How Grace Became Mercy

By: Dale M. Coulter
Friday, May 14th, 2010

In my devotional reading, I have been moving through the Hebrew prophets. While reading Isaiah I began to notice that the Hebrew term hesed tends to get translated by the Septuagint (LXX) as mercy. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament that was made by Jews in Alexandria, Egypt. This may be a little surprising to some today since most English translations render hesed as steadfast love or loving kindness. The Septuagint’s simple translation has impacted us more than we know. To paraphrase Paul Harvey, we need the rest of the story. . . .

Let me give an example of what I’m talking about. Isaiah 54:8 states “but with everlasting love  I will have compassion on you” (ESV). Moises Silva’s translation of the Septuagint text is “but with everlasting mercy I have had mercy on you.”

Here are a few other examples:

  • Isaiah 54:10 (ESV): “but my steadfast love shall not depart from you”
  • Isaiah 54:10 (Silva trans of LXX): “so neither shall the mercy that comes from me to you fail”
  • Psalm 136:1 (ESV): “give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever”
  • Psalm 135:1 (136:1) (Pietersma trans. of LXX): “Acknowledge the Lord because he is kind, because his mercy is forever”

When you read Protestant commentators like John Calvin (d. 1564) or Wolfgang Musculus (d. 1563), the Latin translations of hesed vary from clemency (clementia) to benevolence (benevolentia) to mercy/compassion (misericordia). In his comments on Isaiah 54:10, Calvin indicates that mercy (misericordia) is the foundation of the covenant since there is no friendship with God apart from the mercy that freely offers grace. Wolfgang Musculus is one of those lesser known Protestant Reformers. He was in the Reformed wing of the Reformation, but pastored in Augsburg from 1534 to 1548. In his commentary on Isaiah, Musculus interprets “mercy” as benevolence (benevolentia), which he says brings the security of God’s grace revealed in his promises. Calvin and Musculus, then, interpret Isaiah 54 as placing mercy, benevolence, or divine clemency in opposition to the wrath of God, which is particularly present in the first part of Isaiah 54:8.

When you turn to someone like Philip Melancthon, who discusses the meaning of grace in his systematic work, Common Places, he instinctively refers to grace in terms of mercy/compassion (misericordia). In his Institutes, Calvin will define the gospel in its broadest sense as “those testimonies of mercy (misericordia) and fatherly favor” given to OT saints, all of which point toward the grace in Christ (2.9.2),  The divine favor of God expresses itself through mercy. Thus, grace becomes closely aligned with mercy through a series of interpretive moves.

Even though many Protestant Reformers learned Greek and Hebrew, they remained somewhat dependent upon the Latin commentary tradition in the churches of the West. While hesed has a much richer meaning than mercy, early Protestant Reformers seemed to take a clue from the Latin translations. Jerome, for example, had rendered hesed as mercy/compassion (misericordia). One need only take a look at Jerome’s commentary on Isaiah, especially his comments about Isaiah 54, to see this.

By taking a quick tour of the commentary tradition, one can get a glimpse of how mercy becomes crucial in the interpretation of grace. This conception of grace fits quite easily within the legal framework that provided the backdrop for forensic justification. Mercy overcomes wrath/judgment through Christ’s death on the cross. Justification, then, is about the extension of divine mercy in the face of human guilt. This way of understanding grace still dominates much of Protestantism even though we have different translations of the Bible. It’s a theological tradition that has been passed along from generation to generation–and this is how grace became mercy.

I wonder what we miss if we focus too much on understanding grace in terms of mercy. Does this understanding of grace still impact how we interpret hesed as steadfast love? Is it just a disposition God has toward us–his compassion? How does this square with Paul’s declaration that love is poured into human hearts through the Spirit (Rom. 5:5)? In other words, is the Spirit’s outpouring of love into the human heart (an affective movement within us) the concrete expression of God’s hesed? Hmm . . . . You tell me.

