“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, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation”(Ex 34:6–7).
The beauty of mercy which we speak of is not just any mercy. It is not the mercy of a human judge towards a convicted criminal nor is it the mercy of a human victim towards a human offender. No, the beauty of mercy which we speak of is divine mercy. It is a divine mercy. The mercy of a holy God. The mercy of the Creator towards His lawless creatures. It is the mercy of the sovereign divine Judge towards human sinners. It is the mercy of a loving God towards His hateful subjects. You see, the thrice holy God is not just merciful, He mercies or is mercying sinners (Ro. 9:14-16). That is an attribute of God. He is a mercying God. When He proclaims Himself to Moses the first noun He uses to describe Himself is “merciful.” There is great comfort in that because we would be without hope if God were not a mercying God. We would all perish.
And that is the key to understanding the mercy of God. He goes on to explain what He means by “merciful,” “gracious,” “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” “keeping steadfast love,” when He says “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin and who by no means clears the guilty.” If God were not a mercying God we would all be guilty still in out transgressions and sins. We would still have His curse on our heads and He would one day have to visit our iniquity in His righteous judgment. We get a glimpse of this righteous wrath in Rev. 6:15-17: “Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” And in Mt. 25:41: ““Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Leave the latter part out (“but who will by no means clear the guilty,”) and the description(s) of God’s judgement and mercy ceases to be mercy. In fact you cannot explain the mercy of God without speaking of His judgment. Is this all that mercy entails? No, but it is chief and at the center.
The beauty of mercy is that God satisfies and maintains His holy righteousness while extending His mercy at same time in the cross of Christ. This cross is as Luther said “where justice and mercy meet.” The guilt and curse that was ours was placed upon the head of Christ. He is satisfies the justice of God ( remember God will by no means clear the guilty) and is at the same a public demonstration of God’s beautiful mercying. The biblical explanation of this is found in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The beauty of mercy is that because of the cross of Christ there is not one drop of God’s wrath left for the repentant believer in Christ. But this is the Jesus nobody likes. Everyone wants to talk about the example of Christ but many do not want to talk the accomplishment of the Lord Jesus. He and He alone is the only reason why God will not “visit the iniquity” upon the believing sinner. Let me phrase it this way- God visited the iniquity of the believer upon Christ at the cross. Oh, the beauty of mercy!
The beauty of mercy is that when a sinner is the recipient and experiences the mercying of God in Christ, they in turn are merciful towards others. It is why a family of Christians can take in their home, a convicted criminal of whom his parole officer said would be foolish thing to do, and love him as their very own son and brother .It is why persecuted Christians that have lost their loved ones to those hostile to Christianity do not seek vengeance and continue to share the Gospel with their persecutors. It is why Christians are commanded to love their enemies. It is we who have experienced the greatest mercy of all- the mercy of the Triune God in Christ Jesus. The cross of Christ is the reason why the Lord says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Mt 5:7). The beauty of mercy is that when a person can cry out to God, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” as you hang your head and beat your chest ( Lk. 18:13) then you can be merciful like the Good Samaritan. In other words, once you have cried out to God for mercy, in repentance and faith, then you will receive His mercy and in turn be merciful yourself. Yes, that is the beauty of mercy!
When the mercy of God meets his wrath, it is not by a fickle dismissing of the severity of sin or an arbitrary decision to overlook evil. On the contrary, the holiness of God must be satisfied in a just way. That way was to be through the cross, but the sacrifices of the Old Testament were intended as a preparation, so that though the ceremonies and symbols god explained beforehand the meaning of the cross.*
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Lk 18:9–14).
Soli Deo Gloria!
For His Glory,
* Shaw, Ian and Edwards, Brian. The Divine Substitute ( Leominster: DayOne, 2006), p.23