Archives For Unconditional Grace

Tattoo

Preston Sprinkle —  July 12, 2012 — 2 Comments

I don’t have a tattoo, but I’ve always wanted one. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the certain “tough guy” image every guy wants. Maybe it’s the attention they garner, message they send, or perhaps I want to let people know that even though I go to church, I can still clean your clock.

But I’ll probably never get a tattoo. For one, my wife would never go for it. It’s one thing if I already had a tattoo. This might actually be attractive in her eyes. “I married a guy with an adventurous past but now he’s settled down,” is sort of appealing to a daughter of a pastor. But I always come back to the fact that I’m in my late thirties and married with four kids. To get a tattoo now would be more sad than savage. So I don’t think I’ll get a tattoo any time soon. But even if my wife did give me the okay on branding my body, I still don’t think I would for one reason that’s hard to get around. Tattoos are permanent. What if I change my mind? What if I don’t like it any longer? The idea of permanency scares me.

But God is all about permanency. We know this, because God has a tattoo and it’s got your name on it.

Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. (Isa. 49:16)

Tattoos were quite common in the ancient world, as they are now. Different cultures would get tattoos for different reasons. Egyptian women would tattoo their stomachs and breasts during pregnancy, which was believed to ensure a safe birth. In other cultures, slaves would often get tattoos to identify them as someone who belongs to another. Criminals would sometimes be forced to get a tattoo to bear the stigma of their crime. The Greeks and Romans would get a tattoo (a stigmata) to show allegiance to their god. The Grecian ruler king Ptolemy IV (221-205 B.C.), for instance, tattooed his body with ivy leaves to show his devotion to Dionysus, the god of wine. Sounds like something that would happen at a frat party. And I’m sure it has.

God’s tattoo is probably similar to Ptolemy’s, only He turns the meaning on its head. While Ptolemy and others were running around, flaunting their devotion to their god, Yahweh tattooed your name on his hands to show His devotion to you. God is so committed to you that He has carved your name into the palms of His hands. Because God is all about permanency, and He’s not afraid of getting a tattoo to prove it.

This image of God’s tattoo becomes even more powerful when we understand the spiritual state of the people for whom it was first given.
Here’s a few of Isaiah’s own own words:

“How the faithful city has become a whore” (1:21)
“You have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities” (43:24)
“But you…sons of the sorceress, offspring of the adulterer and the loose woman” (57:3)
“You who burn with lust among the oaks, under every green tree, who slaughter your children in the valleys” (57:5)
“Their feet run to evil, and they are swift to shed innocent blood” (59:7)

God does mention Israel’s righteousness, but when He does, He compares it to a bloody menstrual rag.

But even though Israel was unlovable, unusable, unworthy of anything but wrath, hatred, and annihilation, she was still the people upon whom the Creator God has set His affection. In the words of Augustine, the church is a whore but she’s also my mother. God would say, Israel is a whore but she’s also my bride. In fact, this is exactly what God says in several prophetic books.

Isaiah 49:16 says that God has Israel’s name tattooed on the palms of his hands and this conveys the idea of permanence and commitment. And—here’s the vital point—God’s commitment to Israel was not and simply could not have been based on any good they have done. God didn’t look at Israel’s menstrual rag and say, “hey, now there’s something that’s beautiful. I’m going to reward them for that.” The same people whom he calls a whore are etched into the palms of His hands. The one who is swift toward evil is hunted down by a Creator who delights in conquering sinners with boundless grace. The people who slaughter their sons are the children of God’s unswerving delight. God hates the sin but loves the sinner—He loves them so much that He will chase them with his free, persistent, and life-transforming grace. And to show them He’s serious, He tattooed their name on His hand.

Still think God loves you because you do your devotions?

God loves you because of God. And God has a one-way love for image bearing masterpieces. God’s tattoo is only one of many ways in which the prophet Isaiah sought to convey His message of unilateral grace. The book of Isaiah radiates with the stunning beauty of grace like a ray of light refracted through a priceless jewel. Meditate on this book. Read it often. Memorize its verses. Explore the rich images that the prophet paints in order to soak us in God’s unconditional love for unlovable people. Do this, and you will never again bank on your own morality to sustain God’s love for you.

