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Blessed are the Merciful for they shall obtain Mercy
The passages below are taken from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Studies in the Sermon on the Mount,” published as Second Edition in 1976 by Inter-Varsity Press.
THIS particular statement, ‘Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy’, is a further stage forward in the description, given in these Beatitudes, of the Christian man. I say deliberately that it is a further stage forward because there is again a change in the type and kind of description. In a sense we have so far been looking at the Christian in terms of his need, of his consciousness of his need. But here there is a kind of turning-point. Now we are concerned more with his disposition, which results from everything that has gone before. That is true, of course, of the subsequent Beatitudes also. We have already seen some of the results which follow when a man has truly seen himself; and especially when he has seen himself in his relationship to God. Here, now, are some further consequences which must inevitably be manifested when one is truly Christian. So that again we can emphasize the fact that our Lord clearly chose these Beatitudes carefully. He did not speak haphazardly. There is a definite progression in the thought; there is a logical sequence. This particular Beatitude comes out of all the others, and especially is it to be noted that it is in a very sharp and well-defined logical connection with the immediately preceding one, ‘Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.’ I would emphasize once more that it is idle to take any statement of the Sermon on the Mount at random, and to try to understand it, without taking it in the context of the whole, and especially in the context of these descriptions which are here given of the character and the disposition of the Christian man.
‘Blessed are the merciful.’ What a searching statement that is!
What a test of each one of us, of our whole standing and of our profession of the Christian faith! Those are the happy people, says Christ, those are the people to be congratulated. That is what man should be like---merciful. This is perhaps a convenient point at which to emphasize once more the searching character of the whole of this statement which we call the Beatitudes. Our Lord is depicting and delineating the Christian man and the Christian character. He is obviously searching us and testing us, and it is good that we should realize that, if we take the Beatitudes as a whole, it is a kind of general test to which we are being subjected. How are we reacting to these searching tests and probings? They really tell us everything about our Christian profession. And if I dislike this kind of thing, if I am impatient with it, if I want instead to be talking about communism, if I dislike this personal analysis and probing and testing, it simply means that my position is entirely contrary to that of the New Testament man. But if I feel, on the other hand, that though these things do search and hurt me, nevertheless they are essential and good for me, if I feel it is good for me to be humbled, and that it is a good thing for me to be held face to face with this mirror, which not only shows me what I am, but what I am in the light of God’s pattern for the Christian man, then I have a right to be hopeful about my state and condition. A man who is truly Christian, as we have already seen, never objects to being humbled. The first thing that is here said about him is that he should be ‘poor in spirit’, and if he objects to being shown that there is nothing in him, then that is not true of him. So these Beatitudes taken as a whole do provide a very searching test.
They are searching also, I think, in another way, a fact which is borne out very strikingly in the particular Beatitude we are looking at now. They remind us of certain primary, central truths about the whole Christian position. The first is this. The Christian gospel places all its primary emphasis upon being, rather than doing. The gospel puts a greater weight upon our attitude than upon our actions. In the first instance its main stress is on what you and I essentially are rather than on what we do. Throughout the Sermon our Lord is concerned about disposition. Later, He is going to talk about actions; but before He does that He describes character and disposition. And that of course is, as I am trying to show, essentially the New Testament teaching. A Christian is something before he does anything; and we have to be Christian before we can act as Christians. Now that is a fundamental point. Being is more important than doing, attitude is more significant than action. Primarily it is our essential character that matters. Or let me put it like this. We are not called upon as Christians to be, or to try to be, Christian in various respects. To be Christian, I say, is to possess a certain character and therefore to be a certain type of person. So often that is misinterpreted and people think that what the New Testament exhorts us to do is to try to be Christian in this and that respect, and to try to live as a Christian here and there. Not at all: we are Christians and our actions are the outcome of that.
