Grace is a powerful word in the Christian faith. According to the Bible we are “saved by grace.” In the words of a popular hymn, the amazing grace of God is the sweet sound that turns our lives around: “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.” Grace says that God’s offer of relationship has nothing to do with what we have done or who we are or what we own. Grace is about who God is and what God has done. Even though human beings make God terribly angry with their harsh judgment and hostility, God offers them a chance to begin again. That offer is free. It is grace.
If you have been in a relationship with someone who has offended you or taken advantage of you, then you know the strength that grace requires. If you know someone who tests your patience or makes it difficult to remain loyal to, then you know the cost that grace demands. If you have been part of a relationship that is broken, then you know what it takes for the relationship to be restored. Someone needs the courage to reach out. Someone needs to take the initiative to try. Someone needs to make the continuous offer to start over. That is what God is up to through the death of Jesus. That is grace.
Out With the Old, Up With the New
As it turns out the law was only meant to be temporary anyway. In the book of the Bible called Galatians the law is compared to a chaperone. It was like a guardian who made sure that a young child made it to school without being harmed or getting distracted. But, when the child grew up she could be responsible for herself and the guardian could be dismissed.
The law was the guide for God’s people so that they could learn to trust God and be a light to the world. According to Galatians, a day was to come when God’s people would no longer relate to him through the law, but through faith. After all, there were people who knew God and walked with God before the law even existed. Because the law was meant to be temporary and it wasn’t serving even its temporary purpose, God dismissed the law from its role. Here’s how the Bible says it:
But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit — Romans 7:6
God has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. — 2 Corinthians 3:6
God has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace. — Ephesians 2:15
God made you alive together with Jesus, when he forgave us all our sins, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. God set this aside, nailing it to the cross. — Colossians 2:14
In speaking of a new covenant, God has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear. — Hebrews 8:13
In each of these passages there are two common themes. First, you see that the law is spoken of in final terms. We are discharged from the law because God has abolished it by nailing it to the cross. It is obsolete and will soon disappear. Second, in place of the law, God is doing something new. Humanity now lives in the new life of the Spirit and has become servants of a new covenant. Through this God is creating one, new humanity where there is peace. The old is dying and something new is coming alive.
Jesus’ life was spent among people considered unclean by the law. Jesus touched and was touched by people with diseases, illnesses, and conditions that defined them as unclean. In doing so he became unclean himself. He was considered a glutton and a drunkard for eating among the sinners and prostitutes. The religious leaders would go so far as to call him possessed by a demon. In the minds of powerful and influential religious leaders Jesus was unholy. For them, Jesus was one to be cursed by God, not used by him.
They could say, “cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” (Gal. 3:10). Jesus seemed to intentionally ignore the law in his life, pushing boundaries and breaking rules. To the religious authorities, Jesus was outside of God’s blessing and deserved God’s curse. Jesus’ death falls into the same category. Galatians also says, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” (3:13). These words come from the law:
If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and you hang him on a tree, you must not leave the body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is a curse of God. — Deuteronomy 21:22–23
According to the powerful and influential religious leaders of the day, Jesus was a cursed man. Not only did Jesus live a cursed life and he died a cursed death. In their minds, Jesus deserved to die and their judgment was justified by the law. In their eyes, Jesus’ life was an offense to God and deserved God’s wrath. To them, God was cursing Jesus on the cross and justice was served when Jesus died. Their righteous God has killed an unrighteous man. End of story. Or, so they thought.
You may know that the crucifixion is not the end of the story. There is a resurrection. Jesus’ death is followed by a new life. If Jesus’ crucifixion gave the appearance that God had cursed Jesus, then his resurrection revealed that Jesus was not cursed after all but truly blessed. Jesus’ resurrection became a direct contradiction of the law’s prescription. Far from being an offence to God, the resurrection showed that Jesus was the center piece of the new thing that God was doing to invite the whole world into a new partnership (a new covenant).
