Toward a Biblical Theology of Mercy
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy… (Jesus, in Matthew 5:7).
Considering our Synod’s emphasis on “Witness, Mercy and Life Together,” questions are sometimes raised whether “mercy” is an appropriate term for the center of such a trilogy. Would “service” or “compassion” be better terms? Whatever the term used, the Church’s activity of caring for the needs of hurting people, is a fruit of faith, a necessary part of sanctification. Our good works are not necessary for our salvation (God doesn’t need them – He’s already done everything for us in Christ), but they are necessary for our neighbor. In this way, the Church as Christ’s body, with Christ as Head, becomes the arms, the hands, the feet, the mouth of Christ in the world, for the sake of the world.
In May of 2011, the Synod through LCMS World Relief/Human Care sent several of its members to Latvia to hold conferences on divine mercy for diakonic workers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia. The undersigned was privileged to bring a keynote address, “Toward a Theology of Mercy,” for the gatherings. Reproduced here is a shortened version of that effort. Far from being original, this paper is based quite heavily on the work of President Matthew Harrison (while he was Executive Director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care) in Theology for Mercy, published by LCMS World Relief and Human Care in 2004 and 2010.
Each of these three, Witness, Mercy and Life Together, flows out from the cross of Christ through the Church, for the sake of the world. When one of these is absent, or weak, the others are diminished as well. Strengthening one will also strengthen the other two. So the Church bears witness to Christ by preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins in His name (the church’s primary calling). In so doing, we are called into the fellowship of (life together with) our Lord Jesus! Alive in Christ, and united with Him, the Church also has a life of mercy and service, our diakonia, both individually and corporately.
The Church’s work of mercy flows from all the Triune God has done for those who are baptized into the Triune name. Ten basic points follow to illustrate:
1) The Holy Trinity – Diakonia has its source in the Holy Trinity. Our work of mercy actually begins in the divine relationships of the Godhead. The Son is begotten of the Father from eternity. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, and points back to the Son. These Trinitarian relationships are acts of love continuing from all eternity. Therefore, God is love. God seeks to love. In Christ, this restless divine love is sent forth to find its object, from the Garden of Eden (“Adam, where are you?”), down to the present day (John 3:16). Likewise, that divine love, dwelling in our hearts by faith, cannot do anything else but express itself in mercy to those in need. Thus, mercy ultimately begins with the Holy Trinity, for those who know and believe in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, must grow to be merciful.
1 John 4:7-8 – Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son…
Luke 6:36 – Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
1 John 3:16-17 – If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
Romans 12:1,8 – Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. … He who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
Jude 21-22 – Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt.
Matthew 18:21ff, v. 33 – Shouldn’t you have had mercy upon your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?
James 3:17 – But the wisdom that comes from heaven is … full of mercy.
2) The Incarnation – Diakonic love in the Holy Trinity is made most real in the incarnation and the humiliation of Christ. In Jesus Christ, the eternal God becomes man, takes on our human flesh. He becomes one with us and completely identifies Himself with sinful humanity. This happened so that Christ might have mercy upon his “brothers” (Hebrews 2:17). Having the mind of Christ, the Church is likewise called to identify with and humbly serve those in need. Of course, the Church cares for her own, but just as God’s love in the incarnation of Christ is for all, and seeks all, so as we have opportunity, the Church is called to do good to all, because all have been redeemed in Christ (2 Corinthians 9:10-11; Galatians 6:10). As the Church proclaims Christ, so the Church serves in the name of Christ.
Matthew 20:28 – The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.
Luke 22:24-27 – And there arose a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be the greatest. And Jesus aid to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But not so with you, but let him who is greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.
Hebrews 2:17 – For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.
Matthew 25:31ff – …when did we see you hungry… thirsty… sick or in prison?
Philippians 2 – [To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the bishops and deacons…1:1] If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ… then make my joy complete by being like-minded, have the same love, being one in spirit and in purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ, who…
Galatians 6:10 – … as we have opportunity, let us do good to all…
2 Corinthians 9:10-11 – Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.
3) Universal Atonement – “God desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Christian service and love flow from the fact that Christ has atoned for all the sins of all people. “He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf” (2 Corinthians 5:15). “The Father has decreed from eternity that whomever he would save, he would save through Christ,” our Lutheran confession tells us, “as Christ Himself says, ‘no one comes to the Father but by me,’ (John 14:6), and again, ‘I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved’ (John 10:9)” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration XI, 66).
Without Christ, and outside of faith in Christ, works of mercy become merely secular, and could be done by any group in society. But with the Church’s work of mercy, this fundamental truth of the Bible, that Christ alone is the way of salvation – this is what makes the work come alive with the love of Christ. Every human being needs the love of Christ. Every human being has been redeemed by the death of Christ. That means that every human life is equally valuable to God and thus also to His Church. That’s because every human being has a value beyond measure for Christ shed his infinitely precious blood for every human being. See 1 Peter 1:18-19.