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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Friday, May 14th, 2010 at 6:34 am and is filed under Biblical Studies, Church History, Renewal Studies, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

13 Responses to “How Grace Became Mercy”

  1. Jeff Doles says:

    I think of hesed as God’s covenant love, the commitment He makes to show His goodness to His covenant people. It is grace where grace is needed and mercy where mercy is needed. It is innumerable acts of lovingkindness. It is protection, provision, guidance and restoration where they are needed. It is also reproof and correction where those are needed. It is His faithful and steadfast love because He has committed Himself to show it to us always, and we can count on His promise. If that was true under the old covenant, how much more is it true for us under the new and better covenant established in the blood of Jesus the Messiah?

    Mercy is wonderful, but when we make God’s love for us all about mercy, then we tend to focus on our unworthiness instead of on the goodness of His grace, which is far greater.

    • Jeff thanks for this. I think you’re hitting on the point in your description. As your description draws out, there are rich connotations to the Hebrew term hesed that get lost in translating it in terms of mercy. It’s not that the term does not encompass mercy, but it’s more than that.

  2. John Yeazel says:


    Great post again- you certainly are hitting on the issues that are important. I ran across this comment by Luther while reading his letter to all the magistrates and councilmen in the cities throughout Germany on the neglecting of the German youths and their proper education( “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany, that they Establish and Maintain Christia). He was appealing to the magistrates and councilmen to set up schools in the monasteries so the youths would get educated properly for the betterment of Germany. Here is what he said:

    “Nor should we be led astray because some boast of the Spirit and despise the Scriptures or others, like the Waldensian Brethren (a footnote noted that Luther might have meant the Bohemian Brethren or Picards) , consider the languages unnecessary. But, dear friend, you may say what you will about the Spirit, I too have been in the Spirit and have seen the Spirit, perhaps more of it (if it comes to boasting of one’s own flesh) than they with all their vaunting shall see in a year. My Spirit, moreover, has given some account of itself, while theirs sits very quietly in its corner and does little but sing its own praise. But I know full well how perfectly the “spirit” does all things. I should indeed have failed egregiously if the languages had not aided me and given me a certain and positive knowledge of Scripture. I too could have lived uprightly and preached the truth in seclusion, but I should then have left undisturbed the pope and the sophists with the whole anti-christian realm. The devil has not so much respect for my spirit as he has for my speech and pen when they deal with Scripture. For my spirit takes from him nothing by myself alone, but Holy Scripture and the languages leave him but little room on earth, and that means a loss to his kingdom.

    Nor can I at all commend the Waldensian Brethren for depreciating the languages. Even if they taught the truth, they must nevertheless frequently miss the right sense of a text and are also unequipped and unskilled in the defense of the faith against error. Moreover, their teaching is so obscure and expressed in so peculiar a form, departing from that of Scripture, that I am afraid it may not be pure or may not continue pure. For there is great danger in speaking of divine things in a different manner and in different terms from those employed by God Himself. In short, they may lead holy lives and teach holy things among themselves, but as long as they remain without the languages they cannot but lack what all the rest lack, namely, the ability to treat scripture with certainty and thoroughness and to be useful to other nations. But since they could do this and refuse, let them see how they will answer for it to God.”

    I say this in your defense because you are looking to the languages in order to bring more clarity to the scriptures. What your post is asking for, I think, is a broader interpretation of the benefits of the Gospel. I think the reformers were looking at hesed as the Gospel in the Old Testament. You also must remember that they looked at the Law as a form of mercy too. Reading the Old Testament with the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is very important. The ability to make progress in obeying the Law is one of the benefits of the Gospel and probably does entail the “love poured into human hearts by the Spirit.” I do not think the reformers would disagree with this at all. Luther called obeying the law a fountain of life and one we cannot do unless prompted by God’s providential grace in the culture (through unbelievers) and God’s redemptive grace in the Church.

    • Dale M. Coulter dcoulter says:


      Great quotation from Luther. If it stems from the early 1520s, then this is the time when Karlstadt and Luther had a falling out over the role of the Spirit in relation to the sacraments. Karlstadt was pushing for more change in the liturgy while Luther was being kept safe away from Wittenberg. When Luther returned he preached a famous series on sermons affirming the sacraments and taking on Karlstadt. It was also the time of the Zwichau prophets. So, Luther’s attempts to reclaim the Spirit is probably in light of this context.

