The Practice and Pitfalls of Mercy
Passage: Luke 6:36–6:42
The Practice and Pitfalls of Mercy
In the last several years, the evangelical church in America has witnessed a surprising rise in something we now call “de-conversion” stories. The phenomenon is just what it sounds to be. A prominent Christian de-converts from his or her former belief system. They may choose to turn away from the faith entirely, or they may simply decide to follow what they consider a less-narrow version of Christianity.
And that’s really the theme of these stories. The details are varied, but there is almost always this common thread tying such stories together. It’s the idea that biblical Christianity is too judgmental, and therefore we should follow something less abrasive.
For example, a prominent recording artist who professed Christian faith was asked why she changed her mind on homosexuality. Her answer – “Who am I to judge?” Or, another professing Christian author I’ve read now rejects the doctrine he was raised with. Why? Because such dogmatic views, he says, are too harsh, and Jesus himself taught us not to judge. In fact, you could make the case that John 3.16 is no longer the most quote verse in the Bible. It’s now Matthew 7 or, for our purposes this morning, Luke 6 – “Judge not, and you will not be judged.”
What are we to make of these things? Is the church’s problem a spirit of judgmentalism that excludes vast numbers of people who simply don’t match our preferences? Should more of us de-convert from our supposedly fundamentalist approach to the faith? Is it disobeying Jesus to say something is wrong? Is it disobeying Jesus to say someone is wrong?
These are important questions – important because as we read in our text today, Jesus does say, “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” We want to obey Jesus, just like we emphasized last week. We want to take his Word seriously. But we want to do so in a way that takes the full scope of his teaching into account. This is a point that many de-converts miss. The same Jesus who said in Luke 6, “Judge not,” also said in Luke 17, “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” And since Scripture interprets Scripture, obeying Jesus means taking all of his words into account, not simply the ones that fit our preferences. These are important questions. It’s important because we must obey Christ, but it’s also important for our calling to be salt and light in this world. Listen, in a culture where self reigns supreme, we need to be ready to answer the now very common reply – “Who am I to judge?”
That’s what I’d like us to do this morning. I’d like to spend our time considering just what Jesus means when he calls his followers not to judge or condemn but rather to forgive and to display generosity. How do we obey our Lord in these matters? How do we walk in love while also holding fast to the truth?
In the context of Luke 6, Jesus is in the midst of his Sermon on the Plain, and the theme of Jesus’ teaching, you’ll remember, is found in v27. Look again where Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” That is the heart of kingdom discipleship. In the kingdom of God, Jesus’ followers live with an upside-down, even radical, approach to love. We do not merely love those who love us. We love even those who hate us.
And this call to love frames our verses this morning. What does it look like to love your enemies? Here in v36 and following Jesus tells us. He continues to flesh out for us what it means live as citizens of his kingdom.
More specifically, Jesus gives us two principles in these verses that help us put love into practice. The first principle is an exhortation concerning mercy, while the second principles is a warning concerning self-righteousness. And what I pray we see is that these principles help us avoid judgmentalism on the one hand while also contending for the truth on the other. And Lord willing, as we live this way, we won’t see more de-conversions, but rather more conversions as sinners are brought, by grace, to see the love of God through the testimony of the church.
Be Quick with the Gift of Mercy
Let’s consider these two principles together, beginning with the exhortation in vv36-38. Jesus tells us, “Be quick with the gift of mercy.” That’s Principle #1 – Be quick with the gift of mercy. We looked briefly at v36 last week, but it really belongs with this section today. Notice again Jesus’ clear call to mercy, v36 – “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Now, mercy is a very rich theme in Scripture, so let’s put some definition on it. Mercy is actually an outworking of God’s goodness. It is the gift of kindness to someone in misery, regardless of what that person deserves. Mercy, then, differs somewhat from grace. Grace sees a person as guilty before God and then responds with forgiveness. Mercy sees a person as suffering the consequences of sin and then responds with compassion, even when that compassion is undeserved.
And in that sense, mercy is uniquely an expression of God’s heart. We see this all through Scripture. God’s mercy is great, the Bible says. God’s mercy is tender like a father towards his children, it is showered down upon thousands and thousands of people, and even after seasons of punishment, God’s mercy returns or endures. It never ends, and it is astonishingly new every morning. That is the mercy of God that he gives to each and every human being.
