Beginnings are important. How we begin can determine whether we wander around in the wilderness for 40 years or take the direct route to the Promised Land. A good start can save us lots of backtracking, and a good foundation means that our work will have much greater longevity. So shouldn’t we build on the most sure foundation? And that foundation is the Fear of the Lord!
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, But fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:7)
We are far too quick to dismiss or explain away ‘fear of the Lord.’ It sounds old-fashioned, and it’s not cool to preach fire and brimstone anymore. We have decided that love and gratitude should be our only motivations, leaving no room for godly fear. Never mind that there truly is a day of judgment coming and we would do well to flee from the wrath to come! (Matthew 3:7)
I remember a small group meeting where we were discussing the parable of the Prodigal Son, and someone remarked how sad it was that the son returned groveling rather than confident in his father’s love. I thought about it a little and said that I thought the son had just the right attitude and that his feeling of unworthiness was very appropriate. Stunned silence ensued– they looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears and finally continued the discussion without comment. I had attacked a sacred cow. But I still think that the son did have faith in his father’s love and mercy. He believed that his father would receive him, but he also knew what his actions deserved and that he had no real right to expect any kindness or mercy. I still think it would have been the height of presumption to come back announcing, “I’m home!” expecting all to be forgotten.
Skipping the foundation of repentance and fear keeps us from appreciating the fullness of our heavenly Father’s love and mercy — freely given, though totally undeserved. It is only in comprehending the depth of our sin and its dire consequences that we can truly experience the forgiveness He wraps us in as we run to His arms. God would be holy and just and good if He took one look at us and pronounced judgment, consigning us to the fires of hell. This is the God we are approaching — the God who can ‘destroy both body and soul in hell.’ (Matthew 10:28) Jesus tells us to fear this One, so when we approach this God, it is better not to waltz in rejoicing with no thought for our offense against the One who created us and gave all for us. Instead, we should come as the Prodigal did, humbly taking the lowest place. And that is just the person God exalts to the highest place. (Luke 14:7-14) God humbles the high and exalts the low.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount ends with the advice to build our house on the Rock. Look to your foundation, and make sure that you do not find yourself before God hearing the horrific words “I never knew you, depart from me, all you who practice iniquity.” (Matthew 7:23) Begin with wisdom — build your house on the Rock — and let the winds blow and the rain pound. Your faith will stand, and no flood will be able to carry it away.
Reformed theology was a game changer for me in several significant areas. Way out in front of everything else, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God brings total confidence in God’s loving control of every seemingly random downer in life. A second sea change is how Reformed theology pulls together the Old and New Testament in the ‘everlasting covenant,’ bringing home the truth that throughout history, all of God’s children have been saved in the same way — by grace through faith.
I have believed this for a long time, but recently I have been intrigued by this truth in light of the difference in the degree of illumination between the two administrations of the covenant. Just how much did the OT saints understand about salvation by faith? What was the content of their belief? How explicit was their understanding of the coming Messiah? Did they have a relationship with the second person of the Trinity?
It’s hard to get inside the head of other people and especially other people in other times, but I’m coming to believe that we have assumed too little of our OT brothers and sisters. A few thoughts have been kicking around in my head that I have been exploring further:
- The idea of salvation by grace is present in the OT in the beautiful Hebrew word chesed. This is one of those words with lots of different connotations, making it hard to translate. It is the word that is often translated lovingkindness in the AV and can mean mercy, kindness, covenant faithfulness, truth… In the German Bible, Martin Luther translated the Greek charis in the NT and the Hebrew chesed with the same German word for grace. Chesed makes its first appearance in Gen. 19 when Lot is spared from destruction with the city of Sodom, and the word carries all the way through to the second to last book of the OT, Zechariah. Half of its occurrences are in the book of Psalms, which means that in worship, Israel was constantly reminded of this chesed that formed the basis of their relationship to their covenant-keeping God. See a great article summarizing the use of chesed here.
- Faith and works are both present in both testaments. Maybe we could say that in the NT people are saved by grace through faith which is evident in their works, while in the OT people are saved by grace through faith which is evident in their works. It truly is a difference only in emphasis. Romans 4 makes it clear that Abraham was saved by faith, but we can’t fail to notice that his faith was shown in his actions. He was willing to sacrifice Isaac, who was the promise of God, because he believed that God would still be able to fulfill the promise. Hebrews 11, the famous faith chapter, shows that faith always produced action. By faith OT saints did stuff. In either testament, skipping over faith or works is a problem. So in the OT, when we see God’s people acting, we should never forget that faith is their motivation. Likewise, in the NT, when we see people believing, we should not forget that true faith always results in works — faith without works is dead.
- We have forgotten that the second person of the Trinity is present and active in the OT — and not just in foreshadowing His coming work of justification. Yes, many OT events foreshadow Christ’s crowning work of redemption, but that does not mean that His actions were not meaningful and personal in the immediate context. Wherever the Angel of the Lord appears, it is Jesus in His pre-incarnate form at work to protect and lead His people. Abraham speaks with the Angel of the Lord personally and intercedes directly for his nephew Lot. In the wilderness, the people of Israel were led by the cloud and fire, which was the very presence of God with them. The Angel of the Lord went out to battle with Israel — He was known as the Lord of Armies, their very present Protector. And He shared in the sufferings of his people as individuals by going through the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. David Murray’s book Jesus on Every Page illustrates this beautifully.
- Some things about Jesus are actually clearer in the OT than they are in the NT because the character of God is the same for all time and in all three persons of the Trinity. In the OT, we see Jesus acting in various roles that are not part of the NT narrative. Seeing Jesus as a Protector, Defender, and even Avenger will add a new dimension to our relationship with Him — and these traits are just as much a part of Him now as they ever were in the OT. Maybe it is hard to relate to the idea of Jesus as our defender/bodyguard when we have always lived in relative safety. But try putting yourself in the place of Syrian Christians who have suffered such persecution that they have fled their country, leaving them exposed and vulnerable. OT ideas of social justice and protection from evil leaders becomes our constant plea before God. And don’t forget that Jesus role as Judge is far from over. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead — eyes like a flame of fire, a flaming sword, blood up to the horses’ bridles, casting His Enemies and ours into the Lake of Fire. Refusing to accept ‘OT concepts’ means that we end up rejecting this type of eschatology.
Let’s be a people of The Book — not just part of it, the whole Book. God didn’t give us a provisional OT meant to be discarded when the fuller, clearer NT came along. He has been at work throughout all of human history, and what He has revealed of His covenant faithfulness from the very beginning will never change because He never changes.