by Al Maxey
Issue #738 -------
December 18, 2017
Everyone who understands the nature of God
rightly, necessarily knows that God is to be
believed and hoped in, that He is to be loved
and called upon, and to be heard in all things.
William Ames [1576-1633]
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a French theologian and Cistercian monk, an abbot who was one of the most influential churchmen of his time, wrote, with respect to God, "Who is He? I can think of no better answer than: He who is." This brings to mind the encounter of Moses with God (the well-known "burning bush" incident in Exodus 3), when Moses asked essentially the same question: Who are You? What is Your name? "And God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM'; and He said, 'Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, "I AM has sent me to you"'" (vs. 14). Yes, our God is "He who IS," as St. Bernard noted. He is the Eternal One; the Self-existent One. Although this tells us something about Him, it still falls short of revealing who He is with regard to His nature. Is He kind or cruel? Is He caring or uncaring? Is He just or unjust? Yes, He is a God above us, but is He a God with us? The self-descriptive "I AM" does not answer the latter, only the former. At some point it would become essential for the Creator to reveal to His creation not only His supremacy (and, yes, that was important to establish from the very beginning), but also His soul (i.e., the essence of His being; His nature; the qualities of His heart). "Who are you, God ... really?!"
Our God did not leave that question unanswered, and He would later give Moses a much fuller response. It is this self-disclosure of His very nature that is the focus of this Reflections, for it is a stunning revelation of qualities and character that some individuals have doubted God ever evidenced (or even possessed) prior to the present Christian dispensation. There is the God of the OT times, we are told, who was stern, demanding, judgmental and condemning; then there is the God of the NT times, who is gracious, loving, compassionate, accepting and merciful. These two are so different, some assert, that it has been suggested there were really two different Gods (or at least a harsh God who somehow "mellowed" over time). Nothing could be farther from the truth. The God of love, grace, mercy, compassion, and kindness that we know today, is the same God that existed from the very beginning ... as He Himself declared unto Moses! It is vital that we not lose sight of this fact, even though that fact may be hard for some to perceive due to the manner in which God related to mankind at various stages and phases of their social, cultural, historical and religious development. A parent, by way of example, may relate differently to their child during the infancy, toddler, adolescent and adult stages of their lives, but this in no way suggests the parent's love, compassion, care, etc. was not consistent throughout. The God of love and grace, mercy and compassion, was just as much active in the early days of humanity as He is in this present era. He has not changed.
After sending out my previous issue of Reflections ("Grace and the Noah Narrative: Questions Concerning Noah's Salvation" - Issue #737), a dear reader in Texas wrote the following to me (expressing what I'm sure a number of others were wondering as well): "But, was not the time of Noah before the Grace dispensation? Was this not the period before people were saved by grace, but rather by their obedience to Law?" My article above was in response to a poster I saw on the internet which declared emphatically: "Grace did not save Noah, ... obedience did!" I sought to demonstrate in that article that God's grace was just as much an active part of His nature then as it is now, and that the truth that we are "saved by grace through faith" was just as much reflective of His nature and purpose then as it is now. We often miss this, however. Yet, from the very beginning, the great I AM made it clear to mankind WHO He was, and that has never changed. Deity is the same yesterday, today and forever! We can count on the consistency of His nature! Shortly after receiving the above email from the reader in Texas, I received an email from an elder in Tennessee, who wrote: "In reading Exodus 34:6, the eyes of my heart were enlightened to the truth that God's default or resting position is mercy. It is His nature, and for His name's sake. It is the John 3:16 of the Old Testament." This brother is so correct in this assessment! The good news that God is a God of grace, mercy and love is consistent throughout Scripture, regardless of dispensations or covenants. His nature, His essence, does not change, nor does the reality of our salvation by that grace, which we receive solely through faith, rather than by any human effort or accomplishment or compliance to some system of law. Yes, law served a purpose, as did one's obedience to law, but neither law nor obedience to law were ever designed by God for the purpose of providing a pathway to eternal salvation: they are in no way redemptive. Neither justification nor sanctification nor salvation are secured by obedience to law! Those who seek to find God in this way have failed to perceive WHO God is; they are blinded to His true nature: the very essence of His Being.
Notice with me the declaration of God Himself to Moses, as He discloses to Moses His true nature: "The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin" (Exodus 34:6-7, NIV). Most translations have "merciful" as the first quality listed, instead of "compassionate" (although about a half dozen agree with the NIV on this, including the NASB, NEB, HCSB, and the Amplified Bible). "Gracious" (or "a God of grace") is found in virtually every translation. He is a God who is faithful, loving, kind and forgiving. He does not explode with anger at every human misstep and failure, but is so full of love and mercy and grace that He continues to reach out to those who desire to be in relationship with Him, even though they are each pitifully flawed. Yet, the latter part of verse 7 makes it clear that this loving, gracious God is also a just and holy God, and He will not tolerate those who willfully choose to throw His grace back in His face! Such persons will pay a price for their rejection of His love! But, it is vital to note: it is they who reject Him, not the other way around! It is His nature to open His arms to ALL (such is the nature of love, mercy, kindness, grace); only those who willfully reject that embrace will perish outside of it, for LIFE is found only IN HIM, not apart from Him!
