“The Old Testament was about the law. The New Testament is about grace.” It is a common misconception among Christians to think about the Old and New Testaments in these neat categories of law and grace. This tendency is understandable because, at times, this seems to be the broad portrait which the Bible paints of itself. For example, in the opening chapter of his gospel, John writes, “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). And Paul tells believers in Rome that they are no longer “under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).
However, to read these verses to mean that grace is exclusively a New Testament concept would do a great disservice to what is true about the Old Testament, namely, that it is saturated with the message and reality of God’s grace.
What We Mean By “Grace”
A.W. Tozer says that grace is “the good pleasure of God that inclines him to bestow benefits on the undeserving.” This involves two primary elements: 1) God’s goodness or favor or blessings, 2) bestowed on those who do not deserve it. Grace is often defined as “God’s unmerited favor.” This is a simple, yet beautiful way to capture the real essence of grace.
When we understand grace in this way, even a cursory look at the Old Testament demonstrates the centrality of grace in its pages. As an example, Adam and Eve received God’s grace after they committed the first sin. Because of their sin, Adam and Eve deserved death and eternal separation from God. God justly banished them from the garden and placed a curse upon creation, but He also demonstrated His grace in two stunning ways.
First, He covered the shame of their nakedness by clothing Adam and Eve with animal skins. The sacrifice of these animals to cover mankind is a picture of the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus Christ, the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
The doctrine of justification by grace was an Old Testament doctrine long before Paul taught it in the New!
Second, in Genesis 3:15, we have what scholars call the “proto-gospel” because it is the first time the gospel appears in the Bible, if only in seed form. In this verse, God promises to send a seed of the woman to undo the curse and destroy the serpent, and as New Testament believers, we know Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of this promise.
Humanity did not deserve this grace back in Genesis, and we don’t deserve it now. God would be completely just to leave humanity to sin and death. But He doesn’t. That’s grace.
How Grace Interacts with Law
What about Israel, who was given the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law? God didn’t operate according to grace with them, right? Not so fast. The basis of God’s relationship with Israel was His gracious election of Abraham, a pagan nomad. There is no indication in Scripture that God chose Abraham because of something meritorious within him. In fact, Scripture says that Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6), which Paul argues is a demonstration that Abraham was justified by grace rather than works (Rom. 4:2-5, 16). The doctrine of justification by grace was an Old Testament doctrine long before Paul taught it in the New!
It’s also important to recognize that God gave Israel the law after He saved them. When Israel cried out for deliverance in Egypt, God didn’t respond by saying, “You want me to save you? Obey this law first, and then I’ll see what I can do.” He chose to bestow unmerited favor upon an undeserving people. God’s grace is further borne out by the final means of their deliverance—the 10th plague. God’s wrath was poured out on Egypt through the death of every firstborn son. Israel, too, was deserving of God’s wrath, but He gave them a means of escape. He promised to “pass over” every home that brushed the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts, and so the Israelites were spared.
Grace Shown Throughout the Old Testament
God’s grace isn’t just a general grace given to the Israelites—His chosen people. God is radically gracious toward individuals, as well. For example, when the Israelites crossed over the Jordan to conquer the land of Canaan, they first sent out spies to gather information (Josh. 2:1). When they went into Jericho, the spies were hidden by a Canaanite prostitute named Rahab, and as a result, she and her family were saved from the city’s destruction. These foreigners whose matriarch was a professional sinner were even given a place among Israel. The narrative continually refers to Rahab as “Rahab the prostitute,” as if to reinforce the point that no one is so far gone into sin that they are beyond the reach of God’s grace.
Consider David, one of the most well-known characters in the Old Testament. He is called “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14), but in case you forgot, this “ideal” king impregnated his military officer’s wife, tried to trick him into believing the baby was his, and when that didn’t work, had him killed to cover it up. David’s son died because of his sin. But listen to how he talked to God: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity… and you forgave the iniquity of my sin… For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you” (Ps. 32:5; 86:5). Only a God of immense grace could act in this way to a man with David’s moral failings.
Then there's Jonah. Jonah is called by God to preach to Nineveh—a nation that was guilty of some of the most heinous war crimes in the ancient world, atrocities that were even committed against God’s own people. Jonah didn’t want to go, so he fled to the farthest corner of the earth in the opposite direction. This is not because Jonah was nervous about public speaking; it’s because he knew that God was gracious and would have mercy on these wicked pagans if they responded positively to his preaching. And this is exactly what happened! Jonah preached an incredibly short sermon (just five Hebrew words are recorded), and the whole city of Nineveh repented, thereby avoiding the destruction which Jonah wanted so badly to come upon them.
Jonah was angry at God for His mercy and complained to the Lord, “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jon. 4:2). This description of God’s character comes from Exodus 34:6 and is repeated at least 10 other times throughout the Old Testament. Jonah knew his Old Testament and the gracious God who stands at its center. He fled from the call of God because he knew the God calling him was more gracious than he was. Jonah, like us, wanted judgment on his enemies. But he served a God who loved to show grace to those least worthy of it.
While there are certainly differences between the Old and New Testaments, God’s character is consistent throughout eternity. That consistency should give us hope. We don’t serve a God who became gracious. We serve a God who has been, is and always will be gracious. The whole Bible tells the story of this God, and the grace extended in its pages is extended to us, as well.