The Puritan theologian, Thomas Watson said mercy is an attribute of God. Mercy is “the Result and Effect of God’s Goodness, Psal. 33.5. Psal. 119.64.” [Practical Divinity (London, 1692), 53]. God is good in himself; and is good in relation to us humans. This goodness to us is “nothing else but his Mercy.”
The great Puritan and Presbyterian biblical commentator, Matthew Henry (1662-1714) had much to say about God’s mercy and what it means for our lives. When and where do we experience mercy? What should our response to God’s mercy be?
Henry saw the “life of religion” to be “to converse with God, to receive his communications of mercy and grace to us, and to return pious and devout affections to him”; [The Complete Works of the Rev. Matthew Henry, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1853), 1:20. Further page numbers are to this volume]. Our whole existence should be spent in receiving God’s mercy and grace! How do our lives stand in relation to that purpose?
Throughout his works, Henry saw God’s mercy as reaching us in three ways.
God’s Mercy in Our Daily Lives. We live by the mercy of God, day by day. God’s mercies encounter us and surround us—in ways of which we are often unaware. But we also know God’s mercy enfolds us, even in the most common experience of our lives.
Henry wrote that “God fills up your time with mercy” (127). God hears our voice, and “will not turn away our prayer, or his mercy” (200). Indeed, “every day of the week we
want mercy from him” (220). What we find is that God is “coming toward us in a way of mercy. What ever good we hope for, it is God alone, and his wisdom, power, and goodness, that we must hope in” (224). What we find is that God comes…and comes again to us…in mercy!
We should see God’s mercy in the course of our lives, even in what we most take for granted. For Henry, our clothing, for example, is “a mercy which, that we may not pride ourselves in, we must take notice of God in” (Ezek. 16:11-12). (226). Even more, “every bit we eat, and every drop we drink, is mercy; every step we take, and every breath we draw, mercy” (235). We are, every day, preserved from calamities, our bones are not broken—it is of God’s mercies “that we are not consumed” (235). We can observe a “constant series of mercies” (235). When God takes away sickness and preserves us from the “plague,” said Henry, “it is a mercy we are bound to be very thankful for” (236). Like food, sleep is a mercy (242), dwelling safely is by God’s mercy (245).
Even in our prayers, we experience God’s mercy since the “benefit of prayer will reach far, because he that hears prayer can extend his hand of power and mercy to the utmost corners of the earth, and to them that are afar off upon the sea” (256). We experience God’s daily mercies and pray for others to receive God’s mercy, too. For ourselves, we “pray for daily pardon, as duly as we pray for daily bread; and encouraged to come boldly to the throne of grace for mercy” (405). Our response is that “whatever mercy we pray for, when it is given we ought to return thanks for it” (279). God’s mercy is in our daily lives…all the time! We are thankful!
God’s Mercy in Salvation. Beyond what God’s mercy provides every day, God’s great mercy is given to us in salvation. God extends a “bridge of mercy” (133). The “door of mercy stands open, and we are invited to come and enter” (298). We come to God’s “throne of grace” for “mercy to pardon” for what has been “amiss” in our lives (211). For if you are “undone by reason of sin, can you not beg and pray for mercy and grace?” asks Henry (212).
Our sin is our greatest need for God’s mercy. We need the “infinite mercy and goodness of God” and “the merit and righteousness of Christ” (332). We have no goodness or merit in ourselves. By our nature, as humans who are sinners before God, our situation is “helpless and hopeless.” We are of a “guilty, exposed, condemned race; undone, undone for ever.” But God, by God’s grace and goodness, has provided a remedy for our dangerous situation. It is the death of Jesus Christ.
In Christ’s death on the cross, God’s “justice is satisfied, and by the Spirit of Christ sinners are sanctified. Mercy and truth here meet together” (332). In Jesus Christ, “God’s mercy is upon us” (345). Christ’s death atones for our sin by reconciling us to the God of justice who, in divine mercy, provides Christ. In his death, Christ removes our sin by “pardoning mercy” (360), establishing forgiveness and peace with God (Rom. 5:1). Our sin is pardoned through Christ who “bore our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). We receive forgiveness through faith: “See by faith the holy Jesus made sin for thee” (367), said Henry; and “thus the justice of God was not only satisfied, but greatly glorified” (351). Now, by faith, we can see “the love of Christ” (351). Now, when “we see Christ and him crucified, we cannot but see the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge” (351; John 15:13; Rom. 5:8). Said Henry, “Our sins have reached to the heavens, but there we have seen God’s mercy in Christ reaching beyond the heavens” (404).