Going a step further, we can put it like this. We are not meant to control our Christianity; our Christianity is rather meant to control us. From the standpoint of the Beatitudes, as indeed from the standpoint of the whole of the New Testament, it is an entire fallacy to think in any other way, and to say, for example, ‘To be truly Christian I must take up and use Christian teaching and then apply it.’ That is not the way our Lord puts it. The position rather is that my Christianity controls me; I am to be dominated by the truth because I have been made a Christian by the operation of the Holy Spirit within. Again I quote that striking statement of the apostle Paul which surely puts it so perfectly---‘I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.’ He is in control, not I; so that I must not think of myself as a natural man who is controlling his attitude and trying to be Christian in various ways. No; His Spirit controls me at the very centre of my life, controls the very spring of my being, the source of my every activity. You cannot read these Beatitudes without coming to that conclusion. The Christian faith is not something on the surface of a man’s life, it is not merely a kind of coating or veneer. No, it is something that has been happening in the very centre of his personality. That is why the New Testament talks about rebirth and being born again, about a new creation and about receiving a new nature. It is something that happens to a man in the very centre of his being; it controls all his thoughts, all his outlook, all his imagination, and, as a result, all his actions as well. All our activities, therefore, are the result of this new nature, this new disposition which we have received from God through the Holy Spirit.
That is why these Beatitudes are so searching. They tell us, in effect, that as we live our ordinary lives we are declaring all the time exactly what we are. That is what makes this matter so serious. By the way we react we manifest our spirit; and it is the spirit that proclaims the man in terms of Christianity. There are people, of course, who as a result of a strong human will can control their actions very largely. Yet in these other respects they are always proclaiming what they are. All of us are proclaiming whether we are ‘poor in spirit’, whether we ‘mourn’, whether we are ‘meek’, whether we ‘hunger and thirst’, whether we are ‘merciful’, or whether we are not. The whole of our life is an expression and a proclamation of what we really are. And as we confront a list like this, or as we look at this extraordinary portrait of the Christian drawn by our Lord, we are forced to look at ourselves and examine ourselves and ask ourselves these questions.
The particular question here is: Are we merciful? The Christian, according to our Lord, is not only what we have seen him to be already, but he is also merciful. Here is the blessed man, here is the man to be congratulated; one who is merciful. What does our Lord mean by this? First let me just mention one negative which is of importance. It does not mean that we should be ‘easy-going’, as we put it. There are so many people today who think that being merciful means to be easy-going, not to see things, or if we do see them, to pretend we have not. That, of course, is a particular danger in an age 1ike this which does not believe in law or discipline, and in a sense does not believe in justice or righteousness. The idea today is that man should be absolutely free minded, that he has the right to do just what he likes. The merciful person, many people think, is one who smiles at transgression and law breaking. He says, ‘What does it matter? Let’s carry on.’ He is a flabby kind of person, easygoing, easy to get on with, to whom it does not matter whether laws are broken or not, who is not concerned about keeping them.
Now that, obviously, is not what is meant by our Lord’s description of the Christian at this point, and for very good reasons. You may recall that when we considered these Beatitudes as a whole, we laid great stress upon the fact that none of them must ever be interpreted in terms of natural disposition, because if you start thinking of these Beatitudes in such terms you will find they are grossly unfair. Some are born like this, some are not; and the man who is born with this easy-going temperament has a great advantage over the man who is not. But that is a denial of the whole of biblical teaching. This is not a gospel for certain temperaments; nobody has an advantage over anybody else when they are face to face with God. ‘All have come short of the glory of God’, ‘every mouth has been stopped’ before God. That is the New Testament teaching, so that natural disposition must never be the basis of our interpretation of any one of the Beatitudes.
There is, however, a very much stronger reason than that for saying that what is meant by ‘merciful’ is not being easy-going. For when we interpret this term we must remember that it is an adjective that is applied specially and specifically to God Himself. So that whatever I may decide as to the meaning of ‘merciful’ is true also of God, and the moment you look at it like that you see that this easy-going attitude that doesn’t care about breaking the law is unthinkable when we are talking about God. God is merciful; but God is righteous, God is holy, God is just: and whatever our interpretation of merciful may be it must include all that. ‘Mercy and truth are met together’, and if I can think of mercy only at the expense of truth and law, it is not true mercy, it is a false understanding of the term.
