by Rev. Thomas Egger
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul proclaims that our God is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4). Throughout Holy Scripture, no other description is so central to the character of God. When the children of Israel rebelled against Him in the wilderness, building and worshipping a golden calf, they were preserved because the Lord is “abounding in merciful love” (Ex. 34:7). Such mercy stirred the souls of His worshippers, who exulted: “As high as the heavens are above the earth, His merciful love prevails over those who fear Him . . . The merciful love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting” (Ps. 103:11, 17).
Probably you aren’t surprised. For those living in the 21st-century Western world, the claim that God is merciful and loving seems obvious, even trite. As in the GEICO commercials, the response to the “news” of God’s mercy is often: “Everybody knows that.”
In stark contrast, our culture increasingly rejects the Bible’s teaching of God’s justice, wrath and judgment. “I could never believe in a God who brings harm or punishment” is a sentiment that resonates with many of our friends and neighbors. Even many Christian theologians downplay or deny God’s judgment. Liberal scholar Eric Seibert sees biblical statements about God’s judgment as directly contradicting statements about His mercy. And what should we do in the face of “contradictions” such as these? According to Seibert, we should choose one picture and reject the other. He writes: “Conflicting images require us to make choices if we wish to speak about God in a meaningful, coherent fashion. God either is or is not merciful” (Disturbing Divine Behavior (Fortress, 2009),p. 173).
Here is an enormous danger. If we succumb to such reasoning, that God must be either merciful or punishing, then the Gospel itself is utterly changed. Profound Gospel passages like Isaiah 53 and Romans 3 lose their meaning. Christ’s torment on the cross becomes unnecessary. Paul’s statement that “Jesus delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Tim. 1:10) makes no sense, if Jesus must either mercifully deliver us or come in final judgment (rather than, as Paul teaches, mercifully delivering us when He comes in final judgment and in the face of His final judgment). Instead, in our generation as in every generation, the Church must hold to both biblical truths: both God’s consuming wrath over human sin and God’s towering mercy for sinners in Jesus Christ. Both Law and Gospel must ring forth with clarity, honesty and love.
But there is another, perhaps less obvious, danger. The world around us asserts so easily and casually that God is merciful. We look around, and it really does seem that “everybody knows that.” And so the danger is that we would lose sight of how desperately our neighbor needs to hear about the rich, abounding mercy of God in Jesus Christ. In fact, we might even begin to assume that we ourselves “know that” and have little left to discover about God’s mercy. But the mercy of God revealed in Jesus Christ, illumined for us in the Holy Scriptures, is no small, generic, everybody-knows-that mercy. God is “rich in mercy” and “abounding in merciful love.” The enormity of God’s mercy put St. Paul on his knees, praying that others might “have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:18–19).
Just how big is God’s rich, abounding mercy for sinners in Christ? A series of posts to follow will reflect on some of the Bible’s answers to this question. May God give us the “strength to comprehend”—and opportunities to confess to others—the joyous enormity of His mercy for sinners in Jesus.