Five Intriguing Insights About Grace and the Old Testament
The language of grace so permeates the Bible and all traditions of Christian theology that to claim that salvation is by grace alone is, in itself, to claim very little at all (17).
So begins Grace Alone, Carl Trueman’s tour de force examining the doctrine of salvation as a gift of God.
He examines the development of this theme in the early church, through the Reformation, to the Protestant confessions that still shape the church in the present day. Trueman also explores the biblical means of receiving God’s grace—with a highly informative engagement of grace in the Old Testament.
Below we’ve highlighted some of his material to help you better understand what the Old Testament says about this doctrine, in order to help the church recover it in the face of today’s challenges.
Grace and Character
Interestingly, the noun “grace” is rarely found in the Old Testament. The adjective “gracious” is far more common, revealing an important insight into God’s posture toward humanity.
Grace, we might say, is a response, an application of God’s character and attributes, to human rebellion. Grace is that aspect of divine action by which God blesses his rebellious creatures, whether through preservation (common grace) or salvation (special grace). (25)
In Exodus 34:6–7, the Lord proclaims himself to be “the compassionate and gracious God” who forgives “wickedness, rebellion, and sin.” This attribute, then, exists in relation to something other than God: to us and our sin. Trueman stresses that grace is something God does in response to something, rather than an attribute of his nature; God responds to our sin with his compassion.
Grace and Covenant
Covenant is how God compassionately responds to sin; this is the heart of Old Testament teaching on grace. “The covenant provides the historical revelation, thread, and structure to God’s gracious dealings” and “becomes the key to the administration of God’s grace” (26-27).
In one example, King Hazael, king of Syria, was oppressing Israel. Yet despite their sin, “the Lord was gracious to them and had compassion and showed concern for them because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (2 Kings 13:23).
This narrative of covenantal faithfulness “was vital to Israel’s identity…They are a people formed by grace and sustained by grace” (27). Which is why Moses tells them in Exodus 12 to recite and retell the story of God’s gracious rescue of his people from Egypt.
Grace and Liturgy
Driving home this identity and God’s gracious response to Israel are numerous confessions and benedictions that played a role in their liturgy, beginning with the Shema. “The people declared that God is one, followed by the command to love him and a warning not to forget the great and gracious acts of deliverance that the Lord had performed for his people” (28). This confession was the cornerstone to Israel’s liturgical life.
Then there is the great Aaronic benediction of Numbers 6:24–26, which “points people to the grace of God, by which we approach him. When fallen, sinful creatures come before God, they need to be reminded that God is gracious toward them…” (28).
Grace and Sacrifice
“We wrongly believe,” Trueman explains, “that apologizing will be sufficient to cover the evil of our sin. But grace is far more than a sentimental notion” (29). Unlike our cheap sentimentalism, the Old Testament makes clear that God’s grace is more than a whimsical response to our collective “oopsies.”
Further, “sacrifices were not an attempt by human beings to find something that would placate or cajole an angry God” (29). Instead,“God took the initiative, revealing how sinful humans could relate to him” (29). He established the sacrificial system to atone for our rebellion.
Here’s the key insight: “Sin is violent, lethal rebellion against God; and biblical grace is God’s violent, raw, and bloody response” (31).
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Grace and Prayer
Finally, grace is a staple of Old Testament prayer, where Israel cried out to the Lord pleading for his grace. Trueman wants us to see how prayer was closely associated with the notion of sacrifice:
We must not forget this, for to do so would be to detach prayer from its position in God’s overall gracious action and also to lose that powerful, raw, existential aspect that we noted above in regard to the nature of sacrifice (31).
Unlike much of our expression of prayer, which seems to be rooted in humanistic sentimental action, “biblical prayer rests on God’s grace and thus on God’s character as expressed in his saving actions toward his people,” which is why “the primary place of prayer in the Old Testament is the tabernacle and then the temple” (31-32).
“The story of God’s relationship to human beings is the story of grace” (48). And Trueman tells that story, in all of its biblical and historical nuance, beautifully.