Grace and Government
In today’s Christian circles we hear a great deal about the love of God, and very little about the righteousness of God. There is also much emphasis given to forgiveness, and a corresponding lack of attention given to repentance. One could go on, but when things are held in such an unbalanced way it is no surprise to find that other areas have also lost their right perspective. Thus we find that God’s grace is widely acknowledged, whilst the government of God, if realised at all, is scarcely given any attention. Yet if we dismiss government from our thoughts, it is inevitable that our perception of grace will degenerate into a sorry caricature of the real thing. In many minds divine grace is seen as the means by which sin and its consequences can be escaped from. Now whilst there is truth in this, it is not the complete truth, and indeed, if it is pursued to its logical end, it can only result in a careless attitude to sinning. Grace pardons the repentant sinner, but by no means annuls all the consequences of what he has done. Remarkable though it may seem to some, sin has consequences that grace does not nullify, and this is the sphere in which divine government operates.
In the third chapter of Genesis we have the first illustration of these two different yet parallel principles––the first exhibition of divine grace and divine government. Here we find man a ruined, guilty, naked sinner. Yet here too we find God acting in free, unconditional and perfect grace to remedy the ruin, to cleanse the guilt and to clothe the nakedness. It was grace that clothed the man––“And Jehovah Elohim made Adam and his wife coats of skin, and clothed them” (Gen. 3: 21)––speaking surely of an even more wonderful display of divine grace in which God’s own Son, come into this world as the seed of the woman (see v15), was to be bruised in order to furnish a robe of divine righteousness for the naked sinner. Yet carefully note that in immediate connection with this beautiful exhibition of unconditional grace, we have the first solemn act of divine government. Grace clothed the man, yet it was government that drove him out of Eden: “And he drove out Man; and he set the Cherubim, and the flame of the flashing sword, toward the east of the garden of Eden, to guard the way to the tree of life” (v24). We are missing half the picture if we focus in on the grace at the expense of the government. The coat of skin was the loving pledge of grace, and the flaming sword was the solemn ensign of government––and Adam was the subject of both. When he looked at the coat, he would think of divine grace––how God provided a robe to cover his nakedness. When he looked at the sword, he was reminded of divine, unflinching government, and how he would never again step on Eden’s soil. Thus the “coat” and the “sword” may be regarded as the earliest expressions of “grace” and “government”. As we pass down the pages of Scripture, grace shines in ever brighter beams, and government clothes itself in robes of deeper solemnity, but they remain true to the same basic principles set forth in the “coat” and the “sword”.
The reader may perhaps be wondering how it was that God drove out Adam if He had previously forgiven him. The same question might be asked in connection with every scene in Scripture, (and amongst the people of God), in which the combined action of grace and government are seen. Grace forgives, but the wheels of government roll relentlessly on in all their terrible majesty. Adam was perfectly forgiven, but sin produced its own results. The guilt of his conscience was removed, but not the sweat of his face (see v19). He went out pardoned and clothed, but into the midst of “thorns and thistles” (v18). He could feed in secret on the precious fruits of grace, but in public the solemn and unavoidable edicts of government impacted on his every move. Thus it was with Adam, and thus it has been ever since.
So did the “thorns and thistles” with which Adam suddenly found himself surrounded diminish the sense of that full forgiveness which grace had previously assured him? Not at all. His heart had been gladdened by the bright beams of the lamp of promise (Christ as the seed of the woman), and his person clothed in the coat which grace had fashioned for him, before he was sent out into a cursed world, there to struggle and toil by the just decree of the throne of government. God’s government drove out the man, but not until God’s grace had pardoned and clothed him. Government sent him out into a world of gloom, but not until grace had placed in his hand the lamp of promise to cheer him through the darkness. He could bear the solemn decree of government in proportion as he experienced the rich provision of grace.
We get another early illustration of grace and government in the history of Noah (Gen. 6–8). There the ark and deluge, like the coat of skin and the flaming sword in Adam’s history, set forth, in a striking way, divine grace and divine government.
The progress of two distinct lines are presented to us in the years following Adam’s sin, and his governmental expulsion from the paradise of Eden. Cain and his descendants pursued with headlong speed the downward course until their burgeoning guilt brought down the heavy judgement of the throne of government. By contrast, the line of faith, beginning with Abel, was, through grace, led on an upward course, and in Noah, were safely borne through the judgement into a cleansed earth.
Now it is interesting to see that before the governmental act of judgement was carried out, the elect family, and all with them, were safely shut in the ark––the vessel of grace (Gen. 7: 16). Noah, safe in the ark, like Adam clothed in the coat, was the witness of God’s unqualified grace, and as such he could contemplate the throne of government as it poured its appalling judgement upon a defiled world. God in grace saved Noah before God in government swept away a corrupt earth with the waters of judgement. Grace acts in salvation, government in judgement, but God is seen in both. Every atom of the ark bore the blessed impress of grace, every wave of the deluge reflected the solemn decree of government.