Christ triumphs over sin and evil (353). Now, “Christ’s death is our life; that is, it is not only our salvation from death, but it is the fountain of all our joys, and the foundation of all our hopes” (355). For by God’s mercy in Christ—by grace—we receive “pardon and forgiveness for our sins” (356). In him, we now receive “‘grace to help in every time of need” (Heb. 4:16; 362). Now, we can say: “I will draw near to God for mercy and grace, in a dependence upon him as my righteousness” (369). God’s mercy in salvation meets our deepest need.
God’s Mercy in Eternal Life. Matthew Henry preached a funeral sermon upon the death of Rev. Mr. Francis Tallents. Henry indicated that Rev. Tallents had spoken to him a year before his death and said he wanted the sermon at his funeral to “lay emphasis upon the word mercy” with the biblical text being: “Looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude 21). For, said Rev. Tallents: “All my hopes for eternal life are built purely upon the mercy of my Lord Jesus Christ. I have nothing else to trust to” (601). It is in eternal life that the mercy of God in Jesus Christ endures for ever. As Henry said: “Let the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ be always before our eyes, and let the believing expectation of it fill our souls, be inlaid there: let these words be written on the tables of our hearts, as with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond, ‘Looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life’” (601).
Our conviction that the mercy of God in our Lord Jesus Christ opens eternal life means death need not be feared. Henry said: “What is there in death to be dreaded, when it is only our passage to that eternal life, which through the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ we are looking and longing for” (603). This is the most important—and practical—blessing ever to come to us! Death holds no fear for us, since “the apprehensions of death approaching” is met by “depending upon the mercy of Christ, and looking for eternal life through him” (603). We have “a believing expectation of the glory to be revealed”!
Henry went on to list six great truths from this text. These express the Christian Gospel:
1) That there is another life after this (606)
2) That in the other life, there is a state of perfect and perpetual bliss, prepared for and secured to all good Christians, who live and die in the fear of God, and in the faith of Christ (607)
3) That our present state is a state of expectation (608)
4) That we have all need of divine mercy, are for ever undone without it, and must depend upon that for all the good we hope for, here or hereafter (609)
5) That it is only from Christ, and through Christ, and in Christ, that we poor sinners can hope to find mercy (609); Henry said: “The mercy we must be saved by, if we be saved, is the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ: it is that we must have an eye to, it is that we must depend upon for eternal life; mercy put into the hand of a Mediator (609).
6) That the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ is as necessary to the finishing of the work of our salvation, as it was to the beginning of it (610). Said Henry: “We not only receive the mercy of Christ in our justification, sanctification, and present comforts, but we look for it still, even unto eternal life” (610). For “Christ’s mercy may be looked for even to eternal life; for whom he loves, he loves to the end, loves them into heaven, that world of everlasting love” (611).
Mercy! God’s mercy is with us in daily life; in salvation; and in eternal life. “We all lie at God’s mercy,” said Matthew Henry (609). We “cast ourselves entirely upon his mercy; which we need not be afraid to do, for he has proclaimed his name ‘Gracious and Merciful’” (609; Ps. 145:8).
Henry’s emphasis on the mercy of God is a word for us to hear and live by every day. God’s mercy is found supremely in Jesus Christ who, by God’s grace, died for our salvation. So, we hear Matthew Henry when he urges: “Let Jesus Christ be all in all to you. In every thing wherein you have to do with God, depend upon the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ; and in all things let him have the pre-eminence with you” (615); and “Live upon the mercy of Christ, see yourselves lost without it, and cast yourselves upon it; let that be your stay, and stay yourselves upon it; let that be your comfort, and comfort yourselves with it” (615).
Dr. Donald K. McKim currently lives in Germantown, TN and is an Honorably Retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Some of his publications include: (with Jim West), Heinrich Bullinger: An Introduction to His Life and Theology (Wipf & Stock, 2022); Everyday Prayer with the Puritans (P&R, 2021); Everyday Prayer with the Reformers (P&R, 2020); Living into Lent, new edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 2020); Everyday Prayer with John Calvin (P&R, 2019). Several of his other articles can also be found at The Presbyterian Outlook https://pres-outlook.org/