Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Musings on Grace

A couple of days ago I posted a question, brought up during my preparation of a sermon on Deuteronomy 9. The question ‘compared and contrasted’ two statements about salvation, one from the Rt Revd Tom Wright, the other from the Thirty-nine Articles.
Wright says, in clarification of his position on final salvation,
... by the Spirit those who are already justified by faith have their lives transformed, and the final verdict will be in accordance with that transformation, imperfect though it remains.
Article XI, ‘Of the Justification of Man’, says,
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings ...
Wright’s own position, as I understand it, depends a lot on Romans 2 — that and an understanding that ‘justification’ is focussed on ‘being’ rather than ‘becoming’ a member of the people of God.
As I’ve said, however, I was studying Deuteronomy 9, not Romans 2, and sometimes narrative sheds light on things when we are finding the ‘doctrinal’ passages more difficult — and not just for us but for the first protagonists.
Thus I believe that Paul’s theology of grace rested ultimately on his Damascus road experience, and no matter what other factors he took into account, he knew that he was shown mercy when he was actually in the middle of persecuting Christ. He was not a seeker, or a well-doer, but an enemy of God (albeit not in his own mind!). This, then, was the fundamental meaning of the ‘grace of God’ to him.
Similarly, though, Israel was often reminded of the encounter with God at Mt Sinai (indeed, this is the general subject of the opening chapters of Deuteronomy). But what happened there was also an illustration of grace, as Deuteronomy 9 shows.
Having been told that they are about to go in and possess the land, they receive this solemn reminder from Moses:
... do not say to yourself, “The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land ... (Dt 9:4-5)
The lesson would seem clear: Israel is being given the land “not for [her] own workings or deservings”.
But there is more — much more! For what is the condition of Israel at Sinai and since then?
In ‘Wrightian’ terms, I take it, Israel is ‘justified’ — this is ‘the people of God’, without a shadow of a doubt. When he talks to ‘his people’ he talks to them. But what are they like? In v 8, Moses tells them:
At Horeb you aroused the Lord’s wrath so that he was angry enough to destroy you.
And from vv 9-12, Moses reminds them why. Whilst he was up the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments, they were making the Golden Calf, committing the very sin that the whole encounter with God so far had warned them against (cf 4:12,15-18).
In response, God’s words to Moses could hardly be more stark:
I have seen this people, and they are a stiff-necked people indeed! Let me alone, so that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven. (Dt 9:13)
So this is the condition of the ‘justified’ people of God in Deuteronomy: resistant to correction (that is the meaning of ‘stiff-necked’), and worthy of utter and complete destruction (just like the nations who are being driven out because of their ‘wickedness’).
Israel’s lack of ‘righteousness’ (vv 4-5) is not a former condition which has changed now that they have been brought to God as Sinai. Nor is not something that lay outside the Covenant relationship. On the contrary, it persists even beyond Sinai. As Moses says in 9:22-24,
You also made the Lord angry at Taberah, at Massah and at Kibroth Hattaavah. 23 And when the Lord sent you out from Kadesh Barnea, he said, “Go up and take possession of the land I have given you.” But you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God. You did not trust him or obey him. 24 You have been rebellious against the Lord ever since I have known you.
This is the constant condition of God’s covenant people. Moses tells them, they were worthy of destruction then and they are worthy of destruction now. Compare this with what an important Qur’anic verse says about ‘God’s people’:
You are the best of peoples [or the best nation] ever raised up for mankind. You enjoin what is right, forbid what is wrong, and believe in Allah [God]. (3:110)
That is surely the natural way to think about the people God would choose — not necessarily perfect, but certainly the best in the sense of ‘better than all the rest’.
But we must simply ask, is that the message Moses gives to Israel? The answer is surely a resounding ‘No’. To them, God says (via Moses), “You are worthy of destruction, like all the rest. Indeed you are if anything worse — a ‘stiff-necked’ people resistant to correction, who never change, despite what happens to you.”
Israel is, by nature, a ‘covenant breaking’ nation, hence the symbolism of the broken tablets (9:17)
So why does God not destroy them? Deuteronomy 9 gives four reasons.
First, there is an effective intercessor. Moses recounts how he prayed for the nation and for Aaron for “forty days and forty nights”, and how the Lord listened to him (9:18-10).
Secondly, sin is decisively dealt with. Moses took “that sinful thing of yours” and utterly destroyed it (v 21).
But it was not finished there.
Thirdly, Moses appealed to the Covenant with the Patriarchs: “Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (v 27).
Fourthly, he appealed to God’s own glory and honour:
Otherwise, the country from which you brought us will say, ‘Because the Lord was not able to take them into the land he had promised them, and because he hated them, he brought them out to put them to death in the desert.’ (v 28)
And hence he is able to say, finally,
But they are your people, your inheritance that you brought out by your great power and your outstretched arm. (v 29)
This is the grace of God shown in Deuteronomy. In the nature of Old Testament narrative, it is laid out ‘sequentially’ and in detail so that we get the point. But the point is that this ‘wicked and evil’ people is God’s people, not because of their own ‘righteousness or uprightness of heart’ before or since the making of the Covenant, but purely because of God’s grace and the provision of an intercessor, the destruction of sin, the formation of a Covenant with others and the upholding of God’s own honour.
It is this people that God gave the land to possess.
All that remains to observe is that if that is the case with ‘God’s people’ then, it is surely the case with ‘God’s people’ now. God does not look for a righteousness or uprightness of heart in us as the basis of his giving us the kingdom. We too have an intercessor for sin: “Christ Jesus ... is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Rom 8:34). We too have had our sins dealt with decisively: “[Christ] cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us ... nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:14). We too receive God’s grace because of a Covenant with ‘another’: “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Lk 22:20). And in all this, God acts for his own honour and glory: “In love [God] predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph 1:4-6).
Thus we must surely say to ourselves, as God said to Israel, “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity”, either before or since we were made his Covenant people. On the contrary, we too are “a stiff-necked people”, not better than the rest of mankind.
Yet like Israel, it is also said of us:
... they are your people, your inheritance that you brought out by your great power and your outstretched arm.
Sola gratia, sola dei gloria — grace alone, and to the glory of God alone!
John Richardson
9 August 2011
(All quotations from The Holy Bible: New International Version 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) Grand Rapids: Zondervan)
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  1. John

