The Bible is full of references to grace and mercy, and yet many Christians can attend church for years without being able to give a clear and simple explanation of the difference.
To put it simply, the difference is this: Mercy is “not receiving something you deserve” while Grace is “receiving something you don’t deserve.” We see mercy in action when we get pulled over for driving too fast but receive a verbal warning instead of a hefty fine. Similarly, grace is at work and on display when a victim’s family forgives the man who murdered their son or daughter.
Mercy is an expression of grace, but they are not the same thing. Here are a few examples from Scripture and what they have to do with the gospel.
Examples of Mercy in the Bible
Joseph and his brothers: When Joseph met his brothers (you know, the ones who sold him into slavery and told their father he was killed by a wild animal), he showed great mercy. After testing what kind of men they grew into, he eventually revealed to them that he is their brother Joseph. At first they were terrified by this revelation, because they assumed his wrath would pour down. Instead, he replied, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
The woman caught in adultery: In order to press Jesus into a corner where he would need to choose between keeping God’s Law or showing mercy, the Pharisees arrested a woman who had been caught in adultery and brought her before Jesus. Rather than making a decision to free her, Jesus asked the crowd, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” After everyone in the crowd walked away, Jesus turned to her and said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
Examples of Grace in the Bible
Noah’s rescue from the flood: “The Lord 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.” This is what led to God’s decision to pour out his wrath and judgment on the earth through the great flood. And yet, “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” While the Bible describes him as a righteous man, it also makes clear that Noah’s salvation from judgment is because of the gracious favor of God.
Mary: While Catholics esteem Mary too highly, Protestants are guilty of overlooking the grace that was given to Mary. God chose Mary to give birth to the Son of God. The angel Gabriel announced to her, “you have found favor with God.” She was not chosen because she was sinless or because she was worthy; instead, she received the grace of God as a gift.
Grace, Mercy, and the Gospel
The Christian receives the mercy and grace of God. Ephesians 2:1-10 is probably the clearest single passage about this. Paul emphasizes that nonChristians are not merely spiritually lost, they are “dead in sins and transgressions… by nature, children of wrath” (Eph 2:1-3). In the midst of this terrible news, God steps in. “But God” in v.4 may be some of the most important words anyone can hear… “But God, who is rich in mercy made us alive again 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, not a result of works so that no one can boast.”
Everything the Christian has is a gift of grace. Our hope and security is not a paycheck for a job well done. Instead, it flows as a gift from God’s heart of love for his children. He does not take our worldly accomplishments into consideration about who receives mercy and grace. We are all dead in our sin apart from God’s gift of grace.
By mercy, we are forgiven and God’s wrath no longer rests upon us. By grace, we have been adopted as sons and daughters of God and we call him “Father.”