I didn’t think the teachers would notice. Having forgotten to get a parent’s signature on a homework slip, I scrawled in my best first-grade cursive a rather liberal approximation of Mom’s John Hancock and turned it in. It didn’t take CSI-level handwriting analysis to uncover the forgery, so at the end of the day, the teacher issued a strict warning. I feared what would happen when I left. My parents had a rule: If you get in trouble at school, you were in the soup at home, too. And let’s just say that it involved much more than a timeout.
But in an unusual twist, my mother let me off with a reprimand and, after some strong cajoling on my part, let me go outside to play with my friend Johnnie for several hours. It’s a lesson I never forgot. To this day, though I have sinned in many ways, never again have I been tempted to forge someone’s signature, even for playful, innocent reasons.
What happened to me that day was a small, imperfect illustration of two essential concepts in the Christian gospel: mercy and grace. These gifts are often misunderstood (and often used interchangeably), but there is a noticeable difference. The Bible frequently mentions these virtues, which form a sort of divine duet that flows from God through Jesus.
A Rich Mercy
Paul describes God’s mercy toward sinners as “rich.” But the truth is that God Himself is truly “rich in mercy.” Why is a mercy-rich God necessary? Because sinners are “children of wrath” who happen to be “dead in [their] trespasses and sins.” The Bible’s view of fallen humans is bleak: image-bearers who have so violently rejected the image-giver that they are actively working for the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:1-4). If we understand the Bible’s assessment of sin as an offense against a holy God—an offense that deserves the ultimate punishment (see Rom. 6:23)—then it helps us grasp the true weight of mercy and how we’ve been spared.
Mercy, then, is the act of God not giving us what we fully deserve. But unlike what my mother did concerning my clumsy first-grade crimes, the mercy we receive from God is more than just Him looking the other way. It is God meting out just punishment against sinners on His own innocent Son instead. It is Christ bearing the full weight of our sin so that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). My mother looked away, winked, waved it off. This is what some police officers do with speeding violations. This is what the library does with overdue fines. This is what the credit card company does in reversing the late fee for a loyal cardholder. But that’s not the full and rich mercy the Bible talks about. It takes a rich and unfathomably deep reservoir of divine mercy to revive sinners from death. It’s a severe kind of mercy that still executes justice against wrongdoing by redirecting the punishment to the innocent Christ.
Mercy is about rescue. Mercy is about not getting what we deserve. We were—and forever are—desperate for it. But that’s only one side of God’s love for sinners. There’s also grace.
Many theologians have defined grace as “unmerited favor.” In other words, if mercy is about not getting the punishment coming to us, then grace is about getting good things we don’t deserve. Paul says, “By grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:5). So if mercy rescued us from peril, it is ultimately God’s grace—His extending goodness to us—that initiated His divine plan to “raise us up with Him, and seat us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). God not only freed us from the enemy’s grip and spared us hell’s punishment, but He also lavished blessings on us as His adopted children. To be sons and daughters of the king, to be invited to eat at His table—this is grace.
Grace is also the breath God gives us each day. It’s the little unexpected blessings, even in the midst of suffering and pain. To experience God’s grace is to bask in the warm glow of His fatherly affection, to know Him and to be known by Him. We are not entitled to this, we who possess prodigal hearts. And yet grace awaits in abundant supply for those who avail themselves of it through the Spirit.
Why We Need Both
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus tells us of a father who exhibits this divine duet. Not making the profligate son pay back his wasted inheritance and assume the position of a slave was mercy. But the warm embrace, the welcome party with the fatted calf, the restoration of sonship—this was grace.
Mercy rescues us, and grace restores us as sons and daughters. Mercy is Jesus defeating sin, death, and the grave. Grace is Him renewing and restoring sinful hearts. And both work in tandem, for without mercy, there is no opportunity for grace. If we are not His children, God cannot shower fatherly blessings on us for eternity. Yet the mercy of saving us is, in many ways, its own act of grace, as God pursued us in our indifference and initiated our salvation.
And pondering God’s acts of mercy and grace toward us should make us conduits of these blessings. We can offer mercy, forgiving the deep hurts and the annoying slights of our brothers and sisters, because we ourselves have drawn so deeply on that rich reservoir of God’s mercy. And we can also extend love, help, fellowship, friendship, time, and resources as gifts toward others. To demonstrate grace is to give, to extend, and to pour out. Rescued, we rescue. Shown mercy, we show mercy. Recipients of grace, we offer it to others.
We’ll never fully understand these twin traits of the Almighty. But returning to them often is essential for the shaping of our souls. Unless we see ourselves as objects of God’s divine mercy and recipients of His sweet grace, we’ll stumble again and again into either despair or insecurity. If, however, we let our lives be formed by these giant truths, we’ll live as distinct people of God—even in a world crushed by the weight of the fall.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft