If you spend any amount of time around a church, I hope you regularly hear the words grace and mercy. These are two words I often use interchangeably and I sometimes mix up which one means what exactly. Singer Wayne Watson has cleared it up for me in his song simply titled “Grace” from his CD Living Room:
Grace keeps giving me things I don’t deserve.
Mercy keeps withholding things I do.
Grace is free and unmerited favor. It is a gift. I cannot earn it. I do not deserve it.
Some people say they want what they deserve. I know my heart too well to demand that. What I deserve is God’s wrath. The holy God doesn’t have the time of day for the slightest trace of sin, yet I have soiled myself in it. Nothing imperfect or unholy can exist in God’s presence, but through Jesus, God welcomes me into his presence, into his family as his child. God’s mercy withholds what I should have coming to me.
Back in the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther discovered this truth afresh. He grew up believing that he had to earn God’s mercy and grace through acts of love for God and neighbor. As one of my seminary professors, Lyle Bierma, explains it, Luther perceived divine favor “not so much a gift as a reward” for good behavior.
I feel you and I need this history lesson. We might be able to define grace and mercy, but I don’t think we consistently live as though we truly understand them. Our is a “performance-oriented society, dominated by a can-do spirit,” observes Prof. Bierma, and I agree. “We work for good grades in school, earn victories on the football field, compete for awards, receive merit pay at work, and get demerits if we misbehave. In the middle of all this striving and achievement, it is not easy to admit that when it comes to meeting the deepest need of our existence, our restlessness for God, we can do absolutely nothing ourselves. We are totally reliant on outside help.”
Enter mercy and grace: I deserve for God to ignore me, to even punish me because of my sin. Instead, in Christ, I am forgiven and restored. I rest assured in him for today and eternity.
Discovering this does not leave me unchanged. Impacted by God’s mercy and grace, I want my life to overflow with that same mercy and grace. With God’s Spirit encouraging and equipping me, I want my life to be filled with acts of love for God and neighbor – the same thing for which Luther strived. But instead of doing these things to get God’s attention and favor, I do these things in profound gratitude for his mercy and grace. I want to be thankful for his gift.
If you see any gifts from God in your life – a loved one, a job, a skill, even grace itself! – let’s team up and find ways to show him and others how thankful we are for them.
I wrote this article for last week’s Rock Valley Bee
to commemorate Reformation Day today.