The Bible declares its main message right at the dawn of human history: After God made all things “good,” everything went bad as a consequence of the evil that entered the world through human sin. In order for everything to be made right again, God designed a plan to rescue humanity and the broken world from sin’s corruptions. He told Satan, who first tempted humanity to sin:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen. 3:15)
These emblematic words, sometimes called the “First Gospel,” are God’s inaugural announcement of the solution he will provide for humanity’s sinful predicament. They also establish the theme for the rest of Scripture. From this point forward, the great battle unfolds between the offspring of Satan (his evil forces) and the offspring of the woman (God’s appointed Redeemer), and the outcome of the conflict is certain: Satan will wound the Redeemer (“bruise his heel”), but the Redeemer will deal Satan a mortal blow (“he shall bruise your head”).
God will graciously provide a divine deliverance from the human dilemma.
All About Christ
This theme of gracious provision is the context of all that follows in the Bible. All the subsequent history and messages of Scripture are elements in this unfolding story of divine rescue. Every battle, famine, disease, betrayal, enslavement, and evil is Satan’s attempt to hinder the work of the offspring of Eve coming to crush him. And every rescue of the weak, provision for the needy, maintenance of a remnant, restoration of the broken, protection of the defenseless, pardon of the prodigals, forgiveness of the faithless, preservation of a people, covenant with the undeserving, supply of beauty for ashes, and mercy for the repentant is an expression of the grace that will culminate in the victory of the divinely appointed Redeemer.
God doesn’t intend for this divine crusade of redemption merely to interest us. As the apostle Paul writes, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). The history, poetry, symbols, and instructions of Scripture vary greatly in style but not in their intention: all are intended to affect our response to life in our fallen world. Though evil is always present and frequently prevails, we are not to despair. With a patient confidence in God’s ultimate providence, and the assurance of the Scriptures that his redemption is ongoing, we always have hope.
Such hope isn’t in our own strength, wisdom, or goodness, but in the gracious plan and purposes of God. This means that we’re to trust him, believing that he will provide for our needs. Our most basic need is for spiritual and eternal security. That’s why Jesus said, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).
Our souls are made secure by our union with Christ through faith in his redeeming work (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:8–9). All of Scripture points us toward trust in Christ as our Redeemer. Jesus himself taught this when, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to [his disciples] in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Earlier he had explained that all of the Scriptures “bear witness” about him (John 5:39). Jesus wasn’t claiming that every verse of the Bible mentions him (though many obviously do), but rather that all Scriptures coordinate their message to reveal the grace of God that culminates in Christ.
Four Categories of Texts
All scriptural texts give us a way of interpreting our world and of understanding our God from a redemptive perspective. Some predict the coming of Christ; some prepare us to understand aspects of his nature or ministry; some reflect the human predicament that requires rescue; and some encourage a grateful and obedient response as a result of God’s redemption.
These four categories can help us see how passages that don’t specifically mention a Redeemer still reveal his grace. For example, the apostle Paul teaches key truths about the gospel in his discussions of the law. Though he never denies the importance of obedience, he confesses that the righteous requirements of a holy God were always beyond his grasp (e.g., Gal. 2:16). No one is capable of holiness by his or her own efforts. The Old Testament says that even our best works are “like a polluted garment” in God’s sight (Isa. 64:6), and in the New Testament our Savior echoes this theme, declaring that, even when we have kept God’s commands to the best of our ability, our attitude should be that “we are unworthy servants” (Luke 17:10).
Thus, the same law that reveals the requirements of God’s holiness simultaneously reveals the inescapable reality of our own unholiness. Because of the great disproportion between our best works and God’s righteousness, we are always and forever incapable of the righteousness that would reconcile us to a holy God. This hardly seems like a redemptive message in itself. Indeed, we would have no hope, unless God were to provide some way (i.e., some One) to rescue us—and he does.
By revealing the holy nature of the God who provides redemption and the finite nature of humanity that requires redemption, the law points to the necessity of a Redeemer and prepares the human heart to seek him. The law, however, is only one aspect of Scripture that helps flesh out the person and work of Christ without making explicit mention of him. Ultimately all the Scriptures are pointing both to our inescapable need and to God’s unconditional provision of a Savior.
Grace for Change
In no way does this unfolding message of grace diminish our responsibility to honor and obey our God, but it does change the priorities of our interpretations of Scripture. Most people approach biblical texts with only one question in mind: What does the Bible tell me to do? But if we only use biblical texts to tell us what to do, we are actually pointing away from the hope the Bible is designed to convey.
Many biblical texts clearly teach moral imperatives, but to teach or attempt these in isolation from the Bible’s theme of redeeming grace destroys hope. Human effort alone is incapable of meeting the requirements of a holy God (Rom. 3:23; 1 John 1:8). Simply challenging ourselves, or charging others, to live a holy life according to all the Bible’s standards will lead either to despair (“I cannot do this”) or to false pride (“I can do enough to be holy”).
No one can serve God without Christ’s enabling. Apart from him we stand condemned; apart from him we can do nothing (John 3:18; 15:5). His grace alone frees us from the guilt and power of sin. Freedom from guilt fills us with the desire to honor Christ according to the standards he provides (Rom. 12:1–2), and the indwelling of his promised Holy Spirit gives us the power to do so (1 John 4:4).
Thus, the grace of God provides our motivation and ability to serve him. Hearts filled with thanksgiving for his unconditional love do not turn away from his standards (John 14:15). On the contrary, the love of God controls us (2 Cor. 5:14) as we seek to demonstrate love for the One who first loved us (1 John 4:19). Such demonstration of our love for God requires instruction in the imperatives of God’s Word. If we love him, we want to know how to serve and honor him.
This same love changes the desires of our hearts that otherwise lead us into temptation (James 1:14). And when the desire to sin diminishes in our hearts, the power of sin over our lives dies (Rom. 6:14).
Thus, when we teach the imperatives of the Bible, we must also show how such texts reveal the grace that motivates and enables us to accomplish what God calls us to do.
The Bible’s message of grace does not ignore or minimize the commands of Scripture. Grace gives broken people in a broken world hope for a better future and better lives. They have an eternal future because the grace of God frees them from the guilt of sin, and they have joyful lives because the grace of God frees them from the grip of sin. As this message of God’s grace in Christ dominates our understanding of Scripture, we bring glory to God by serving him, his purposes, and his people.