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

November 22, 2011

by Peter Amsterdam

Patience, Mercy, and Grace (Part 2)

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

God’s mercy can be understood as God’s love and goodness toward those in misery and distress, those in need—even if they don’t deserve it. Because human beings are sinful and will bear the consequences of sin, we are in a pitiful state and in need of God’s help. God pities those in need. He is compassionate and shows us mercy.

Defining God’s Mercy

Theologian James Leo Garrett wrote:

The biblical terms for divine mercy or compassion convey the warmth and emotion of God’s very nature in the forgiving, healing, and restoration of sinful human beings.[1]

Louis Berkhof expressed God’s mercy as the goodness or love of God shown to those who are in misery or distress irrespective of their deserts [what they deserve].[2]

The word most commonly used in the Old Testament for mercy was checed, which is translated throughout the Old Testament as mercy, kindness, lovingkindness. Some modern English translations use steadfast love and abounding in love. Another Old Testament word which conveys mercy and compassion is racham, which means to have mercy, to be compassionate, to have tender affection or tender mercies, to pity. It was used to show divine compassion and mercy.

In the New Testament the Greek word most commonly used for mercy, eleos, is defined as: kindness or good will toward the miserable and the afflicted, joined with a desire to help them; of God toward men: in general providence; the mercy and clemency of God in providing and offering to men salvation by Christ.[3] This word expresses God’s divine mercy—His mercy in bringing salvation to humanity, as well as pity and compassion—being moved with compassion toward, or having compassion on, someone.

Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, mercy, compassion, and pity are often spoken about in situations where people are in distress, misery, or need.

David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercy is great.”[4]

He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.[5]

Moved with pity, He stretched out His hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.”[6]

As He drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then He came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.[7]

When He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.[8]

Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes; and immediately they regained their sight and followed Him.[9]

Aspects of God’s Mercy

God’s mercy is abundant and endures forever:

You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You.[10]

Your mercy reaches unto the heavens, and Your truth unto the clouds.[11]

Oh, give thanks to the lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.[12]

They sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord: “For He is good, for His mercy endures forever toward Israel.”[13]

God’s mercy is shown to them who love Him:

Know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments.[14]

His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.[15]

His mercy is also extended to those who don’t love Him:

The Lord is good to all, and His mercy is over all that He has made.[16]

Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.[17]

The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against Him.[18]

God’s Mercy in the Incarnation

The greatest example of God’s mercy toward humanity is the Incarnation. Jesus coming in human flesh to die for our sins, to take our rightful punishment upon Himself, is the fullest manifestation of God’s love and mercy. In His divine love and mercy, He chose to make this sacrifice in order to reconcile us with Himself.

In his lectures on the attributes of God, J. I. Packer said:

Divine wisdom appeared in the way of salvation through the cross resolving a problem which man would have found insoluble. How can a person who in himself is sinful and ungodly be right with God? The answer of course is through substitutionary atonement. But man would have never dreamed that such a thing was possible. God has devised it, God has revealed it, God has done it, God is to be praised for it. Christ is the wisdom of God, wisdom which appeared supremely in that way of salvation.[19]

God, in His love and mercy, has made a way that we, who are sinners, can be redeemed. His holiness and righteousness, along with His grace and mercy—all part of God’s nature and character, part of His very being—work together in His divine love to do what is impossible for man to do: to atone for our sins, to take away the separation from God which sin brings, so that we can live eternally with Him.

You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.[20]

Philosopher and theologian Rufus M. Jones offered the following insightful explanation as to the aspects of sin and Christ’s atonement for sin:

The two fundamental aspects of sin, then, are (1) its inward moral effect upon the soul, its enslaving power over the sinner, and (2) its tendency to open a chasm between God and man, to make God appear full of wrath. How does Christ meet this human situation? What is the heart of the Gospel? First of all … He reveals God as a Father whose very inherent nature is love and tenderness and forgiveness. In place of a sovereign demanding justice, He shows an infinite Lover. John was only uttering what Jesus Christ taught by every act of His life and what He exhibited supremely on His cross when he said, “God is Love.” To surrender this truth, and to start with the assumption of a God who must be appeased, or reconciled or changed in attitude, is to surrender the heart of the Gospel … He who came to show us the Father has unmistakably showed Him full of love, not only for the saint, for the actual son; but also for the sinner, the potential son. Either God is Love, or we must conclude that Christ has not revealed Him as He is.[21]

God, who is holy, righteous, and just—and patient, merciful, and gracious—does not want to see anyone perish in sin, to pay the wages of sin, which is death.

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.[22]

Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? … For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.[23]

Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?[24]

The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.[25]

In closing, following are quotes from theologian Karl Barth that beautifully express how God’s love, mercy, and grace emanate from His nature and being.

The mercy of God lies in His readiness to share in sympathy the distress of another, a readiness which springs from His inmost nature and stamps all His being and doing.[26]

God’s love and grace are not just mathematical or mechanical relations, but have their true seat and origin in the movement of the heart of God.[27]

There is no higher divine being than that of the gracious God, there is no higher divine holiness than that which He shows in being merciful and forgiving sins. For in this action He interposes no less and no other than Himself for us. With His good will He takes up our cause and responsibility for us in spite of our bad will. In this action He is manifested in the whole majesty of His being. As we sin against God Himself, God Himself takes action to reconcile us by being gracious to us. If we find and recognize and receive His grace, we find and recognize and receive no less and no other than Himself. Thus there takes place by grace the only thing that is effective against sin.[28]

Not wanting any to perish, God provided the means of salvation through Jesus, so that through faith in Him we are delivered from death, from punishment for our sin, from separation from God. This is the precious gift of our patient, gracious, and merciful God.


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).


Barth, Karl. The Doctrine of the Word of God, Vol.1, Part 2. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010.

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] Garrett, Jr., James Leo. Systematic Theology, Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, Vol. 1. N. Richland Hills: BIBAL Press, 2000. p. 285.

[2] Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996, p. 73.

[3] Lexicon/Concordance,

[4] 2 Samuel 24:14.

[5] Psalm 72:13.

[6] Mark 1:41.

[7] Luke 7:12–15.

[8] Matthew 9:36.

[9] Matthew 20:34 NAU.

[10] Psalm 86:5 NKJ.

[11] Psalm 57:10 NKJ.

[12] 1 Chronicles 16:34 NKJ.

[13] Ezra 3:11 NKJ.

[14] Deuteronomy 7:9 NKJ.

[15] Luke 1:50.

[16] Psalm 145:9.

[17] Luke 6:35–36.

[18] Daniel 9:9 NIV.

[19] Packer, J. I. The Attributes of God, Part 2, Lecture 12, God’s Praiseworthiness.

[20] Ephesians 2:1–8.

[21] Jones, Rufus M., The Double Search—Studies in Atonement and Prayer, Philadelphia, The John C. Winston Company, 1906, p. 73.

[22] 2 Peter 3:9.

[23] Ezekiel 18:23, 32.

[24] Ezekiel 33:11.

[25] Romans 6:23.

[26] Barth, Karl. The Doctrine of the Word of God, Vol.1, Part 2. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010, p. 369.

[27] Barth, Karl. The Doctrine of the Word of God, Vol.1, Part 2. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010, p. 370.

[28] Barth, Karl. The Doctrine of the Word of God, Vol.1, Part 2. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010, p. 350.