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Are we understanding God's mercy correctly?

Rio Grande do Sul, Brasil. Abandoned Lutheran chapel in the rural town of Forquetinha. |

It was once while reading through one of the most unlikely sources that I discovered a long-sought explanation of God’s mercy. I was reading some of John Wesley’s personal writing on the subject of church discipline from the 1800s.  Mr. Wesley stated that you must always differentiate between ignorance and rebellion in any given situation involving wrongdoing. He stated that if an indiscretion was committed merely due to a lack of knowledge, then that individual should be shown much mercy. However, if a person knowing what God’s word stated regarding a particular matter, still transgressed the word, then that person had done so out of pride and rebellion and should be dealt with severely.

I will never forget my first experience dealing with clear limitations placed on what I was to preach. Typically, when you are an itinerant preacher, you are invited to a sit-down discussion often over a meal the evening prior to the services where you will be preaching. The meal is often a good opportunity to discuss some potentially sensitive issues, which might be occurring in the church at that time and it is also just a good “get to know each other” session. So I was not surprised when this new pastor invited me to dinner.

As a reminder, my background prior to becoming and itinerant evangelist was simply several years dedicated to fervent prayer and Bible study where I clearly felt a calling of God to preach a revival message within the denomination that I was in. This denomination had grown out of the fires of revival and was one of several tracking its inception back to the Azusa Street revivals in Los Angeles. During the time period, I began to preach many were concerned that the denomination was following the same downward path of so many other once on fire movements. Numbers of converts was starting to fall off. Overall attendance was starting to wane and new church plantings were almost starting to equal the number of churches that were closing.

As we met for dinner, the pastor began by expressing his appreciation for my being there. He seemed fascinated to hear the stories of the things that God had been doing in our meetings. He assured me that he desired to see God do something new in his church, but he made it clear that there was something, which he wanted me not to talk about, namely Sin!

He went on to explain that he felt it important to keep topics of sermons positive and that he wanted his congregation to feel good about themselves when they left the building following each service. He had minored in psychology in college and believed strongly in the importance of each person having a strong self-esteem. He did not want them to get weighed down in what he called “condemnation” from the “mistakes” that they had made in life. Recognizing that he was the pastor and under God’s authority I had to agree to his instructions and to follow his lead in every message that I preached that week.

This pastor’s restriction illustrates the fact that at some point the preaching on Hell and sin has been removed from the pulpits of America and around the world. It is very clear to me why this has happened. The goal has been to prevent, as the above pastor specified messages that would seem negative or make potential attendees feel guilty or under condemnation. However in removing a foundational doctrine that Jesus spoke much on from our preaching we have moved also an understanding of the value of God’s mercy from the hearts of those attending our churches.

The Apostle Paul states in Romans 5:10(NIV), “For if while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son how much more, having been reconciled shall we be saved through His life?” If we would just think back most of us would admit that before we actually became a Christian we did a pretty good job wrestling with God the Holy Spirit as He dealt with us about surrendering our lives to Christ. This is what Paul was referring to when he wrote to the Romans, and only after being “born again” did we become then the children of God in any type of affectionate relationship with Him.  

The value of the mercy of God is because we were once the enemies of God, and as rebellious sinners deserved nothing but hell, but we were given the gift of eternal life forever in Heaven. This means that our lives lived out in Christ should be lives of continual celebration and sacrificial obedience. 

In today’s church world however, again to try not to offend the attendees we spend all of our time talking about being the children of God under the Father’s love. It is deemed wrong to discuss or think about our former state. This causes us to be ignorant of just how valuable that mercy was.

Jesus used a very practical parable about finances to illustrate the value of mercy toward one another. It was a parable of financial debt. In Luke 7:41, He showed that the person who owed the most would be forgiven the most and therefore would love the most. In the process of removing the teaching on the doctrine of Hell, and subsequent understanding of the “goodness (and) the “severity” of God we have lost the awesomeness of the mercy of God! From a loving yet just Father we have created for our own “self-justified” conscious sake a buddy, Daddy God that is really more like a grandfather image.

Jesus said Matthew 10:28 (NIV) “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. If we just believed these few words we would treasure completely God’s mercy and more deeply be devoted to the One giving it!

Rev Nolan J Harkness is the President and CEO of Nolan Harkness Evangelistic Ministries Inc. since 1985. He spent most of his adult life working in youth ministry. He also felt the calling of Evangelist/Revivalist and traveled as the door was open holding evangelistic meetings in churches throughout the Northeast. His website is

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