Does the Old Testament depict a God of grace?

A repeated feature of discussions about the Bible is the difference between the Old Testament and the New, and the way God is depicted in both. You don’t have to be Richard Dawkins to find some of the images of violence in the Old Testament morally and theologically challenging, and this is the starting point for people like Steve Chalke to argue that many (all?) of the biblical writers made mistakes, and that we have to be selective about which parts of the Bible we take as the ‘word of God’. And there is a widespread tendency, amongst ‘ordinary’ readers of the Bible, to want to draw a distinction between the God they find depicted in the Old Testament and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

That creates some problems. It opens to the door to an essentially anti-semitic reading of the Bible (‘Jewish Bible bad; Christian Bible good’); it ignores some of the difficult sections of the New Testament, not least Jesus’ teaching about judgement (so that, for example, Chalke has to concede that Luke is also mistaken in his depiction of God); and it fails to take account of the repeated assertion by New Testament writers that Jesus’ birth, ministry, death and resurrection were ‘to fulfil’ or ‘according to’ the Old Testament scriptures.

Preston Sprinkle’s recent book Charis addresses this question from one specific point of view: is the God of the Old Testament a God of grace (the way we translate the word charis in the NT—though many would argue that we should translate this as ‘gift’). Sprinkle is well qualified to write on this, as he has a PhD in Old Testament, teaches course on it, and is clearly in touch with recent scholarship. But this is no academic tome; it is not a tome (at around 40,000 words) and it is written in a dynamic, fire-from-the-hip, energetic preaching style. Some of the phraseology will feel quite American to UK readers—but that is more than worth bearing with.

There are three great virtues to this book. The first is that, in setting out his bold claim that ‘The Old Testament is all about grace’ (p 27), Sprinkle demands that we read it in a particular way.

The reason we typically miss it is because we’ve been trained to read the Bible, especially the old Testament, morally. That is, we generally look to the Old Testament as a showcase of moral examples. We need to be like Abraham, live like Jacob, and be a leader like Moses, Joshua, or David. We should fight like Samson, flee like Joseph, and stand up God like Esther.

Is there a problem with this? Yes. There is a huge problem with this. In fact there are two huge problems with this.

First, this moral approach puts the emphasis on people rather than on the main subject, the primary character – God.… Second, most of the characters of the Old Testament are not good examples to follow.… Instead of reading the Bible morally, we should read it theologically. (p 28)

I would argue that the same is true of all of our reading of Scripture—and it is particularly important for our preaching. But it is helpful to have this spelled out so clearly, and in one sense this is half of Sprinkle’s argument about whether the OT is about grace.

The second virtue of the book is the roller-coaster overview of some key episodes in the OT covered in the short chapters. The first explores the creation narratives, and there are easy pickings here for talking about the grace and gift of God. Sprinkle’s theological reading is well informed, in that he is happy to talk about the two creation narratives, and notices the change in the terminology for God from the first to the second. Some readers might find his approach to the text sounding rather literalistic (especially in the reimagining of the naming of the animals), and he ascribes the changes in perspective to Moses’ authorship, rather than different theological traditions or editorial material.

The next chapter gives us a whistle-stop tour through the patriarchs, and connects it will the genealogy in Matt 1. Then we review Moses and the exodus, always with an eye backwards to its connections with the creation story and forwards to the gospels. There is here a characteristic inversion of what we might expect; under the heading ‘God is always doing his devotions’ we read:

When you are apathetic toward God, he is never apathetic towards you. When you don’t desire to pray and talk to God, he never is tired of talking to you. When you forget to read your Bible and listen to God, he’s always listening to you.

Then we have an exploration of kingship, starting with the Book of Judges and running through the ups and downs of David’s reign. In this chapter comes my favourite illustration of Sprinkle’s combining scholarly insight with the preacher’s passion.