What is mercy? I think perhaps the best way of approaching it is to compare it with grace. You notice in the introduction to the so-called Pastoral Epistles that the apostle brings in a new term. Most of his other Epistles start by saying ‘grace and peace’ from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ; but in his Pastoral Epistles he says, ‘grace, mercy, and peace’, and there is thus an interesting distinction implied between grace and mercy. The best definition of the two that I have ever encountered is this: ‘Grace is especially associated with men in their sins; mercy is especially associated with men in their misery.’ In other words, while grace looks down upon sin as a whole, mercy looks especially upon the miserable consequences of sin. So that mercy really means a sense of pity plus a desire to relieve the suffering. That is the essential meaning of being merciful; it is pity plus the action. So the Christian has a feeling of pity. His concern about the misery of men and women leads to an anxiety to relieve it. There are many ways in which one could illustrate that. For example, to have a merciful spirit means the spirit that is displayed when you suddenly find yourself in the position of having in your power someone who has transgressed against you. Now the way to know whether you are merciful or not is to consider how you feel towards that person. Are you going to say, ‘Well now, I am going to exert my rights at this point; I am going to be legal. This person has transgressed against me; very well, here comes my opportunity’? That is the very antithesis of being merciful. This person is in your power; is there a vindictive spirit, or is there a spirit of pity and sorrow, a spirit, if you like, of kindness to your enemies in distress? Or, again, we can describe it as inward sympathy and outward acts in relation to the sorrows and sufferings of others. Perhaps an example is the best way of illustrating this. The great New Testament illustration of being merciful is the parable of the Good Samaritan. On his journey he sees this poor man who has been in the hands of robbers, stops, and goes across the road to where he is lying. The others have seen the man but have gone on. They may have felt compassion and pity yet they have not done anything about it. But here is a man who is merciful; he is sorry for the victim, goes across the road, dresses the wounds, takes the man with him and makes provision for him. That is being merciful. It does not mean only feeling pity; it means a great desire, and indeed an endeavour, to do something to relieve the situation.
But let us go from that to the supreme example of all. The perfect and central example of mercy and being merciful is the sending by God of His only begotten Son into this world, and the coming of the Son. Why? Because there is mercy with Him. He saw our pitiable estate, He saw the suffering, and, in spite of the law breaking, this was the thing that moved Him to action. So the Son came and dealt with our condition. Hence the whole necessity for the doctrine of the atonement. There is no contradiction between justice and mercy, or mercy and truth. They have met together. Indeed John the Baptist’s father put this very clearly when, having understood what was happening by the birth of his son, he thanked God that at last the mercy promised to the fathers had arrived, and then proceeded to thank God that the Messiah had come ‘through the tender mercy of our God’. That is the idea, and he realized it at the very beginning. It is all a matter of mercy. It is God, I say, looking down upon man in his pitiful condition as the result of sin, and having pity upon him. The grace that is there in regard to sin in general now becomes mercy in particular as God looks at the consequences of sin. And, of course, it is something that is to be observed constantly in the life and behaviour of our blessed Lord Himself.
That, then, is more or less a definition of what is meant by being merciful. The real problem, however, in this Beatitude is raised by the promise, ‘for they shall obtain mercy’; and perhaps there is no other Beatitude that has been misunderstood quite so frequently as this one. For there are people who would interpret it like this. They say, ‘If I am merciful towards others, God will be merciful towards me; if I forgive, I shall be forgiven. The condition of my being forgiven is that I forgive.’ Now the best way to approach this problem is to take it with two parallel statements. First there is that well-known statement in the Lord’s prayer which is an exact parallel to this, ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us’, or, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’. There are those who interpret this as meaning that if you forgive, you will be forgiven, if you do not, you will not be forgiven. Some people refuse to recite the Lord’s prayer for this reason.
Then there is a similar statement recorded in the parable of the debtors in Matthew 18. Here a cruel servant who was in debt was asked by his master for payment. The man did not have the money to pay so he besought his master to forgive him his debt. His master had mercy upon him and forgave him all that he owed. But, you remember, this man went outside and demanded payment from somebody under himself who owed him a comparatively trivial debt. That man in turn prayed and besought him and said, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all’. But he would not listen and cast him into prison until he could pay him the utmost farthing. But other servants, seeing this, reported it to their lord. On hearing their account he called for this cruel and unjust servant and said to him in effect, ‘Very well; in view of your action I am going to repeal what I said to you’; and he cast him into prison, saying he should remain there until he had paid the utmost farthing. Our Lord ends the parable by saying, ‘So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.’