Because everyone needs Christ, and because Christ has atoned for the sins of all, the Church as Christ’s body is called to be a merciful community for the sake of all. Tragically, not all come to faith. Not all receive the benefits of Christ’s death, but still, he has atoned for the sins of all, and His mercy is for all. And for all who are Baptized, these benefits of Christ’s universal atonement, washed over us, bring forth a life released for loving service.
Romans 11:32; 12:1 – For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy upon them all… Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices.
Romans 3:23 – All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Romans 5:12ff – Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin… Therefore as one trespass led to condemnation for all me, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.
Romans 6:6, 13 – We know that the old self was crucified with Christ… that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.
Romans 7:6 – But now we are released from the law… so that we serve in the new life of the Spirit.
Romans 12:4ff – For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having gifts that differ… let us use them … if service, in our serving (diakonia).
4) Forgiveness Begets Mercy – The Good News of salvation in Christ crucified and raised from the dead brings forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. People who receive these gifts of grace are led by the Spirit of God to be merciful. The merciful washing of baptism produces merciful living (Romans 7:4-6). In absolution, the merciful word of forgiveness leads to merciful speaking and living (Matthew 18:21ff). In the Lord’s Supper, Christ gives Himself to us in His body and blood, that we might give ourselves to our neighbor (1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 1 Corinthians 12:12-26). Our confession, in the Apology, says, “Repentance ought to produce good fruits … [for example] the greatest possible generosity to the poor” (Apology XII.174).
Romans 7:4-6 – So, my brothers, you also died to the Law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. Now by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and NOT in the old way of the written code.
1 Corinthians 10:16-17 – Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a participation in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a participation in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of one bread.
5) Christ’s Example – Christ’s example of love for the whole person remains our highest example for life in this world, and for the care of the needy in both body and soul. When Christ walked this earth visibly, His giving of Himself combined both the forgiveness of sins and acts of mercy, care and healing. Christ gave His Gospel of forgiveness to be preached to all. Christ left His Supper as the feast of His body and blood for forgiveness, life and salvation. Our faith in these promises also bears fruit in works of mercy for others. On the last day, Christ will show these works by saying, “whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done it for Me…” (Matthew 25). For wherever Christ was present to disperse the gifts of the Kingdom, He did so in word and deed, speaking and acting. We believe the Church is called to do the same.
Luke 5:17-26 – Which is easier: to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up and walk”? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I tell you, get up!
Luke 9:2ff – He sent them [the twelve] out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.
6) A Corporate Life of Mercy – Therefore, mercy is an essential part of the Church’s life together as the body of Christ. He is the Head. All who believe and are baptized into Christ are members of His body. So “when one member of the body suffers, all suffer” (1 Corinthians 12:26). That’s why the Church set apart the seven deacons in Acts 6 to make sure all the widows were cared for. That’s why St. Paul gathered a collection in the Gentile churches to help the suffering saints in Jerusalem. Because the Church is one body under Christ as Head. This means that works of mercy are not only the responsibility of the individual believer, but also of the Church as Church, as the body of Christ, as congregation and as Synod. Both proclamation and works of love – often done together – are part of the plan of God to make known His plan of love for all.
Ephesians 1:9-10 – He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.
Ephesians 3:10 – so that through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known…
Ephesians 4:15-16 – Rather speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
In Baptism, our Lord makes us His body. In the Holy Supper, our Lord feeds His body. Our works of mercy then flow from the sacramental life of the Church and become a living out into the world what happens in the divine liturgy. Brought into the body, we receive mercy from Christ Himself, in Baptism, in Absolution and in the Supper. And this mercy we have received must overflow into the lives of others.
James 2:14ff – What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?
James 3:17 – But the wisdom that comes from heaven is full of mercy.
Romans 6:1-4; 7:4-6 – We died to sin. Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? … So, my brothers, you also died to the Law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. Now by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve [diakonia!] in the new way of the Spirit, and NOT in the old way of the written code.
Matthew 18:21ff – You wicked servant, he said, I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?
1 Corinthians 10:17 – Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one loaf.
1 Corinthians 12:12ff – For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks and were all given one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many… If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
7) The Lutheran Confessions – Our Lutheran Confessions assume that the Church will have a corporate life of mercy and repeatedly state that the work of diakonic love is an essential part of the Church’s life. The Treatise (80-82) speaks of the proper use of the alms given by believers “for the support of ministers, the promotion of education, the care of the poor…” In the Apology, the “distribution of alms by the Corinthians was a holy work” (Ap IV.192), and the monasteries that did not properly use the alms given by the saints are taken to task (Ap XXVII.5ff). Our works of mercy also become a wonderful expression of the Church’s essential unity (see also 2 Corinthians 9:12-14), as we read in our confession:
Smalcald Articles II.4.9 – “Therefore, the church cannot be better ruled and preserved than if we all live under one head, Christ, and all the bishops – equal according to the office (although they may be unequal in their gifts) keep diligently together in unity of teaching, faith, sacraments, prayer and works of love, etc.”
