Forgiveness, mercy and grace

Forgiveness and mercy

Christ on the Cross by Carl Heinrich BlochIn the Bible, it is clearly stated that human beings who turn away from God and disobey his laws will face punishment and separation from him on earth and in heaven. However, it is also made clear that God is loving and merciful and wishes human beings to come to him for forgiveness. Whilst sinful humankind is liable for the death penalty, the New Testament shows God's son, Jesus Christ, dying on the cross, to wipe out, or redeem, people's sins (see Big ideas: Cross, crucifixion; Redemption, salvation; Atonement and sacrifice). Hence, God himself is seen to bear the penalty for the wrongdoing of humankind, and is willing to set aside, or forgive, human guilt.

Receiving forgiveness

The New Testament writers make it clear that, in order to gain this forgiveness, all that is necessary is for the sinful person to be truly sorry for his or her faults – this entails admitting their sins and genuinely repenting, (asking for God's forgiveness and being willing to learn to live in a new way with God's help (see Big ideas: Penitence, repentance, penance).

Showing mercy

Those who ask for the mercy of God must also show it to others. This is stressed in the most well-known Christian prayer, said to have been given by Jesus Christ himself. It is known as the Lord`s Prayer, where Christ taught his followers to ask God: ‘Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us' (Luke 11:4).


Vengeance, or revenge – the taking of retribution for a perceived injustice or harmful act – is directly opposed to ideas of mercy and forgiveness. Consequently in Christian theology it is seen as entirely the wrong response to an injury. Although the phrase from the Old Testament, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' (Exodus 21:24) is often quoted, it is in fact an attempt to curb revenge and make punishment proportional.

In many places in the New Testament the followers of Christ are told not to seek revenge, but instead to

‘love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you' (Luke 6:27)

The Indian spiritual leader Gandhi once said, ‘An eye for an eye makes us all blind.'


Closely associated with a belief in the mercy of God is the idea of grace, since one of its most significant meanings is ‘the undeserved mercy of God given to sinners'. Because of their frail and sinful human natures, people cannot by their actions deserve to be forgiven or earn forgiveness in any way. However, if humans truly repent they can receive the grace of God. The word is also used with a slightly wider but related meaning, signifying the blessing or favour of God.

‘Grace' has also come to be used as the term for a prayer of thanks to God before a meal, and its meaning has also been extended further, beyond its theological meaning, to suggest ‘an attractive human quality'.

Forgiveness, mercy and grace in Shakespeare

Shakespeare discusses concepts of forgiveness, mercy and grace in many of his plays, particularly The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, The Tempest and The Winter's Tale. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia explains to Shylock, in one of Shakespeare's most famous speeches, that God offers mercy to sinners, rather than the strict justice by which all humankind would be condemned:

Related topics

Big ideas: Cross, crucifixion; Redemption, salvation; Atonement and sacrifice; Penitence, repentance, penance

Other cultural references

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, The Tempest, The Winter's Tale

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.