What Is God’s Mercy?
Scripture: Genesis 4:1–16
I want to talk today about the God’s mercy! One of the main characteristics we associate with God is His love. As humans, we receive God’s love in two main ways: His grace and His mercy. God’s grace and mercy are usually contrasted with His justice, and maybe another day we’ll spend some more time talking about how those three attributes intersect each other.
We experience God’s mercy when we deserve punishment, but God withholds that punishment from us.
The passage we’re going to look at today to discuss God’s mercy is Genesis 4. This passage is the story of Cain and Abel—probably not the first one you’d think of to learn about this subject!
“Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, ‘I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD.’
Again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell.
Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.’
Cain [spoke to] Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’
And he said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’
He said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground. Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you; you will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth.’
Cain said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is too great to bear! Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.’
So the LORD said to him, ‘Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold.’ And the LORD appointed a sign for Cain, so that no one finding him would slay him.
Then Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” (Gen 4:1-16)
This story is about Cain and how he interacts with God’s mercy. It’s the tragedy of Cain, as we can see from the repeated description of Abel as “his brother.”
Eve gives birth to Cain, and she is full of joy. She doesn’t know how long it will take for her promised seed to come who will defeat the Serpent, so she looks at Cain, seeing only the possibilities.
Cain represents Eve’s hope in the Messiah.
Abel’s name is less hopeful. It means “a vapor” or “a breath.” Abel’s name suggests something of the vanity and grasp-lessness of life, which will prove almost prophetic.
These brothers start off with no distinctions in their character. Cain is a farmer, and Abel a rancher. The economy being undeveloped, “accountant” and “doctor” were not options. These two professions were noble, respectable occupations and neither signified more or less righteousness.
There comes a day when each man brings an offering to God. These seem to be freewill offerings, so their choice of offering doesn’t seem to be the problem. Yet one sacrifice pleased God and one did not.
God’s mercy gives us a chance to learn.
I want to firmly establish a principle in your minds this morning: God’s mercy is not aimless, but purposeful. God’s mercy seeks the end of sin through repentance.
Cain’s offering wasn’t pleasing to God, and he could clearly see that his brother’s was. One author wrote this:
“Cain wasn’t rejected because of his offering, but his offering was rejected because of Cain: His heart wasn’t right with God. It was “by faith” that Abel offered a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain (Heb. 11:4), which means that he had faith in God and was right with God.”1
Abel was a tremendous example and could have been a great influence on his brother, if Cain would only allow it. This was a key opportunity for Cain: a chance to grow. God did not strike him down for offering a subpar sacrifice. It does not even say that God punished him for his attitude.
We know that after this sacrifice, Cain is certainly out of God’s favor or regard. Punishing Cain would have been perfectly reasonable, yet God did not. Instead, God gave Cain a chance to learn from his younger brother.
God gave Cain a chance to realize his own attitude needed change. We sin all the time and may never suffer specific consequences for those sins. God’s mercy allows us to learn from our mistakes and grow in our service to him.
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age.” (Titus 2:11–12)
God’s mercy seeks our faithfulness.
Notice this wonderful statement God makes to Cain.
“Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen. 4:6–7)
Sin isn’t right. It’s never right. But there’s a world of difference in doing wrong and letting sin become your master. Every time we sin, we have a choice: will we repent and turn back to God or will we let sin take hold of us?
The apostle John referred to this concept as “walking in the light”:
“If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:6–9)
Yes, we’re going to sin, but what will we do then? Will we let guilt drag us down and pull us farther into sin? That’s what Cain does.
God provides His mercy so we don’t have to spiral off and identify with sin, but instead we can be faithful.
God’s mercy requires our mercy.
If he would not be persuaded by the example of his brother, surely Cain would learn from the mercy that God showed him? No, Cain’s heart was hardened. He did not love his brother, because love is the only thing that can stimulate mercy within us.
Mercy is not natural. It does not come from those deep, animalic, sensual desires, but only from love, and that comes from God.
“We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:19–20)
That passage seems like a perfect description of Genesis 4, doesn’t it?
As it turns out, Cain actually had a chance to talk to his brother and make things right. In fact, the original text doesn’t say what they talked about, just that Cain spoke to Abel his brother. This would have been the perfect time to reconcile to him, but as it turns out, Cain had other plans in mind.
God’s mercy never excuses our sin.
We may fall under the false impression that God’s mercy means that he will just let us sin, or that he doesn’t really care how we live. This is a complete misunderstanding. God allows Cain to live, but he immediately rebukes him and makes no allowance for its permissibility.
“But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.” (2 Pet 3:8–10)
The promise to which Peter refers is the promise of the Judgment Day. God has delayed his coming, not because he permits or excuses our sins, but because he still gives us a chance to make things right. God’s mercy seeks the end of sin, not its perpetuation.
God’s mercy always wants us back.
Cain responds to his punishment in an unsurprising way: without dignity. He refuses to accept what God says. But notice this—when he recites the punishment back to God, he adds something God never said.
“You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” (Gen 4:14)
God has never said he will drive out any person so that they will never be reconciled to him. Just the opposite. God’s mercy is always freely available to those who desire to return to him.
“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:6–8)
God’s mercy exceeds man’s mercy.
In human society, when a person commits a crime, we issue them a punishment (hopefully one proportional to the crime). We call this justice, and it is. Justice is about fairness, and a fair punishment fits the crime. Injustice occurs when unfair punishments are dealt out, such as those exceeding what is reasonable, or those that overlook the crime completely.
For example, Abel’s supposed crime here was irritating his brother by virtue of having greater virtue. Cain responds in a totally unjust way by executing him, when righteousness is hardly a capital crime. Cain has escalated the violence, which is precisely what happens in a society without divine wisdom.
This is exactly why God gave this law in Leviticus 24:
“If a man takes the life of any human being, he shall surely be put to death. The one who takes the life of an animal shall make it good, life for life. If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him.” (Lev 24:17–20)
God established a clear limit on what punishment could be sought, so that escalation did not occur.
Now, returning to Cain—why did God not execute Cain? Did he not deserve death? If his parents were capital criminals for eating a forbidden fruit, surely Cain ought to receive the death penalty. He does, and he knows it.
Yet God does not put him to death.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus returns to Leviticus and explains something.
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” (Matt 5:38)
Yes, this is justice, but before God enacts his justice, he offers his mercy. Jesus goes on to talk about turning the other cheek and—instead of escalating like Cain did, or like Lamech does at the end of Genesis 4, or like countless people do every day here in America until people are being killed left and right in unstoppable violence—instead of escalating, Jesus teaches de-escalation.
This is why mercy is so hard. Mercy seeks the end of sin through repentance, not through punishment. God still wants Cain to come back to him instead of following this path. God’s original plan was to forbid capital punishment to allow the murderer a chance to repent. After the Flood, however, God institutes capital punishment. People learned to abuse God’s mercy and murder had apparently become so commonplace, they thought nothing of it.
God’s mercy can be rejected.
After all this, Cain departs and leaves the presence of the Lord. God never sent Cain away from his presence. Although God’s mercy shines brightly in this chapter, Cain refuses to accept it over and over again.
This includes abusing God’s mercy. Lamech at the end of the chapter abuses the mercy God showed Cain, reinterpreting it as an excuse for his own sin.
Accept God’s mercy. Repent of your sins and bury the old man of sin in the water of baptism.
1. Warren Weirsbe, BE Basic: Believing the Simple Truth of God’s Word, 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010), 84. ↑