      On law and gospel, well, I guess it somewhat depends on who you go with as to how the two function together. Melanchthon got into trouble late over affirming a positive role for the law (third use) under the notion of the “new obedience.” Tim Weingert has done a good job tracing that out. Of course, Melanchthon also affirmed synergism. Luther tended to see the law only in terms of its first two uses and thus had a more negative perspective. However, he did not openly object to the moves Melancthon was making in the late 1530s and early 1540 so who knows. I tend to think Melanchthon is more pneumatologically driven than Luther, but then I’m still thinking through the Finnish interpretation.

      My main point was not really to say that the Reformers did not deal with the law in positive ways, it was just to wonder if we get into a situation where we simply think of grace in terms of mercy what does that do to our concept of grace. For example, Augustine thought of the Spirit as grace, which is how grace generally was understood in the Middle Ages. In the 13th century, the notion of created grace (the habit of charity) was introduced in order to allow for divine/human cooperation. The High Scholastics like Aquinas and Bonaventure thought that if its just the Holy Spirit operating directly on the human spirit, then the human spirit would simply become an automaton under the power of the Spirit. So, the habit of charity became a way of affirming how the Spirit operates on the human spirit in a way commensurate with our humanness. In any case, grace was primarily construed in terms of the Spirit’s transforming power as love somewhat like Paul’s being reminded “my grace is sufficient for my strength is made perfect,” which suggests a parallelism between grace and strength. Grace here does not seem to be mercy.

      The Reformers were trying to maintain a balance in all this, but if we look at what has happened since then, it makes one wonder if at certain points in the history of Christianity the scales were not tipped in one direction or another. There is a reason why Johann Arndt, the famous Lutheran in the early 17th century, attempted to recover regeneration within the Lutheran scheme in his On True Christianity. He thought the scales had tipped. Arndt became the “father” of Lutheran pietism, which makes him suspect in the eyes of some Lutherans, but he is an important Lutheran thinker.

      Thanks again for the reflections, John. Very good.

  3. Scott Pryor says:

    What do we see in the Jewish inter-testamental literature? In other words, is hesed used as “mercy” in the non-Greek speaking Jewish world?

    • Excellent question Scott, and you’ve taken me far beyond my own area of expertise here so I’m not so confident about the kind of answer I can provide. I will say that it seems the Septuagint is inconsistent in the way it translates hesed with sometimes focusing on mercy and sometimes on love. The mercy translations occur in key places like Psalms and Isaiah that become decisive for the meaning of the gospel and grace.

      One other point is that the non-Greek speaking Jewish world is mainly Judea-Palestine. Outside of this small territory most Jews assimilated to the language, which is why the Septuagint translation had to be made in the first place. A good place to look is probably what Philo does with this material. Again, I’m out of my depths here.

  4. John Yeazel says:


    The relationship between Luther and Karlsdadt was interesting. You probably know more about it than I do and correct me if I am wrong but I have heard through secondary sources that Karlsdadt was a bit envious of Luther’s theological insight and genius. He also did not like all the attention that Luther was receiving. He was Luther’s superior at Wittenberg and when Luther was in hiding he was providing a lot of the leadership to the new movement (in the early 20′s like you said) which was causing havoc in the Church. Luther did not trust him and left his hiding place in the castle knowing he could get killed by doing so. He distrusted Karlsdadt’s leadership and interpretation of the scriptures that much. This led to ongoing problems between the two. I believe Luther tried to reconcile with him later in life but it never happened. Please correct any misguided facts I may have picked up.