8) As Broad as the Need of the Neighbor – The vocation (calling by God) to live in love and mercy is as broad as the need of the neighbor. Baptized into the royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:1-10) we use the gifts God has given in service to the neighbor. Together, as baptized members of the body of Christ, we are united with one another in Christ, as Head of the Body. Together, we are Christ’s hands, His feet, His mouth in the world, but what we do in service to the neighbor is determined by the need of the neighbor.
Matthew 25:31ff – Where did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked?
Micah 6:8 – What does the LORD require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (Addressed to all Israel).
Matthew 9:13 – It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. God and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.
Matthew 5:7 – Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Luke 10:37 – The expert in the law replied, “the one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Acts 10:2, 4 – He [Cornelius] and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. … Cornelius stared at him in fear, “What is it Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering to God.”
Acts 9:36 – In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha who was always doing god and helping the poor.
1 Corinthians 16:1 – Now about the collection for God’s people…
Acts 11:28 – The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
Romans 15:26 – For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.
2 Corinthians 8:1ff – We want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian Churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need. So in turn their plenty will supply what you need.
Acts 24:17 – After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings.
In order to meet these needs, Christ not only gives a wide variety of gifts to His body, He also calls a wide variety of people, of members of His body, to many different varieties of service, in and through the Church. Here are some of the possibilities active in our churches:
- pastoral concern for the needy
- spiritual care of people in various hospitals and institutions
- chaplains for those in prison
- service as a deacon or deaconess
- service as a parish nurse, and other medical disciplines
- adoption services and services to homeless people, the care of the poor and all manner of managerial vocations
- the simple caring works that one or more baptized believers do for the sake of others, serving on Christ’s behalf, “the least of these”
- many more particular situations where Christians are called to care for others in mercy.
These callings are flexible and are determined by the needs surrounding the church (as in Acts 6). Here we simply say that, within the Church and in connection with the Church’s mission to reach out to others, proclamation of the Gospel, faith, worship and care for those in need ought always come together. For the call to mercy is as broad as the need of the neighbor.
9) Beyond Members of the Church – The Church’s work of mercy also extends beyond those in the Church. Just as the Gospel itself reaches beyond the Church and is intended for all, love for the neighbor cannot and must not be limited only to those in the fellowship of the orthodox Lutheran faith. In following the apostolic command to “do good to all, especially those of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10) the Church will care for the faithful. But the Church’s work of mercy will also reach beyond itself according to the needs around it and the level of resources God has given. Works of love will often prepare the way for the Gospel to be proclaimed.
In so doing, we may cooperate with others, where this can be done without compromising the Gospel, to meet human need. In free societies, the Church will, under God’s left-hand kingdom, serve within the community to be a voice for justice and an advocate for the helpless.
10) The Whole Person – Proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments are always primary (Christian fellowship – κοινωνια – is always in the Church’s marks, another primary topic in itself) but the Church’s God-given work of mercy demonstrates and “puts a face on,” so to speak, the love of God for the whole person. People are created by God as body and soul. This unity – though temporarily interrupted by temporal death – will continue in a physical eternity, after the resurrection on the last day. We believe in “the resurrection of the body,” both for Christ and for us. Christ came as a human being, body and soul, to redeem all, body and soul. This is why the Church’s concern is for the whole person. We proclaim the Gospel of forgiveness by grace through faith for the sake of Christ to heal the whole person spiritually. We also seek to help with physical needs because that is what Christ intended now, and because one day Christ will raise both soul and body together in the resurrection. The miracles done by Christ to care for people testified to His person and work as the Savior from sin. But they also point ahead to a fully healed future, a future that will be made perfect in the resurrection. So today, mercy in the life of the Church must bear witness to Christ’s Gospel, and Christ’s promise to come again to heal us, body and soul, the whole person.
It cannot be otherwise. Proclamation of the Gospel and mercy for the needy belong together, just as faith and love cannot be separated. We are saved by faith alone, Luther taught us, but faith is never alone. It also brings forth works of love. Once more, our confession,
The proclamation of the Gospel produces faith in those who receive the Gospel. They call upon God… They do good works on account of the glory of Christ. In this way the name of the Lord becomes great among the nations (Apology XXIV.32).
+ Herbert Mueller
The Feast of St. Ambrose, 2011
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