God Walks Alone

Preston Sprinkle —  April 14, 2012 — 3 Comments

The Old Testament is all about grace. It contains some laws and talks about judgment. But at the end of the day, the whole thing is held together by grace. If you pull grace out, like tugging on a loose thread from a sweater, the whole garment will become undone. Grace is the backbone of the Old Testament story.

And it begins in Genesis 15, when God confirms his covenant (his agreement) with Abraham. Back in Genesis 12, God promised to bless Abraham, give him tons of kids, and use him to bring salvation to the nations (12:1-3). But God’s promise still needs to be visibly confirmed, and that’s what Genesis 15 is all about. God wants to show Abraham that he is serious about what he has committed himself to. And so God and Abraham perform an ancient ritual that was common in their time.

“God said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other.” (Gen 15:9-10)

Now, this seems like a really bizarre event, but it’s only bizarre to us. Back in Abe’s time, this was a typical ceremony that two people would carry out in order to confirm an agreement they were making. Say, for instance, an ancient dude named Wayne wanted to sell his camel to another dude named Winston. In exchange for the camel, Winston agrees to let Wayne marry his daughter. Now, Winston may walk away with the camel right then, but his daughter’s only 11 years old. She’s not going to be given over to marriage for another two years! (Yes, they got married at 13.) So Wayne’s a bit worried that Winston may go back on his promise, and so in order to confirm the promise that they made, both Wayne and Winston would take an animal, kill it, and cut its body in half. Then, they would divide the two parts by a few feet and both Wayne and Winston would walk between the two bloody parts of the animal. (I apologize to my UK readers for the profanity.) And by walking between the two parts, both members visibly confirm that they will not go back on their word. Wayne demonstrates that he will give up his camel. Winston demonstrates that he will give up his daughter.

When they walk between the two parts of the animal, this was a visual and quite vivid proclamation: “May I be like this dead animal if I go back on my word.” That’s the purpose of the dead animal. To remind the two people that this is what will happen if they go back on their word.

And this is the point of the story in Genesis 15. God has already promised to be with Abraham, to make him into a nation, to bless him and keep him. They now only need to ratify their agreement. So Abraham kills some animals and divides their dead bodies, so that he and God can walk between the two parts. In doing so, God would show they he will keep his half of the bargain, and Abraham would keep his half of the bargain. And if either one fails to keep his word, then let them be like these dead animals.

The thought of God taking upon himself such an oath—a promise to keep his word or die—is unthinkable and borders on heresy. Can God take upon himself such an oath, that he would become like these two dead animals if he fails to keep his word?

Not only is the answer Yes, but there’s more to it. The ceremony is a radical depiction of Grace, one which breaks all the rules and breaks down the conventions of transaction and merit. Because when it comes time to walk between the two animals, God causes Abraham to fall into a deep sleep, while God—and God alone—passes between the bloody corpses.

“As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him…When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch [= the presence of God] passed between these pieces.” (Gen 15:12-17)

God takes upon himself the SOLE responsibility to carry out his promise. May I be like these dead animals if I fail to keep my word to be your God, to bless you and to save you, to be with you until the end.

This is not the way it was supposed to happen! No one in the ancient world would make such a ridiculous covenant—to agree to do something for another person without the confirmation that they will do something for you. This is too risky, too one-sided, too unconditional!

Welcome to the Old Testament, where grace tethers the whole thing together. Like a beam of light refracted through a priceless gem, grace penetrates the Abrahamic covenant and sparkles every story from Genesis to Malachi.

I see a very common problem in the Christian church that thinks that God first saves us by his grace, but then it’s up to us to maintain God’s love by what we do. Most people don’t say this, but many live like it. I see it all the time. We begin the Christian journey so thankful for God’s grace, but as we grow in Christ we begin to leave behind grace and bank on our own efforts to sustain God’s love for us. And so if we have a bad day, or a bad week, or we go a couple months being apathetic or disengaged, we think that God loves us less. When we perform well, we think God loves us more.

But when God saved you, he did so based on who he is and what Christ has done, not because of what you did or didn’t do. Like Abraham, you overslept the covenant ceremony when God fashioned your salvation through Calvary and the empty tomb. Though you found out about it recently, God saved you 2,000 years ago and no struggle with apathy will reverse God’s cosmic work on your behalf. It was God, not Abraham—and certainly not you and I—who walked between the dead animals shouldering the responsibility to maintain his vibrant divine love toward you.