamed of his sin to the point of physically acting out.

At that point things really get good.

His cry of, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” loses its deep meaning in our English translation. The Greek term hilasthēti signifies more than simple mercy; it means “make propitiation for” and is used in only one other place in the New Testament — the book of Hebrews: “Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17, my emphasis).

The typical term for mercy is first used by the Hebrews author (eleēmōn, full of pity, merciful, compassionate), but then he follows up with the term used by the tax collector in Luke. In both places it refers to one thing: atonement.

Unlike the Pharisee who believed he earned his passage into God’s Kingdom through his own sacrifices and works, the tax collector knows he is utterly bankrupt. He has a sin debt he can’t pay and knows a reckoning is coming so he is asking God to make atonement for him; to grant mercy through His justice.     

And with Christ, He does just that. He provides mercy through the sacrificial death of His Son on the cross. On this point, in reflecting about all the other world religions, Gandhi said, “Of all the dispositions and teachings of thinkers and ethicists, the one doctrine that I have no sufficient counter for is Jesus on that cross.”

And so, God’s mercy really isn’t just mercy; at least, not how you and I normally think about it. It is clemency granted through justice — the only one of its kind — which should cause all of us to say, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15). 

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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