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The Grace of God
By Andy Stanley
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Andy Stanley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn the Beginning, Grace
Grace has been the basis of our relationship with our Creator from the very beginning.
First-time Bible readers are often struck by the apparent contrast between the God we discover in the Old Testament and God as explained by Jesus in the New. To be candid, even people very familiar with the Bible often struggle with this contrast. Several years ago, my wife, Sandra, studied the Old Testament as part of a course that required students to read straight through the historical books, Joshua through 2 Chronicles. Like many longtime Christians, she grew up with a devotional approach to Bible reading, so most of the better-known stories were familiar. But she had never read straight through the narrative portions of the Old Testament.
Early one morning I walked in on her while she was reading, and she looked up at me and said, "I'll be glad when I'm finished with this."
"Really?" I said. "Why?"
She shook her head and said, "This isn't how I view God. Basically, he condones genocide."
Genocide. That term had recently taken on new meaning for us. Three months earlier we had visited Rwanda. We talked to survivors. We visited the genocide museum in Kigali. Horrific photographs and video footage of the carnage revealed the evil that had plunged this African country into darkness for one hundred days, during which at least five hundred thousand men, women, and children were slaughtered. Piles of bodies, mass graves, heaps of skulls. Children who survived were left orphaned and homeless. We also saw the instruments of destruction. The drunken civilian death squads known as Interahamwe preferred the machete, a weapon that created carnage of Old Testament proportions.
After experiencing that somber, haunting place, we cannot speak the word genocide without feeling sick. Sandra was right. The parallels were too obvious to ignore.
In his book The God Delusion, noted atheist Dr. Richard Dawkins declared,
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
But he isn't the first to draw such conclusions. In the second century, Bishop Marcion was so struck by the contrast between descriptions of God in the Old and New Testaments that he concluded they must refer to different beings altogether. He believed the God of the Old Testament created the physical world and introduced the Law, which was based on retribution, through Judaism. Whereas Marcion characterized the Old Testament God as a cruel and jealous Lawgiver, he saw the New Testament God as a compassionate and loving Father who was concerned about all mankind. He believed this New Testament God revealed himself through Jesus Christ.
While the church in Marcion's day considered his teaching heretical and eventually excommunicated him, one can't help but appreciate his attempt to reconcile the apparent contradictions between God as presented in the Old and New Testaments; the God of war versus the kinder, gentler God who sent his Son to redeem the world from sin.
With all that in mind, it would seem that a study of grace should begin with the gospel of Matthew. On the surface, it appears that the birth of Jesus signaled the beginning of an age of grace. However, a careful reading of the Old Testament reveals grace to be God's preeminent characteristic from the very beginning. So that's where our journey will begin. In the beginning.
* * *
The Old Testament opens with an explanation of how the world came to be. While modern readers immediately dive into the details surrounding the process of creation, the author had far more in mind. Shortly after the Israelites escaped the bonds of slavery in Egypt, Moses wrote this remarkable book as a means of introducing them to God. After more than four hundred years of exposure to Egyptian mythology and a polytheistic worldview, the Israelites' collective memory of God had become distorted. So the first three chapters of Genesis represent far more than just the story of creation. This was Israel's introduction-or reintroduction-to the God of their fathers. This was their glimpse into the nature and even the personality of the God, who had singled them out as his people. After what they had just witnessed-their miraculous departure from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, astounding displays of God's power over people and nature-not a soul among them doubted his ability to create something out of nothing.
They were not looking for an explanation for how things came to be as much as they wanted to know who had delivered them and who they were being asked to follow.
* * *
According to the creation accounts of other ancient religions, the gods took up residence in a preexisting universe. They didn't create the world; they merely ran it. But Moses claimed that the Hebrew God existed before anything. He brought all matter and time into existence out of nothing-not because he had to but, apparently, because he wanted to. And that's where we encounter the very first expression of God's grace.
Philosophers and scientists have been wrestling with a fundamental question for generations: Why does anything exist at all? Or, another way of asking it: Why is there something rather than nothing? Not to worry, we aren't going to spend too much time here. But this question deserves to be explored before we examine the familiar story of creation. It is impossible for us to imagine nothing. But apparently there was nothing before there was something. In the past, some scientists suggested that matter might be eternal. But more recent investigation suggests that matter, space, and time each had a beginning. Something came from nothing. But why? Why something? Why not nothing?
Assuming you believe in God, let me ask this question a different way. Why did God create anything? Some argue that he was lonely, but I don't think so. Even if that were the case, an argument could be made that the act of creation was an extraordinary act of grace. God created life, which created the potential for you and me. Creation gave you an opportunity to be. And God was under no obligation to give you or me that opportunity. Why is there something rather than nothing? Because God decided there should be something. And part of that something is you! In the beginning God created, and this was a marvelous act of grace. But that was just the beginning.
Moses wrote that after creating time, space, and matter, the universe was "formless and empty." Into this void God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. Then God commented on his creation: "God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness" (Gen. 1:2-4).
The Creator isn't the only one who views light as something good. You do as well. And so do I. But God was under no obligation to create light. The world could have been left in utter darkness and we would never have known the difference. Have you ever thanked God for light? Me neither. We take it for granted. The only time I stop to express gratitude for light is when our electricity is restored after an ice storm. But within minutes I slide right back into my take-it-for-granted frame of mind. We don't generally consider the creation of light as an extension of God's grace. But if you have visually impaired friends, you know that the miraculous restoration of their sight would certainly be a cause of thanksgiving and that no one would consider it far-fetched to credit God for his grace on their lives. The difference? Light is a constant for the average person. Light is not a constant for those who are visually impaired. God's 24/7 extensions of grace generally go unnoticed, until they are taken away. And even then, our appreciation and recognition last only a short time.