It’s no wonder that David pens the last sentence in Psalm 23: ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall [hunt me down] all the days of my life (Psalm 23.6). This may seem like an unusual translation, but is the literal meaning of the Hebrew word radaph – ‘to pursue, hunt, chase’. Radaph is often translated ‘follow’, which is terribly weak. It lacks aggression. Radaph is most often used in the old Testament of a hunter chasing down his prey or a soldier seeking to conquer his enemy. It’s an aggressive word juiced up on steroids and loaded with caffeine. It describes a bloodthirsty warrior, a famished lion, a transcendent creator who will stop at nothing until he conquers his prey. He will chase, pursue, fight, hunt with unbridled passion until he conquers and devours and loves. (p 92)

The next chapter has a challenging title (‘Whore’) and challenged content, as an exploration of Ezekiel 16 and Hosea, and the metaphor of Israel as an unfaithful woman. Sprinkle doesn’t appear to concede much here to feminist readings, or suggest that these texts might be highly problematic to the modern ear. ‘Tattoo’ looks at the later prophets, and includes a story about someone with unwanted same-sex attraction which is bound to challenge other readers. (Sprinkle has written at length about sexuality elsewhere.)

The final chapters draw things together by stepping into the New Testament, exploring the birth narrative in Luke, the motley band of disciples, and the meaning of Jesus’ death, connecting it with all that has gone before. I confess a mild disappointment that, in rightly rejecting the idea that Mary and Joseph were turned away from the ‘inn’, Sprinkle doesn’t follow through the logic of first-century life and imagines that animals are kept outside rather than in the family home (p 133). (I was also disappointed that he surprisingly followed the traditional misreading of the sheep and the goats earlier, on p 81).

Overall, though, this gives a fantastic overview of key aspects of the Old Testament, together with some great insights in reading afresh. Sprinkle’s theological read might be felt to connect things together too easily, but that is perhaps a better error that disconnecting the parts.

The third great virtue of this book is the example it offers of the use of language, which any preacher could feel inspired by. Of Isaiah, he says:

Centuries later, prophet Isaiah finds himself in the same fatal (and probably fetal) position. ‘Woe is me…!’ (p 70)

Of David, he comments:

Within seconds, a man after God’s own heart turns into a man after the woman next door (p 91).

And the description of Jesus’ birth is quite something.

As Mary grunted and pushed, heaven came crashing down to earth, and Joseph received the son of God, the snake-crushing Messiah, the illegitimate child, into his arms. (p 134)

And how is this for a theological exposition of the cross.

But God wanted to do more than just satisfy his wrath and forgive our sins. He wanted to stretch out his bloody, tattooed hands for all to see. Broadcast across the splintery tree whose roots to plunge down deep, reaching the rich soil of Eden. (p 168).

I found a few problems with the book too. Sprinkle admits from the beginning that he is downplaying the question of obedience in response to grace, and in a postscript he addresses this drawing on the observations of John Barclay (though before the publication of his book on this). This stands in some tension, if not contradiction, with the claims made by Tullian Tchividjian in the introduction:

Grace doesn’t make demands. It just gives…it doesn’t expect a return on investments.

…which makes the parables of the talents or pounds rather problematic.

But there is another issue that he passes over too easily—the sovereignty of God connected with the acts of violence in the OT. At one point, Sprinkle notes God’s grace in rescuing people from a violent end, but he passes over the problematic fact that the violent end that others meet and they avoid is attributed by the writer to God himself.

It is quite clear that this is written primarily for an American audience, and the issue there of people stoically disciplined in their prayer lives and Bible reading, but devoid of a sense of God’s grace, is one that I don’t think is so common on this side of the pond. But you will learn a lot from this book; it might give you ideas for a sermon series; and it is great fun. you cannot say that about all that many books on the Old Testament! The ship of biblical interpretation has steered too near to the rocks of dividing the Old from the New. Sprinkle might not set us quite on the final course we need to steer, but he grabs hold of the tiller, and yanks it round, heading us in (very often) a better direction.

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10 thoughts on “Does the Old Testament depict a God of grace?”

  1. Or is the parable of the talents about something else as liberation theologians would have us believe? Certainly Luke’s parable of the minas raises questions about the character of the ruler.

  2. Thank you for this Ian – sounds like another fair-minded review from you (for what that’s worth as I haven’t read the book…).

