So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:12-13)
This pair of verses in James is so important to understanding how Christianity differs from every other religion in the world. Two ideas need to be defined: the law of liberty and mercy. The former we discussed in detail a few sermons back, but in short it means that the law we are under before salvation is a law based on works and merit, a failing attempt to save ourselves. After salvation, the law we are under is a law of liberty, Christ's commandments carried out because of gratitude. Christ liberates us from death and hell, and we respond by being obedient to his commandments. Only through faith is this possible. If we don't believe, we won't respond.
The same goes for mercy, and this is the key to understanding how Christianity differs from all the other religions. All other religions say, "if you are merciful, then God will be merciful to you." Indeed, there are places where it seems Christianity is saying the same thing. Matthew 6:14 has Jesus saying, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you." This is one of those places in scripture where it is best to know the Greek over the English translation. Many will take this as a call to salvation by works, but such a work as mercy or forgiveness is only possible through grasping Jesus Christ by faith. The only way to grasp Christ by faith is to believe the Gospel, which states, "he first forgave us." Believe this and you will live.
The best place to explore the difference between Christianity's view of showing mercy and the other religions and philosophies is where an incorrect view of God is revealed--Job. In Job 22, Eliphaz chastizes Job in the following manner:
Is not your evil abundant?
There is no end to your iniquities.
For you have exacted pledges of your brothers for nothing
and stripped the naked of their clothing.
You have given no water to the weary to drink,
and you have withheld bread from the hungry.
The man with power possessed the land,
and the favored man lived in it.
You have sent widows away empty,
and the arms of the fatherless were crushed.
Therefore snares are all around you,
and sudden terror overwhelms you,
or darkness, so that you cannot see,
and a flood of water covers you. (Job 22:5-11)
Eliphaz is telling Job that God is punishing him because of his lack of showing mercy to others. In other words, like all the other religions, unless we show mercy to others, God will not show mercy to us. Remember, Eliphaz is WRONG! God chastises him later. Eliphaz is wrong about Job and about God. Job was blameless, and God wasn't punishing him for not being merciful. God was showing his sovereignty in that only he has the power to give and take away. Only he protects. Only he saves. Eliphaz is practicing a different religion. He is worshiping a different God. He is worshiping the false god that all the other religions worship, the god of karma, the god who visits punishments on those who deserve them. But mercy is NOT getting what we deserve. And grace is getting what we DON'T deserve.
I keep returning to the parable of the unforgiving servant (the end of Matthew 18) because it is the best example in scripture. The king forgives the servant's debt FIRST. The servant responds by showing NO MERCY to someone who owes him. The king responds to the unmerciful servant by withdrawing his mercy. In life, forgiveness of debt is extended to all people, but many reject it, because the only way to accept it is by faith in Jesus. The fruit of faith in Christ is continual repentance which manifests itself in love for neighbor--mercy towards one's neighbor.
So, in Matthew 25, when the sheep and goats are judged at the end of the age, the ones who show mercy inherit the kingdom. But they inherit the kingdom not because they showed mercy, but because they believed the gospel, which declares that God showed mercy to us through his son Jesus Christ. The inheritors of the kingdom respond to God's merciful sacrifice in Christ by repenting and putting their full faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of the their sins. This belief manifests itself in mercy and forgiveness towards our neighbor, even our enemies.
The kingdom of heaven is at hand! Repent and believe the gospel! Show mercy as you have been shown mercy.