Pope Francis (aka Jorge Bergoglio) has declared 2016 to be a Year of Mercy for all Catholics. This is quite a big thing for the world’s Catholics. Francis published a book containing one of his encyclicals on mercy in 2015 called The Name of God is Mercy, Catholic schools around the world have structured their syllabi around this theme, and Catholic churches are organizing their teaching programs around the theme of mercy this year as well.
Having recently read Francis’ book, I thought it would be good to share a few thoughts on how to engage with Catholics who will be thinking about mercy more this year.
- Mercy is a good thing, and it is helpful that the mercy of God has been bought to the attention of the world through this initiative. It is a good idea to commend Catholics for this!
- As an evangelical, I think more about grace than mercy. A rough theological definition for mercy is getting a lesser punishment than you deserve; grace is being given what you don’t.
- There seems to be a movement from mercy to grace in the Bible. Under the old covenant, Israel was repeatedly shown mercy as she continued to break the law; under the new covenant, Israel and the nations are given eternal life in Christ through faith in Jesus and his once-for-all sacrifice. ‘Mercy’ is mentioned 129 times in the Bible, with 60 per cent of references appearing in the Old Testament and 40 per cent in the New Testament. In comparison, ‘grace’ is mentioned 131 times in the Bible—eight times in the Old Testament and 123 times in the New Testament.
- Mercy makes someone dependent on the mercy-giver for that mercy. A criminal saying, “I throw myself on the mercy of the court” makes that person very vulnerable. This is an entirely appropriate response for sinners before God.
- The Catholic sacramental system, however, places the Catholic church between the sinner and God, so a Catholic person needs to go continually to the Catholic church to receive mercy. This is usually done in the sacrament of reconciliation or confession. This makes a Catholic person dependent, firstly, on the Catholic church for mercy. The capacity here for manipulation and abuse is well documented.
- God’s grace is shown to us as a once-for-all sacrifice by Jesus on the cross for the sinner’s sins. God’s grace is incapable of manipulation. Once you have it, there is no longer any condemnation for the sinner who is in Christ Jesus. No-one can take it away from you or demand further penance or payment.
- In contrast to the bondage the Roman Catholic teaching on mercy places the sinner into, the gospel of grace through faith frees the sinner to live out the holy life he or she has been called to.
If you have been saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus death on your behalf, then you only have this because of God’s great mercy. In response, it would be good to be merciful to the Catholics around you who don’t yet know this freedom you have. So why not ask your Catholic friends about the Year of Mercy? Then you could say, “At our church, we talk more about grace” and share your understanding of how generous God has been to you in Christ and how great is the freedom that that brings—freedom from guilt, freedom from shame and even freedom from the Catholic church.