The Wartburg Project

December 27th, 2023

97. Grace vs. Mercy

In Psalm 119:132 the word grace occurs. It seems that the word grace is quite rare in the Old Testament, but it is very common in the New Testament. Was the concept of grace present in the Old Testament, or was that idea covered by mercy in the Old Testament?

The answer to this question is both very simple and, in another way, a bit complicated. The simple part is that the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith is the same from Eden to Eternity. In Romans 4 Paul demonstrates that the Old Testament way to salvation was the same as it is for us. He quotes Psalm 32 as part of his evidence for this.

Where it gets a bit complicated is when we distinguish concepts from words. One concept can be expressed by different words. The attribute of God by which he saves us can be called grace or mercy or love. These are not three different things but three different views of the same concept. It is like we are looking at the sparkle of a diamond from different angles or looking at light through a prism. We see the different colors in the same light. Saving grace, mercy, and love are not three different things but different aspects of the same thing. Grace emphasizes the free aspect; mercy emphasizes the compassionate aspect; love emphasizes that it is good for us.

On the other hand, one word can refer to several different concepts. Grace refers to God’s saving love, but it can also refer to concepts like graceful or gracious. Love (including the Greek agape) can refer to God’s saving love, but it can also refer to love of the world, love of money, or even love of a prostitute. Same word—very different concepts.

The final complication is that although the concept of God’s saving grace/mercy/love was the same in both testaments, the writers' favorite words for expressing that concept were not the same in both testaments. In their basic etymological meaning, the Hebrew words chanun and chen are related to the Greek charis, “grace,” but much of the role that is filled by charis in the New Testament is filled by chesed in the Old Testament. Or to put it another way, charis is the most important and the most common word for describing God’s saving love in the New Testament, but chesed rather than chanun fills this same function in the Old Testament. Another way of saying it is that the most popular Old Testament word for God’s saving attribute is mercy; the most popular New Testament word is grace.

Oh, one final complication, all translations do not treat this problem the same way. The NIV for example does not make a clear and consistent distinction of the terms. The EHV attempts to make clear distinction of terms, so we may have grace where the NIV has mercy, and we may have mercy where the NIV has love. Older writings may stay closer to the NIV practice, but the EHV aims for clearer distinctions. Here is a study of the mercy terms from a Psalms commentary.

John Brug. Psalms Vol. I. Ps 36, pages 380-382.
Transliteration of Key Hebrew terms
חֶסֶד chesed, אֱמוּנָה emunah, צִדְקָה tsidqah, מִשְׁפָּט mishpat,
אֲהָבָה ahavah, אֶמֶת emet, חַנּוּן chanun, רַחוּם rechum.
The ch's are not like the ch in church, but like the one in ach.

God's Mercy and Faithfulness

God’s mercy and faithfulness are here described by four Hebrew words: צִדְקָה ,אֱמוּנָה ,חֶסֶד, and מִשְׁפָּט. These words emphasize God’s faithfulness both to his gospel and to his law.

The NIV usually translates חֶסֶד as “love.” It seems best, however, to reserve the translation “love” for אֲהָבָה, the generic Hebrew word for love, which is parallel to ἀγάπη. The ancient versions regularly translated חֶסֶד as “mercy” (ἔλεος). The King James also followed this convention. About three-fourths of the occurrences of חֶסֶד in the Old Testament have God as the subject and man as the object. In the mid-20th century it became popular to claim that חֶסֶד was a word for "covenant loyalty," which means something like “steadfast love.” God’s mercy certainly is exercised within his covenant and, thus, it is always faithful. This meaning, however, flows from the concept of God’s faithful love, not from the word חֶסֶד itself. God’s love and mercy are not a result of his covenant obligation, but his covenant obligation is a result of his love and mercy (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). When the psalmist wants to stress the faithfulness aspect of God’s mercy, he makes it explicit by using the hendiadys חֶסֶד ואֶמֶת, “mercy and truth,” that is, dependable mercy. In this psalm he does the same thing by adding a word related to אֱמוּנָה ,אֶמֶת “faithfulness.” Note how the chiastic structure of verse 6 allows these two words to be placed side by side. Recently there has been a tendency to return to “mercy” as the best translation for חֶסֶד. This is the usual translation in this commentary [and in the EHV]. More than half of the 245 occurrences of חֶסֶד in the Old Testament are in Psalms. (For more on the חֶסֶד debate see the article in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. On the related word חַסִיד, see the study at Psalm 4.)

Two other Hebrew roots which share the semantic field with חֶסֶד are found in the adjectives חַנּוּן, which is usually translated “gracious,” and רַחוּם, which is usually translated “compassionate.” In basic etymological meaning חַנּוּן is related to the Greek χάρις, “grace,” but much of the role filled by χάρις in the New Testament is filled by חֶסֶד in the Old Testament, that is, χάρις is the most important and most common word for describing God’s saving love in the New Testament, but חֶסֶד rather than חַנּוּן fills this function in the Old Testament.

רַחוּם is usually rendered by a form of οἰκτιρμός in Greek. Some say that רַחוּם has the connotation of a mother’s love since the Hebrew word for “womb” is also based on the root רחם, but this word רַחוּם simply reflects the same emotional connotation as the Greek σπλάγχνα, inner organs. In Psalm 103:13 רַחוּם is used to describe God’s fatherly love. In Hosea 1 the root expresses a husband’s feelings for a wayward wife, but the “husband” in the allusion is God himself. In fact, twelve of the thirteen occurrences of רַחוּם in the Old Testament refer to the love of God. In short, רַחוּם is a deep love rooted in a natural bond. חַנּוּן emphasizes the free quality of God’s love; רַחוּם the emotional depth of the love. רַחוּם and חַנּוּן often occur as a word pair. Both words are used primarily of the Lord.

אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם is literally “length of anger” or perhaps “length of face or nose.” It is patience, μακρόθυμος. The Lord has a valid reason to be angry with sinners, but he is “slow to anger,” he gives individual sinners and the world time for repentance. Commentators have debated the connection between “length of face or nose,” suggesting that it refers to snorting in anger or to the face becoming red with anger, but it is most likely that we should not press the etymology. It is simply an expression for patient love.

These four Hebrew roots which emphasis God’s gracious mercy for sinners are all brought together in the revelation of the Lord’s name in Exodus 34:6

יְהוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב־חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת׃

צִדְקָה and מִשְׁפָּט emphasize the fairness of God’s verdicts of judgment. Both his gospel verdict in which he acquits the repentant of their sins and his law verdict in which he convicts the impenitent of their sins are fair. The law verdict is based on the guilt which the impenitent have heaped up by their sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. The gospel verdict is based on the perfect righteousness of Christ and his perfect payment for sin which is credited to all who believe in him.