    I would tend to disagree with you on Luther’s third use of the law. From reading his large catechism section on the ten commandments it seems that he did see a third use of the law. Especially in his summary of the law at the end of that section. The Book of Concord is easily found on the internet. I suppose I should probably access and link in here- ”

    Conclusion of the Ten Commandments.
    311] Thus we have the Ten Commandments, a compend of divine doctrine, as to what we are to do in order that our whole life may be pleasing to God, and the true fountain and channel from and in which everything must arise and flow that is to be a good work, so that outside of the Ten Commandments no work or thing can be good or pleasing to God, however great or precious it be in the eyes of the world. 312] Let us see now what our great saints can boast of their spiritual orders and their great and grievous works which they have invented and set up, while they let these pass, as though they were far too insignificant, or had long ago been perfectly fulfilled.

    313] I am of opinion, indeed, that here one will find his hands full, [and will have enough] to do to observe these, namely, meekness, patience, and love towards enemies, chastity, kindness, etc., and what such virtues imply. But such works are not of value and make no display in the eyes of the world; for they are not peculiar and conceited works, and restricted to particular times, places, rites, and customs, but are common, every-day domestic works which one neighbor can practise toward another; therefore they are not of high esteem.

    314] But the other works cause people to open their eyes and ears wide, and men aid to this effect by the great display, expense, and magnificent buildings with which they adorn them, so that everything shines and glitters. There they waft incense, they sing and ring bells, they light tapers and candles, so that nothing else can be seen or heard. For when a priest stands there in a surplice embroidered with gilt, or a layman continues all day upon his knees in church, that is regarded as a most precious work which no one can sufficiently praise. But when a poor girl tends a little child and faithfully does what she is told, that is considered nothing; for else what should monks and nuns seek in their cloisters?

    315] But see, is not that a cursed presumption of those desperate saints who dare to invent a higher and better life and estate than the Ten Commandments teach, pretending (as we have said) that this is an ordinary life for the common man, but that theirs is for saints and perfect ones? 316] And the miserable blind people do not see that no man can get so far as to keep one of the Ten Commandments as it should be kept, but both the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer must come to our aid (as we shall hear), by which that [power and strength to keep the commandments] is sought and prayed for and received continually. Therefore all their boasting amounts to as much as if I boasted and said: To be sure, I have not a penny to make payment with, but I confidently undertake to pay ten florins.

    317] All this I say and urge in order that men might become rid of the sad misuse which has taken such deep root and still cleaves to everybody, and in all estates upon earth become used to looking hither only, and to being concerned about these matters. For it will be a long time before they will produce a doctrine or estates equal to the Ten Commandments, because they are so high that no one can attain to them by human power; and whoever does attain to them is a heavenly, angelic man, far above all holiness of the world. 318] Only occupy yourself with them, and try your best, apply all power and ability, and you will find so much to do that you will neither seek nor esteem any other work or holiness.

    319] Let this be sufficient concerning the first part of the common Christian doctrine, both for teaching and urging what is necessary. In conclusion, however, we must repeat the text which belongs here, of which we have treated already in the First Commandment, in order that we may learn what pains God requires to the end we may learn to inculcate and practise the Ten Commandments:

    320] For I the Lord, thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me, and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me and keep My commandments.

    321] Although (as we have heard above) this appendix was primarily attached to the First Commandment, it was nevertheless [we cannot deny that it was] laid down for the sake of all the commandments, as all of them are to be referred and directed to it. Therefore I have said that this, too, should be presented to and inculcated upon the young, that they may learn and remember it, in order to see what is to urge and compel us to keep these Ten Commandments. And it is to be regarded as though this part were specially added to each, so that it inheres in, and pervades, them all.

    322] Now, there is comprehended in these words (as said before) both an angry word of threatening and a friendly promise to terrify and warn us, and, moreover, to induce and encourage us to receive and highly esteem His Word as a matter of divine earnestness, because He Himself declares how much He is concerned about it, and how rigidly He will enforce it, namely, that He will horribly and terribly punish all who despise and transgress His commandments; 323] and again, how richly He will reward, bless, and do all good to those who hold them in high esteem, and gladly do and live according to them. Thus He demands that all our works proceed from a heart which fears and regards God alone, and from such fear avoids everything that is contrary to His will, lest it should move Him to wrath; and, on the other hand, also trusts in Him alone and from love to Him does all He wishes, because he speaks to us as friendly as a father, and offers us all grace and every good.