Of course, as Christians, we know God’s mercy in a deeper way. God’s mercy to the believer is nothing less than the gift of Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus is our merciful high priest, who meets us in our need, makes atonement for our sin, and then brings us into the presence of God. Christ embodies for us the riches of God’s mercy, so that through Jesus, we feast on the merciful goodness of God. That’s the gospel. It’s not a morsel of mercy, but a feast spread wide. And there at the head of the table is the heavenly Father saying, “Taste and see that I am good! Receive my mercy and feast till your full.” Do you see the amazing depth of God’s mercy? It overflows from his heart, and it reveals his goodness to those in need.
And it’s that mercy, brothers and sisters, that Jesus commands us to show. Look again at v36, and notice the connection with the character of God. “Be merciful,” Jesus says, “even as your Father is merciful.” Do you see the connection? Our call to mercy is not a vague command to simply be nice. No, our call is to display the merciful heart of God. This is why it’s vital for us to understand God’s mercy – because as his children, we’re now tasked with being instruments of his mercy to the world around us. In fact, that’s a good way to think of it. We’ve received mercy so that we might give mercy.
And that calling, brothers and sisters, is what drives Jesus’ commands in vv37-38. Jesus’ commands here are not disconnected from mercy. They are, rather, the expression of mercy, flowing out from our lives to the lives of others. Look again at those four commands in vv37-38. Jesus says, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”
Now, this is the crux of the passage. This is where, just like last week, we need to think carefully. Is Jesus prohibiting all forms of moral evaluation, all expressions of moral judgment? No, that is not what Jesus means. There are instances where we not only can issue moral judgments, but we ought to issue moral judgments. For example, when the Scriptures speak clearly on a moral issue, we must speak clearly. It is not judgmental to say that homosexual practice is wrong. It is not judgmental to say that drunkenness is wrong. It is not judgmental to say greed and lying and pride and lust are wrong. To speak out on such things is not violating Jesus’ command. Where Scripture speaks, we speak.
What’s more, the church, as a body, is sometimes tasked with making these moral judgments very clear and visible to the world. Consider the practice of redemptive church discipline, something that we as a congregation have done before. When a professing Christian begins to live contrary to Scripture and then refuses to repent, a church must take action in issuing a moral judgment. Think of Matthew 18 where Jesus says the unrepentant person should be removed from the church. That’s a moral judgment the church is authorized to take – authorized by Jesus himself – and in those situations, a church is absolutely right to do so.
But those authorized judgments are not Jesus’ concern here in v37. Rather, Jesus has in view a misuse of such authority. Jesus is prohibiting a critical spirit that is quick to condemn without any hope of forgiveness. Let me say that again. This is why Jesus connects judgment, condemnation, and forgiveness in v37. What Jesus prohibits is a critical spirit that is quick to condemn without any hope of forgiveness. It’s that kind of attitude, brothers and sisters, that Jesus warns against. And let’s be honest, this attitude shows up far too often in our churches.
It’s the kind of attitude that holds a person’s sin against him, even after he has repented and sought forgiveness. “I know he’s coming to church now, but did you hear what he did when he was younger, how he did such and such with so and so?” That attitude condemns the man and withholds true forgiveness.
Or, it’s the kind of attitude that assumes the worst about another person, even though you don’t have all the information about what she really thinks or what she really said. “I don’t know what she meant, but I just know her kind of people. They never change. So, I don’t need to know what she actually said. They’re all the same.” That attitude judges the woman apart from any real knowledge. You just assume and then exclude.
Or, it’s the kind of attitude that elevates your opinion on secondary matters to the level of gospel truth and then judges everyone based on the standard you’ve created. “No strong Christian would ever do this or that, and therefore, he’s just not a serious Christian. He might not even be a Christian.” That attitude makes your opinion the highest standard of truth, and then harshly excludes all who don’t measure up.
Or, finally, it’s the kind of attitude that categorizes some people as too far gone to ever receive forgiveness. “God hates sin, and he hates that kind of sin especially. And therefore, I can demean, berate, and treat those people badly because that’s what they deserve.” That attitude assumes the gospel’s power is limited to those you consider redeemable.
Do you hear what each of those examples is missing? Mercy. And that’s the problem. That’s what Jesus is speaking against here. When we live with a critical spirit that is quick to condemn, we forget the mercy we’ve been given. And forgetting the gospel, we begin to treat others as though what they deserve is all that matters.
