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Grace Vs. Mercy – What’s the Difference?

The words “grace” and “mercy” are heard often in religious contexts, but what do these words really mean? And how are they different?

The Definition of Grace

Grace is understood as the free and unmerited favor of God; there is nothing we can do to earn salvation or blessings from God. Unfortunately, many in the church today believe that “grace” is synonymous with the forgiveness of sins—that the grace of God covers our sins. But that definition isn’t correct; it’s the blood of Jesus that covers our sins because of His grace (unearned favor) toward us.

This misunderstood concept of grace that is common in many churches today doesn’t hold water when considering Acts 6:8. Just before Stephen was arrested it says, “Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed amazing miracles and signs among the people.” In this context, how can the definition of “grace covers our sins” fit with Stephen being full of “grace and power?” Stephen was full of “his sins being covered and power,” so he performed miracles? Nope. Doesn’t make sense.

However, the following definition does fit in Acts 6:8: Grace is the power of God enabling us to do what we don’t deserve to do. NONE of us deserve to worship God, spread the good news of Jesus, or advance His Kingdom, but because of grace, God enables us to do all those things!

Where Grace Really Began

Many people think that grace is a religious word, but it didn’t start out that way. Actually, grace was a secular term to describe the relationship between a patron and his client. Back in Bible times, a patron (a person of influence and wealth) would notice a client (a less fortunate, poor person) and offer to help him out of his circumstances.

For example, maybe a patron would offer the client a job, resources, or other assistance. The client couldn’t achieve any of this on his own, and he did nothing to deserve this favor from the patron. In return, the client would agree to honor and speak well of the patron for the rest of his life; he would be devoted to the patron and serve him with gratitude.

It was really a win-win situation: the client was helped and improved his circumstances, and the patron received honor (which was a BIG deal back then) and loyalty which improved his standing in the community.

Writers in the New Testament understood this concept of grace (patron-client relationship) that was very common in that time, so when they talked about “the grace of God,” people understood it to mean that God enabled them to be, do, and have what they otherwise didn’t deserve to be, do, and have.

They would have understood that God’s grace toward them (in empowering them to share the gospel, to overcome sinful desires, to surrender their will to His, to live victoriously, to have prosperity and success, to conquer disease, etc.) warranted their devotion and loyalty toward Him forever in return.

Bible Verses about Grace

(Notice how many times the words “grace” and “power” appear together in these verses.)

Ephesians 2:8-9 (NLT) – “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.”

2 Corinthians 12:9 (NLT) – “Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.”

Ephesians 3:7 (NLT) – “By God’s grace and mighty power, I have been given the privilege of serving him by spreading this Good News.”

Acts 15:11 (NLT) – “We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.”

The Definition of Mercy

Mercy is showing compassion or forgiveness toward someone when it’s within your power to punish instead. Mercy is all about not giving punishment or penalties to those who deserve them. When you really think about mercy, it’s hard not to become overwhelmed by the goodness of God sparing us from what we really deserve.

Since God is merciful, we should also strive to extend mercy. In fact, Jesus taught in Matthew 5:7, “God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Clearly, if we want mercy shown to us, then we need to be quick to offer mercy.

Bible Verses about Mercy

Exodus 34:6 (NLT) – “The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out, ‘Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.’”

Hosea 6:6 (NLT) – “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”

Psalm 103:8 (NLT) – “The Lord is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.”

The Good News

In short, grace is God giving us the ability and power to do what we don’t deserve to do and have what we don’t deserve to have and be what we aren’t supposed to be (reciprocated by our gratitude and devotion), and mercy is God not giving us what we do deserve (judgment, death, punishment, etc.) because of our sin.

So whether we need grace for a difficult situation, or we need mercy for something we’ve done wrong, the good news is that God wants us to come to Him boldly. Hebrews 4:16 says, “So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.”

~ Jennell Houts

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