    324] Just this is also the meaning and true interpretation of the first and chief commandment, from which all the others must flow and proceed, so that this word: Thou shalt have no other gods before Me, in its simplest meaning states nothing else than this demand: Thou shalt fear, love, and trust in Me as thine only true God. For where there is a heart thus disposed towards God, the same has fulfilled this and all the other commandments. On the other hand, whoever fears and loves anything else in heaven and upon earth will keep neither this nor any. 325] Thus the entire Scriptures have everywhere preached and inculcated this commandment, aiming always at these two things: fear of God and trust in Him. And especially the prophet David throughout the Psalms, as when he says [ Ps. 147:11 ]: The Lord taketh pleasure in them that fear Him, in those that hope in His mercy. As if the entire commandment were explained by one verse, as much as to say: The Lord taketh pleasure in those who have no other gods.

    326] Thus the First Commandment is to shine and impart its splendor to all the others. Therefore you must let this declaration run through all the commandments, like a hoop in a wreath, joining the end to the beginning and holding them all together, that it be continually repeated and not forgotten; as, namely, in the Second Commandment, that we fear God and do not take His name in vain for cursing, lying, deceiving, and other modes of leading men astray, or rascality, but make proper and good use of it by calling upon Him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, derived from love and trust according to the First Commandment. In like manner such fear, love, and trust is to urge and force us not to despise His Word, but gladly to learn, hear, and esteem it holy, and honor it.

    327] Thus continuing through all the following commandments towards our neighbor likewise, everything is to proceed by virtue of the First Commandment, to wit, that we honor father and mother, masters, and all in authority, and be subject and obedient to them, not on their own account, but for God’s sake. For you are not to regard or fear father or mother, or from love of them do or omit anything. But see to that which God would have you do, and what He will quite surely demand of you; if you omit that, you have an angry Judge, but in the contrary case a gracious Father.

    328] Again, that you do your neighbor no harm, injury, or violence, nor in any wise encroach upon him as touching his body, wife, property, honor, or rights, as all these things are commanded in their order, even though you have opportunity and cause to do so and no man would reprove you; but that you do good to all men, help them, and promote their interest, howsoever and wherever you can, purely from love of God and in order to please Him, in the confidence that He will abundantly reward you for everything. 329] Thus you see how the First Commandment is the chief source and fountainhead which flows into all the rest, and again, all return to that and depend upon it, so that beginning and end are fastened and bound to each other.

    330] This (I say) it is profitable and necessary always to teach to the young people, to admonish them and to remind them of it, that they may be brought up not only with blows and compulsion, like cattle, but in the fear and reverence of God. For where this is considered and laid to heart that these things are not human trifles, but the commandments of the Divine Majesty, who insists upon them with such earnestness, is angry with, and punishes those who despise them, and, on the other hand, abundantly rewards those who keep them, there will be a spontaneous impulse and a desire gladly to do the will of God. 331] Therefore it is not in vain that it is commanded in the Old Testament to write the Ten Commandments on all walls and corners, yes, even on the garments, not for the sake of merely having them written in these places and making a show of them, as did the Jews, but that we might have our eyes constantly fixed upon them, and have them always in our memory, and that we might practise them in all our actions and ways, 332] and every one make them his daily exercise in all cases, in every business and transaction, as though they were written in every place wherever he would look, yea, wherever he walks or stands. Thus there would be occasion enough, both at home in our own house and abroad with our neighbors, to practise the Ten Commandments, that no one need run far for them.

    333] From this it again appears how highly these Ten Commandments are to be exalted and extolled above all estates, commandments, and works which are taught and practised aside from them. For here we can boast and say: Let all the wise and saints step forth and produce, if they can, a [single] work like these commandments, upon which God insists with such earnestness, and which He enjoins with His greatest wrath and punishment, and, besides, adds such glorious promises that He will pour out upon us all good things and blessings. Therefore they should be taught above all others, and be esteemed precious and dear, as the highest treasure given by God.