Take another example from the book of Genesis. Sovereign grace had, long before Jacob was born, secured to him a pre-eminence of which no man could ever deprive him, but not satisfied to wait for God’s time and way, he set about managing matters for himself. I refer to his deception of his father for the purpose of supplanting his brother (Gen. 27). What was the result? His entire after life furnishes the admonishing reply. Exile from his father’s house, twenty years of hard servitude, his wages changed ten times, never permitted to see his mother again, fear of being murdered by his injured brother, dishonour cast upon his family, terror of being destroyed by the Shechemites, deceived by his ten sons, plunged into deep sorrow by the supposed death of his favourite Joseph, apprehension of death by famine, and, finally, death in a strange land far from the land of promise.
What a lesson is here! Jacob was a subject of grace––sovereign, changeless, eternal grace. That is a settled point. Still, he was a subject of government as well, and it is well to remember that no exercise of grace can ever interfere with the onward movement of the wheels of government. That movement is inexorable. Easier would it be to stem the ocean’s rising tide with a feather, or to check the whirlwind with a spider’s web, than to halt by any power, whether angelic, human or diabolical, the mighty movement of God’s government.
All this is deeply solemn. Grace pardons, yes, freely, fully and eternally pardons, but “whatever a man shall sow, that also shall he reap” (Gal. 6: 7). A man may be sent by his master to sow a field with wheat, and through ignorance, stupidity or gross inattention, he sows some useless weed. His master hears of the mistake, and, in the exercise of grace, he pardons it––pardons it freely and fully. What then? Will the gracious pardon change the nature of the crop? Of course not, and hence in due time when golden ears should cover the field, the servant sees it covered with weeds. Does the sight of the weeds make him doubt his master’s grace? By no means. As the master’s grace did not altar the nature of the crop, neither does the nature of the crop alter the master’s grace and the pardon that flows from it.
This illustrates in a feeble way the difference between grace and government. The passage just quoted from Galatians is a brief but comprehensive statement of the great governmental principle––a principle of the gravest and most practical nature––a principle of the widest application. “Whatever a man shall sow.” It does not matter who you are––as is your sowing, so will be your reaping. Grace pardons, and may make you happier in Christ than ever before, but if you sow weeds in the spring, you will not reap wheat in harvest. This is as plain as it is practical. It is illustrated and enforced both by Scripture and experience.
Look at the case of Moses. He spoke unadvisedly with his lips at the waters of Meribah (Num. 20). What was the result? God’s governmental decree prohibited his entrance into the promised land. Yet note that while the decree of the throne kept him out of Canaan, the boundless grace of God brought him up to Pisgah (Deut. 34) to see the land. And what then? God buried His dear servant! What grace shines in this! If the spirit is overawed by the solemn decree of the throne at Meribah, the heart is enraptured by the matchless grace on the top of Pisgah. God’s government kept Moses out of Canaan, God’s grace dug a grave for Moses in the plains of Moab.
Again, look at David “in the matter of Urijah the Hittite” (1 Kings 15: 5). Here we have a most striking exhibition of grace and government. In an evil hour David fell from his holy elevation, and under the blinding power of lust, he rushed into a deep and horrible pit of moral pollution (2 Sam. 11). There, in that deep pit, the arrow of conviction reached his conscience, and drew forth from his broken heart those words of repentance: “Be gracious unto me, O God, according to thy loving–kindness; according to the abundance of thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me fully from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is continually before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in thy sight” (Ps. 51: 1–4). How was this cry from the heart met? By the clear and ready response of that free grace in which our God always delights; “Jehovah has also put away thy sin” (2 Sam. 12: 13). This was absolute grace. David’s sin was perfectly forgiven––of that there can be no question. Yet whilst mercy’s tender hand had removed the guilt, this did not prevent the rod of government being lifted to execute the necessary judgement: “Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thy house…Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun” (vs 10, 11). This is deeply solemnising. David was fully pardoned, but Absalom rose in rebellion!
“Whatever a man shall sow, that also shall he reap” (Gal. 6: 7). The sin of sowing weeds may be forgiven, but the reaping must be according to the sowing. The former is grace, the latter is government. Each acts in its own sphere, and neither interferes with the other. The lustre of the grace and the dignity of the government are both divine. David was permitted to tread the courts of the sanctuary as a subject of grace (2 Sam. 12: 20), as a cleansed worshipper, before he was called to climb the rugged “ascent of the Olives” (2 Sam. 15: 30), as a subject of government, and a fugitive from his own son and people.
Sufficient has now been said to open to the reader a subject which he can easily pursue for himself. The Scriptures are full of it, and human life illustrates it every day. How often do we see men in the fullest enjoyment of grace, knowing the pardon of all their sins, and walking in unclouded communion with God––and all the while suffering in body or circumstances the consequences of past follies and excesses. Here again you have grace and government. Let us “be not deceived” (Gal. 6: 7) into thinking that sin is only dealt with in grace. As surely as grace pardons, so government judges. Truly “God is not mocked; for whatever a man shall sow, that also shall he reap”!