Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Difference Between Grace and Mercy

Question: What is the difference between grace and mercy?

When I was growing up in church, I used to hear the saying, "Mercy is when you don't get what you deserve, and grace is when you get what you don't deserve." The idea was that mercy is withholding deserved punishment, and grace is an undeserved gift. In recent years, I have heard people say that when you first fail, you need grace, but if you continue to fail, then you need mercy.

Both ideas roughly represent what modern people mean when they say mercy or grace in English. But the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and so those definitions are not adequate when we read the Bible, although they aren't completely wrong, either.

So before we get simple, we'll have to get a little complicated. Words in all languages change their meaning depending on their context. For example, in English, the word head can refer to a leader, a bathroom on a ship, the froth on beer, a high peninsula, or many other things depending on the context. Grace and mercy in the biblical languages are no different - they have different meanings depending on the context.

Grace in the Old Testament: Grace is the translation of the Hebrew cheyn, meaning favor. Two good examples are "But Noah found grace / favor in the eyes of the Lord" (Gen 6:8) and "God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace / favor to the humble" (Prov 3:34). In these sorts of passages, cheyn refers to God (or people) being favorably disposed to do good things for someone.

Grace in the New Testament: Grace is the translation of the Greek charis. The basic sense of charis is a gift, or the generosity that inspires that gift. So when Paul says, "For by grace you are saved through faith..." (Eph 2:8), we can say that it is by God's sheer generosity that we receive the gift of salvation (for more on charis, see this post).

Mercy in the OT and in the Gospels: Mercy translates the Hebrew chesed (in the OT) and the Greek eleos and oiktirmos (in the NT). Mercy, like compassion, is when we see someone in need and respond with both pity and action. The blind man of Jericho cried out to Jesus for mercy, because he was in great need (Luke 18:38-39). The Samaritan is described as merciful because he helped the injured traveller (Luke 10:37). Giving to the poor is an act of mercy (eleemosune, Matt 6:2-4). When Jesus blessed the merciful (Matt 5:7), he was talking about people who respond with pity and action to those in need.

Mercy in Paul's letters: Paul usually uses mercy in the same way as the Gospels and the OT. But sometimes, Paul uses the word mercy to describe God's forgiveness of our sins (Rom 11:30-32, 1 Tim 1:13). This is closely related to the meaning of mercy in the rest of the Bible. If we see the hungry, showing mercy means feeding them; when God sees sinners, showing mercy means providing forgiveness.

So, what's the simple answer to the question? Grace and mercy are not totally different; both attributes are at work when God saves us. It is mercy because God sees our desperate need and acts out of pity. It is grace because God gives salvation generously. But we need to be careful not to see mercy and grace as only gifts from God. God expects us to give mercy by helping those in need, and to be gracious by being generous with all that we have.

The picture: Noah's Ark, by Peter Spier. One of my sons loved this book. The first page begins "But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord," and the last page shows Noah planting a vineyard. One day he asked me if God liked grapes. I said I was sure he did, but why did he ask? He answered, "Because Noah found grapes in the eyes of the Lord."


  1. Your Original Post Claimed That:
    Grace and mercy are not totally different; both attributes are at work when God saves us. It is mercy because God sees our desperate need and acts out of pity. It is grace because God gives salvation generously. But we need to be careful not to see mercy and grace as only gifts from God. God expects us to give mercy by helping those in need, and to be gracious by being generous with all that we have.

    I believe that your understanding of grace and mercy, as expressed in this paragraph, deeply misinterprets the Biblical texts. Briefly, I would argue the following definitions or more in line with the Biblical texts.

    Mercy: Mercy is a form of [in]justice. Mercy is granted on the basis of deserts and is definitely not an act of compassion, charity, or chesed (lovingkindness). When Bob, who has never been arrested for anything, is convicted of shoplifting his [lack of a criminal] record can legitimately be advanced as a reason for mercy, i.e., for punishing him less that what the crime might otherwise merit. By contrast, when Steve, who has a long history of petty crime, is convicted of the same offense his record suggests that mercy is not merited.

    Merit dictates mercy, not grace. Not charity. Not compassion.

    Grace: Grace is defined in my theology texts as God's benevolent attitude toward sinners. Grace, unlike mercy, is freely given. All sinners are eligible for God's grace because His grace is an attitude. Because of its nature, God's grace is undetectable until expressed. Specifically, God's grace is expressed as forgiveness quite apart from whether we deserve to be forgiven.

    The difference, then, is that mercy depends on merit and is a matter of justice. Grace (and forgiveness) is not part of justice thinking. Thus, grace is more analogous to the Hebrew word 'chesed' (lovingkindness). The analogy goes something like this:

    Where grace is expressed as unmerited forgiveness, charity is expressed as unmerited chesed.

    Thanks for the post. I hope you take my opinions in the good spirit in which they are offered.

