“Mercy and the Law of Christ”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations

It seems like I’ve spent a fair amount of time these past couple weeks reading critiques of the churches of Christ from various sources.  These critiques, usually written by former members, tend to have a common theme.  The churches of Christ would be better off, they opine, if they stopped being so narrow and legalistic and focused instead on mercy and grace.

That’s a fascinating claim, and it even has a certain amount of Biblical resonance.  Did not Paul argue, for instance, that the grace of Christ set him free from the law of sin and death.  Poor members of churches of Christ!  They don’t see that they’ve been set free already!

However, as I've written before, it doesn’t make much sense.  Logically speaking, law and grace are positively correlated, not inversely correlated.  The greater my respect for God’s law, the more my consciousness of my own sin should grow, along with my awareness of my desperate need for grace.

Things move in the opposite direction when concern for lawkeeping diminishes.  If following God’s law isn’t very important, then breaking it isn’t very important either.  At that point, grace stops looking like grace and starts looking more like apathy.  I really don’t need God’s mercy anymore because my sin is no biggie.

There’s another problem too.  As my respect for divine law and my desire for mercy diminish, so too will my willingness to show mercy.  Good Bible students know that one of the most sobering passages in the entire volume is the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35. 

Most Christians are aware that if you live a life of sin, you will not inherit the kingdom of God.  In this parable, Jesus points out that if you are unmerciful, you won’t inherit the kingdom of God either.  In fact, your failure to show mercy to others will drown out your pleas for mercy to God. 


Christians who honor the law of God, then, should be the most merciful people on earth, both because they have been taught by Christ to show mercy and because they know what will happen to them if they don’t.  I am constantly aware of the gulf between God’s perfect law and my own obedience.  Without His mercy to bear me up, I surely will plunge into the abyss.  For me to be merciless, then, is an act of spiritual suicide.

Without an emphasis on law, though, all this falls apart.  If I violate a law I think is unimportant and indifferently accept God’s apathetic grace, that gives me zero incentive to change my conduct toward those who have wronged me.  God’s law might not matter much, but the offenses of others against me sure do!  We don’t need the law to teach us vengefulness; it’s imbedded in every one of our selfish little hearts.

When I have been forgiven little (I think), I will love little, and I will be little inclined to show mercy.  Not surprisingly, people who accept the first part of this statement end up living out the second two.  As I wrote about a year ago, some of the most vicious, unforgiving people on earth are “tolerant” secular progressives.  Because they do not acknowledge God’s law, they do not admit their need for grace, so they see no reason to extend it to others.

I certainly hope that in the years and decades to come, brethren will be more grace-centric and more conscious of their need to receive and show mercy.  However, trying to get there by downplaying the importance of the law of God (all of it) is going in exactly the wrong direction.  Paul does not free us from the law.  He frees us from the illusion that we can justify ourselves, which is the very illusion that minimizing law creates.