“Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). What are mercy and grace?
We can find the words grace and mercy used in the same context and sometimes in the same sentence in the Bible. Do they mean the same thing?
A Bible study on grace and mercy shows they overlap, but there are differences.
Lesson from Jonah: God is a God of mercy
The story of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish, being delivered and giving God’s message to the city of Nineveh is one of the most famous stories in the Bible. What is sometimes lost in the telling of this story is one of the great lessons we can learn from it: God is a God of mercy, and He desires to see that same trait in us.
After his effort to run away from what God commissioned him to do, Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and eventually was deposited on the shores near Nineveh (Jonah 1 and 2). After preaching to the people of Nineveh about the need to repent, something happened that Jonah wasn’t expecting: The people of Nineveh repented, and God spared them (Jonah 3).
Jonah’s reaction in chapter 4 was to sit outside the city and wait to see the destruction that never came. God prepared a plant to shield Jonah from the heat of the sun, and then destroyed the plant (verses 6-8). When Jonah became angry about the loss of the plant, God told Jonah the lesson he needed to learn: “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” (Jonah 4:11). Jonah needed to learn about mercy.
Mercy is a part of God’s nature. How important is mercy to us? And where does grace fit into the picture?
What is mercy?
Mercy is commonly defined as forbearance or kindness. In particular, mercy usually involves kindness shown at a time when a severe penalty is expected.
In the Old Testament, several Hebrew words are sometimes translated mercy, though they are translated in other ways as well, depending on the context.
In the Greek New Testament, “The verb ‘to show mercy’ is eleeo, and the noun is eleos. Originally these expressed only the emotion that was aroused by contact with a person who was suffering. By [New Testament] times, however, the concept incorporated compassionate response. A person who felt for and with a sufferer would be moved to help. This concept of mercy—as a concern for the afflicted that prompts giving help—is prominent in both the Gospels and the Epistles” (Zondervan Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, 1991, p. 440).
Examples of mercy in the Bible
Mercy is one of God’s traits, shown often toward mankind, as shown by this statement from Moses to the children of Israel:
“When you are in distress, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, when you turn to the LORD your God and obey His voice (for the LORD your God is a merciful God), He will not forsake you nor destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore to them” (Deuteronomy 4:30-31).
Mercy is often tied to the concept of forgiveness. For instance, if you forgive someone who has wronged or hurt you, that would be an act of mercy.
The book of Numbers illustrates this with the account of the children of Israel when they sent spies to the Promised Land. Ten of the 12 spies brought back a negative report about the land. The Israelites reacted with mourning and complaining and wanted to choose a new leader to take them back to Egypt, in spite of the many great miracles God had performed for them.
This rebellion greatly angered God, and when He was ready to destroy the people, Moses intervened and appealed to God’s mercy:
“And now, I pray, let the power of my Lord be great, just as You have spoken, saying, ‘The LORD is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty. …’ Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now” (Numbers 14:17-19).
God responded, “I have pardoned, according to your word” (verse 20).
While the Bible often talks about mercy in reference to sins and transgressions, that isn’t always the case. At times, we can have mercy (or receive it) in situations of trial or discomfort, as shown in this passage in Proverbs: “He who despises his neighbor sins; but he who has mercy on the poor, happy is he” (Proverbs 14:21).
All of these passages refer to an act of kindness or forgiveness toward someone who is in need of it. How does grace fit into this picture, and is it the same as mercy?
Grace is not the exact same thing
Although mercy is certainly an aspect of God’s grace, grace is a broader, more extensive concept than mercy. Grace comes from the Greek word charis, which has multiple meanings, including gift, favor and kindness. It refers to the unearned favor of God that is extended to us to pardon our sins upon repentance and to enable us to have a healthy, happy relationship with our Creator. Our sins being forgiven by God’s grace leads to salvation (Titus 2:11).
“Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:10-11).
Grace is often mentioned in the context of guilt. We have all sinned, and the price for those sins is death. That penalty was paid for by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).
God’s grace involves the unmerited pardon of our sins, and that pardon was made possible by Christ’s death.God’s grace involves the unmerited pardon of our sins, and that pardon was made possible by Christ’s death.
God’s grace will be made available to all mankind! When the apostles gathered in a conference in Jerusalem and debated how gentiles as well as Israelites could receive salvation, Peter made the following statement: “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they” (Acts 15:11).
The apostles went on to listen to accounts of how God had worked with the gentiles—pardoning their sins and giving them the Holy Spirit.
Grace is what allows us to be cleansed of our sins and to be reconciled to our Creator: “To the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:6-7).
Mercy and grace!
Now consider this passage from the apostle Paul: “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:12-14). Here, we clearly see that the meaning of grace is broader than that of mercy.
Paul had reason to expect punishment or harsh treatment because of his zealous persecutions of the early Christians. Instead, he received unexpected benevolence and forgiveness. He himself was called to be a Christian and a minister of the truth! That mercy, however, did not forgive his sins and justify him before God. That was given by grace—by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
God’s grace is something we all need, but we cannot earn it or give it to others. It comes only through the sacrifice of Christ. Mercy, though, is something we need at various points in our lives, and is something we are expected to show toward others.
Notice these words from Christ, given in the message we know as the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). We have all gone through times in our lives when we have been in need of mercy from God and from other people. How much mercy are we showing? (Read more about this Beatitude in our article “Blessed Are the Merciful.”)
Grace includes the unmerited gift of salvation and many other expressions of God’s grace, and with these gifts come responsibilities and expectations from our Creator. For more information on the subject of God’s grace, see the article “What Is Grace?”