The Meaning of Mercy

We now see a progression of thought in the Beatitudes. We began with the man who was poor in spirit, who was in mourning over his own sin. The Bible teaches that when a man is humbled, then God will lift him up. We see that here. God has shown mercy, and the recipients are enabled to extend mercy. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7).

What is the future of the merciless? The importance of this question can be seen in a terrifying curse from the Psalms. “Set a wicked man over him, and let an accuser stand at his right hand . . . let his prayer become sin . . . let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children continually be vagabonds, and beg . . .” (Ps. 109:6-10). Why should these horrible things happen? “Because he did not remember to show mercy . . .” (v. 16). Refusal to show mercy is a terrible sin.

But do we earn mercy? The carnal heart naturally desires to turn the teaching of Scripture on its head. It wants to read this Beatitude as saying that we earn mercy through showing mercy. The problems with thinking this way are legion. First, it contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture elsewhere. Salvation is by God’s grace alone (Eph. 2:8-10). Secondly, it ignores the context of the Sermon on the Mount. Remember the progression of thought here. The merciful are those who are poor in spirit, who have mourned, who are meek, etc. They do not arrive at this point in Christ’s talk with an attitude about earning anything. And lastly, there is the pragmatic consideration. If we earn mercy through showing mercy, then Heaven will be empty.

There is a direct relationship between our showing mercy, and our receiving it, but it is not a causal relationship. Christ is saying that no one receives mercy without true repentance, which of course necessitates extending mercy. So as we consider the nature the mercies we show, we must never forget our justification, and that the ground of it has nothing to do with any virtue found in us.

With this remembered, how are we to show mercy? We must extend mercy in four basic ways.

First, we must be merciful with regard to the souls of others. Consider the state of the lost. They walk along the brink of eternal condemnation, and if death jostles them, they tumble in. The mercy that God shows to our souls is the chief mercy. Should we not speak, and act, and pray, as though we believed this? We must be full of gentleness, but this does not mean silence (Lev. 19:17) Remember that in the preaching of the gospel, God is showing mercy. We must pray for laborers in the harvest (John 4:35). Those who preach must remember this as well — otherwise they are merciless preachers withholding the word of life from the lost.

Second, we must be merciful with regard to the reputations of others. Consider Lev. 19:16. We are required to be “very tender of names.” We must not raise a false report (Ex. 23:1). We must not slander (Ps. 64:3; 35:11). If it is wrong to steal someone’s reputation, it is also wrong to receive stolen goods (Ps. 15:3). We must not speak evil of one another (James 4:11).

Third, we must be merciful with regard to the physical condition of others. Consider James 2:15. “I’ll pray for you” is easy to say, but as the philosopher said, “Talk is cheap.” The Scripture abounds with instruction in this regard. True religion involves mercy to the widow, and to the orphan (James 1:27). Jesus rejected those who mercilessly devoured widow’s houses. In this regard, look at Lev. 25:35 & 1 Tim. 6:17-18.

And last, we must be merciful with regard to the offences of others.

Consider the mercy we have received. It is therefore our glory to overlook offenses against us (Prov. 19:11). Let it go. The English Reformer, Thomas Cranmer, became proverbial for his mercy. It was said, “Do Cranmer an injury and he will be your friend as long as he lives.”

We therefore must receive the exhortation to be merciful. As the elect of God, we are exhorted in Scripture to “put on tender mercies” (Col. 3:12). In doing so, we reflect is some small, pale way, what God is like. God delights in mercy (Micah 7:18), and His tender mercies are over all His works (Ps. 145:9). We are Christians — we must desire to reflect the glory of His mercy.

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