    A couple of tangential though, I think, related points. Questions related to covenants and who are the people of God.

    a) It is interesting to note that Deut does not appeal to the Mosaic Covenant as the basis for God's grace to the people. He appeals to the Abrahamic covenant. The Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of works not grace and it demanded judgement for disobedience. To be sure God did not carry out his judgements immediately because of the reasons you give from Deuteronomy (God's character as gracious, his promises to the patriarchs and his own glory and honour as the champion of his people).

    b) The Mosaic Covenant, as a covenant of works, does not assume life, rather the opposite... this do and you shall live. Thus Israel may be the covenant people but they are not assumed to be regenerate. The nation was a mixed multitude. Circumcision of body did not assume cicumcision of heart and I think we will agree, certainly did not create it.

    Does circumcision promise circumcision of heart (or life)? I doesn't seem to. The plain fact is not all of the patriarchal children have circumcised hearts (Esau).

    Two questions.

    What did bodily circumcision promise at a spiritual level? And, what does the Abrahamic covenant promise to uncircumcised hearts?

    In the New Covenant however (and here I suspect we may differ) the covenant people are regenerate. All know him from the greatest to the least and all (as in Deut 30 which considers a time after the exile) have God-given circumcised hearts. Thus Deut 30 speaks of law-keeping as something no longer impossible and Paul takes his language concerning law to describe the gospel; in a word, old covenant has given place to new. Baptism in the new covenant is always discussed in the context of faith. Faith is assumed. The Baptism declares they have died with Christ.

    My point is that as new covenant believers, each with a circumcised heart and the indwelling Spirit it cannot really be said of us that we are a stiff-knecked people. Grace has not merely declared us righteous but has made us righteous. This righteous fruit is the proof of life on the day of judgement and will receive its reward (Roms 2).

    I am reflecting a fair bit on the Abrahamic Covenant that assumes a 'mixed multitude' in some sense (though also not all Israel are of Israel Roms 9) and the New Covenant which assumes a pure people (all know him from greatest to least). The continuities and discontinuities intrigue me as do the covenant signs and those to whom they should be given.

    I see the new covenant as fulfilment of the Mosaic Covenant and of the Abrahamic Covenant. In that sense both of these are finished. Just as we are not under the Mosaic, neither are we under the Abrahamic; the new covenant finishes them by fulfilling them. If this is not so then we ought to circumcise our children since both covenants demanded it.

    Thus we must ask what the distinctions between the old covenants and the new covenant are. From the above a few things flow a) old covenants assumed mixed multitudes new covenant does not b) old covenants promised life (Abrahamic) and offered life upon obedience (Mosaic) but did not assume life; life is assumed only in the new covenant. The new covenant promise is life in the spirit and the forgiveness of sins to all with whom it is made.

    Indeed life in its truest sense is only revealed in the gospel. Christ was the manifested life (I am not sure, at the most technical level, how far we should describe the regenerate experience of OT believers as 'life'??? Is it life proleptically? Or is life in the NT sense life of a different order to OT regeneration?

    I guess as an Anglican (and paedobaptist) you will be less than happy with this but any reflections or pointers would be appreciated. Excuse somewhat rambling nature.

  2. John,

    I have just written an article on whether we are acquitted on judgement day by our works. My answer follows Calvin, "Yes and no." Yes in terms of order and sequence - our works do acquit us on judgement day, but in terms of originating cause, all it is all of grace.

    Calvin's soteriology is based on Union with Christ. From this profound union flows the twofold grace. The first grace is that of justification, by which Calvin meant, Christ paying the penalty for our sins and being clothed with Christ's active righteousness. This justification is by faith alone.

    The second grace is that of sanctification, by which those "in Christ" become "like Christ" (Rom 8:29). Believers "replicate" Christ in suffering, obedience, and mortification in this life to be followed by glory, reward, and vivification in the life to come.

    Calvin does justice to both free justification and the NT passages on judgement by works.
    See Mark Garcia's brilliant book "Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin's Theology."

    Ro Mody, Bournemouth

  3. Would it be possible for your article, Ro, to be published somewhere or posted on this site? Thanks!

  4. Hi John,
    A book by my former parish priest you might find helpful in your deliberations! It's a PhD thesis re-written in book form, so not written for popular level, but should give you useful insights nonetheless.