Bible & Theology

Does God Show Mercy and Forgiveness Because We Are Merciful and Forgiving?

In the Sermon on the Mount, we read, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Mt. 5:7). In the same sermon, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt. 6:12); he then explains, “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt. 6:14-15).

The difficulty in these verses is the relationship between our mercy and forgiveness and God’s mercy and forgiveness. But let’s start by clarifying the actions and attitudes in question.

Our Mercy and Forgiveness

To be merciful is to have compassionate love for one’s fellow man. Benson characterizes the merciful as those who, “inwardly affected with the infirmities, necessities, and miseries of their fellow-creatures, and feeling them as their own, with tender sympathy endeavour, as they have ability, to relieve them.” The love of mercy is one of three things required by God in Micah 6:8. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for neglecting this weightier matter of the law (Mt. 23:23-24) and explained, “I desire mercy” after being maligned for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mt. 9:10-13).

To forgive is to cancel the debts of another and refuse to be resentful. It can be understood as making four promises:

I will not dwell on this incident.
I will not bring this incident up and use it against you.
I will not talk to others about this incident.
I will not allow this incident to stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.”

God’s Mercy and Forgiveness

To receive mercy is, in the broadest sense, to experience the goodness and kindness of God. But, in context, it must include God’s mercy in salvation. The Beatitudes describe one kind of person; he will see God, inherit the kingdom, and likewise receive mercy. This must refer to a saved person.

To be forgiven by the Father in heaven is to have one’s sins blotted out. The usual sense of forgiveness should not be limited, as has been done by some imaginative commentators.

If, Then?

The relationship between our mercy and forgiveness and God’s mercy and forgiveness is not as clear. But it is a consistent theme in Scripture. “For judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful” (Ja. 2:13).

With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you deal purely, and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous. You save a humble people, but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them down. (2 Sam. 22:26-28, cf. Ps. 18:25-27).

One way to conceptualize Jesus’ teachings is with a simple “if, then” formula:

If we are merciful → Then God is merciful
If we forgive → Then God forgives

But if this is the whole story, then salvation is a result or reward of our good works and character. Nothing is more contrary to the gospel that is by grace through faith, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:9). In heaven, no one will be able to boast of their mercifulness or forgiveness.

Moreover, all have sinned. If God’s grace depended on our actions, we would all be without hope in the world. But “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Ro. 5:8). While we were yet unmerciful and unforgiving, Christ died for us.

So, what’s going on here?

Poor in Spirit → Merciful and Forgiving

Context, context, context. Let’s go back to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount: “And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'” The Beatitudes are not a list of randomly ordered ideas. We cannot scramble them around without disrupting Jesus’ message. The most basic disposition of someone who receives Kingdom blessings (the inheritance of the earth, seeing God, receiving mercy) is poverty of spirit.

To be poor in spirit is to recognize our absolute spiritual bankruptcy. It is to confess, “I have no good attitudes or actions apart from God’s grace.” Mercifulness is a good attitude and forgiveness is a good action. But the merciful and forgiving are the kind of people who are already indebted to and solely motivated by God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18:23-35 takes this for granted. A king forgives his servant for a debt of 10,000 talents (think 10 million dollars). When the servant refuses to forgive another for a debt of 100 denarii (think 300 dollars), the king delivers the unforgiving servant to the torturers. Jesus concludes his parable, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Mt. 18:35).

Jesus expected his audience to understand that we are merciful because he first showed us mercy; we are forgiving because he first extended forgiveness to us. “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).

If we have any desire to show mercy or forgive, even that is the gift of God. If we choose to do so, we have no grounds for boasting.

The paradigm is “if, then, then.”

If God is merciful (And he is) →
Then it is possible for us to be merciful (and we should be) →
(And if we are) Then God will continue to be merciful

If God has forgiven (And he has) →
Then it is possible for us to forgive (and we should) →
(And if we do) Then God will continue to forgive

A Kind of People

This answers the key question, why are “the merciful” merciful in the first place? Being poor in spirit, they understand that God initiated the mercy cycle. Showing mercy to others is the only reasonable thing to do.

Moreover, God’s saving mercy is never extended apart from regeneration. To be a recipient of God’s mercy is to possess the seeds of mercy in the soul. “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Php. 2:13). To whom God extends mercy, he implants the desire to show mercy. If we have any desire to forgive or show mercy, even that is the gift of God. If we choose to do so, we have no grounds for boasting.

The Beatitudes are a priestly blessing and Jesus is telling us what kind of people are included in the blessing. Remember 2 Samuel 22? “You save a humble people.” God saves a merciful and forgiving people. And the only kind of people who are truly merciful and forgiving are those who have already experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Acts of forgiveness and attitudes of mercy do not merit salvation. They characterize the kind of people who have poor spirits and living faith, and thus recieve the free gift of salvation.

To those with an active faith life (one that is forgiving and merciful), Jesus offers assurance: “forgiveness and mercy are yours!”

A Living Faith 

The tension that we feel between faith and works in Matthew 5:7 and 6:14 is the same tension that James addresses in James 2:14-26. Faith without works is dead. Likewise, our poverty of spirit and mourning over sins (Mt. 5:4) is a vain facade without mercy. That’s why Jesus presses us to be merciful and forgiving. He essentially says, “Show me your faith by your works” (see Ja. 2:18).

Jesus’ challenge is to walk in a way that is consistent with poverty of spirit and mourning over sins. The unforgiving servant knew that he had been forgiven of an irreparable debt, but his faith and spirit were unmoved.

To those with an active faith life (one that is forgiving and merciful), Jesus offers assurance: “forgiveness and mercy are yours!”

So, let us be merciful. And let us forgive others:

…not that the forgiveness of others is the procuring cause of forgiveness with God, which is the blood of Christ; or of the manifestation and application of it, that is, the advocacy of Christ; nor the moving cause of it, that is, the free grace of God: but this enters into the character, and is descriptive of the persons, to whom God is pleased to make a comfortable discovery, and give a delightful sense of his pardoning grace; such persons, so disposed and assisted by his grace, may expect it of him. (Gill, emphasis added)