I mentioned in an earlier blog that we are hosting a summer reading with our small group leaders. We are reading D. A. Carson’s The God Who is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story. We haven’t started the group yet, but I decided to read ahead to try and create a reading schedule and some discussion questions. About 40 pages into the book, God moved.
I have to admit that I struggle with grace. I struggle with receiving it and with giving it. I always feel like I will be judged or evaluated based on my performance. I feel like I need to earn everything. But that’s not grace. Grace is unmerited favor. Grace is an undeserved blessing. I know this, I teach this to students, but I struggle with it.
While reading Carson’s book, the third chapter discusses the covenants of God from the Old Testament. The discussion turned to a practice of the ancient world that was often a part of a peace treaty between super-powers and smaller states. It was a deal struck to keep peace and provide protection. The smaller state would pledge allegiance and pay taxes to the super-power, who would in return provide protection. Carson describes a process that was used to symbolize this covenant:
Sometimes one of the signs of this covenant agreement and corresponding threat was to take animals, tear them apart, and put them side by side with a kind of bloody alleyway between the two parts, and then the two parties of the covenant would walk between the divided animals so as to signify “May this be done to me if I break this covenant. May I be torn apart. May I be cut in half.” (Carson, 51)
Genesis 15 describes a very similar process between God and Abraham. God’s covenant with Abraham included his promise that “all people on earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen. 12:3) This is God promising to do something supernatural and sovereign through Abraham’s line. We know and understand that this is speaking towards Jesus Christ. But what is Abraham’s responsibility in this covenant? After all, a covenant does have two parties. The role of Abraham was to be a people of God, fully devoted and obedient to Him. But how in the world could we do this without making mistakes? This is where God taught me a new understanding of grace.
Back to Genesis 15 and the similar event. God has Abraham take the animals and cut them apart. He directs Abraham to arrange the halves opposite one another with a bloody alleyway between them. Sound familiar? But here is the difference. Abraham falls into a deep sleep, God speaks to him in that sleep about how his family will fall short of their end of the covenant, and then God moved. Literally, God moved.
“When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram.” Genesis 15:17-18
What happens here is Grace. God passes through the bloody alleyway ALONE. This means that only He is responsible and accountable for the terms of the covenant. This means that Abram, and you and me, will mess up and God will still show mercy, love, favor, blessings, etc. toward his people. I’ve heard about grace, taught grace, and definitely experienced grace. But this illustration really helped me to visualize God’s grace. It widened my understanding of His love. It gave me a deeper understanding of God’s grace.
Amazing grace how sweet the sound!
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
We have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.
–John Newton Amazing Grace