In the same way as we seem unable to focus our attention for very long on the ultimate issues of life, so we find it difficult to believe the extent of God's grace. He is extravagent with His grace- God “lavishes” grace upon us (Eph. 1:6-8). The covenant God made with Abraham was similar in style to covenants made between men at that time; and yet there was a glaring difference. Abraham was not required to do anything or take upon himself any obligations. Circumcision [cp. baptism] was to remember that this covenant of grace had been made. It isn’t part of the covenant [thus we are under this same new, Abrahamic covenant, but don’t require circumcision]. Perhaps this was why Yahweh but not Abraham passed between the pieces, whereas usually both parties would do so. The promises to Abraham are pure, pure grace. Sadly Jacob didn’t perceive the wonder of this kind of covenant- his own covenant with God was typical of a human covenant, when he says that if God will give him some benefits, then he will give God some (Gen. 28:20). Although he knew the covenant with Abraham, the one way, gracious nature of it still wasn’t perceived by him.
All flesh is as grass, and yet the Lord speaks as if God treats us as better than the grass “which is today in the field and tomorrow is cast into the oven” (Lk. 12:28). Israel had consented to be “bidden” to the feast; and according to Oriental practice, to accept an initial invitation to a feast was to commit oneself to respond to the final notice of it. But “they would not come”, and yet despite this insult, their divine host had sent forth yet more servants to beg them to come. The Lord puts behind Him the insult of our rejections, and graciously pleads with us- even God pleading with men. The whole history of Israel is eloquent proof of this grace of God. Consider how the believers were assembled praying for Peter's release, and then when he turns up on the doorstep, they tell the servant girl that she's mad to think Peter was there. Or how the Lord Jesus did such wonderful miracles- and people asked him to go away (Mt. 8:34). We too have this element within us. We would rather salvation and forgiveness were 'harder' to attain. The popularity of Catholic and Orthodox rituals is proof enough of this. It always touches me to read in the Gospels how the Lord Jesus cured wide eyed spastic children, crippled, wheezing young women, and sent them (and their loved ones) away with a joy and sparkle this world has never known. But the people asked Him to go away, and eventually did Him to death. A voice came from Heaven, validating Him as the Son of God; those who heard it involuntarily fell to the ground. But the people didn't really believe, and plotted to kill him (Jn. 12:37). They turned round and bayed for His blood, and nailed Him to death. He cured poor Legion; and the people told the Lord to go away.
There's something in our nature which shies away from the true Gospel because it's too good to believe. Paul had this struggle with the Jews, both in and outside of the church. They heard the offer of life from the Lord Himself, and rejected it: " This is an hard saying: who can hear it?" (Jn. 6:60). It was just too good to believe. There is something in our natures which is diametrically opposed to the concept of pure grace. We feel we must do something before we can expect anything from God. And yet in condescension to this, the Father sometimes almost goes along with us in this. Reflect how the disciples, with all the petty pride of the practical man wishing to do something practical for the leader he adores, earnestly asked the Lord: " Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou (singular) mayest eat the Passover?" (Mk. 14:12). He told them to find a certain man, and ask him where the Master would eat Passover with His disciples. He would show them an upper room furnished and already prepared. 'There', the Lord added with His gentle irony, 'prepare for us, not just me but you as well, to eat. Even though I've already arranged it all, and I'm inviting you to eat with me, well, I understand you must feel you do your little human bit, so there you prepare; although I've already prepared it all'. 'What love through all his actions ran'. This was grace and understanding and accommodation of men par excellence. Another cameo of it is found in the way Martha clearly believed Lazarus was now decomposed, and it would make a smell if the stone over his tomb was rolled away. “Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?” was the Lord’s response (Jn. 11:40). Clearly she didn’t have that faith. So, on one level, she shouldn’t have seen God’s glory revealed in the resurrection of Lazarus (Jn. 11:4). And yet we read straight away that then, Lazarus was raised- despite Martha’s ‘unworthiness’ of it. Such was the Lord’s love for them all.