    Peace be unto you,


  2. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for posting. I'll respond first by talking about the method for finding word meanings, then later I'll post again on these particular words.

    How do we figure out the meanings of words in the Bible? You do it by looking at how the word is used in every place in the Bible, then categorize them into various apparent definitions or usages. You don't start with an ideal definition, or the English definition, then try to make the word follow that meaning. For example, see my posts on agape - it's nice to claim that agape is pure, unconditional love, but that does not actually match the usage of agape in the NT. (click on agape in the index on the right)

    For these words, I looked at every occurrence of cheyn and chesed in the OT (focusing on the passages where chesed is translated "mercy"), and every occurrence of eleos, oiktirmos, and charis (including cognates) in the LXX and NT.

    OK, more later.

  3. More on mercy: Michael, your example/definition of mercy works well in English, and in a few places in the Bible. But if you look at all the places where "mercy" occurs (eleos, oiktirmos and cognates in Greek), you find that it is hard to find places where the idea of response to merit is implied. You sort of have to force it to fit.

    If you do a search through several English translations, you will find that translators alternate between translating eleos as mercy and compassion. This is because the use of the word is much closer to compassion, which was my point. They also use it often related to providing for needs, even when there is no clear idea of merit. See, for example, Matt 9:27, 15:22, 17:15, 20:31, Mk 5:19, Lk 1:78, 10:37, 16:24, 18:13. Also in Paul, God's forgiveness towards sinners is described as mercy - hard to believe that Paul thought they deserved it!

    You suggested that chesed is closer to grace. This is true in some of its uses. However, chesed has to be translated in a variety of ways depending on context. Turns out that the LXX translators never translated chesed with charis (grace). They translated it with a variety of words, including eleos.

    Grace: if you read carefully, you can see that you are in agreement with me. Benevolence is very similar to generosity. I have suggested the translation "generosity" because it is a word that is more familiar to most people than "benevolence" and less ambiguous than "grace."

    To close with what is central: God acts towards us with a variety of virtues, among which are mercy/compassion, generosity and covenant faithfulness. While these words have some differences, they also overlap. He wants us to have the same virtues. In linguistic theory as well as in practice, those virtues work together.

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  5. (Response to a comment that was later deleted by its author).

    You make a good point: in our liturgy and our theology, we often have technical terms with careful definitions. Such terms are very useful for their purposes, especially for education and clear communication. My concern is that we don't import those meanings uncritically back into texts in the Bible and assume that the authors used those words as we do.

    For example, many churches have a carefully defined role for elders or deacons. The NT also describes elders and deacons - but we should not assume that those elders and deacons had the same function that they do in our modern churches. Christians have a precise meaning for "sanctification," but the NT uses the term in several different ways.


  6. Thank you for the post. This week I learned about grace and mercy. I first heard about it christian radio and it sparked an interest in me. However, I still struggle with understanding them. Then today in church the Pastor spoke about the differences between grace and mercy. As if God wants me to understand the two. Your posts has helped and I wanted you to know. I'm having this deep need to learn about God and Jesus. I don't know what I'm saying but thank you.

  7. i have been working lately
    on grace and mercy
    and found especially helpful
    the concept of neediness
    with mercy and
    was it mentioned a confession
    of one's neediness to receiver mercy
    and more grace...

    a rambling write right now
    coz of several things
    one is
    my first post here and a test to see
    if it will post...



    ahhh maybe this can be kind of the lynch pin
    so to speak
    about graciousness and mercifulness

    with mercy there is always a state of neediness
    but our deepest neediness cannot be relieved by

    till we our honest and humble about our

    neediness as sinners

    god's grace is always active
    as too should a soul's graciousness
    as should being merciful
    but one cannot give the fullest level of mercy
    when the recipient does not confess its

    with proper humility and meekness....
    what gets in the way
    i think as some of my earlier emails spoke of
    is the intellect when it blocks feelings and

    often the intellect might think of itself as

    open to feelings and
    but often the intellect is tainted by pride

    ..pride hidden to self or open flaunted perhaps but not the true boldness one finds in true humility before god...
    and thus not functioning properly
    the intellect is key tho
    but should function in its proper role

    so as my earlier emails suggested
    grace is not fully allowed all its powers with a

    until it confesses its neediness humbly and

    then tho the soul can be free and bold.....

    Heb 4:16 Let us thereforeG3767 comeG4334 boldlyG3326 G3954 unto theG3588 throneG2362 of grace,G5485 thatG2443 we may obtainG2983 mercy,G1656 andG2532 findG2147 graceG5485 to help in time of need.G1519 G2121 G996


    Heb 4:16 Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.

    (Murdock) Let us, therefore, approach with assurance to the throne of his grace, that we may obtain mercy, and may find grace for assistance in the time of affliction.


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