Grace Upon Grace – 1 Sobering Reflection on God’s Grace
Grace upon grace – this is a phrase that we hear sometimes on the pulpit as an illustration of God’s magnificent grace. Sometime back, I read this story that was written by G.K Chesterton in his book “Orthodoxy“. This is the story in full, as told in his book “Orthodoxy”:
“I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.
I always find, however, that I am either too busy or too lazy to write this fine work, so I may as well give it away for the purposes of philosophical illustration. There will probably be a general impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool.
I am not here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of folly was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for.
What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to brace one’s self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales.
This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main problem of this book.”
Grace upon grace – what’s so same?
The main point is that what he was going to write were not new discoveries but many people have derived the same conclusion as him many generations back. I experience the same feeling whenever I read of other people’s theological insights which aligned nicely with what I derived independently from them. One such insight, as I was reflecting, was the insight of grace in the Old Testament. In John 1:16-17, the author wrote:
Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
Reading in isolation, verse 17 may seem as if that there is a dichotomy between the law and Jesus Christ. It seems to agree with what Paul ‘seemed’ to say in his epistles. But to read it this way is to read the whole passage out of context. In its immediate context is verse 16, which mention that there is already a grace given and out of the fullness of God. God has given a grace upon grace, a grace on top of the one he previously gave. The first grace, as seen in verse 17, is the law. The grace given on top and in place of the grace already given is the grace and truth through Jesus Christ.
This is really what it means by grace upon grace. What this mean is that the law is given by God as a show of His grace.
Thus the false dichotomy?
The issue is that we are too ready to jump on before even thinking or reading their own Scripture. Many times, we created the false dichotomy between the OT and the NT. One of the common arguments is that we are leaving in the age of grace and not in the age of law, i.e. new time, not old time, new testament not old testament. More intrinsic in this argument is that we need to show grace to people, not impose law on them like what happened in the OT. I remember hearing this same argument a few days ago.
The issue was about tithing. Someone mentioned that tithing today is no longer a law required of God’s people. Instead, it is by grace that we are able to give. The conclusion is correct but I wondered about the premise and the presumption. There is a flaw in our thinking when we think about the laws and grace.
But this really sounds right to the casual reader of the Scripture. Unfortunately, it may prove theologically inconsistent from what we read in the Scripture. Firstly, God is immutable. In the NT that these Christians so proudly flash around, it says that God is the same yesterday, today and forevermore. Theologically speaking, this means that the God we worship cannot change. He must be the same God in both the OT and the NT. This is also one reason why studying the OT is so important as believers of Christ.
Secondly, all Scriptures is Spirit-inspired (2 Tim 3:16). Paul was actually referring mainly to the OT from which most NT writers derived their theological insights. Paul definitely used the OT extensively. James wrote with much implicit references to OT and Jewish literatures. Likewise, Peter and John used OT scriptures, John especially used a lot of OT imagery in Revelations. Even Luke used OT narratives as a foil for his Gospel account.
To push the OT aside therefore in favour of NT is therefore akin to telling people that you just need two years to obtain your GCE A’Levels. While this sounds true, one forgets that you need another 10 years of foundation before embarking on a A’level education. The OT was the foundation from which the NT writers based their works on and to discount it is plain folly and unprofitable to the Christians.
The heart of it all
At the heart of all these is a lack of Scriptural knowledge, or rather biblical illiteracy. This is not helped by determined preachers who preach at the expense of sound exegesis. Normal Christians are no better. I remember there was one sharing session in my office from my previous job. We were talking about verses that talk about importance of Bible, prayer, fellowship and evangelism. To my surprise, most of my colleagues struggled in providing biblical references. And we are talking about Christians who are serving God full time professionally. What more should we say of Christians in the churches?
But we are in the process of growing and becoming more Christlike. Hence we need to allow people the space to grow. Nevertheless, we owe it to ourselves to study our Scripture and know the Word of God. No one can do it for us. He already gave us a grace which is the OT. The grace upon grace is the NT. Both are graces that God gifted us so that we may know His nature.
Do you think we have dichotomised too much of the OT and NT? Let me know in the comments below.