    Handful of thoughts / questions:
    i) could you put in a reference to an article by Steve Chalke where he gives the argument that you ascribe to him?

    ii) At the risk of showing myself “obsessed” (to pick up a comment from another thread) would you be willing to expand on this: “‘Tattoo’ looks at the later prophets, and includes a story about someone with unwanted same-sex attraction which is bound to challenge other readers”?

    iii) Picking up on Richard G’s comment above: James Alison does a fine reading of the parable of the talents, which has it that the key to the text is the way in which each of the servants imagines the master – hence the Lucan version’s “out of your own mouth I will condemn you…”:

    “The key feature of this parable is that it is the imagination of the servants as to what their master is like which is the determining factor of their conscience and thus the wellspring of their activity. The first two servants clearly imagined their master being away as an opportunity to do something delightful. Because they trusted that their master was the sort of daring fellow who would do rash and crazy things for which there was no script, would dare, would experiment, would risk losing things and so would end up multiplying things greatly. In other words, they perceived their master’s regard for them as one of liking them enough to be daring them and encouraging them to be adventurous, and so, imagining and trusting that abundance would multiply, they indeed multiplied abundance. The third servant revealed exactly what regard he had laboured under: his imagination of who the master is comes out in his own words:

    “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.

    “He acted according to his imagination. And his imagination was one of a double bind, perfectly captured in the phrase “reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow”. His perception of the other was of one who did not like him and thus had put an impossible burden on him, and so all he had done was simply sulk. He had been bound, the living dead, moving neither forward nor backward. It is no wonder that in Luke’s version, the master says “Out of your own mouth I will condemn you your wicked servant”, because it is in fact the servant’s own perception that has bound him.” (

    in friendship, Blair

    • Ooops I apologise – you did link to a piece by Chalke via the previous article of yours. Bit careless of me.

      in friendship, Blair

  3. Grace in the Old Testament is supremely seen in the actions of Esau, my favourite OT character, and (surely?) an inspiration for Jesus’ parable of the Loving Father.

  4. Thanks for highlighting what certain groups would call the “problematic” content of the New Testament. While our different theological lenses cause our responses to diverge sharply, it’s crucial that all traditions acknowledge the material, and avoid the glibness of “O.T. bad, N.T. good!”

    Personally, when it comes to the Tanakh, I believe that Christians have much to learn from Jewish exegesis and debate. It’d be great to see this opened up in biblical study groups, especially from Jewish guest speakers.

  5. As one who regularly lectures from the Old Testament, I’m frequently amazed at how often one needs to stop and reflect how much grace God is showing:
    * As a living Adam and Eve walk out of the garden with the promise of a manchild to come
    * Somewhere in the wilderness after the umpteenth display of ingratitude and unbelief, as God continues to guide and feed them
    * Somewhere soon in the cycle of the judges—or that Israel even got through the first cycle
    … skipping huge swaths
    * At the point Hosea writes, “How can I give you up…!?
    * Where Joel writes, “Who knows? Perhaps God will turn and leave behind a blessing
    * Jonah vis-a-vis Nahum
    … et cetera

  6. “How to Read the Bible’ by James L Kugel gives an interesting take on the OT from a Jewish perspective.

    His book is not for the faint-hearted.

  7. Hi Ian, not entirely on topic but related …. you mention near the end that Sprinkle doesn’t really deal with those instances where violence (or the command to commit violence) is attributed to God Himself.

    I wonder how you deal with it? One of my recurrent struggles is around the meaning of a text like 1 Sam 15, where Saul loses the kingship for not pursuing the slaughter of the Amalekites radically enough. God is seen as ordering their entire destruction: every man, woman and child.

    Do you think he did? If so, how would you deal with moral problems that raises – and if not, then do we say that Scripture is just wrong when it attributes such mass slaughter to God (and of course 1 Sam 15 is not the only example).

    Sorry for what might seem a naive question….

    • Peter

      Given the NT teaches the mass slaughter of the ungodly on the day of judgement the slaughter of the Amalekites and Canaanites is small potatoes.

      Slaughter is only a moral conundrum if we don’t feel the weight of sin.

      The God who commissioned Israel to be his instrument of justice against the amorites when they became culturally toxic commissions the Babylonians to be his instrument of justice against Israel when it becomes indistinguishable from the amorites.

      In turn he uses empire to topple empire. Cultural toxicity generates wrath from a God of holy love who hates sin.

  8. Ian

    I wonder if God’s goodness in creation should be described as grace. Is not grace the goodness of his love displayed in a context of sin.


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