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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Love, Grace, and Mercy

If there was a list of words in the Christian vocabulary that people liked best, I think these three would be right up there at the top. I mean, who doesn't like love? Who doesn't appreciate grace? (Even secular people know "Amazing Grace".) And who doesn't love mercy? These are great aspects to the Gospel. The problem I see is that, in our modern world of ever-shifting English, I'm afraid we're all using and enjoying these terms ... without likely understanding what they mean. I think we think we do, but I think the terminology has been moving under our feet.

Love is a big one. Say the word and people think all sorts of things: hugs, warm feelings, affection, even sex. Of course, the Bible doesn't seem to include those. In Paul's lengthy description in 1 Corinthians 13 you don't find a single mention of affection, warm feelings and definitely not sex. In biblical terms, in fact, it is not a feeling; it is a command. You cannot command feelings. The thing that we think of as "love" is the natural feelings that likely result from the biblical version, but in the Bible love is certainly not a feeling. Instead, it is a selflessness, a focus on the best interests of the loved one.

We all know grace. That's favor. Well, favor with a twist. Paul says that grace is not grace if it's earned (Rom 11:6). Biblical grace, then, is favor shown apart from merit. Unmerited favor. Grace is doing good to those without regard for whether they deserve it or not.

Mercy is sort of the flip side of grace. If grace is when favor is given that we don't deserve, mercy is when disfavor is not given that we do deserve. Mercy, in a sense, is opposed to justice in that it defers the just consequences of sin.

So, as we know, we are commanded to love one another. We are to love fellow believers (John 13:35). We are to love our neighbors (Matt 22:39). We're even supposed to love our enemies (Matt 5:43-44). Wait ... wait ... remember, we're not talking about "have affection for" fellow believers, our neighbors, or our enemies. This is the patient and kind love, the love that is not envious, not boastful, not arrogant, not rude. It is the kind of love that doesn't insist on its own way, is not easily irritated or resentful. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It never ends (1 Cor 13:4-8). That kind of love. Oh, and by the way, I skipped right over the statement that the love we're supposed to have for others "does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth." (1 Cor 13:6) Oh, now, see? So if I love my fellow believers, my neighbors, and even my enemies, I will not ignore or overlook or even rejoice in their wrongdoing. That's not love.

The New Testament is rich in "grace", but it was from the beginning. Adam didn't earn God's favor; it was grace. "Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD." (Gen 6:8) The promise in Zechariah was "I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace ..." (Zech 12:10). Jesus came onto the scene "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14) and "from His fullness we have all received grace upon grace" (John 1:16). We "are justified by His grace as a gift" (Rom 3:24), saved by grace through faith apart from works (Eph 2:8-9). We are "not under law but under grace" (Rom 6:14). The suggestion, then, is that we are not supposed to pay any attention (or, at least, very much attention) to sin. "It's all about grace. Don't worry about it!" Again, just as in the case of love, this is problematic. If love is seeking the best for another, then ignoring the peril another is in is not love. Now we have "grace". If we're talking about showing favor, it is not grace to ignore the peril another is in. Unmerited favor would mean that despite the fact that the person in question has earned God's just wrath (and perhaps even your own), you will be favorable to them by giving them the Gospel that all are sinners and they need Jesus. You will be favorable to fellow (sinful) believers who are straying and need to be restored. Ignoring the perils of sin in another's life is not "grace".

Then there's mercy. Truth be told, the primary question of justice is not ultimately something we can do anything about. As David told God, "Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You may be justified in Your words and blameless in Your judgment." (Psa 51:4) Justice for the sin of others is not meted out by you and me. We can be merciful to others by not being easily irritated, by not storing up offenses, by not expressing "righteous indignation" (which, I would suggest, is rarely righteous and usually beyond "indignation"). But we don't get to hand out justice. However, we do have the answer, the way to mercy from God. That is not by means of ignoring sin, but by addressing it, calling as Christ did for repentance, and presenting faith in Christ as forgiveness and a right relationship with God.

You see, while love, grace, and mercy are indeed all wonderful words in the Christian vocabulary, too many today are using them falsely to demand of God's people that they ignore sin, forget about God's instructions, and "just get along". Love, grace, and mercy are magnificent aspects to the Christian lifestyle and message. "Ignore sin" is directly opposed to love, grace, and mercy. Don't buy that false dichotomy.


Marshall Art said...

With regards to "love", not too many consider the the typical, standard issue marriage vow asks if each of the happy couple promise to love, serve, honor, etc., as if perhaps love isn't considered automatic. That, as you say, it is actually something one is supposed to make the effort to do. As most regard the term, it seems silly to ask the question. What would be the point but for the fact that it is indeed a conscious thing, not the infatuation and "lustfulness" that is usually what people mean when they use the word "love".

Bob said...

yea it seems the longer you are married the more you have to love.