By Marty Solomon
The idea that the God of the Old Covenant is a God of law, while the New Covenant shows us a God of grace, is a common concept that often undergirds our reading of the Bible. This is likely made worse by the idea that the Hebrew Scriptures depict a God that is full of wrath. Even if we reject this idea on principle, it seems to have affected so much of how we read the Bible.
I think most of us, whatever our opinion of the Old Testament God vs. New Testament God, would affirm the idea that God doesn’t change, and agree that his character is consistent throughout the entire catalogue of his revelation to his people (Psalm 55:19; Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17).
The good news is that when a person continues to grow in their ability to engage the Hebrew Scriptures on the terms of its own Jewish context, they find a consistent, gospel-centric message.
This is discoverable by taking a stroll through the history of creation narratives (scholars like John Walton do a great job at showing how the Hebrew narrative subverts the dominant cultural assumptions of their day) or by looking at the deeply unique attributes in the story of the Flood and Noah’s relationship with this very unusual God (Sandra Richter’s The Epic of Eden can be invaluable here) and the covenants they are used to. It becomes very evident that the Torah is trying to communicate one big idea (among many): This God is different from the gods you’re used to.
What sets this God apart? His grace. He is a God of compassion and mercy, a God who is willing to enter into relationship with his creation and meet them where they are.
The Old Testament Exhibits God’s Grace
God impresses this upon his first partners by showing Abram’s family that he is a God who makes the promise and fulfills the blood path (Genesis 15), provides the sacrifice to meet the need of the faithful (Genesis 22), and takes our forgiveness and builds a better future (Genesis 50).
Outside of a few stories of judgment (the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues of the Exodus), God continues to meet his people where they are and patiently guides them through what seems like an endless story of mistakes and failures. There might be some practical limits to this principle, but God’s work of grace is the undeniable mark of his story—and, as he intends, his people.
One may start to think the reason we jump to conclusions about an ancient God with a short temper is because we are reading ancient, primitive, and barbaric stories. It requires us to understand historical context and nuance to see the gracious actions of God for what they are.
It’s possible our own presupposed theology causes us to read these assumptions into the story.
Take God’s great personal introduction to Moses in Exodus 33. Moses demands to see God; he’s struggling and fishing for encouragement. He wants to see God. God explains the problem with Moses’ request, but he agrees to let Moses see where he just was. Before any of this takes place, however, God sees fit to explain something to Moses. God wants to talk to Moses’ ears, not just his eyes. In the next chapter, God says this:
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, 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 34:6-7).
One question almost every Christian reader wants to know is this: What does it mean that God will punish children to the third and fourth generation?
That’s interesting, because it requires us to completely disregard the obvious hyperbole employed in God’s statement. God has just insisted that he would maintain love to thousands (in other passages where God invokes this idea, the Hebrew states a thousand generations; some translations insist that is implied here as well), but punish four generations.
A thousand to four. That’s a pretty gracious disparity.
But we also walk right over five phrases that directly reference God’s grace. “Compassionate . . . gracious . . . slow to anger, abounding in love . . . and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” Why do these not capture our attention? Six phrases that speak to God’s grace and one hyperbolic literary device that speaks to punishment (at a 1,000-to-4 ratio, mind you), and we’re contemplating the theology behind that last phrase?
I think our Augustinian biases are showing.
Jesus Embodied God’s Grace
God has always been a God of grace. He introduced himself as a God of grace in Genesis. He acted out of grace in Exodus. He outlined his grace in Leviticus. He asked his people to respect his grace in Numbers. He commanded them to remember his grace in Deuteronomy.
In fact, Jesus insisted this has always been the truth behind the Torah. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus claimed to be interpreting God’s Torah according to its original intent, as God handed it to Moses. “You’ve heard it said, . . . but I say unto you”—Jesus settled whatever disputes existed between Torah and its application.
And just when we thought maybe Jesus was here to start something new, he insisted that, in fact, he was restoring something that was always supposed to be. Jesus said,
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-20).
Jesus seemed adamant that he wasn’t upending the Torah in their Jewish context—he was restoring it. So, whatever we believe about Jesus and his character, we have to project it on our understanding of God.
One of my favorite quotes for Christology comes from Brian Zahnd:
God is like Jesus.
God has always been like Jesus.
There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
We haven’t always known what God is like—
But now we do.
The writer of Hebrews claimed Jesus was “the exact representation of his being” (1:3) and insisted that Jesus was the greatest and clearest revelation of God’s work in the world.
Simply put, if Jesus is grace, then God is grace.
And if God doesn’t change, then this must have always been true. No matter what we were taught and trained to see. No matter if it works with our slick presentations and explanations of theology.
We Must Continue to Better Understand and Apply God’s Grace
In my recent book, Asking Better Questions of the Bible: A Guide for the Wounded, Wary & Longing for More (NavPress, February 2023), I say this:
For my entire career in teaching the Bible, I have been surrounded by people who carry themselves in a way that says they have done it—they have “mastered” the Bible.
Apparently they’ve gotten enough education, hung out with enough of the right people, signed the right creed, preached enough sermons, prayed enough prayers—whatever it was—and they’ve gotten it. Whew! Finally!
Sometimes it’s not individuals, but movements, institutions, faith traditions, and other groups of people. Such tribal identities are highly effective in their ability to empower us and give us security, internal or otherwise.
They are also highly effective in their ability to deceive and give us a false sense of security.
But no matter what drives this belief, or the reasoning that’s behind it, or the genesis of its existence, the idea seems completely backward.
We don’t master the Text. Ever.
But if there’s any truth to these convictions about the inspiration of the Text and the power of the God of the Bible, then this is true:
God is trying to master us.
And one of the ways He is doing this—in the gracious, graceful, compassionate, loving, wooing way that He does—is through this mysterious, deeper-than-any-waters, sacred Text that we call the Bible.
The apostle John said in the closing verse of his Gospel, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
Amen and amen, Rabbi John. I know this scares us because I know it scares me—to consider all the things I do not know, let alone the things I do know and do not yet understand.
But I believe in the power of God to write a better story than the one my dogmatic theology has written. I believe in the power of asking good questions, and I believe that if I keep asking better and better questions, that journey will open me up to becoming the kind of person God wants me to be.
I suppose one of my greatest passions is that we remain honest and vigilant about our assumptions and where they come from. Because the fact is that for all the Protestant chest-thumping we do about “grace” and where it comes from, we seem to have pulled all of its teeth and given it theological dentures.
The grace of God has always been one of the most difficult things for God’s people to truly understand and apply. God’s grace, as seen in Jesus, upset the religious authorities every time they saw it (and it still does today, for anyone keeping score). God’s grace was one of the things the early church committed themselves to demonstrating to the world—over and over again.
And no matter how well we packaged it and explained it during the Reformation, no matter how beautiful our classical theology is and how flawlessly the systems work, no matter how well defined the concept is in lexicons, no matter how much it is pontificated about in pulpits . . .
The fact of the matter is this grace is far from a new idea.
It’s as old as “In the beginning . . .”
Marty Solomon serves as president of Impact Campus Ministries. Among other endeavors, he is a host of the BEMA Podcast, a walk-through of the context of the Bible and the Text itself, as well as surrounding history.