This passage is the second time God has revealed His "name" to Moses (and, by extension, to mankind). "He had made Himself known to Moses in the glory of His self-existence and self-sufficiency when He proclaimed that name: I Am That I Am. Now He makes Himself known in the glory of His grace, and goodness, and all-sufficiency to us. ... He pardons man's sin ex mero motu (merely of His own good pleasure), not for their merits' sake, but from His own inclination to forgive. The proclaiming of it denotes the universal extent of God's mercy. He is not only good to Israel, but good to all; let all take notice of it. He that hath an ear, let him hear, and know, and believe" [Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. With respect to the quality of "grace," Matthew Henry notes: "He is gracious. This bespeaks both freeness and kindness; it intimates not only that He has a compassion to His creatures, but a complacency in them and in doing good to them, and this of His own good-will, and not for the sake of any thing in them. His mercy is grace, free grace" [ibid]. The reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) referred to this passage as God's "sermon on the name of the Lord," in which God reveals His true nature to Moses. "Here grace, mercy, and goodness are placed in the front. And accordingly, all the words which the language contained to express the idea of grace in its varied manifestations to the sinner are crowded together here, to reveal the fact that in His inmost being God is love" [Drs. Keil & Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch - Exodus, vol. 2, p. 241].
"The new 'name' of God is not a 'name,' as we understand the expression; it is rather a description of His nature by means of a series of epithets. At the burning bush He had revealed His eternal, self-existent character," ... but now "He calls Himself 'the kind and gracious one,' who bestows His benefits out of mere favor" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 1, p. 317]. "At an earlier period He had announced Himself to Moses, in the glory of His self-existent and eternal majesty, as 'I Am'; now He makes Himself known in the glory of His grace and goodness -- attributes that were to be illustriously displayed in the future history and experience of the church" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 81]. In this long enumeration of divine attributes, "God proclaimed His name; not, however, as in the burning bush, an actual name contained in a single word -- but a description in many words of His essential nature" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 1 - Exodus, pt. 2, p. 364]. "Then the emphasis was on the name, now it is on the character of Him who bears the name" [ibid, p. 368]. "The name exhibits the divine character. It lays bare to us God's very heart. It reveals His essence" [ibid, p. 365].
In this passage from Exodus 34 we truly find "God's declaration of His identity. ... The Lord's self-disclosure" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 486]. And specifically, we see that He is the merciful, gracious and loving one (He who IS mercy and grace and love). Because, by nature, He is thusly characterized, our "'gracious God' bestows His unmerited favor on those who have no claim whatsoever on it" [ibid]. The "gifts" of God are just that: gifts! That is the nature of His grace. "He proclaimed the meaning of His name -- revealing His gracious character in an unforgettable manner. Indeed, this verse is the foundation for understanding the character of the Lord" [Nelson's Study Bible, p. 161]. This truth is seen throughout the OT writings. "The Lord your God is gracious and compassionate" (2 Chronicles 30:9). "Thou art a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness" (Nehemiah 9:17). "But Thou, O Lord, art a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and faithfulness" (Psalm 86:15). "The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness" (Psalm 103:8). "The Lord is gracious and compassionate" (Psalm 111:4). "He is gracious and compassionate and righteous" (Psalm 112:4). "Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; Yes, our God is compassionate" (Psalm 116:5). "The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and great in lovingkindness. The Lord is good to all" (Psalm 145:8-9a). "For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness, and He relents from sending calamity" (Joel 2:13). This latter is a truth affirmed by the prophet Jonah: "I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity" (Jonah 4:2).
Perhaps the greatest self-disclosure of the nature of God is when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, "and we beheld His glory, ... full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Jesus made it very clear to His disciples: "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). The very nature of God is displayed powerfully in the flesh in the Son. Love, mercy, grace, kindness, compassion, goodness, long-suffering, forgiveness, acceptance: this is who God is, and this is what Jesus lived!! It is also what He asks of us! The Polish-born rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century, rightly observed: "The grandeur and majesty of God do not come to expression in the display of ultimate sovereignty and power, but rather in rendering righteousness and mercy" [The Prophets]. Let me close with the words of the last stanza of that wonderful hymn written over a century ago by Julia H. Johnston ("Grace Greater Than Our Sin" -- music composed by Daniel B. Towner):
Grace, grace, God's grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God's grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin!
From a Reader in Texas:
Do you have any articles addressing the question of how to know when one is ready to be baptized? My 10-year-old son is wanting to, and his knowledge and maturity levels are there, I believe, but 10-years-old has always seemed a little young to me. I know it is not an "age thing," per se, but I'm still struggling with it a little, and I wondered if you have any material addressing the question. Thanks!
