The Heart of It All: The Nature and Character of God

November 15, 2011

by Peter Amsterdam

Patience, Mercy, and Grace (Part 1)

Audio length: 8:40

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(For an introduction and explanation regarding this series overall, please see The Heart of It All: Introduction.)

Besides being holy, righteous, and just, God is also by nature and character patient, merciful, and gracious. In the Old Testament these three attributes are often spoken of together. It was on Mount Sinai, during the time when Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments, that God specifically revealed that He was merciful and gracious, as well as patient or slow to anger. This was significant information and was important to God’s people, as seen in that this passage is often quoted or referred to throughout the Old Testament. (*See below.)

When Moses had to ascend Mount Sinai a second time, having broken the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments after he saw the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, God interacted with him as follows:

The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…”[1]

The Lord states that He is merciful, patient, loving, and faithful; that He forgives sin—meaning He forgives those who are repentant. Those who aren’t repentant, who embrace evil, who remain guilty because of their unrepentance, He doesn’t forgive or clear of their guilt.

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.[2]

They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that You performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.[3]

*Other Old Testament instances where this passage is quoted or referred to are Numbers 14:18, Psalm 86:15, 145:8, Joel 2:13, and Jonah 4:2.[4]

God’s Patience

The Hebrew word for God’s patience is translated into English as longsuffering, slow to anger, patient in spirit, and forbearing. God’s patience can be seen in His not immediately giving the punishment due to those who sin. For example, when God saw that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,”[5] and He was “sorry that He had made man on the earth,”[6] a period of 120 years transpired while Noah built the Ark in their presence, before God brought the flood upon the earth. Noah was called a “preacher of righteousness,” so one can consider that he likely preached the judgment of the coming flood or that, at least, the Ark stood as a witness to what was coming. In either case, fair warning seems to have been given. However, the people carried on in their wickedness, and He in time brought the judgment which was due them.

God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.[7]

[God] did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly.[8]

God who is holy and abhors sin, who is righteous and judges sin, is also patient, and therefore doesn’t pass immediate judgment. His patience shows His love as He gives people time to change, to repent, to come to Him. His love, kindness, and patience help lead us to repentance.

The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.[9]

Do you presume on the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?[10]

God loves the world, He loves humanity, and doesn’t want anyone to perish, and so He patiently waits, giving people the opportunity to change, to repent. His patience doesn’t contradict His righteousness or justice. Because He is longsuffering, He may grant a reprieve for a time, but a reprieve isn’t necessarily a pardon for those who are unrepentant. Due to God’s righteousness, judgment will eventually come.

The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of His feet.[11]

The attributes of God’s righteousness and judgment inherently mean that He must be fair to all and must judge and punish those who sin. His mercy and patience, along with His graciousness and love, mean that He gives time for people to repent, that He doesn’t immediately judge the crime and hand out the punishment. He wants people to repent, and He gives them time to do so. Also, through Jesus’ death, His taking our sins upon Himself, we are granted forgiveness of sin and therefore we will not be punished for our sins, as the unrepentant will. God’s grace and mercy has made it possible for people to be forgiven.

God’s Graciousness

Though the personal and living God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—have perfect fellowship among themselves according to their divine nature, God also enters into fellowship with His creation and shows them His love. We have no right to demand His attention, blessings, etc. In fact, had God not revealed Himself to humankind, we would not even know He exists. But He did reveal Himself, and not only that, He also entered into fellowship with those who believe in Him.

As sinners whose sin separates us from God, as creatures created by our Creator, there is nothing we can do to merit His love, His fellowship, His blessings; yet He has condescended to bestow these things upon us. This unmerited favor is known as His grace. He has chosen to freely give His favor and love to us, though we are unworthy of it, have no claim to it, and can in no way earn it. He gives it even though it’s unwarranted, even when it’s unwanted, and even when it is opposed. He has chosen to bestow His love upon us because He is, in nature and being, gracious. His grace is an undeserved gift from a loving and gracious God.

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful.[12]

The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.[13]

In Your great mercies You did not make an end of them or forsake them, for You are a gracious and merciful God.[14]

The foremost example of God’s grace is salvation in Jesus. No one can earn or merit salvation. Because of sin we are destined for punishment, but through God’s love, through Jesus’ willingness to take on human form and to die for our sins, God has given us the gift of salvation. We are saved by grace. We don’t earn it and aren’t worthy of it; it’s given to us by the gracious God who loves us and gave His Son for the redemption of all.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.[15]

We see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.[16]

Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.[17]

God’s nature and character is gracious, and He bestows grace as a gift to humankind. How wonderfully generous He is!


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Other versions frequently cited are The New International Version (NIV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), The New King James Version (NKJV), and the King James Version (KJV).


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Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Cottrell, Jack. What the Bible Says About God the Creator. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1996.

Craig, William Lane. The Doctrine of God. Defenders Series Lecture.

Garrett, Jr., James Leo. Systematic Theology, Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, Vol. 1. N. Richland Hills: BIBAL Press, 2000.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Milne, Bruce. Know the Truth, A Handbook of Christian Belief. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Mueller, John Theodore. Christian Dogmatics, A Handbook of Doctrinal Theology for Pastors, Teachers, and Laymen. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1934.

Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.

Packer, J. I. The Attributes of God 1 and 2. Lecture Series.

Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology, Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

[1] Exodus 34:5–7.

[2] Psalm 103:8.

[3] Nehemiah 9:17.

[4] The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation (Numbers 14:18).

You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Psalm 86:15).

The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 145:8).

Rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster (Joel 2:13).

[Jonah] prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jonah 4:2).

[5] Genesis 6:5.

[6] Genesis 6:6.

[7] 1 Peter 3:20 NASB.

[8] 2 Peter 2:5 NASB.

[9] 2 Peter 3:9.

[10] Romans 2:4.

[11] Nahum 1:3.

[12] Psalm 116:5.

[13] Psalm 145:8.

[14] Nehemiah 9:31.

[15] Ephesians 2:8.

[16] Hebrews 2:9.

[17] Romans 3:24 KJV.