Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
God’s Grace in the Old Testament
I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain. Galatians 2:21NKJ
Question 34 of the Larger Catechism asks, “How was the covenant of grace administered under the Old Testament?” It gives the answer, “The covenant of grace was administered under the Old Testament, by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the pass-over, and other types and ordinances, which did fore-signify Christ then to come, and were for that time sufficient to build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they then had full remission of sin, and eternal salvation.” Last time we saw that God’s one Covenant of Grace has been administered differently throughout the history of the Church, this week we examine those administrations found in the Old Testament.
Once again, we remember that the Covenant of Grace is that contract whereby God promises to save His elect from His wrath, which is due to them on account of their sins. This Covenant was first announced to them in the Garden of Eden, when God promised that the Seed of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent. That crushing was completed at the cross (Col. 2:14-15). However, the Covenant of Grace was in operation long before, from the moment man sinned. For from the Fall on, God related to His people by grace. Otherwise, since they were now guilty sinners, they would all have been condemned by His justice. Now this grace, which was in operation since the Garden, was not actually purchased until Jesus died on the cross, having satisfied the justice and propitiated the wrath of God in His active and passive obedience (His righteous life and atoning death), on behalf of all of His elect. So that, when the Catechism sets forth how God’s Covenant of Grace was administered under the Old Testament, it is showing how God manifested and gave His grace to believers before Christ came. We could paraphrase today’s question by saying, “What were the ordinary means of grace God used to preserve and edify the Old Testament saints?”
Thus, in today’s answer, after listing a variety of different means, the Catechism declares that they were “sufficient to build up the elect in faith.” That is what we are talking about: building up the faith of God’s people. God’s people are now, and have always been saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Yes, we must live out our faith, working out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), but every bit of our efforts are prompted and executed by the grace of God. And God’s grace does not just zap us randomly so that we have no responsibility in the matter. Not at all! God gives us various means, through which, as we make use of them, He gives us the aid we need to live out and grow in the Christian life.
So how did God visit this sanctifying grace on His people, before Jesus came into the world? Well, he did it through promises. God made promises to His people through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, Daniel, Malachi, etc., and as God’s people trusted in those promises and walked in them, they were strengthened in their faith. Likewise, God gave His people numerous prophecies, through which, as they believed in and walked by them, they were strengthened in their faith. So also, the ordinances of circumcision and the Passover were powerful signs and seals, affirming that God had bound Himself to cut away the sin of Israel, and accept a sacrifice to placate His wrath. And there were many other types and ordinances (priesthood, ark of the covenant, cleanliness laws, the temple, etc.), all of which pointed Israel to the fulfillment of God’s Covenant of Grace in the coming Messiah who would fully and finally crush the serpent’s head on their behalf. And as Israel walked in these ordinances, their faith in their future Messiah was strengthened; for their salvation, like ours, was always entirely in Christ. And even though He had not come and secured it, yet, their experience of God’s grace was like a loan that Christ had promised to pay at some point in the future: God accepted Christ’s pledge for future payment, and Israel really and truly enjoyed God’s grace in the present. Every elect person has always been, and will always be, saved and sanctified entirely by God’s grace!