Instead, brothers and sisters, we, as a church, need to recover what the old saints called the judgment of charity. Maybe you know that phrase, but whether you do or don’t, I want to encourage us to recover the judgment of charity. What does that mean? Let me give you a few characteristics. The judgment of charity refuses to impugn people’s motives. It thinks the best of others, rather than assuming the worst. It doesn’t approach every issue as a worst-case scenario. It doesn’t elevate every issue to matters of life-and-death, or questions of orthodoxy. The judgment of charity is quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.
This mindset is essential for life and ministry in the church. In short, I’m not sure how we obey Jesus without the judgment of charity. One practical takeaway this morning is this – cultivate a charitable mindset as you interact with fellow believers. Ask the Lord to give a charitable spirit toward others, and as the Lord gives that grace, what we’ll find is that mercy often follows.
Now, in the flow of Jesus’ sermon, the most important reason to show mercy is what we saw back in v36. It’s the character of God. Since God is merciful, we, his children, must also be merciful. But you’ll notice that at the end of v38 Jesus gives another reason we ought to show mercy. Notice again what the Lord says – “Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” Imagine a marketplace, like those in Jesus’ day, and you go to buy grain for your family that week. You want a fair measure on your purchase, right? When the grain is poured into your container, you shake it down, making sure there’s no empty space at the bottom. And you don’t want any room at the top either. If I paid for one container, I want it full, no short-changing me.
That’s the image Jesus is using here in v38. And he’s using it to describe God’s delight in blessing the merciful. Think of the passage in Matthew 5 – “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive,” what? Mercy. Why is that? Why does God bless the merciful? Why does he measure to us with the measure we use? Is it because God owes us something when we show mercy? Hardly. God is a debtor to no one. Rather, God blesses the merciful because it brings him glory. Our displays of mercy are faint echoes of God’s mercy to us, which in the end puts the spotlight where it belongs – back on God.
And so, notice how the glory of God is one of the means the Lord uses to motivate us, to compel us to show mercy. I had a guy tell me once that the glory of God was a pretty weak motivator for Christian living. It’s not tangible enough, he said, not practical enough to affect how people live. Jesus disagrees with that objection and v38 is a good example of why. This is how God has providentially made the world to work. God delights to bless the merciful because in doing so, he receives glory as the merciful God.
And for the child of God, there is no more powerful motivator than that – to honor the Father, receive his blessing, and bring glory to his name.
Now, let’s go back to Jesus’ command in v37. As we’ve seen, the Lord is calling us to turn away from a critical spirit that is quick to condemn. But where do we start? I know this kind of critical spirit is present in my heart far too often – maybe yours too. It’s so much easier to condemn than to forgive, isn’t it? Where do we start? How do we walk in faithfulness to Jesus’ teaching?
Beware the Pit of Self-Righteousness
That’s where the second principles of the text can help us. Beginning in v39, Jesus gives us a warning, and if we heed his warning, we can find some direction on how to turn from this critical spirit that ignores mercy. Let’s look at this second principle, vv39-42 – Beware the Pit of Self-Righteousness.
Jesus starts his warning with a parable and a proverb. The parable is v39, and it’s a pithy picture. Listen again – “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?” Now, Jesus’ concern is with spiritual blindness, as we’ll see in a moment. But he uses the reality of physical blindness to make his point. The blind leading the blind is a precarious situation. Neither one can see the dangers around them, which means no one is actually leading. They’re both at risk.
But Jesus then follows up the parable with a proverb. Notice v40 – “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” Now, proverbs give general wisdom related to life in God’s world, and that’s what Jesus gives here. His point is that teachers often shape their students, in very formative ways, and this dynamic is woven into the fabric of how God made the world. One of the most impactful persons on my thinking about life and ministry was a teacher, and I still talk to him to this today. I’m sure many of you have a similar story. Teachers shape their students. Which means, you should be careful about who you follow.
But at this point in the sermon, Jesus is not primarily telling us to be wary of others. No, Jesus is telling us to be wary of ourselves. Jesus is about to confront us with a kind of spiritual blindness that afflicts each of us on some level. And if we don’t deal with it, then we’ll be the blind teacher of v39 who leads others astray because we cannot lead ourselves. What, then, is this cause of spiritual blindness? It’s what Jesus addresses in vv41-42. It is self-righteousness, which we might define as the refusal to see my sins because I’m too busy picking on the sins of others. Notice Jesus’ stinging rebuke, beginning in v41 – “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
Now, the speck here is basically a piece of dust, while the log is like a ceiling beam that upholds an entire roof. And Jesus’ point is powerful. It’s takes some level of pride, not to mention blindness, to pick at your brother’s dust when you’ve got a rafter coming out of your eye. This attitude makes you the blind leader from v39. Do you see the connection? Self-righteousness blinds us so that we miss our own glaring faults while obsessing over the tiny flaws in others. In that state, what good can you possibly do for your brother? You can’t even see clearly in your own life!
