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Why Grace — and Why Did Grace Come Last?

Michael Hardt

On the one hand, God has shown grace at all times. Right from the earliest days of mankind when man had fallen, God prepared clothes from animal skins, and announced the redeemer who would crush the serpent’s head. Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord, as did many other individuals. For example, Abraham received a call of grace, and even Lot experienced a measure of grace when he was rescued from Sodom. We find grace in the lives of the all the patriarchs, even Joseph’s brethren. Israel experienced God’s grace in the wilderness (just think of Mara, the manna, the water from the rock, etc.). This was all before the law was given, but even after that, God’s people experienced His grace repeatedly (otherwise they would have been destroyed on the occasion of the golden calf, for example). We can continue through the time of Joshua, the judges, and the kings, and even during and after the captivity; again and again, God showed grace. Even individuals outside the chosen nation experienced grace, such as Rahab and Ruth!

And yet, on the other hand, there was a definite change in God’s dealings with man when Christ came: ‘For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’ (John 1:17). This raises a number of questions: 

  • What is the difference between grace in the Old Testament and grace in the New Testament?
  • Is it simply a matter of degree, or is it a matter of principle?
  • If God is a God of grace, why did He wait so long before fully showing His grace? 

To answer these questions, we first need to consider the nature of grace and the starting point of grace.

The nature of grace

An examination of New Testament statements in relation to grace quickly shows that: 1) grace is unmerited and 2) grace is a gift that is bestowed freely. Here are some examples:

  • ‘being justified freely by his grace …’ (Rom. 3:24)
  • ‘much rather has the grace of God, and the free gift in grace … abounded’ (Rom. 5:15)
  • ‘For ye are saved by grace, through faith; and this not of yourselves; it is God’s gift: not on the principle of works, that no one might boast’ (Eph. 2:8, 9).

Further references could be added by way of confirmation such as 2 Corinthians 8:9, Galatians 2:21 and Ephesians 1:7.

The starting point of grace

Grace is free to act when the two points above are recognised — that is, when it is seen that there is no merit or claim and that any blessing must be a matter of pure undeserved favour. A few examples from the Old Testament illustrate this point:

  • When Adam and Eve realised that their own efforts were insufficient to allow them to stand before God, He intervened in grace.
  • When Israel was oppressed in slavery and unable to do anything but cry to the Lord, He delivered them in grace. 
  • When Naomi had lost everything and Ruth had no rights to start with, God acted in grace and Ruth received a place not only in the field of the mighty man of wealth but at his side.

This principle is not only borne out in the lives of many individuals (and peoples) but even in the Old Testament ordinances concerning the firstborn. God gave special rights to the firstborn son of each family (a double inheritance). Again and again, we come across cases of firstborn sons who fail, and their blessing is given to another who has no claim to it: Cain was the firstborn, but he was displaced by Seth; similarly Ishmael by Isaac, Esau by Jacob, Reuben by Joseph, etc. The underlying principle is clear: the firstborn speaks of man in his natural strength: ‘for he is the firstfruits of his vigour’ (Deut. 21:17). And, this is the point, natural man acting in his own strength always leads to failure. In order for blessing to materialise, God has to provide the ‘second’. The principle observed here is stated explicitly in Hebrews 10: ‘He takes away the first that he may establish the second’ (v. 9) and in 1 Corinthians 15: ‘But that which is spiritual was not first, but that which is natural, then that which is spiritual’ (v. 46). 

This is also a feature of God’s dealings with man. God’s gifts only ever tend to be enjoyed once they are given, and received, the second time, i.e. on the basis of grace. Take the earth. It was first entrusted to man under responsibility and, due to his failure, dragged into the consequences of the fall. It will only be the scene of intended blessing once it is possessed in the second man (the Lord Jesus). The same lesson applies in connection with the land of Canaan. Similarly, with the old covenant, lasting blessing will only be enjoyed when the new covenant is brought in, on the basis of pure grace. 

The reason is plain. In order for the beauty and necessity and power of grace to be seen, there needs to be a demonstration of the inability of man to possess himself of the blessing (or even to retain a blessing already received) in his own strength. 

God has demonstrated this very patiently, over 4,000 years. History shows that what was true in the lives of many individuals (objects of grace following demonstration of their own failure) is also true in God’s dispensational ways with man. Thirty-nine books of the Old Testament give eloquent testimony to the failure of man: in paradise, after the fall when endowed with a conscience, in the time of government (as of Noah), in the time of promise (as of Abraham) and in the time of the law (as of Moses). In every case, man failed. Even when God gave a priesthood it failed (1 Sam. 2:27–36), the kings failed (1 Sam. 15:28; 2 Chr. 28:2), and when prophets were sent to call for repentance, men failed to listen (2 Chr. 36:15, 16; Acts 7:52). 

Evidently, God knew all of these things in advance, but we did not. God went through this whole range of modes of administration (or dispensations) in order to provide a demonstration of what man is like. It is a tale of utter, repeated, extensive, shocking ruin. And this is exactly the right starting point for grace. 

Another pertinent illustration is found in the opening of the Gospel of Luke (which, as none other, brings out God’s dealings in grace). It starts off with two women, both of whom were extremely unlikely to have children: one was barren, the other a virgin. The barren woman (Elizabeth) illustrates man’s plight: the inability of bearing fruit. But what does God do? He uses the virgin, the one who did not ‘know ... a man’ in order to bring in what was from God: His own Son become man.

Man’s inability and lack of strength and resource is the starting point for God to bring in what is not of man but of Himself, provided in free grace. 

Once you have believed, this is the sweetest thing ever: you deserved nothing, you received everything, and all this out of pure and free grace. Yet, at the same time, it explains why the gospel of grace is so unpopular with anyone who does not want to bow before God: you need to concede failure, bankruptcy and complete inability to save yourself before you are free to benefit from grace. Grace excludes boasting because it gives all the glory to God, and natural man wants (at least some) glory or boasting for himself. 

