In a Nutshell…
Last week we wrapped up our study of the book of Deuteronomy. With that, we wrapped up our study of the Pentateuch, which is the first part of the Old Testament. And we’ve covered a lot of material, both textually and thematically, over the past couple of years. Therefore, it might be useful to take a few weeks to review just a few of the themes that we’ve discussed through our Old Testament Survey.
So today, we begin our review by considering the topic of grace. Again, one of the reasons that Christians tend to pay less attention to the Old Testament, compared to the New Testament, is that Protestant Christianity has been so influenced by Martin Luther who, among other things, emphasized that salvation is by grace alone. The topic of grace is most obvious in the writings of the apostle Paul. In contrast, or so we believe, the Old Testament is full of God’s wrath and judgment. So we believe that the Old Testament has little to tell us in 21st century western Christianity, and even less to tell us about grace. Hopefully by now, we’ve seen that this isn’t the case.
We’re actually going to take a look at a couple of passages today – both of which we’ve discussed before. The first is from John 1:1-18.
I realize that I just said that Paul is the New Testament author we usually refer to when we talk about grace. But we’re looking at this passage in particular because of verse 17, which says:
17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.John 1:17
Now typically, we read this as if the two are in opposition – i.e. the law was given through Moses [but instead, and much better] grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. I point this out because we can easily use verses like this to reinforce a belief that the Old Testament – or specifically the Pentateuch (the law given through Moses) – has little or nothing to do with grace.
However, reading the passage like this requires an almost wilful ignorance of the immediately preceding verse, verse 16, which says:
16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.John 1:16
Taking the two verses together, we can readily see that the “grace already given,” is precisely the law given through Moses. In other words, to say that grace is a New Testament development is to misunderstand and to misrepresent what God has been doing throughout all of human history.
Or, taking a little bit of liberty, we might understand these verses as saying something like, “Jesus Christ is the perfect fulfillment of the grace of God which was begun through Moses (And Adam, and Noah, and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…).
The second passage we want to look at today is from Exodus 34. It says:
4 So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the Lord had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. 5 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”Exodus 34:4-7
If you recall, this passage happens after Moses goes up to Sinai to receive the words of the covenant from God. In the meantime, the Israelites below make a golden calf and begin to worship it. Moses pleads for God’s forgiveness and to not cast the Israelites aside.
The verses that I want to focus on are 5 to 7a which say:
5 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.Exodus 34:5-7a
These verses are a proclamation of the very character of God. And they are brought to sharp relief because of the forgiving of the Israelites that we’ve just seen (in the preceding chapter). And it’s set in the context of the reading of the Law, which Moses has been given, to the Israelites. So, before the Law is given, before the Law is proclaimed and received, and in light of the chosen-ness of the Israelites (which is not based on any superiority of the Israelites), we get a pronouncement of the character of God as compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.
(Now I don’t want to ignore the fact that the rest of the verse talks about punishing the guilty – we will come back to that. But I would point you to some of the things that we’ve talked to over the past several weeks.).
So, in short, to say that God in the Old Testament is a God of judgment and wrath, whereas God in the New Testament is a God of grace and love is to miss the fact that the entire story of God’s redemptive plan, as revealed in scripture, is a story of a God of grace. God chooses Israel as part of His sovereign plan to restore and redeem creation because of His character of grace and mercy.
So what does that mean for us? How have we learned (I hope) to understand this in light of the Old Testament portion of the story?
So What Now…?
Firstly, grace means that it’s God’s initiative
The whole story of redemption happens because God wants it to happen. I think we have this weird sort of feeling in modern/postmodern society that salvation/spirituality/enlightenment is something that we seek and then find. And there’s a certain amount of truth in that, I suppose. At least in the sense that, I believe, we all have a feeling that something has gone wrong. We all have a sense of some missing transcendence. And so, in a variety of ways, we try to reach transcendence; to repair our broken spirituality – or our broken spirits.
But we don’t find salvation. We don’t find the way, and we don’t find the truth. We don’t find our way out of our brokenness. Rather, when human beings rebelled (and rebel), God saw our brokenness and how far we fell from His intended plan and decided to do something about it. God decided not to give people completely over to the consequences of our sin; God decided to save one family from the flood; God decided to choose Abram and the descendants of Abram; God decided to deliver Israel into the promised land; God decided to keep a remnant in exile; and God decided to come to earth in the person of the son, to die on the cross, and to rise again from the grave, all so we might have life.
Redemption happens because God wills it to happen.
Secondly, grace means that this redemption is not something that is earned. It’s God’s work, not our achievement.
What we’ve seen from the very beginning of the story of God’s redemptive plan is that human beings do nothing to earn God’s favour. Israel’s history is replete with examples of human beings’ inability to be faithful. Abraham is chosen and, despite his repeated failings and shortcomings, remains chosen. Moses is chosen for no (apparent) good reason. And despite Moses’ hesitancy, his stubbornness, and his fallenness, God remains faithful. And Israel as a nation seems to be determined to turn their back on God and return to the little gods they know, are familiar with, and are comfortable with. Yet God remains faithful. Israel remains chosen.
God is determined to redeem Israel, to bless Israel, and through Israel to bless and redeem creation. And this isn’t because of some hidden characteristic, some hidden holiness or some secret integrity on Israel’s part. This is solely because of the goodness of God.
And finally, God’s work of grace demands a response.
The point of God’s grace, the point of God’s work, is that we might have life. That we might leave behind (or be led out of) a life in which something other than God takes the place of God, and enter and live a life in which God is in fact God.
Over the course of the last several months, we’ve talked quite a bit about the nature of the Law – particularly as we’ve gone through the latter part of Exodus, through Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Now we’ve obviously not been able to be comprehensive about the nature of the Law. But one of the elements of the story that we’ve reiterated a couple of times is that the Law is given after the people are delivered. And the point of making that distinction is to question the notion that the Law is a means of salvation, or a means of grace. Rather, we have considered the notion that the Law is actually less about salvation and more about formation.
In other words, and in short, we are called to live into the salvation which we have received. We are called to take hold of the life for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus.
And make no mistake, if we choose, in spite of the grace and the life that God offers, to continue serving other gods (including ourselves), and by doing so reject the life that only God can give, we will indeed receive precisely what we want.
The Israelites, inasmuch as they turned their backs on God, saw the consequences of their choices. They received precisely what it was that they chased after. (We have seen this, and we will see it again and again as we continue to read the story of Israel).
But in spite of all of this, God remains faithful. God’s grace remains a defining characteristic of the story in the Bible. His purpose for us, from the beginning, was that we might have life. We messed that up – and we continue to mess that up – by longing after and chasing after things that are only shadows of life, echoes of life, and even perversions of life. But God does not forsake us. He doesn’t give up on us. In fact, He gave up everything for us. And He continues to call us, and continues to make a way for us, to return to the life for which we were made.