Mercy – definition

Mercy definition
Correctly understanding these terms leads to a better
understanding of the character of God and the Gospel.

Mercy is understood to include forgiveness of sins and more.

Traditional Legal Model – Removing or lessening the penalty for sin that “justice” demands in response to the sinner meeting the condition of repentance or pleading sufficiently for mercy.

Biblical Healing Model – Granting mercy is doing what is best for the sinner, without condition, and is the just or right thing to do. Mercy for sinners is always available but, like forgiveness, it must be received.

mercy, noun
“compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence:” (

Webster’s 1828 Dictionary

mercy, noun
“1. That benevolence, mildness or tenderness of heart which disposes a person to overlook injuries, or to treat an offender better than he deserves; the disposition that tempers justice, and induces an injured person to forgive trespasses and injuries, and to forbear punishment, or inflict less than law or justice will warrant.”

Webster defines “temper” as “To mix so that one part qualifies the other; to bring to a moderate state; as, to temper justice with mercy.”

That is implying some mixture of justice and mercy as in some degree of mercy and not quite all the punishment that justice demanded. It puts mercy and justice in opposition to each other – the added mercy lessens the full measure of justice. But isn’t God ever-merciful?

God is Merciful

Scripture indicates that God is merciful and will not stop being merciful:

“O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever.” (1 Chron 16:34)

“Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yea, our God is merciful.” (Psa 116:5)

God is described as merciful. He is not merciful one day and unmerciful the next. When God revealed His glory or character at Moses request this is what He said:

“And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,” (Exo 34:6)

He revealed aspects of His character and the first He mentioned was that He was merciful.

“The Hebrew word translated mercy comes from the root word used for the womb. This conveys the idea of God being like a mother whose gut feeling is that of tender love, compassion and protectiveness toward her children. This would involve many emotions including a sense of intimate nurturing along with powerful and deep affections. When we say God is merciful in essence we are saying God is ‘wombish’.” (From the Dictionary of Religious Word and Terms by Floyd Phillips)

In order to understand that God is always 100% merciful, there are two questions that need to be answered:

  1. Does mercy temper justice?
  2. Is mercy always available?

Does Mercy Temper or Lessen Justice?

Here is one statement arguing that God cannot be completely merciful and just at the same time

“God cannot be both wholly merciful and just. If God is entirely merciful, He must let us evade the consequences of our sin, and He will not be just since sin goes unpunished. On the other hand, if God is fully just, He must punish our sin fully without holding back and that would mean that He is unmerciful! How is this possible?” (

Here is a similar statement

Mercy is forgiving the sinner and withholding the punishment that is justly deserved.” (

These ideas come from a misunderstanding of the meaning of justice and of punishment and of the principles of sowing and reaping:

“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (Gal 6:7)

In the Biblical Healing Model, justice is doing the right thing which is to restore to a right state, to heal and to save. It is right to treat others as we would wish to be treated, to not hold grudges and to not keep account of sins. It is right for God to forgive sins and God’s forgiveness is always freely available without condition.

God is described in scripture as being just:

“He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he.” (Deut 32:4)

Is Mercy Always Available?

Just as forgiveness is a two-part transaction being both given and received, so is mercy when it comes to forgiveness. Here mercy and forgiveness are equated:

Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.” (Num 14:19)

This verse shows that if we are open to receiving mercy we can simply go to the throne of mercy in prayer with openness to receive it and it is ours.

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

When speaking of mercy, as in sending physical blessings, it is not necessarily a two-part transaction.

“That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt 5:45)

So mercy is always available; it is automatic for many physical blessings and, while it must be received for forgiveness, it is always freely available.

“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8)

If we are to “love mercy” doesn’t that mean we should do the merciful thing? But we are also to “do justly.” How are both accomplished at the same time? Again, the just thing to do is to give mercy, to act with love, compassion and forgiveness to others just as God does for us.

King David and Mercy

Did God deal with King David and his sins according to justice or mercy? David understood God to be merciful:

“And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let me fall now into the hand of the LORD; for very great are his mercies: but let me not fall into the hand of man.” (1 Chron 21:13)

God did treat David with great mercy (considering the gravity of David’s sins) but we would not say that God was unjust in what He did.

Mercy Denied? 

“One who shows no mercy to others cannot expect God’s mercy.”

“For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.” (James 2:13)

“Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.” (Matt 18:32-34)

Why can one who shows no mercy not expect God’s mercy?

The ungrateful servant in Matthew 18 was granted mercy but the evidence is that he did not receive or accept that mercy as an act of mercy. He could have been thinking:

  • “Hah, I got away with it” or
  • “That fool (thinking of his master), I wouldn’t have done that.”

Actually, receiving mercy would include a feeling of gratitude and acknowledging the wrong done.

“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain [receive] mercy.” (Matt 5:7)

“Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matt 7:1-2)

If a person judges others in an unmerciful manner, they will not be capable of understanding that God does extend mercy.

See a video of a group study on the meaning of mercy.

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