The remainder of the creation story describes how God systematically brought order to a "formless and empty" universe. He divided the sky from the earth, the dry land from the waters, the day from the night. He dotted the heavens with the sun, moon, planets, and stars to measure the passing of time. He filled the earth with life-endless in variety, boundless in scope, relentless in resilience, marvelous in complexity. None of this was necessary. God was under no obligation to go to these seemingly great lengths. But he did. And at every juncture, at the end of each creation cycle, we find a phrase that gets little attention yet declares the grace of God in a subtle but powerful way: "And God saw that it was good" (vv. 10, 12, 18, 21, 25).
I think most people take that to mean that God looked at his handiwork and thought to himself, Nice job! You know, the kind of thing you would say to yourself after painting a room in your house or washing your car. That's good. Sounds a bit silly when you stop and think about it. "God saw that the light was good" (Gen. 1:4). Like he didn't know it was good until he paused to look at it? Like it was an experiment? Or perhaps instead of patting himself on the back, he said it in a comparative sense. Perhaps he had tried this before and it wasn't so good, but this time he got it right.
I don't think so. Neither does anybody else I've read.
Another option suggests that creation was good in a moral sense. But that doesn't really work either. Dry land isn't morally good or bad. It's just dry land. But God declared it good. Strange, isn't it? Good for what? Good for whom? Good for God? Did God benefit from the division of the land from the sea or from the creation of birds and fish?
By the time God finished, more than three hundred species of beetle populated the earth. Was all of that for his sole benefit and enjoyment? Did it really matter that the seed-bearing plants would reproduce after their own kind? Was it for God that certain plants were created for food and others just for their beauty? Would God, who is spirit, benefit from either? In other parts of the Scripture, we discover that all of creation declares God's glory (Ps. 19:1). But who hears this declaration?
You; that's who. And me.
God declared each phase of creation good because it was good for us.
Not sure you buy that? Sound a little self-serving? Hang on, because what happens next sheds some light on all that had come before.
"Then ..." (Gen. 1:26)-as in, after everything was ready. "Then"-as in, after the stage was set. "Then"-as in, after God got everything the way he knew we would need it to be. "Then God said, 'Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us.' ... So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them" (Gen. 1:26-27 NLT).
And what did God do with them? He told them to enjoy themselves. Everything he had painstakingly fashioned, he created for them. Here's how Moses described it. Take special note of the words I've emphasized:
Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground-everything that has the breath of life in it-I give every green plant for food." And it was so. (Gen. 1:29-30; emphasis added)
God created the world, filled it with goodness, and then gave it away. He handed us the keys. He created a world perfectly suited to sustain the human race. What did we do to deserve this incredible, pristine abundance? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
That's grace. From the standpoint of human experience, the creation of the universe and God's giving it to humanity was the beginning of grace. Majestic sunsets-those are for you. The seasons that enable us to plant and harvest-those are for you. The variety of fruits and vegetables you have enjoyed throughout your life-those are for you. Your choice of salmon, sea bass, trout, or snapper-that's for you. The beach, the mountains, the lakes, the streams, the rainforest, the jungles, the plains-all for you. There is more beauty in this world than any one person can fully comprehend, greater abundance than any one person can consume. Why? That's the nature of grace. Grace is never just enough. Grace is always far more than enough. From the very outset, God established his pattern of lavishing grace upon those he loves. But the best was still still to come.
* * *
In the midst of all that God declared good, one thing did not please him: "The Lord God said, 'It is not good for the man to be alone'" (Gen. 2:18).
Once again we are confronted with God's unending commitment to, and love for, humankind. Why create a woman? Because it was not good for man to be alone. We see from the very beginning of creation that God desires what is good for us. That's grace. Undeserved favor. God wanted, and continues to want, only what is good for us. For you. When he saw that humanity was incomplete, he acted. "I will make a helper suitable for him" (Gen. 2:18). Why? Because he had to? No, the text is clear. Because he wanted to.
"So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:27 NLT; emphasis added).
It would be a mistake to rush by this too quickly. Why male and female? Why not just create a big electronics store full of males? Why not create a big outlet mall and fill it with females? We would have never known the difference. But apparently God would have known. So he created man and woman. In doing so, he created a capacity for love and intimacy that Adam, on his own, would never have experienced. He created the experience of sexual fulfillment. He created the potential for children and the unique love that only a parent can comprehend. With the creation of man and woman came the ability to enjoy life in its fullest expression. And why did God push his creative capacity to such an extreme? Because he wanted to. Maybe here, more than anywhere else in the Old Testament, God reveals his feelings toward humankind. He wants what is good for us, so he filled creation with endless extras.
God blessed Adam and Eve with an abundance of everything they needed to thrive, and he encouraged them to enjoy life to the fullest. He filled the garden with lavish varieties of food, not merely to sustain but to delight. He gave the couple each other and the gift of sexual relations, not merely to procreate but to savor the joys of unblemished intimacy. And then he gave them one more thing: something to do.
Adam and Eve were guided to a particularly lush part of God's newly formed world, and there he did two remarkable things, things he didn't do for any other created being. He blessed the couple and gave them responsibility. God said, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground" (Gen. 1:28; emphasis added).
God gave Adam and Eve a purpose for living. Purpose. That's just one more aspect of God's grace. He granted them second-in-command status as his vice-regents over all of creation. And along with that authority, he gave them the responsibility to subdue the earth. Put simply, they were to extend and maintain the order he had given the world. But he didn't give them any real guidelines. In fact, there was really only one rule. "From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die" (Gen. 2:16-17 NASB). Lots of "yes" trees; just one "no" tree.
Excerpted from The Grace of God by Andy Stanley Copyright © 2010 by Andy Stanley. Excerpted by permission.
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