    I could have shortened this a bit but I think it does make the point. The first couple paragraphs were probably sufficient.

    I also think it wrong to suppose that the reformers only thought of forensic justification (or mercy as you are calling it in your post) as the only benefit of the Gospel. The Gospel included that but much more. Forensic justification by faith alone was what separated them most significantly from the Catholics and Anabaptists and it was this which they had to emphasize. Grace, I believe the reformers thought, encompassed all the benefits of the Gospel- justification, sanctification and glorification.

    • John,

      Thanks for the large quotation. I would point out the relationship between the commandments and fear and wrath in the quotation. This is the purpose of the law in its theological use. It is the peccator part of simul iustus et peccator. Notice that the “good news” comes in the form of the promise that Luther mentions. There is an attempt to balance law and gospel here so that the ten commandments must be viewed in light of both. The way Luther balances them is in terms of the movement between fear and love. But are they the promises? I did not see anything about the ten commandments in relation to righteousness so that following them actually makes one righteous. This goes back to Luther’s sermon on the two kinds of righteousness delivered in 1519 and the extended version of On the Freedom of a Christian in 1520. The first kind of righteousness is Christ’s own alien righteousness imputed to us although it seems to be internal for Luther, not external, and the second is really the outworking of the first. These correspond to Christ as king and Christ as servant, and this is the movement in the 1520 treatise on freedom. Because in Christ we are free kings who have everything, we can become the servants to all. Thus obedience is in relationship to service in terms of following Christ. The law functions there as a way of reminding us of the wrath and judgment of God that then points us to the promises. So, I don’t think your quotation changes what I said.

      As to forensic justification, well, I don’t think the early reformers were agreed on what justification meant. Instead, they were agreed on what it did not mean, which is that justification was not grounded upon an infused habit of charity. I am not alone in thinking this, just look at McGrath’s discussion in Iustitia dei. This is another reason why we must starting talking about reformations instead of the Reformation. There is the Wittenberg reformers, who could not hold it together with Karlstadt and Luther falling out on a number of issues like the nature of the canon of scripture, the relationship between Word and Spirit, the role of the sacraments, the impact of humanism, etc. Then there was the circle around Erasmus out of which some early Reformed thinkers emerged like Oecolampadius. When the writings started to get disseminated they produce a whole host of interpretations united around the need to reform the church in head and heart.

      My point in bringing this up is that not all formulations of justification are equally successful at holding together justification and what would become sanctification. Why do you think some persons equate the gospel with justification? Not the benefits, which spring from the gospel, but the gospel itself? Why doesn’t the gospel include the proclamation of liberty to the captives in the way the Gospel of Luke seems to suggest? Why doesn’t it include the power of God as Romans suggests, or, if you look at Ephesians the power is described in terms of resurrection? So, is this just mercy? Again, not the benefits that flow from the gospel, but the gospel itself?

  5. John Yeazel says:


    I am not sure why I gave you the impression that I believed that obeying the law is what makes you righteous. The point I was trying to make was that Luther very forcefully preached the Law in order that those who heard it would know without a doubt that they needed the promises of the Gospel and be driven to it. That was the first use of the Law. The second use was to keep tyranny and anarchy at bay in the civil realm. But he did give hints of the third use of the law in the quote above. The Law preached forcefully was very important in Luther’s understanding. If this did not take place properly the grace and mercy of the Gospel would not be accepted with gratitude which is supposed to drive our service to our neighbors as the proper response. This is what the Ten commandments were about which is what he was trying to make clear in the above quote. At least that is the way I interpret it. This does not make you righteous it is just the proper response to the Gospel promises.

    Luther and Calvin were pretty clear on what they meant by grace. The interpretation is that we can bring nothing to the table in our relationship with God. Nothing infused in us, or some attitude we have, or something we do that makes God respond to us. Grace is what regenerates us as God moves on us for no reason within ourselves. It is an act of sheer grace and mercy. We do not deserve it in any way. Why he moves on some people and not on others is a mystery beyond our comprehension and why the doctrine of predestination was formulated from things written in the scriptures. This really is what separates Wesleyan and Pentecostal arminian Christians from the Lutheran and Calvinist strains of the reformation. This is also explained in Luther’s Bondage of the Will. Why you included that bit on regeneration is puzzling to me.

