August 18, 2014 Broadcast

Blessed Are The Merciful

A Message by R.C. Sproul

In the Beatitudes, Jesus announced a blessing on the merciful, but He did not take time to explain what this might look like. In this lesson, Dr. R.C. Sproul looks to Christ’s own example with the woman caught in adultery in order to illustrate an act of mercy.

From the series: The Beatitudes

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    The Richness of God's Mercy

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    No Ordinary Mercy

  3. devotional

    Blessed are the Merciful

The Richness of God's Mercy

Of all the things that Paul says about those outside of Christ, perhaps the most terrifying is that the impenitent are “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). In writing this, the apostle says that those in Adam — all unregenerate human beings — deserve divine condemnation. People outside of Christ can expect nothing from the Father except for His wrath, which manifests itself ultimately in eternal punishment in hell (Rom. 1:18–3:20; see also Jude 8–13; Rev. 20:7–15).

One of the most important words in all of Scripture, as Dr. R.C. Sproul has often said, is the conjunction but (see Eph. 2:4). It indicates a contrast. Paul has told us we were children of wrath, and now he tells us what we are after we have put our faith in Christ. Thankfully, our Creator has not left humanity in its miserable estate but has chosen to rescue some people — those chosen from the foundation of the world (1:3–6). He comes to His people, who are all born into this world dead in Adam and unable to respond to His overtures, and performs a spiritual resurrection so that they have a desire to believe and be saved (2:8–10). This is God’s initiative; He takes the decisive step, for those whom He regenerates certainly come to believe in the gospel of Christ and follow Him in a life of repentant and faithful discipleship. John Calvin comments, “Everything connected with our salvation ought to be ascribed to God as its author.”

What moves our Lord to do this? It is certainly not anything in us, for being dead in sin, we were unlovely and undeserving of His love. Even the righteousness that we thought we possessed was nothing but dirty rags (Isa. 64:6). What moves Him, Paul tells us, is His mercy, love, grace, and kindness (Eph. 2:4–7). Why does He not reveal this to everyone? This indeed is a great mystery, but we can be assured that it is to the praise of His glorious grace (Eph. 1:6), according to His good purposes and pleasure. Mercy — unexpected love and generosity — cannot be showered upon us as something owed, because mercy that is owed is not mercy but obligation. It can be given only to those in a desperate situation who cannot help themselves and lack the capability to earn or pay it back. And there is no better way to describe our situation apart from Christ than utterly and hopelessly desperate.

No Ordinary Mercy

John Sartelle

India’s caste system is huge and complicated. It has many divisions and subdivisions. The caste system divides the people into unbreakable groups divided by occupation, money, and position. In the 1930s, the British discovered a previously unknown caste. This new caste was the lowest of the low. These poor people were assigned the job of washing clothes for the Untouchables. The Untouchables had been thought to be the lowest caste. They could not touch or be touched or they would contaminate those above them. However, the pitiful people of this even lower caste believed they would contaminate the higher castes just by looking at them. So they came out only at night when they would not see people of the higher castes.

Imagine that you were of that miserably loathsome caste and suddenly found yourself seated in a place of honor next to the wealthiest and most powerful leader in India as a friend, son, or daughter. You had been transported from the slums to the palace. That distance would be small compared to the transposition that Paul describes in Ephesians 2.

The chapter begins with the Christians of Ephesus being reminded of their past lives (Paul includes himself and all other Christians with them). He says they had been a people who in their love of sin were souls dead to God, passionate allies with the debauched of the world, and followers of Satan himself (Eph. 2:1–3). However, three verses later we find these same reprobates changed and seated with God in the very court of heaven (2:5–6). The apostle then explains this repositioning with one word: grace (v.8).

Grace is defined as an unmerited favor, an undeserved gift. Consider the following: A woman guilty of a crime stood before Queen Elizabeth I. The crime had been committed against the queen herself. Elizabeth asked her, “Would you be my loyal subject if I should exercise grace instead of justice and forgive your crime?” The woman surprised the queen with her answer: “That, Madam, would be no grace at all. To found your grace on the condition of my merit — that is not grace.” The queen responded, “Then I pardon you unconditionally.” Likewise, the salvation we have received from God is totally unmerited and unearned — it comes from His grace.

The gift of salvation is no ordinary mercy. In Ephesians 2, God is described as being rich in this mercy (v. 4) and as manifesting the “immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us” (v. 7). No one is surprised when we give gifts of love to our family and friends. However, it is an extraordinary love that moves one to bestow treasures on one’s enemies. One must be rich in love to do that. A fabulously wealthy person can give luxurious gifts because of the immensity of his treasure. We are such wickedly onerous people that only the One with a treasure house of mercy could love us.

Those of us who were raised in Christian homes and came to Christ at an early age will sometimes be heard to say, when we hear the testimony of a man converted from a debauched life, “What a trophy of God’s grace he is!” We say that as if we ourselves are not such trophies. Our comment suggests that we were somehow more deserving and not as sinful. The person who says that about another Christian and not about himself has understood neither the depth of his own corruption nor the extreme extent of the grace of God. We would be arrogant to stand before God in glory and say, “Your love to that wicked person was amazing, and I know that I must have been easier to love and more appealing to You.” Such self-exalting, pretentious thinking is demeaning to the richness of God’s gift to you.

