God’s Mercy According To Berkhof

Another important aspect of the goodness of God is His mercy or tender compassion. Concerning this attribute of the Lord, Prof. Berkhof writes in his Reformed Dogmatics, page 73, as follows: “The Mercy of God.” Another important aspect of the goodness of God is His mercy or tender compassion. The Hebrew word most generally used for this is “chesed”. There is another word, however, which expresses a deep and tender compassion, namely, the word “racham”, which is beautifully rendered by “tender mercy” in our English Bible. The Septuagint and the New Testament employ the Greek word “eleos” to designate the mercy of God. If the grace of God contemplates man as guilty before God, and therefore needs forgiveness, the mercy of God contemplates him as one who is bearing the consequences of sin, who is in a pitiable condition, and who therefore needs divine help. It may be defined as the goodness or love of God shown to those who are in misery or distress, irrespective of their deserts. In His mercy God reveals Himself as a compassionate God, Who pities those who are in misery and is ever ready to relieve their distress. This mercy is bountiful, Deut. 5:10; Ps. 57:10; Ps. 86:5, and the poets of Israel delighted to sing of it as enduring forever, I Chron. 16:34; II Chron. 7:6; Ps. 136; Ezra 3:11. In the New Testament it is often mentioned alongside of the grace of God, especially in salutations, I Tim. 1:2; II Tim. 1:1; Titus 1:4. We are told repeatedly that it is shown to them that fear God, Ex. 20:2; Deut. 7:9; Ps. 86:5; Luke 1:50. This does not mean, however, that it is limited to them, though they enjoy it in a special measure. God’s tender mercies are over all His works, Ps. 145:9, and even those who do not fear Him share in them, Ezek. 18:23, 32; Ezek. 33:11; Luke 6:35, 36. The mercy of God may not be represented as opposed to His justice. It is exercised only in harmony with the strictest justice of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ. Other terms used for it in the Bible are “pity, compassion, and lovingkindness”.

In this quotation of Prof. Berkhof we are told that repeatedly this mercy of the Lord is shown to them that fear God. Of course, we are also reminded once more of the theory of “Common Grace”, and told that also this virtue of the Lord is not limited to the people of God, but is also shown unto those who do not fear Him. And let us please note the passages which are quoted by the professor. We certainly need not make any remarks about Ps. 145:9—to this passage we have called attention more than once in this series of articles. The word of God in Luke 6:35-36 reads as follows: “But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for He is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.” To this passage also we have called attention in the past. And we repeat at this time what we wrote in a preceding article, namely, that we do not deny that the Lord is kind to the unthankful and the evil. Let the exponents of “Common Grace” prove that these unthankful and evil also include the reprobate unthankful and evil. This we deny. But we should carefully note the other references which the professor quoted in support of a general mercy of the Lord. He refers to Ezek. 18:23, 32, and Ezek. 33:11, and these passages reads as follows: “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God: and not that he should return from his way, and live? . . . Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live, turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” We must note the Arminian thrust in Berkhof’s quoting of these passages. The “Common Grace” theory, we must understand, as developed by the late Dr. A. Kuyper, pertains only to the things of this present time. According to this eminent theologian the general love or grace or mercy of the Lord touches only upon the sinner’s earthy and temporal existence, and must never be confused with the things of God’s eternal salvation in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Dr. Kuyper would distinguish sharply between the heavenly and the earthy, the natural and the spiritual, the things of this present life and our eternal salvation. However, the “general mercy” of God as expressed in these passages from Ezekiel deals with salvation. The Lord has no pleasure at all that the wicked should die, but that he should turn from his ways, and live. And this is explained by the professor simply in the sense that the Lord has no pleasure in the eternal death of any sinner, but that He wills and desires the salvation of all men. This, we must understand, should no longer be presented to the people as a general grace or mercy of the Lord, but simply as the particular grace or mercy of God which has become common or general. Then we should no longer distinguish between the natural and the spiritual, the earthy and the heavenly, but boldly present the Lord as offering, without distinction, His heavenly and eternal salvation to all men. This would help to clear the atmosphere.

And, finally, we should also note the hopeless confusion of the professor when he writes that ‘The mercy of God may not be represented as opposed to His justice.” He may have in mind Lord’s Day 4, Question and Answer 11: “Is not God then also merciful? God is indeed merciful, but also just; therefore His justice requires, that sin which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be also punished with extreme, that, is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul.” However, how can a general mercy of God, which purposes the salvation of all men (Prof. Berkhof s quoting of the texts in Ezekiel), ever be harmonized with particular atonement? How is it possible for the Lord to offer His salvation to all without distinction upon the basis of strictest justice? To offer salvation to all certainly must imply that there must be salvation for all; one can hardly conceive of the Lord that He would offer something that does not exist. And there is salvation for all only if Christ died for all, for all the promises of God are Yea and Amen in Christ Jesus. However, if Christ did not die for all (and no Reformed man would even dare to affirm that the death of the Lord Jesus Christ is to be applied to all men, head for head), the “general” mercy of the Lord would be devoid of any basis of strict justice and righteousness. To harmonize, therefore, a general mercy of the Lord which is in harmony with His strict justice is impossible. However, the Lord is strictly just; only, there is no such thing as a general mercy of God.