    Three branches broke off during the reformation. The magisterial reformers of the Calvinist and Lutheran type (Anglicans could also be included here), the radical reformers of the charismatic, revivalistic and arminian (offshoots of the anabaptists) type and the counter reformers or new Catholics. All of these three branches have their disagreements among themselves. That is the way I see it. And I think that is what you were communicating to me in your response above about the different understandings of justification.

    To let you know for future reference, I did spend 19 years in charismatic, revivalistic, arminian and radical reformer type Church’s (from 1975 to 1994). I attended faithfully for those years and was highly indoctrinated in that type of thinking. I spent a lot of time reading the literature of the New Wine magazine crew- Charles Simpson, Bob Mumford, Derek Prince, Don Basham and Ern Baxter. I also read a lot of Finney, Wesley etc., etc.

    I came to the magisterial reformation through the writings of Francis Schaeffer, R.C. Sproul and then Michal Horton and Modern Reformation magazine in the early 90′s. I have been reading their literature since. I also spent time in Willow Creek and Mars Hill under Rob Bell when I lived in Grand Rapids. I attended Calvin College from 1990- 1994 in the business and econ department. I have been a member of a Lutheran Church for 3 years now out of theological conviction but lean a bit towards covenant theology as expressed by those at WSCal.

    I went through an inquisition at a revivalistic type Church when I was going through a divorce and that is what drove me to the magisterial reformation. I read Michael Horton’s Putting Amazing Back into Grace which gave me a lot of hope during those dark days in my life. I became convinced they were interpreting the scriptures more clearly than the radical reformer types.

    I do want to say more about covenant theology because I think it is pertinent to your post here about hesed, mercy and grace. I will save it for tomorrow though.

    • John,

      Thanks for sharing your story. It is troubling, which is why I and other pentecostal and charismatic scholars continue to do the work we do. It seems like from your opening paragraph that you essentially agree with me that Luther only operated with the first two uses of the law. I never claimed that Luther did not think preaching should involve law and gospel, but rather what the function of the law is when its preached. You might look at what Wengert says about Melanchthon because it seems like you’re leaning heavily on Luther, but there is a difference between the two on the third use.

      I would take some issues with your historiography of both the Reformation and Pentecostalism. First, there were no “magisterial” streams until 1530 when the German reformers at Wittenberg rallied around the Augsburg Confession. Bucer, et al., offered the Tetrapolitan Confession to Charles at the time and Zwingli offered his own confession. In other words, you had three groups who could not come together. In addition, there was no “Anabaptist” group, but rather groups of other reformers who had embraced Luther’s message to one degree or another. The 1520s was a time of upheaval and this continued for a while. Ultimately the Lutheran wing did not fully come together until the Formula of Concord, which is fairly late. The beginnings of a “Reformed” wing really occurs when Calvin and Bullinger hammer out a consensus in the late 1540s. So, you had upheaval in the 1520s with a lot of individuals breaking away from the Catholic Church, but not being able to find consensus. In the 1530s and 1540s you had a number of persons working hard to find some consensus, and what we today call “magisterial” reformation begins to form. All you have going on in England at this time in the Henrician reformation, which was really not a reformation on the level of the laity. Cranmer turns to try and bring a full reformation when Henry’s son, Edward assumes the throne. However, you had series upheavals in England toward the end of the 1500s when Elizabeth takes the throne between Puritans and others. It is during these decades that a new wing begins to form, which ultimately takes shape under James and Charles, and becomes known as the Caroline Divines.

