God’s mercy, patience, and grace may be seen as three separate attributes, or as specific attributes of God’s goodness. The definitions given here show these attributes as special examples of God’s goodness when it is used for the benefit of specific classes of people. God’s mercy means God’s goodness towards those in misery and distress. God’s grace means God’s goodness towards those who deserve only punishment. God’s patience means God’s goodness in withholding of punishment toward those who sin over a period of time.
These three characteristics of God’s nature are often mentioned together, especially in the Old Testament. When God declared His name to Moses, he proclaimed in Exodus 34:6, “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,”” David says in Psalms 103:8, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
Because these characteristics of God are often mentioned together, it may seem difficult to distinguish among them. Yet the characteristic of mercy is often emphasized where people are in misery or distress. David says in 2 Samuel 24:14, “I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the Lord for his mercy is great.” The two blind men who wish Jesus to see their plight and heal them cry, “Have mercy on us, Son of David” (Matthew. 9:27). When Paul speaks of the fact that God comforts us in affliction he calls God the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). In time of need, we need to draw near to God’s throne so that we might receive both mercy and grace (Hebrews 4:16; 2:17; James 5:11). We are to imitate God’s mercy in our conduct toward others. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7; 2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
With respect to the attribute of grace we find that Scripture emphasizes that God’s grace, or his favor, toward those who deserve no favor but only punishment, is never obligated but is always freely given on God’s part. God says, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on those I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19; quoted in Romans 9:15). Yet God is regularly gracious toward his people: “Turn to me and be gracious to me, After Thy Manner with those who love Thy name” (Psalms 119:132 NASB). In fact, Peter can call God “the God of all grace” (1 Peter 5:10).
Grace as God’s goodness especially shown to those who do not deserve it is seen frequently in Paul’s writings. He emphasizes that salvation by grace is the opposite of salvation by human effort, for grace is a freely given gift. Romans 3:23-24, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” The distinction between grace and a salvation earned by works that merit a reward is also seen in Romans 11:6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” Grace, is God’s favor freely given to those who do not deserve His favor.
Paul also sees that if grace is unmerited, then there is only one human attitude appropriate as an instrument for receiving such grace, namely, faith: Romans 4:16, “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.” Faith is the one human attitude that is the opposite of depending on oneself, for it involves trust in or dependence upon another. Thus, it is devoid of self-reliance or attempts to gain righteousness by human effort. If God’s favor is to come to us apart from our own merit then it must come when we depend not on our own merit but on the merits of another, and that is precisely when we have faith.
In the New Testament, and especially in Paul’s epistles, not only the forgiveness of sins, but also the entire living of the Christian life can be seen to result from God’s continuous bestowal of grace. Therefore, Paul can say, “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Luke speaks of Antioch as the place where Paul and Barnabas “had been commended to the grace of God for the work which they had fulfilled” (Acts 14:26), indicating that the church there, in sending out Paul and Barnabas, saw the success of their ministry in the church there, as dependent upon God’s continuing grace. Furthermore, the blessing of “grace” upon Paul’s readers is the most frequent apostolic blessing in his letters (Romans 1:7; 16:20; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 16:23; 2 Corinthians 1:2; 13:14; Galatians 1:3; 6:18).
God’s patience, similarly, was mentioned in some of the verses cited above in connection with God’s mercy. The Old Testament frequently speaks of God as “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Psalms 86:1; 103:8; 145:8; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3, et al.). In the New Testament, Paul speaks about God’s kindness and forbearance and patience” (Romans 2:4), and says that Jesus Christ displays His “perfect patience” toward Paul himself as an example for others (1 Timothy 1:16; Romans 9:22; 1 Peter 3:20).
We are also to imitate God’s patience and be “slow to anger” (James 1:19), and be patient in suffering as Christ was (1 Peter 2:20). We are to lead a life “with patience” (Ephesians 4:2), and “patience” is listed among the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22). As with most of the attributes of God that we are to imitate in our lives, patience requires a moment-by-moment trust in God to fulfill his promises and purposes in our lives at His chosen time. Our confidence that the Lord will soon fulfill His purposes for our good and His glory will enable us to be patient. James makes this connection when he says in James 5:8, “You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord, is at hand.”
Adapted from Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Zondervan Academic, 1994), 200-201.
Wayne Grudem (PhD, University of Cambridge; DD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary, having previously taught for 20 years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, a member of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version of the Bible, the general editor of the ESV Study Bible, and has published over 20 books.