God’s Mercy According To H. Bavinck.

Dr. Bavinck is also brief in his discussion of this virtue of God. He writes in his Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. II, pages 180-181, and we translate: “This goodness of God appears in various forms, depending upon the objects upon which it is directed. Closely related to it is loving kindness or tender mercy (goedertierenheid), “chesed a.v. chasan”, “stringere”, to bind, “chreestotees”, related to “prautees”, II Cor. 10:1. At times it is used in a general sense, I Chron. 16:34 (how this text can be generally interpreted may well be considered an enigma—H.V.) but it mostly expresses God’s special favor (gunst) to His people, the inclination whereby He is bound to his “favored ones (gunstgenoten)”, Rom. 2:4 (notice, please, that Bavinck applies this text to the people of God, not to all sinners as did the Synod of 1924—H.V.), II Cor. 10:1 . . . .The goodness of God, when shown to those who are miserable, is called mercy, “raehemin, splagchna, viscera, misericordia”, New Testament “eleos, oektirmos”. Of this mercy of God we read everywhere in Scripture, Ex. 84:6, Deut. 4:31, II Chron. 30:9, Ps. 86:15, 103:8, 111:4, 112:4, 145:8, in contrast with men, II Sam. 24:14, Prov. 12:10, Dan. 9:9, 18. This mercy is manifold, II Sam. 24:14, Ps. 119:156, great, Neh. 9:19, Ps. 51:13, without end, Lam. 3:22, tender as that of a father, Ps. 193:13, is shown to thousands, Ex. 20:6, and returns, after chastisement, Is. 14:1, 49:13 f.f., 54:8, 55:7, 60:10, Jer. 12:15, 30:18, 31:20, Hos. 2:22, Micah 7:19, etc. In the New Testament God, the Father of mercy, II Cor. 1:3, has revealed His mercy in Christ, Luke 1:50 f.f., who is a merciful High Priest, Matt. 18:27, 20:34, etc., Heb. 2:17, and He moreover manifests the riches of His mercy, Eph. 2:4, in the salvation of the believers, Rom. 9:23, 11:30, I Cor. 4:1, I Tim. 1:13, Heb; 4:16, etc.”—thus far the quotation of the late Dr. Bavinck. Comment on this quotation of Dr. Bavinck is unnecessary. The mercy of God, according to this eminent theologian, is the goodness of God as shown to His people in misery.

Idea Of The Terms.

Two terms are particularly of interest in the Old Testament. The term most frequently employed in the Hebrew is “chesed”. This word denoted an inclination of the emotion, of the affection toward an object in misery. Another word which appears in the Old Testament is “rachaemim”, the plural of “rechem”, which is, first of all, the womb, in a broader sense the bowels, and therefore used of the inner parts as the seat of affection. This word may be translated as: compassion, tender mercy.

The idea of mercy, as it appeals in the New Testament, is about the same as in the Old Testament. The word most frequently used in the New Testament is “eleos”, which means mercy or kindness toward the miserable and the afflicted, and accompanied by a desire to help and relieve them. Another word used in the Greek is “splagchna”, the usual translation of the Hebrew, “rachaemim”, a word which means: bowels, intestines, inasmuch as the Hebrew conceived of the bowels or intestines as the seat of the affections. And a third word which appears in the New Testament, also used in the Septuagint (the translation by the Seventy of the Old Testament Scriptures into the Greek) is “oiktirmos”, which means: viscera, or bowels. Besides the individual appearance of these various words in the New Testament, they also appear in combination. In Luke 1:78, for example, we read of the “splagchna eleous”—bowels of mercy, and in Col. 3:12 the word “oiktirmos” is used with “eleos”. Then again, the words “splagchna” and “oiktirmos” are used alone in the New Testament to designate the mercy of God.

The common word, however, is “eleos”, and this word, together with its synonyms which we have mentioned, designates the goodness of God as it manifests itself toward His people in misery with the desire to relieve them in and of their distress.

Its Use In The New Testament.

