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The Attribute of Mercy

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I have been reading John Ensor’s The Great Work of the Gospel and came across an interesting section I thought I’d share with you today. Ensor is reflecting upon what motivates God to forgive sinful human beings. I was particularly interested in the quote he provides from his friend Dana Olson, who suggests the reason God decided to allow sin in this world: so that He might be able to show mercy, an attribute he could not otherwise display. What follows is excerpted from the first chapter of Ensor’s book.

There is one question that rises above all others, one question I did not think to ask until I was in seminary and took a course on the writings of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards, an eighteenth-century Puritan preacher and philosopher, has been called America’s greatest thinker. He wrote a treatise titled The End for Which God Created the World (published 1765). It asks why God does what he does. What motivates God to do one thing and not another? The reason this is important is that it gets to the very heart of the issue before us. What motivates God to want to forgive?

The fuller answer will develop as we go, but for now, let me summarize what I think the answer is. Why should we take God’s invitation and promise to heart? Because God’s own great passion is to glorify himself in our knowing him and enjoying him. More particularly, he wants to show us his grace; more particularly still, he wants to show us his infinite mercy, to the praise and glory of his own name. In other words, God desires to make his mercy the apex of his own glory in the eyes of all creation. It is the ultimate reason for the creation of the world and the plan of redemption. It is the ultimate reason we should believe he is ready to do a great work of grace in us!

Dana Olson, a pastor friend of mine, opened my eyes to this. He wrote:

Prior to creation God had no means of revealing one pinnacle attribute of his glory, mercy. While he could within the fellowship of the Trinity express love and maintain justice, mercy inherently requires some injustice or inadequacy before loving-kindness can be expressed in forgiveness. For this reason God set in motion redemptive history–to manifest his glory by revealing this very capacity to redeem, mercy.

God wants to do a work “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6). God wants to show us his grace so that we “might glorify God for his mercy” (Romans 15:9). This is precisely the reasoning of Romans 9:22-23: “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory … ?” In his final judgment God will display the power of his wrath. But God could not demonstrate his capacity for mercy apart from ordaining a world of sin and a way for redemption. He endures with great patience the impenitent, so that he can magnify his all-glorious mercy in the eyes of those who put their hope in him!

My question is whether or not you agree with Olson, and hence with Ensor. Do you feel it is likely that God set redemptive history in motion particulary so he could display mercy, an attribute he could not otherwise display?


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