Recurring Failure and Never Failing Grace

The grand storyline of the Bible can at times make depressing reading if we do not pay close attention to the gospel threads that hold it together.

After its glorious beginning in the accounts of creation in Genesis, our high hopes for God’s wonderful world are dashed by the third chapter and its record of the fall. (Though it is all too easy to allow the space devoted to the dark tragedy and implications of this event to eclipse the disproportionate weight and glory of the single verse that contains the protoevangelion.) And, as the narrative continues over the eight chapters that follow, the same is true. In that brief compass, covering vast swathes of human history, we encounter some of the darkest moments of time. So much so that God intervenes with the drastic measure of the flood in Noah’s day. But here again we must not allow the dark matter bound up with human sin and its consequences to blind us to the irrepressible workings of God’s covenanted grace.

The story rolls on with Noah who, though God’s instrument of salvation through the deluge, shamed himself barely before the earth had fully dried out. Then Abraham: the man of faith, yet the one who lied with serious consequences. Isaac, like father, like son. Jacob, heir of the covenant, yet the one who sought to manipulate his way to what he and his mother thought his God-appointed destiny ought to look like. Joseph, who knew from childhood he was ordained by God to play a vital role in his plan of redemption, yet whose youthful pride seemed to derail it before it had even begun to be fulfilled.

The remaining books of the Pentateuch only seem to intensify this pattern. Moses, again a child of destiny, but who tried to fulfil it according to his own instinct and intellect ending up in exile for the next 40 years. (And even when his time came in the exodus, he was barred from entering the land on account of his sins along the way.) We see failure among God’s people, failure in their leaders and God’s reputation being tarnished in the eyes of the surrounding nations.

The entire Old Testament is a record of the recurring failures of the church of that epoch. (Psalm 78 provides a poetic summary of the extent to which this was so.) And when we move into the New Testament, the storyline does not change. In the Gospels the disciples who are called, trained and richly blessed by our Lord, not only stumble repeatedly during their time in training, but also fail miserably when it mattered most. The same is true in the period covered by the book of Acts. Good things happen as the gospel spreads, but bad things are never far behind as the enemy of souls not only opposes its work from without, but also distorts and frustrates it from within the church.

All the New Testament letters were written because of sin, failure and confusion in the New Testament churches. The last of them, Jude, almost seems to have an air of desperation in face of challenges confronting the churches Jude was addressing. And when we finally get into Revelation, we are confronted almost immediately with Christ’s pronouncements on the state of the seven churches of Asia Minor (which have resonated with the ‘sevenfold’ church in its entirety throughout its history). And his words are not easy to hear because they expose painful truths of the failures that repeatedly surface in the church.

From the reader’s perspective, it is not hard to see how these dark shadows over the history God’s people on earth seem to fill our horizons. But, as we have noted already, there is another thread that not only runs in parallel, but actually runs right through that of the recurring failures of the church and that is the never-failing grace of her Lord and Saviour.

It is striking to see how the overt language of God’s covenant is woven through all his interactions with his people, no matter how badly and how persistently they have strayed from him. So, for example, after 39 chapters of judgment warnings in Isaiah, God addresses Israel directly through the prophet, saying, ‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…’ (Isa 40.1-2). Even though we would expect God to be issuing a writ of divorce to his wayward spiritual bride, he comes again with words of covenant hope and comfort and goes on to speak of all he himself will do to gather his people to himself.

In the face of the record of guilt on the part of God’s professing people, we hear words of grace from the lips of God. Grace that will never be extinguished by the darkness of disobedience.

No matter how many times we may have heard this stated, we cannot hear it too often. For the simple reason that, even as Christians, our default mode is to think in terms of what we must do to be sure our fellowship with God is secure. The reality of grace sits too lightly on our hearts and minds. We can never get away from the fact, as Paul reminds us, ‘For it is by grace you have been saved’ (Eph 2.8). Or, as he tells the Romans, ‘Where sin increased, grace increased all the more’ (Ro 5.20).

Does this mean our failures as Christians and as the church do not really matter? Not at all! It means that the more we feel the weight and shame of our sin, the more we will appreciate the costliness of grace and the weight of joy it brings to all who have received it. It means in the midst of our worst of our failings, we are assured of the God of grace who is merciful and who delights in restoring us to where and what we ought to be in Christ.

The Westminster Confession of Faith captures this well in the context of what it has to say about God’s Providence:

The most wise, righteous, and gracious God does oftentimes leave, for a season, His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends. (WCF 5.5)

Our sins and failures as God’s people are instruments in his hands that he uses to bring us increasingly to an end of ourselves that we may increasingly value his grace.

Mark Johnston