Summary: The sixth in a sixteen-part series on the Nazarene Articles of Faith. In order to understand The Atonement, we must also understand the difference between God’s Mercy and His Grace
Experts can’t agree if the following is a true story or if it should be written down next to the tale of George Washington and the Cherry Tree. While there is no concrete evidence of its truth, there is enough anecdotal evidence that the story has been in existence long enough to quite possibly be true. Regardless, I submit to you the following story about Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia .
In the middle of the Great Depression, New York City mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia , strived to live with the people. It was not unusual for him to ride with the firefighters, raid with the police, or take field trips with orphans. On a bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told the mayor that her daughter’s husband had left, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving.
However, the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. "It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor," the man told the mayor. "She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson."
LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, "I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars or ten days in jail." But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous hat, saying, "Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant."
The following day, New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered woman who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Fifty cents of that amount was contributed by the grocery store owner himself, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.
I share this story primarily to illustrate the difference between two key terms: mercy and grace.
It is said that mercy is when we “don’t get what we deserve.” Often, mercy is used to refer to not getting the punishment we deserve. Children play that game called “mercy” when they try to bend each others’ hands over backwards. The game is over when one child begs for “mercy,” asking the other child to stop. Our story illustrates “mercy” in that Mayor LaGuardia paid the fine for the woman. Justice was served, in that the fine was paid…but mercy also reigned—for the woman could not pay her fine herself, so LaGuardia paid it for her. Mercy is when we “don’t get what we deserve.”
Grace , on the other hand, is when we “get what we don’t deserve.” While mercy is “Not getting the bad things that we deserve,” grace is about “getting the good things that we don’t deserve.” The grace evidenced in the story was not the forgiveness of the debt, but the additional assessment of a $.50 cent fine on every member in the courtroom. The grace was the $47.50 that this woman received. $47.50 that she did not deserve.
As Christians, we understand mercy as being the forgiveness of sins, the removal of the punishment. We deserve eternal death and separation from God – “For all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God” and “the wages of sin is death.” Mercy is the forgiveness of our sins, and the removal of the punishment. On the other hand, grace (receiving what we don’t deserve) is the gift of new life, the gift of right relationship with God, the gift of eternal life in heaven—“the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And yet, there’s one more element that’s needed. Justice must still be served. We know that God is a just God. Justice is not merely dismissed in the interest of grace or mercy. Had Mayor LaGuardia simply forgiven the fine, then the shopkeeper would have received no compensation for the stolen loaf of bread. And so, Mayor LaGuardia had mercy on the woman, not by forgiving her debt, but by paying for her debt.
Paul speaks of the justice of God in Romans chapter 3. I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the book of Romans, and you may wish to keep your Bibles open there for the remainder of our study. Hear these words from Romans 3, beginning in verse 21.