Here again people at once begin to say, ‘Well; does not that clearly teach that I am forgiven by God only as I forgive others and to the extent that I forgive others?’ It is an amazing thing to me that anybody could ever arrive at such an interpretation, and that for two main reasons. First, if you and I were to be judged strictly on those terms, it is very certain that not one of us would be forgiven and not one of us would ever see heaven. If the passage is to be interpreted in that strictly legal manner forgiveness is impossible. It is amazing that people can think like that, not realizing they are condemning themselves as they do so.
The second reason is still more striking. If that is the interpretation of this Beatitude and the parallel passages, then we must cancel the whole doctrine of grace from the New Testament. We must never again say that we are saved by grace through faith, and that not of ourselves; we must never read those glorious passages which tell us that ‘while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’, even ‘when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God’, or ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself’. They must all go; they are all nonsense; and they are all untrue. Scripture, you see, must be interpreted by Scripture; we must never interpret any Scripture in such a manner as to contradict other Scriptures. We must ‘rightly divide the word of truth’, and we must see that there is a conformity of doctrine to doctrine.
When we apply this to the statement before us, the explanation is perfectly simple. Our Lord is really saying that I am only truly forgiven when I am truly repentant. To be truly repentant means that I realize I deserve nothing but punishment, and that if I am forgiven it is to be attributed entirely to the love of God and to His mercy and grace, and to nothing else at all. But I go further; it means this. If I am truly repentant and realize my position before God, and realize that I am only forgiven in that way, then of necessity I shall forgive those who trespass against me.
Let me put it like this. I have taken the trouble to point out in each case how every one of these Beatitudes follows the previous one. This principle was never more important than it is here. This Beatitude follows all the others; therefore I put it in this form. I am poor in spirit; I realize that I have no righteousness; I realize that face to face with God and His righteousness I am utterly helpless; I can do nothing. Not only that. I mourn because of the sin that is within me; I have come to see, as the result of the operation of the Holy Spirit, the blackness of my own heart. I know what it is to cry out, ‘0 wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me?’ and desire to be rid of this vileness that is within me. Not only that. I am meek, which means that now that I have experienced this true view of myself, nobody else can hurt me, nobody else can insult me, nobody can ever say anything too bad about me. I have seen myself, and my greatest enemy does not know the worst about me. I have seen myself as something truly hateful, and it is because of this that I have hungered and thirsted after righteousness. I have longed for it. I have seen that I cannot create or produce it, and that nobody else can. I have seen my desperate position in the sight of God. I have hungered and thirsted for that righteousness which will put me right with God, that will reconcile me to God, and give me a new nature and life. And I have seen it in Christ. I have been filled; I have received it all as a free gift.
Does it not follow inevitably that, if I have seen and experienced all that, my attitude towards everybody else must be completely and entirely changed? If all that is true of me, I no longer see men as I used to see them. I see them now with a Christian eye. I see them as the dupes and the victims and the slaves of sin and Satan and of the way of the world. I have come to see them not simply as men whom I dislike but as men to be pitied. I have come to see them as being governed by the god of this world, as being still where once I was, and would be yet but for the grace of God. So I am sorry for them. I do not merely see them and what they do. I see them as the slaves of hell and of Satan, and my whole attitude toward them is changed. And because of that, of course, I can be and must be merciful with respect to them. I differentiate between the sinner and his sin. I see everybody who is in a state of sin as one who is to be pitied.
But I would take you again to the supreme example. Look at Him there upon the cross, who never sinned, who never did any harm to anyone, who came and preached the truth, who came to seek and save that which was lost. There He is, nailed and suffering agonies on that cross, and yet what does He say as He looks upon the people who are responsible for it? ‘Father, forgive them.’ Why? ‘For they know not what they do.’ It is not they, it is Satan; they are the victims; they are being governed and dominated by sin. ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ Now you and I are to become like that. Look at Stephen the martyr attaining to that. As they are stoning him, what does he say? He prays to his heavenly Father and cries, ‘Lay not this sin to their charge.’ ‘They do not know what they are doing, Lord’, says Stephen; ‘they are mad. They are mad because of sin; they do not understand me as Thy servant; they do not understand my Lord and Master; they are blinded by the god of this world; they do not know what they are doing. Lay not this sin to their charge. They are not responsible.’ He has pity upon them and is merciful with respect to them. And that, I say, is to be the condition of every one who is truly Christian. We are to feel a sense of sorrow for all who are helpless slaves of sin. That is to be our attitude towards people.
