Grace in the Old Testament?

Preston Sprinkle —  August 6, 2012 — 2 Comments

“I’m glad we worship the God of the New Testament rather than the god of the Old,” said one student before Bible class, “because the God of the Old is a God of wrath, while the God of the New is a God of grace.”

I have had many students, in fact, confess that they thought this way before they actually studied the Old Testament. And my educated hunch is that many Christians feel this way whether they admit it or not. The Old Testament, according to popular opinion, is all about law and works, while the New is all about grace and forgiveness.

Sure, we could comb through the New Testament and easily find examples of grace. Jesus hung out with harlots, drunkards, and he touched quite a few lepers during his short ministry on earth. Paul too could hardly talk about Jesus without clothing his message with his fresh understanding of grace. But if you pay attention and read it closely—or read it at all—the Old Testament is one large, impassioned story of God’s grace. Look at any story, any chapter, and you’ll find a story of God’s relentless pursuit of his wayward children. Take grace out of the Old Testament and, like pulling a thread from a sweater, the whole thing will become undone. Every character, every event, every single page from the Old Testament bleeds with grace.

We don’t usually see this because we have been conditioned to read the Old Testament morally. That is, we generally look to the Old Testament as a showcase of moral examples to live by. We need to be like Abraham, live like Jacob, be a leader like Moses, Joshua, or David. We should fight like Samson, flee like Joseph, and stand up for God like Esther.

But the problem with this approach is that it puts the emphasis on people rather than on the main subject, the primary character, in the Old Testament—God. God is the focus of every story in the Old Testament. Human characters play a role, but it’s a supporting role and never the main part. The Old Testament—the whole Bible, really—is fundamentally a story about God, not humankind.

 

And so I suggest that instead of reading the Bible morally, that we read it theologically. This doesn’t mean that we don’t look for moral examples, nor does it mean that we should mine the text for verses that support our favorite theological doctrine. Rather, reading the Bible theologically means that we look first and foremost at what the passage teaches us about God. What is God doing? How is God revealing Himself? What is God doing to clean up our mess? Theology simply means “the study of God,” and that’s what the focus should be.

Plus, most of the characters of the Old Testament, believe it or not, are not good examples to follow. Abraham was addicted to lying, Jacob was a fearful cheater, Moses was a tongue-tied murderer, Esther never even mentioned God, and Samson was a porn star enslaved to lust and bloodshed. So if we follow our Old Testament “heroes” as the Scripture presents them, we could end up in prison.

So the Old Testament is all about grace. And it provides the rich soil from which Jesus’ gospel of grace blossoms. To understand Jesus, to understand grace, we must soak ourselves in Israel’s story.

I can’t wait to teach Old Testament Survey again this Fall!

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • Andrew

    My eyes are opened to the grace that is seen all over the Old Testament every time I read through the text. I am currently in children’s ministry and one of the biggest struggles is communicating with other adults about teaching the stories from the Old Testament as more than just merely stories about how to be moral. I believe we greatly underestimate a child’s ability to grasp onto theological concepts, and more importantly the role/work Holy Spirit in communicating the truths of scripture. It would be much more simple and require a whole lot less reliance on the Spirit to simply teach children to be “moral” based upon Old Testament stories (or even stories from the life of Jesus). I know some children’s ministers who do all they can to avoid teaching any “non-story” from the Bible (so no epistles or any other writing), which is scary. I believe teaching morals and not teaching the theology contained within these great texts has a significant impact on the number of students that “drop out” of the church before the age of 18.

  • AP

    Totally agree Preston, and thanks for the great encouragement this weekend. It has always confused me when people go so far as to name their children after these “moral examples” in the OT. I think to myself, “You realize you just named your son after a complete spare. You wouldn’t name your kid Judas, so why do you want him to follow the example of Abraham/Jacob/Moses?” It’s a good reminder of grace though every time you look at your kid, I guess.

    Also, thanks for the Weezer reference!