And this Lord is our Lord. All our sins were forgiven on the cross, and by baptism we rose up into heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 2:6), we were translated into His Kingdom (Col. 1:13), we are now kings and priests (Rev. 1:6; 1 Pet. 2:5,9 cp. Ex. 19:5), we have eternal life (1 Jn. 5:13). We struggle with these kind of passages (and there are so many more). We try to find some theological explanation that makes these words not mean what they say in plain English (or Greek, or Russian, or Shona). It's too good to believe; that all our sins are forgiven, that we stand in God's grace, in sure Hope of His Kingdom. But this is what faith, real faith, is all about. There are some aspects of our spiritual experience in which the Father and Son are far harder than we might expect; but there are many others where they are simply far softer and more thoroughly positive than we can almost accept. Even John the Baptist had this problem; for it seems that when in prison he heard of the Lord's gracious works, he wondered whether this really was the One whose coming in fiery judgment he had preached.
I'd like us to reflect on the following examples of where God's mercy is far greater than the mercy of man- even if we are talking about very loving and spiritual people. Consider these windows into the grace of God:
- Elijah told God that only he was faithful, and the rest of the ecclesia of Israel had turned away. God said that in His eyes, there were another 7,000 faithful. Paul uses this as an example of how all of us are like that 7,000- those saved by God's grace (Rom. 11:4,5). So Elijah was a spiritual man; but by His grace, God thought much higher of Elijah's brethren than Elijah did.
- Job felt that " though I were perfect, yet would I not know my soul" (Job 9:21)- he felt the impossibility of trusting his own conscience. He felt he wasn't perfect, and that he was condemned (Job 9:20; 10:2)- although actually God saw him as perfect (1:2). Job felt that God was searching around for his every sin (Job 10:6)- although compare this with how positively God spoke to Satan about him. Clearly God in His grace was more positive about Job than he himself was.
- Paul lamented on his deathbed that all the believers in Asia had turned away (2 Tim. 1:15; Gk. apostrupho, to apostasize). But at roughly the same time, the Lord Jesus wrote to seven ecclesias in Asia, commending some of their members for holding on to the Truth. Paul was a man of great love, who really tried to see the best in his brethren, having been touched by the grace of God. He even would have given up his eternal life, so that the Jews would be saved (Rom. 9:3 cp. Ex. 32:32). But even Paul, in the time of his greatest spiritual maturity, thought that all the Asian Christians were apostate; when in the Lord's eyes, this wasn't the case.
- David realized all this, centuries before. He was given a choice of three punishments which could befall him. He refused to choose. " Let us fall now into the hand of the Lord; for his mercies are great: and let me not fall into the hand of man" (2 Sam. 24:14). This has always struck me as magnificent. God is kinder than men. It's better to be punished by Him than by men. This puts paid to the Catholic conception of God as a merciless torturer of wicked men. Clearly the doctrine of eternal torments was invented by men, not God.
- We mustn't judge our brother, because " to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand" (Rom. 14:4). It may be that Paul's implication is that God is more likely to uphold His failing servant than we would be; therefore, let's not condemn our brother, because God is more generous-spirited than we are in His judgment.
- It could even be that the mercy of God Himself is even greater than that of His Angels. I say this on the basis that He warns Israel not to provoke the Angel, because the Angel would not pardon their transgression if provoked (Ex. 23:21). And yet Yahweh Himself was provoked and yet He did pardon Israel (Ps. 78:38-40; 106:43-46).
It's no wonder, then, that we tend to doubt the reality of our own salvation. We're harder than God is, both on ourselves and on others. It's also no wonder that we have such a terrible tendency to be hard on our brethren. Of course, God does have a harder side, which we as sinful men can never overlook. We can, like Abraham, think that there are more righteous in the city than there really are. But fundamentally within God's character, the aspect of mercy is greater than that of judgment (James 2:13). Struggling for adjectives, Paul wrote of the God " who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, (who) hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace are ye saved) ...that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us" (Eph. 2:4-8). He delights in showing forgiveness and mercy; He loves doing it (Mic. 7:18). As a French proverb says, it's " son metier" - 'what He's good at, and loves doing'. Let's try to catch something of this spirit of the grace of God. Let's try to adopt God's perspective. For what does He require more of a man, " but to do justly, and to love mercy (as God does, 7:18), and to walk humbly with thy God" ? (Mic. 6:8).