      This brings me to the second point about why you follow the stream that places Pentecostals in the Anabaptist camp. First, I would like for you, or anyone for that matter, to point out direct historical links between Pentecostalism and Anabaptists. There are none as far as I can tell. Secondly, Pentecostals, as you know, stem from the holiness movement, which was itself an outworking of Wesleyanism, which was itself an outworking of the Caroline Divines theology in conversation with Puritanism and other forces at work in England in the 1600s. So, no connection to Anabaptists. The kind of historiography you’re espousing is a historiography that functions with a theological lens through which all details must be made to fit. Pentecostals look and smell like Anabaptists theologically so they must be and forget the fact that history says differently. I am not claiming that there are no theological similarities between Pentecostals and Anabaptists, but there are also clear differences that get swept aside. For example, the denomination to which I belong has bishops and is committed to an episcopal ecclesiology as is the Church of God in Christ. The Pentecostal Holiness Church is essentially presbyterian. None of those are free church like the Anabaptists; you need to look at the Baptists for free-church ecclesiology. Even the Assemblies of God has a modified form of presbyterianism.

      You have somehow interpreted my argument as being directed against the Protestant reformation, when I have explicitly said that it was directed against a particular stream of Reformed thought. Why is this? Is it because you have essentially embraced the Westminster CA interpretation of the reformation? If you’re a Lutheran now, then I would think that you should start considering the way other Lutherans read what is happening. You know that the Lutheran tradition here in the U.S. is pretty broad with Wisconsin Synod, Missouri Synod, Lutheran CORE, ELCA, LCMC, and other Lutheran bodies. And I have not even mentioned the Lutheran charismatics who wish to recover Lutheran pietism. My only point in bringing up regeneration a la Johann Arndt is to say that there is an entire stream of Lutheran pietism that was formed as part of a response to the overemphasis on juridical models in the 1600s as well as the animosity that brought about the thirty-years war, etc. In any case, my argument has really had nothing to do with Lutheranism or the Dutch Reformed or Puritan Congregationalist streams of Reformed Christianity.

      As to your own experience, well I am sorry to hear about that. There is a lot of mess going on in the independent charismatic churches. It’s funny but I’ve heard a lot of similar stories within Reformed circles over issues like theonomy, Federal Vision, etc. Pentecostals and charismatics will closely examine your practice while “some” Reformed folks look at doctrine with the same narrowly defined lens. The same is true of Lutheranism.

    • One more point John. At the end of his book Law and Gospel, Wengert has a nice chapter on the origins of the third use of the law in Melanchthon, which he traces to 1534. Thus to the political (1st use) and theological (2nd use), Melanchthon adds the notion that the law requires obedience (3rd use). Wengert argues that this is partly a result of the hard turn toward forensic ideas Melanchthon makes. Finally, Wengert thinks that those who find a third use in Luther are reading Luther in light of later developments. As I have said, the early reformers did not all agree on how to formulate justification by faith alone.

      I have a problem with those who want to read what’s happening between 1515 and 1545 in light of later confessions that emerge. The confessional documents from that period are not always so clear as they later become. For example, as Gassmann and Hendrix (two Lutheran scholars) note in their introduction to the Lutheran confessions, article 4 in the Augsburg Confession present the gift of justification both in forensic and effective terms, which is clearly the case when you look at the text. Note that Melanchthon had composed the Augsburg Confession in 1530 prior to his moves toward emphasizing the forensic motif in the remainder of the 1530s (I might add that Calvin is not even in the picture until the first publication of his Institutes in 1536). The Formula of Concord comes along and emphasizes the forensic understanding of justification in light of the debates that had occurred between the followers of Melanchthon and the Gnesio-Lutherans. We really need to read these confessions in their immediate historical context and not simply as timeless entities, which sometimes I get the impression that folks do (not necessarily you).

      And this does not even begin to get into how certain Latin terms are rendered in English because that better reflects later developments. I’m not saying scholars do this intentionally, but we don’t always see how quickly the meaning of terms can change. Think about how quickly the internet has caused a whole host of meanings to come about that we never associated with terms like icons, mail, etc.

      Oh, and one final point to ponder, Calvin’s first writing in 1532 was on Seneca’s On Clemency, you know the term that later became one way of translating hesed.

  6. Bruce says:

    What do we see in the Jewish inter-testamental literature? In other words, is hesed used as “mercy” in the non-Greek speaking Jewish world?