There are a couple of earlier studies in which I address the matter of when one may be ready to meaningfully and appropriately participate in such spiritually significant symbolic acts as baptism and the Lord's Supper. I believe there is no fixed age at which all are ready; it varies from person to person, and from situation to situation. Some will be ready far sooner than others; others, perhaps due to special cognitive challenges and developmental delays or more permanent impairments, may never be ready. However, there are some factors that may prove helpful in making these determinations, and I have dealt with those in the following: "The Age of Accountability: Discerning the Moment of Discernment" (Reflections #159) and "Toddlers at the Table: The Doctrine of Paedocommunion" (Reflections #316). -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in California:
Brother Al, "Anti-Social Social Media: Fratricidal Factionalism on Facebook" (Reflections #736) was a great study! I very much appreciate your comments, as well as your overall teaching, on this subject: the lack of civility on social media. Thank you very much, brother, for all your work in our Lord Jesus Christ. I would say that this issue of your Reflections is a masterful work ... BUT, all your works are masterful works!
From an Elder in Tennessee:
Al, I want to express my deep gratitude for your ministry, and for the freedom in Christ that is its focus! I am an elder in Tennessee, and I have been a child of the King since 1973. If it were not for those brave voices like your own, I fear I would still be lost in the fog of legalism. I have struggled mightily to loosen the last remaining tentacles of this determined foe. It was a combination of many factors that has allowed the truth of grace to take up residence in my heart. You have, and are, playing a substantive role in my "recovery," for I am indeed a recovering legalist. Thank you again!
From a Minister in Tennessee:
Al, I just read you article titled "Grace and the Noah Narrative: Questions Concerning Noah's Salvation" (Issue #737). Great article! I fear that some are depending so much on themselves that they are successful only in occupying the position of the Pharisaic brethren in Acts 15 and Galatians 1:6-9.
From a Minister in Zimbabwe, Africa:
Thank you, brother, for yet another fascinating exploration in the Scriptures ("Grace and the Noah Narrative"). We need more of this intellectual display.
From a Reader in Canada:
You say about Noah, "He was obedient and he was active because he was saved, NOT in order to be saved." AMEN!!! This was a great, hard-hitting article, Al. Again, I appreciate all you do for Jehovah and His anointed one: Jesus. Your brother in the Lord Messiah.
From a Minister in New Zealand:
Just got your latest Reflections (on Noah and Grace). Some time ago, I was reading Romans 4, and it intrigued me what was said in verses 23-25 -- that if we "believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead," righteousness will be reckoned to us, just as it was to Abraham. Then in Romans 5:1-2 we read, "Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand." I realized that what was really important, both then and now, is a personal commitment from the heart, for His will is written "on tablets of human hearts" (2 Corinthians 3:3). Thank you for another great article.
From a Minister in New Mexico:
The first step to understanding is the realization that only the Supreme Being we call God has the ability to save. Consequently, it is logical that we can be rescued from our human mortality only by the One who has the ability to rescue us. It's impossible to be saved apart from the will of God to save. Hence it's entirely valid to conclude that we must be saved by the grace of God. How do we respond when we realize God is willing to forgive and save? Our appropriate response is to do our best to live as God our Savior would have us live. When He speaks, we must listen and follow His directions. Thankfully, when we misunderstand, He forgives. That is grace!
From a Reader in North Carolina:
I love this quote from your article "Grace and the Noah Narrative" -- "It is salutary to note that the most godly and important man in the entire world at that time ... was merely a sinner saved by grace!" [Dr. Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings, p. 177]. It never ceases to amaze me how this simple concept of God's salvation can be overlooked, tainted, even vilified by the "obedience only" legalists. To quote the famous hit by Manfred Mann's Earth Band, these Bible-thumping Pharisees are indeed "blinded by the light" (i.e., the glorious light of grace and faith). Sadly, instead of embracing that saving Light, they close their eyes to it and continue to stumble around in the darkness. GREAT article, brother!
From a Reader in Toronto, Canada:
Some religious folk are very positive -- positively negative!!
From an Author in Arizona:
Brother Al, that was an excellent, insightful piece on Noah and grace; right up my line of thinking. "Soldier on!," brother, as Leroy Garrett often said.
From a Reader in Georgia:
I'm glad you mentioned Hebrews 11 in this issue of Reflections on Noah. It is not known as the "Works" Hall of Fame chapter, but rather the "Faith" Hall of Fame chapter. Noah was warned by God. He was given a "heads up" of events "yet unseen." God was going to flood the earth and everyone was going to die, except for the ones in the boat (for Noah "found favor" with God before any of this came about). What boat? The one you are going to build, Noah. Oh, OK ... sounds good to me. After all, given that option, who wouldn't build the boat? One also has to wonder, although it's not specifically mentioned, how many times God encouraged Noah and his family over the many decades it took to build this boat. If Noah gets credit for anything here, it is not his salvation, but just credit for not being a complete dummy! Have a great week, my friend. Keep challenging the status quo!!
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