But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today. —Deuteronomy 8:18
Interwoven throughout the testimonies of the Old Testament is the conviction that the Lord graciously initiated and freely established a unique relationship with the community called Israel. Frequently described in terms of covenant, this relationship between God and people finds its most common expression in the Lord’s validating words, “I will be your God, and you will be my people” (Leviticus 26:12). As our biblical ancestors spoke of being “rightly related” with God and each other through this covenant, they used words derived from a single Hebrew root: ts-d-q. We often translate words derived from this root either as righteous/righteousness or as justify/justification. While these two translations appear to reflect different ideas, the Old Testament uses this single root to convey the idea of right relatedness. In other words, for our ancestors, to be righteous or justified meant to be in right relationship; justification is the act or process by which right relationship takes place.
Our biblical ancestors were confident that the Lord’s covenant relationship with them occurred solely by divine grace. Nothing in their own strength, achievement, or merit warranted their covenant with God. Looking back from our theological perspective, we may identify this action of God as justifying grace. Within the context of the Old Testament, we can appropriately call this action covenantal grace. Either way, the rightly-ordered relationship between God and people is not by human effort but by divine grace alone.
Covenantal Grace Extended to Abraham, Sarah, and Their Descendants
In the overall biblical narrative and well before the defining moment of the covenant at Sinai, the story of Abraham and Sarah echoed into the lives of later generations. Witnessing God’s grace that had called, promised, and guided this landless and childless couple, subsequent generations caught a glimpse of God’s gracious activity that established right relatedness through covenant. In their nomadic journey into an unknown future, Abraham and Sarah struggled to trust the Lord, who had promised them descendants. In the midst of Abraham’s struggle in Genesis 15, this childless nomad questioned God regarding an heir: “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless?” (v. 2). As far as Abraham knew, the only possibility would be his servant Eliezer. In response to Abraham’s inquiry, the Lord invited him to gaze into the dark, star-filled sky, saying “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be” (v. 5).
In response to the Lord’s gracious activity and promise in his life, Abraham simply believed.
His trust in the God who had spoken these words of promise was reckoned or calculated as right relationship with God.
In the concluding scene of this encounter between God and Abraham in Genesis 15, the Lord solely initiated and established covenantal relationship with Abraham and his descendants. Covenantal grace took center stage as God’s presence, represented by fire and smoke, passed between the pieces of the sacrificial animals. The Lord took the full responsibility of initiating and committing to the covenantal relationship between the Lord and Abraham. This rightly-related covenant was established by divine grace alone. Generations later, the apostle Paul recalled this moment as the standard for right relationship with God (Romans 4:1-3).
The Defining Moment of God’s Covenantal Grace at Sinai
Centuries after Abraham and Sarah, echoes of this story of God’s covenant with Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants reverberated into the lives of the Hebrew slaves as they hurriedly made their mass exodus out of Egypt and arrived at the banks of the Red Sea. With Pharaoh’s armies behind them and the life-threatening sea ahead of them, the situation appeared hopeless. Suddenly, out of the east came a mighty wind that divided the chaotic sea in half. Coming up out of their birthing waters as a newborn people, these former slaves became a community of emancipated human beings. In response, Miriam took her tambourine and led the women in song and dance: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:21). With that testimony of God’s gracious deliverance, the community of faith was born.
In the days that followed this defining moment, the newborn community ate God-given bread and drank divinely-provided water. As the people arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Lord incorporated them into a covenant family, a community rightly related with God and each other. The once-orphaned slaves who were not a people were adopted into the Lord’s household as a treasured possession out of all the families on earth (Exodus 19:3-6). Indeed, the Lord became their God, and they became the Lord’s people.
Conceived by God’s preceding grace through God’s call of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 12:1-3), the community now burst forth out of the waters as a delivered people who entered into covenant with the Lord and each other—not by their own ingenuity, strength, or merit, but by God’s delivering, covenantal grace alone. In their captivity, these people could not deliver themselves; however, the Lord graciously rescued them. In their hunger and thirst, they could not bake their own bread or dig wells deep enough to find water; however, the Lord graciously nourished them. As orphans without a god and wanderers without a king, they could persuade neither gods nor kings to welcome them; however, the Lord graciously adopted them as children of the divine covenant. Their own efforts had not brought them into this covenantal relationship—only God’s commitment to and love for this community could carry out such a miraculous act (see Moses’ words to the people in Deuteronomy 8:17-18). Indeed, the Lord came to them before they ever came to the Lord. By grace, they were delivered; by grace, they were nourished; and by grace, they entered into covenant relationship with God and each other.
The Gracious Gift of Law and Forgiveness
Our biblical ancestors testified to another divine gift that was directly related to the covenant. This gift of the Lord’s law was not an alternative to covenantal grace; it was an integral part of covenantal grace. Having been adopted as the Lord’s covenant family, how would this community ever know the ways in which it was to practice and embody its covenant identity? The Lord had not left the people helpless. They fervently believed that God had graciously given them words and statutes, ordinances and commands, practices and disciplines by which they might both embody and nourish their covenant identity. They unequivocally believed that God’s gracious deliverance and covenant preceded the giving of law. They were deeply aware that they were born into the covenant community by grace alone and not by their obedience to law. To believe otherwise would be to pervert both grace and law. However, understanding the divine law also as God’s gift to the covenant community, our biblical ancestors were committed to the belief that their grace-based covenant relationship with God and each other carried with it the responsibility to practice obediently the ways of covenant faithfulness.
Like their father Abraham and their mother Sarah, the people of the Lord struggled to trust their covenant God with all their hearts. By turning to other gods, constructing idols, establishing rulers, making alliances with nations, and engaging in oppression, injustice, and violence, their rightly-ordered covenant relationship with God and neighbor became distorted and broken (i.e., unrighteous). Although the people broke covenant with the Lord, the Lord refused to walk away from the covenant community. The divine grace that had established covenant in the first place continued to be active and to call upon the people to repent, to seek forgiveness, and to pursue right-relatedness. In the context of the community’s infidelity and rebellion, divine forgiveness became an integral part of the Lord’s restoration of covenantal right-relationship.
As testified throughout the generations of God’s people, the Lord is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love . . . forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Exodus 34:6-7). The very character of God is embodied in the divine grace that not only establishes right relationship but also restores right relationship with Him.
Timothy Green is dean of the Millard Reed School of Theology and Christian Ministry and professor of Old Testament Theology and Literature at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.
All Scripture quotations in this article come from the English Standard Version.
Holiness Today, November/December 2020
Please note: This article was originally published in 2020. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.