In fact, that is Jesus’ conclusion in v42. Listen again – “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye?” The answer to Jesus’ question is obvious. With the log in your own eye, you can’t see clearly enough to do any good to your brother or sister! And you have no right to! You can’t see because self-righteousness – the tendency to downplay your sins while exaggerating others – that self-righteous attitude blinds you.
But here’s the key to the text. When we like this – with this self-righteous attitude – where do we end up? Mired in that critical spirit we talked about earlier – that critical spirit that shows no mercy, that is quick to condemn, and sadly slow to forgive. Again, I hope you see the connection. Self-righteousness – the tendency to downplay your sins while exaggerating the sins of others – that attitude is the main pitfall standing between us and the kind of mercy Jesus commands us to show. If we want to walk in faithfulness to Christ, then we must first get the log out of our own eye. We must first deal with our own self-righteousness.
And in his kindness, Jesus gives us the remedy. Notice the final sentence, v42 – “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” A hypocrite is a pretender. Like a stage actor who wears a mask, a hypocrite is content with merely appearing righteous. That is the hypocrite’s façade. He thinks, “If I pick at other people’s sins, then that will prove that I care about righteousness.” But therein lies the hypocrite’s downfall. Picking at others while there is a log protruding from your face only proves that you’re blind and that you don’t really care about righteousness at all.
The desire for righteousness should always burn hottest in relationship to our own lives. Before I call you out, I should examine myself first, calling out my own sin and seeking, by grace, to remove the ceiling beam from my own eye. That’s the necessary step to being a merciful person, brothers and sisters. It is this dogged commitment, day after day, to destroy the self-righteous bent of our hearts. A self-righteous person by definition cannot be merciful.
And that’s why Jesus ends this section where he does – with a call to deal with our own sins before we look to others. Did you catch that, at the end of v42? Jesus doesn’t tell us to never help our brothers and sisters with the specks in their eyes. No, he says deal with your own sin first and then you can help your brother with his speck. Why is that? Why is dealing with my own sin first so important?
Because in dealing with my own sin, day after day, I see my need for mercy. Dealing with my own sin reminds me how often God has been slow to condemn me, and how he is always faithful to forgive when I confess and look to Christ. And so, as I address my own sin, I see again and again how God has been merciful to me, a sinner.
And in seeing God’s mercy, do you know what happens? My heart is changed. Seeing God’s mercy to me, again and again, I’m transformed to show mercy myself. That’s the power of the gospel. It’s the good news of mercy to a sinner like me, which then changes me to show mercy to those around me. It’s astounding really – through the gospel, I am transformed by the very mercy of God to show mercy to others as well.
Brothers and sisters, one of my goals for this sermon was to change, perhaps just a little, how we think about the Christian life. The pursuit of holiness, what Scripture calls sanctification – that pursuit is not merely an individual quest to change my conduct. No, sanctification is, in some sense, God’s means of equipping you to love your neighbor. That’s the change I want us to see today. The more we grow in godliness, which includes seeing our need for mercy, the more we are equipped and enabled to show mercy and therefore love our neighbor as ourselves.
What a difference that is from how we’re often taught to think about the Christian life. It’s not just me and Jesus. Even my individual growth is for the good of the Body. What’s more, my individual growth is part of how God shows mercy to those in need. I don’t think we can be reminded of this enough, brothers and sisters. Christianity is not a private faith. Our lives are bound up together, so much so that even our individual work of killing sin has a merciful, blessed effect in the life of the church.
Does the church have a problem with judgmentalism? Should more of us de-convert in favor of a less narrow version of Christianity? No, that’s the answer. Our problem is not with making moral judgments. Our problem, as it is in every age, is that we lose sight of the gospel. We lose sight of God’s mercy to us in Christ, and as a result, we cut ourselves off from God’s power that enables us to show mercy to others as well.
But the good news is that a church built on the gospel – a church that celebrates the mercy of God to sinners like us – that kind of church, brothers and sisters, can walk faithfully between loving our neighbor on the one hand, and contending for the truth on the other. We don’t need fewer convictions. We need those convictions to be wedded ever more faithfully to the gospel of Christ. “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
May God make us a church that loves his mercy, so that we would also be a church that displays his mercy. Amen.