First of all, we would call attention to I Pet. 1:3. This text reads as follows: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to His abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” In this particular Word of God the mercy of God is held before us as the standard as well as the source of that which God works for His people. This mercy of the Lord is certainly, first of all, the source of our salvation. This salvation consists, on the one hand, of our deliverance from sin and death, our deepest and terrible woe. And, positively, it leads us unto the eternal inheritance, whereof the apostle speaks in the following fourth verse: “To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you.” The Lord, now, has begotten us again unto a lively hope according to His abundant mercy. Hence, the starting point of this mercy of God is our misery, and the end or goal is our greatest glory. And the “eleos” or mercy of God is therefore the divine motive, desire to bless His people in misery. Secondly, this mercy of God is also the standard of our salvation. We are blessed, so declares the apostle in this text, “according to His abundant mercy.” Mind you, this mercy of God is called: abundant, great. Neither is it difficult to understand why the apostle calls this mercy of our God an abundant, a great, a tremendously rich mercy, a mercy with a tremendously rich and abundant content. All we need do is attempt to measure the tremendous distance between our unspeakable misery and ultimate salvation. It saves us out of the misery of sin and death. It reaches out unto us as we lie in deepest hell. It extends to people who are by nature objects of wrath and the indignation of God, children of wrath and of disobedience even as are all the others (Eph. 2:1-4). It saves, therefore, from the unspeakable woe of being eternally forsaken of God. And it leads us into a glory so great that it could never enter into the heart or mind of man. The mercy of the Lord, therefore, transfers us out of deepest hell into an incorruptible, undefiled inheritance, which fadeth not away. No wonder that the apostle can speak of this mercy as an abundant mercy, a tremendously rich mercy.

Another passage to which we would call attention is Jude 1:21. There we read: “Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life”. The word “mercy” has undoubtedly the same significance in this passage as in I Pet. 1:3. We must look for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. The mercy of our Lord, which will be revealed at His coming, is a mercy that will lead us into everlasting life, is a mercy, therefore, that cannot and therefore will not rest until it have saved us completely from all sin and death and corruption and have bestowed upon us everlasting life, the eternal fellowship and communion with the Lord in His eternal and heavenly tabernacle, when God’s covenant fellowship with His people in Christ Jesus shall have been completed. And notice also in this connection the first part of this text: “Keep yourselves in the love of God”. This does not refer primarily to our love of God, for: “Not herein is love, that we loved God, but that He loved us”. The love of God is surely God’s love toward us. And in this love of God we must keep ourselves. In that amazing, unchangeable love we must stand; that love of God we must keep ever before us; to that love of God we must cling and in it we must walk. Then, because our God is Jehovah, the unchangeable and almighty covenant God, we will be assured that the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ will lead us into everlasting glory in the day of His coming.

A third passage to which we would call attention is Eph. 2:4: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us”. The expression “for” means literally: because of. Bearing this in mind, we may translate: “But God, Who is rich in mercy, because of His great love wherewith He loved us”. This text, particularly when viewed in its context, is truly an amazing portion of the Word of God. Also here the starting point is our great misery. We read in verses 1-3: “And you hath He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.” Moreover, also this fourth verse of Eph. 2 speaks of the riches of God’s mercy and connects it with the love of God as its ultimate reason and ground. The text declares, does it not, “But God, Who is rich in mercy, because of His great love wherewith He loved us.” Obviously, therefore, the love of God, yea the great love of God is the ground of and reason for the mercy of God. The love of G d lies at the root of His mercy and His mercy consequently serves His love. By mercy the end of His love is reached. God loves His people with an everlasting love in Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord. And because of that great love of God He would save them out of their great misery, so that this love of God reveals itself as His mercy toward His people in misery. Notice, also in this context, that the riches of the mercy of God becomes manifest in our being made alive in Christ, in our being raised with Him and being placed with Him in heaven, even as we read this in verses 5-6: “Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved); And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” And all this occurs, so we read, in order that the Lord might show forth the exceeding riches of His grace, as we read in verse 7: “That in the ages to come He might shew the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.” Hence, the Lord willed to save us out of such a great misery and lead us into an unspeakable glory in order that the exceeding riches of His grace might be shown and receive our praise even for evermore.

A fourth and final Scripture to which we would call attention is Rom. 9:23. There we read: “And that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had afore prepared unto glory.” The people of God are called in this text: “vessels of mercy”, and this expression signifies that they are products of this mercy of God. Vessels of mercy are vessels produced by mercy; as the people of the Lord we owe our existence (our existence as people of God) exclusively to the mercy of God. In the second place we would note, in connection with this text, that this mercy of God, which produces these vessels, upon whom the Lord visits His glory, has its purpose in the everlasting God Himself. We read, do we not, that God had afore prepared them unto glory. Hence, it is God who, before the foundation of the world, willed that these “vessels of mercy” should be clothed with the riches of His glory. And that this sovereign good pleasure should receive all the emphasis, also in this passage, need not surprise us, particularly if we consider the entire context in which this text occurs. This entire ninth chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, from the beginning to the end, is one song of praise which sings of the eternal sovereignty of the Lord. And, finally, notice in this twenty-third verse that “God makes known the riches of His glory upon these vessels of mercy. Having prepared them unto glory from before the foundation of the world, He also actually visits this glory upon them, and thereby makes them, by his mercy, vessels which reveal the glory of the Lord. And all this takes place, we understand, in order that He might make known the riches of His glory, in order that we may forever sing of the amazing and unfathomable power of the grace and mercy of our God. For it is indeed the purpose of the Lord that no flesh may boast, but that whosoever boasteth shall boast or glory forever in the Lord.

(to be continued)