Hopefully, the point here is clear. One of the reasons that Jesus died was to put to death the place of the law in God’s plans. The law, which was good, had become a source of condemnation and hostility. It had become so spoiled, in fact, that it could even be used to justify killing God’s Son. So, in the death of Jesus, God removed the law from its place because it was no longer serving its intended purpose. Many interpretations of the law had condemned Jesus as a criminal, but God proved them all to be wrong.
If Jesus was “cursed” by the law in his life and in his death and God still raised him from the dead, then God must be doing something new in Jesus “apart from the law.” (Rom. 3:21) If Jesus was raised from the dead, then what it means to walk with God was being redefined. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then he is the one who shows us what it means to know God and partner with God. In Jesus’ death the law and its curse were being put to death. God’s relationship with us would no longer be through the law, but in Jesus. In his resurrection a new covenant was coming to life.
On the night before he died Jesus sat at a table with his closest followers. He lifted up some bread. He gave thanks and broke it and passed it out to his followers saying, “This is my body for you.” Then, after they had eaten, Jesus took wine. He poured it out and passed it around saying, “This cup is a new covenant in my blood. As often as you drink it, do so in remembrance of me.” Through the bread and the cup Jesus was sharing God’s true intentions. He was sharing his life with others so that they could truly live as God intended.
There is no doubt that Jesus’ death changed something in the way that God relates to humanity. What most people expect to hear is that Jesus’ death paid the debt of an offended Lord who demands payment. Or, that Jesus bore the punishment of a terribly angry judge. These ideas make it difficult to believe in a forgiving, generous, patient, and lovingly loyal God. They also make it difficult for people who have been abused to trust that God is on their side. This is why writers like Trelstad and others suggest that we should focus on the idea of covenant instead.
We come to understand that even though humanity had failed to join God in the partnership and even though God was terribly angry about it, God would rather do away with the agreement than do away with the people. God would rather redefine the relationship than end the relationship. God is not a violent oppressor of an innocent man. Much less so is God an abusive father who tortures his one and only son. By focusing on a change in covenant, we find an understanding of Jesus’ death that is more consistent with who we’ve understood God to be in this book so far: merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. By focusing on the change in covenant we deny any pastor, partner or parent the right to be controlling and cruel and use God’s name to justify it.
Through Jesus’ death and resurrection God was not pouring out his anger, but changing the covenant relationship with the world. God was establishing a new covenant that was similar to previous covenants, but was not the same. What it looks like to profess a love of God would be seen, not in the law, but in Jesus. The shape of our commitment in response to God’s promise would be found, not in the law, but in Jesus. Jesus’ death was the decisive elimination of the covenant law that had been spoiled by sin. Jesus’ resurrection was the surprising confirmation of the new covenant rooted in the life of Jesus. In Jesus’ death, the law was laid to rest. In his resurrection, a new covenant came to life.
Apart from Jesus’ death and resurrection, God’s people would have continued to debate the right interpretation of the law. Rather than leaving it completely behind, some people would have suggested that the whole law be kept word for word. Other people would have suggested that the law be kept more loosely and find teachers that suited their own understanding. Still others would have rejected the law entirely. In other words, God’s people would have continued to argue and debate the law and find themselves outside of a grace-filled relationship with God. They would have stayed lost lost condemnation and hostility giving the devil an opportunity to stir up more abuse.
What we discover about God in and through Jesus is not control and cruelty, but grace. God is reaching out to those who have offended him and taken advantage of him. God is making the courageous move to restore a relationship that had been broken. God is taking the initiative to reach out, offering to put the past behind, and extending the opportunity to start over. God does not “deal with us according to our sins nor repay us according to our iniquities.” God deals with us according to his own grace.
This grace promises to provide more for his people and call for more from his people. In addition, we find that grace is for more than just one group of people. God wanted more for all people and more from all people. God wants to be in a grace-filled relationship with everyone. In order to accomplish that, God made a decisive move through Jesus’ death that established a new way to relate to and partner with him. In Jesus, we find God extending a graceful offer of relationship to the whole world. It was in this new covenant that human beings of every nation and all peoples were invited to begin again with a clean slate. God graciously redefined the relationship in a new covenant so that the whole world could find a fresh start and begin again.