The cost of this grace to God is unfathomable. Queen Elizabeth forgave her offender and it cost her nothing. However, the justice of the realm had not been satisfied. God’s grace cannot ignore His justice. The rabbis of the Old Testament wondered how a just God could allow transgressors to go free. That is why Paul’s mind and heart were captured by the cross. He understood that Christ dying for our sins was, indeed, a demonstration of the immensity of God’s love for us (Rom. 5:8). However, he also grasped that the cross manifested the justice of God (3:24–26). When Jesus took our sin upon Himself, the Father did not say, “That is My Son, I cannot exact My justice upon Him.” Dr. James Henley Thornwell, a nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologian, described what happened in words that I read frequently: “None but Jehovah’s fellow could have received the stroke of Jehovah’s justice in His bosom and survived the blow. The penalty of the law was no vulgar ill, to be appeased by a few groans and tears, by agony, sweat, and blood. It was the wrath of the infinite God which, when it falls upon a creature, crushes him under the burden of eternal death. It is a blackness of darkness through which no ray of light or hope can ever penetrate; to the soul of a finite being it must be the blackness of darkness forever. But Jesus endured it. Jesus satisfied it. Jesus bowed beneath that death which the law demanded, and which sinks angels and men to everlasting ruin, and came victorious from the conflict. If He had been a creature, He would have been crushed, sunk, lost — if He had been less than God, the bitterness of death could not have been passed; never, never could He have emerged from that thick darkness into which He entered when He made His soul an offering for sin.”

So what is our response to such a sacrifice? Charity is repugnant to us. We don’t want to be welfare recipients. We want to do our part. We want to pay some of the bill. “Father, let me pay for something. Let me bear part of the expense.” He answers, “What is left to pay? Was the execution of My judgment at Calvary and the sacrifice of My Son insufficient? Is that what you are suggesting?” That is why the hymn writer wrote, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” We insult and demean His great salvation when we walk up Calvary’s hill proudly bringing our petty acts. Paul cried, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” (Rom. 8:33). Then he pointed to the cross, to the completed, finished, and sufficient work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The justice that once called for my condemnation now insures my salvation.

There is more to this great work of grace for our salvation. I am born with a heart that will not go to Jesus on that cross (3:11). My inner being is dead, unable to love God. Who will change my heart? Who will raise me from this deadness? Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again (John 3:3). No work of man could accomplish this inner change. Nicodemus’ religion demanded that he work strenuously to reform himself outwardly. But his religious regimen did nothing to change his soul. Jesus said this rebirth could happen only through the power of the Holy Spirit. Again, we foolishly claim omnipotence. We think we have the power to make this happen if we pray enough, read our Bibles, go to church, and try very hard.

Jesus stood at the grave of Lazarus and called his name, commanding him to live and walk out of the tomb. Did Lazarus do anything to bring life to himself? Lazarus was dead. His heart had been motionless and his brain dead for four days. His body could neither move nor will to move. The supernatural power that raised him from the grave is the same omnipotent power that raises us from our spiritual deadness. If you are a Christian, you have been raised from the dead. You have been supernaturally quickened. This regeneration is an act of grace (Titus 3:5).

“For by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:8) refers to every aspect of our salvation. We are not saved because we have chased after God and proven ourselves worthy. We are saved because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit pursued us at great cost. We do not understand the reason for His particular love now, nor will we when we are in glory. We will only be more convinced than ever that the presence of former debauched reprobates living in the new heavens and new earth is a wonder that shall fill the stories of heaven for eternity.

This is why the prostitute, thief, drug dealer, materialist, and their friends should be drawn to the gospel and to the church that lives that gospel. The church is like the mafia in one way — you must be a confessed cosmic criminal to join. To eat at His table you must be unworthy in order to be worthy. I love the baptism of covenant children. But the child of the covenant is no more worthy than the foul rebel, for both have been raised from the dead only by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit and both have been washed clean only in the blood of Jesus: by grace we have been saved!

Blessed are the Merciful

God’s Word greatly comforts those of us who believe in Christ. Simultaneously, we must admit that certain passages are frightening when we ponder their implications. Consider the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21–35, for example. In verse 35, Jesus says we will be condemned if we do not forgive those who sin against us and ask for mercy.

This passage is scary because we recognize how inconsistently we show mercy to others. We expect mercy from other people, but we hold grudges against those who wrong us. We forget that willingness to forgive others their trespasses is a sure sign of a forgiven heart that rests in Jesus alone for salvation (6:14–15).

Thanks be to God, for He shows mercy to us when we are not merciful to others. When we turn to Him in faith and repentance, He showers us with mercy. And when we are merciful to others in Jesus’ name, He tells us in today’s passage, we receive mercy from the Lord (5:7).

But what does it mean to show mercy? We turn to John 7:53–8:11 for the answer. In this passage, the scribes and the Pharisees test Jesus by using the woman caught in adultery. At first glance, our Lord appears to be in a no-win situation. If Christ explicitly agrees that the woman deserves death, the Pharisees can complain to the Roman authorities who prohibit first-century Judea from imposing the death penalty for such crimes. Essentially, they can accuse Jesus of sedition. But if He denies that death by stoning is the maximum penalty for adultery under the Mosaic law (Lev. 20:10), the Pharisees can charge Him with heresy for denying the Law.

Jesus’ response is fascinating. He agrees that execution is a proper sentence on the woman, for He never says, “You are wrong to think she deserves death.” Agreeing with the would-be executioners that the woman deserves death, He appoints the executioners — those who are without sin (John 8:7–8). None of the other men meet this bar, and so they turn away one by one (v. 9).

There is one man there without sin, however — the God-man Christ Jesus. Yet He shows mercy. Though it would be right for Him to execute her, Jesus does not do so. Instead of giving her justice on the spot, He gives her mercy (vv. 10–11).

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