The test of the first man ended at the cross

When all seemed lost, when every test had been failed, and demonstrably so, when no option seemed left but to condemn guilty mankind — then God acted in free sovereign grace and sent His Son. The coming of Christ put the first man (i.e. natural man as the descendant of fallen Adam) to the final test. Instead of receiving the Son of God (come in love and grace!), man passed a terrible verdict: ‘According to our law he ought to die …’ (John 19:7)! Man managed to use a perfect law to condemn the giver of the law who had come in perfect grace, ‘doing good’ (Acts 10:38). But even worse, he rejected the Father’s revelation in the Son. The Lord Himself made this point by saying, ‘but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father’ (John 15:24), and, ‘If I had not come and spoken to them, they had not had sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin’ (v. 22). This was the final test.

Since then, God’s verdict of man stands: ‘that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world be under judgment to God’ and ‘all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:19, 23). The coming of Christ in grace is the ‘consummation of the ages’ of testing (Heb. 9:26). 

And since then, the second man has been set up at the right hand of God as the man of God’s counsels. The testing of the first man is over. Now, the ‘second man’ in the glory is the only channel through whom blessing can come, the centre of God’s purpose and of the gospel of grace now being proclaimed.

This answers the question, ‘Why did grace come last?’ Why did God wait for 4,000 years after the fall? Had the Son of God come in grace immediately after the fall, we would not have known how unable man is to please God and how he would fail every test possible. But now, after God’s patient work of testing over 40 centuries, man’s ruin has been proved beyond reasonable doubt. And this is where grace starts, where God glorifies Himself, where all glory accrues to Him and none to man: ‘lest any man should boast’ (Eph. 2:9). 

The cross is the basis for God to act in full and free grace as a principle.

Why more dispensations after the cross?

If God is no longer testing man (after the cross), why are there further dispensations? Assuming, for the moment, that we accept that the time of grace can be seen as a dispensation,[1] there are only two dispensations following the cross of Christ: 

  • The time of grace: to bring in God’s full and final revelation in grace, showing the ‘riches’ and the ‘glory’ of His grace, on the basis of the utter failure of man having been fully established;
  • The millennium: to make the objects of His grace into the vessels of the display of His grace. At the same time, righteousness and peace will be established and God’s plan for the earth fulfilled.

In the time of grace, God no longer only shows grace to certain individuals (as He did with Noah, Abraham, Ruth, etc.) with man still being under probation, but — the ruin of man having been established — God makes grace His modus operandi of dealing with man in general. It is not a time of further testing of fallen man (see above), but the time of acting in grace. Now, God’s message to man is ‘the gospel of the grace of God’ (Acts 20:24), grace has ‘overabounded’ (Rom. 5:15, 20; 6:1; cf. 1 Tim. 1:14), grace has ‘appeared’ (Titus 2:11), it ‘has been made manifest now by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Tim. 1:10), grace and truth is come (John 1:17), we are ‘under grace’ (Rom. 6:14), we know ‘the God of all grace’ (1 Pet. 5:10), and we stand in ‘the true grace of God’ (1 Pet. 5:12). 

But why is the millennium needed? Will it be another test of man? Not really. While it will become evident at the end of the millennium that the heart of man has not changed even after 1,000 years of righteous and peaceful reign (see Rev. 20:7–9), this is hardly the point of bringing in this dispensation. The reason the millennium is needed is to: 1) ensure the fulfilment of God’s plan for the first creation, and 2) give a display of the glory of God’s grace. This will begin at the appearing of Christ, the inauguration of the millennium, ‘when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe’ (2 Thess. 1:10) — that is, when we will be made the vessels to display the greatness of His grace, as it says in Ephesians 1: ‘that we should be to the praise of his glory’ (v. 12). And when will this be? The answer is in the text: ‘that in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ’ (v. 10) — i.e. in the millennium. Then, ‘in the ages to come’ He will ‘shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 2:7). 

Grace for every day

We are privileged indeed. We live in the time when God’s dealings are characterised by grace. We are saved by grace and destined to be the exponents of His grace. 

For us, grace has a sweet taste. We gladly acknowledge that we were ruined, we were unable to do anything about it, we have nothing to boast of, and yet we have been saved. We gladly give the glory to God. We praise the triumph of His grace and we know that, by grace, we have become part of the fruit of the travail of Christ’s soul.

But it does not end there. We also know grace as the principle on which we live day by day. In our daily lives we gladly confess that we have no power, no resources, no prospect of success in our own strength. However, this does not lead us to despair but rather to a whole-hearted reliance on the resources that are in Him. His strength is made perfect in weakness, His grace is sufficient for us (2 Cor. 12:9). We can do all things — but only in Him that strengthens us (Phil. 4:13). We can be strong in the grace which is in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 2:1). Our words should be marked by grace (Col. 4:6) and we can sing to the Lord with grace in our hearts (Col. 3:16). We stand in His grace (Rom. 5:2; 1 Pet. 5:12). 

Marvellous, infinite, matchless grace,
Freely bestowed on all who believe,
All who are longing to see His face,
Will you this moment His grace receive?[2]

From: Truth & Testimony, 2019

[1] Arguably, the time of grace is not a dispensation in the strict sense of the word; it is simply part of the times of the Gentiles, and the church has been taken out of this world hence is not part of the various schemes of God’s administration of the world. However, this is just another way of saying that the day of grace (or of the church, or of the Spirit) is a very special time with a number of very distinctive features (a man in heaven, the Spirit dwelling on the earth, man no longer under probation, etc.).

[2] Julia H. Johnston.