I wonder whether we have recognized this as the Christian position even when people were using us despitefully and maligning us. As we shall see later in this Sermon on the Mount, even when they are doing that, we are still to be merciful. Do you not know something about this in experience? Have you not felt sorry for people who show from the expression on their faces the bitterness and the anger they feel? They are to be pitied. Look at the things about which they get angry, showing that their whole central spirit is wrong; so unlike Christ, so unlike God who has forgiven them everything. We should feel a great sorrow for them, we should be praying to God for them and asking Him to have mercy upon them. I say that all this follows of necessity if we have truly experienced what it means to be forgiven. If I know that I am a debtor to mercy alone, if I know that I am a Christian solely because of that free grace of God, there should be no pride left in me, there should be nothing vindictive, there should be no insisting upon my rights. Rather, as I look out upon others, if there is anything in them that is unworthy, or that is a manifestation of sin, I should have this great sorrow for them in my heart.
All these things then follow inevitably and automatically. That is what our Lord is saying here. If you are merciful, you have mercy in this way. You already have it, but you will have it every time you sin, because when you realize what you have done you will come back to God and say, ‘Have mercy upon me, 0 God.’ But remember this. If, when you sin, you see it and in repentance go to God, and there on your knees immediately realize that you are not forgiving somebody else, you will have no confidence in your prayers; you will despise yourself. As David puts it, ‘If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.’ If you are not forgiving your brother, you can ask God for forgiveness, but you will have no confidence in your prayer, and your prayer will not be answered. That is what this Beatitude says. That is what our Lord said in the parable of the unjust steward. If that unrighteous, cruel servant would not forgive the servant who was under him, he was a man who had never understood forgiveness or his relationship to his master. Therefore he was not forgiven. For the one condition of forgiveness is repentance. Repentance means, among other things, that I realize that I have no claim upon God at all, and that it is only His grace and mercy that forgive. And it follows as the night the day that the man who truly realizes his position face to face with God, and his relationship to God, is the man who must of necessity be merciful with respect to others.
It is a solemn, serious and, in a sense, terrible thing to say that you cannot be truly forgiven unless there is a forgiving spirit in you. For the operation of the grace of God is such, that when it comes into our hearts with forgiveness it makes us merciful. We proclaim, therefore, whether we have received forgiveness or not by whether we forgive or not. If I am forgiven, I shall forgive. None of us has by nature a forgiving spirit. And if you now have such a spirit, you have it for one reason only. You have seen what God has done for you in spite of what you deserve, and you say, ‘I know that I am truly forgiven; therefore, I truly forgive.’ ‘Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.’ Because they have already obtained mercy, therefore they are merciful. As we go on through the world we fall into sin. The moment we do so we need this mercy and we get it. And remember the end. In 2 Timothy 1:6—8 Paul inserts a note about Onesiphorus whom he recalls as one who had compassion on him and who visited him when he was a prisoner in Rome. Then he adds: ‘The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day.’ Oh yes, we shall need it then; we shall need it at the end, at the day of judgment when every one of us stands before the judgment seat of Christ and has to give an account of the deeds done in the body. For certain, there will be things which are wrong and sinful, and we shall need mercy in that day. And, thank God, if the grace of Christ is in us, if the spirit of the Lord is in us, and we are merciful, we shall obtain mercy in that day. What makes me merciful is the grace of God. But the grace of God does make me merciful. So it comes to this. If I am not merciful there is only one explanation; I have never understood the grace and the mercy of God; I am outside Christ; I am yet in my sins, and I am unforgiven.
‘Let every man examine himself.’ I am not asking you what sort of life you are living. I am not asking whether you do this, that or the other. I am not asking whether you have some general interest in the kingdom of God and His house. I am simply asking this. Are you merciful? Are you sorry for every sinner even though that sinner offends you? Have you pity upon all who are the victims and the dupes of the world and the flesh and the devil? That is the test. ‘Blessed---happy---are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.’ (99-109)
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