Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Does the grace of God respond or does it initiate?
The answer is clear throughout scripture and again made very plain in the life of Gideon in Judges 6. Divine grace takes the initiative. Divine grace takes the first step and, quite frankly, continues to take all the other steps of salvation as well. It is not that sinners take no steps and somehow still find their way home in the Celestial City, it is just that all our steps are very much like the child who walks atop his daddy's shoes. Our legs are moving but in the strength of another.
Consider with me two more lessons on God's grace from Gideon that we did not cover this past Lord's Day.
God's grace does not move toward us because we first moved toward God.
It is a common error to read into a text of scripture assumptions we already hold instead of letting scripture hand us new assumptions. An assumption we might make from the Gideon account is that the Redeemer visited Gideon because he was seeking after God. But this is not so. The text of Judges 6 gives no evidence Gideon was seeking the Lord. In fact, it gives plenty of evidence that Gideon, the Israelite, was as pagan as an any Native American Indian who ever fertilized the earth with human blood to please his imagined gods.
Here is the evidence of Gideon's paganism:
First, Gideon's father was a devoted idolater (6:25-27). Prominently located on the family farm was an altar to Baal and an Asherah pole - Baal's consort. From infancy Joash's youngest son, Gideon, had been catechized in pagan idolatry.
Second, let's not overlook that all that crying out for help to Yahweh ("the LORD") in vv. 6 and 7 was not a cry of godly sorrow. Those were cries of pain. Had Israel been lamenting their sin the stone altar of Baal at Gideon's house would have already been destroyed, the Asherah pole already burned. But these wicked devices were not destroyed until the angel of the Lord captured Gideon's heart.
Finally, look at the townsfolk in verses 29-30. These Israelite neighbors from Gideon's clan are thoroughly Canaanized. They find it intolerable that the altar to Baal has been destroyed. They demand Gideon's blood. This is how utterly pagan Israel has become during the period of the judges. In their wicked syncretism they might tolerate the worship of Yahweh, but they will not tolerate the blasphemy of Baal!
There's the evidence. We see nothing in Gideon nor in Israel that merits divine kindness. Those have always been the conditions in which saving grace enters. Grace is the unmerited kindness of the LORD toward sinners with whom He keeps His covenant promise to save a people of His own choosing. Thus pre-incarnate Christ suddenly appears to Gideon as "the angel of the Lord" and yokes His own strength and righteousness to Gideon. By grace Gideon comes to possess the LORD (6:12). In the face of his own corruptions and those of his father, the Redeemer has come to Gideon. Against deserved wrath, the Redeemer has delivered.
What God did with pagan Gideon is no different than what God did with Abraham. Abraham was a pagan through and through, catechized in idolatry. But God initiated redemption even when Abraham wasn't looking for it. Listen to how Joshua described those days: "And Joshua said to all the people, 'Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, 'Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many" (Joshua 24:2-3, emphasis mine).
This is the same initiating grace that has come to you, O child of Abraham: "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ." The dead can not initiate squat. The living God can and does. This is the essence of grace.
God's grace does not tolerate idolatry even though it seeks and saves idolaters.
Another common error we make when we rely on our "instinctual theology" - going on our hunches about God instead of God's biblical revelation of himself - is to think God's grace is permissive of sin. God's grace to sinners through Christ certainly releases us from the guilt of our sin, but grace does not tolerate sin.
When wrath-deserving sinners take possession of the Redeemer by faith alone, that faith is never alone. Saving, justifying faith is always accompanied by the life of the Redeemer it now possesses. Gideon is forgiven his idolatry, like Abraham, on the merits of Christ's own righteousness, but Gideon is also immediately driven to destroy his idolatry by the power and Word of Christ.
Early in Judges 6 the Midianites were the biggest problem Gideon could see. They caused his pain and so Gideon saw all his problems as located outside himself. But once the Lord had graciously claimed Gideon, then Gideon could see through the Lord's eyes. Through the Lord's revealing Word he saw that his real problem was external threats but internal. Idolatry not economic scarcity. Idolatry not shrinking religious liberties. Idolatry not looming murderous armies. The real problem was something within Israel's borders, within their own clans, within their own families, within their own hearts. The real problem was indwelling sin and its lust for gods it can see and measure and manipulate with human exertions and mantras.
So on the very day that Gideon is graciously yoked to the Redeemer the Redeemer sends Gideon to destroy the family altar made for Baal (v. 25). Divine grace does not pardon only to allow sin to prosper. Divine grace pardons and then presses. It presses feeble redeemed souls back to a full devotion in the true Rock of trust - the living God. You see, it is no grace at all to rescue us from wrath but then leave our vain treasures intact. Gideon must go and smash his idols and all the false hopes they held out to him. God's grace will not tolerate counterfeit promises nor any continued service to them. The Baals are tolerant of all your hope or any of it. Yahweh is not. Yahweh is as jealous as a devoted husband who knows fidelity is both health and happiness. Baal, on the other hand, is a whore who welcomes all-comers for a night or just an hour. He takes your all but gives you nothing.
As we can see in the call the LORD puts on blessed Gideon, grace delivers us from wrath and immediately leads us into a righteousness that heals and blesses. Divine grace is this very day - if you are a Christian - prying your heart off the empty gods of your own imaginings. When the Lord looks at your heart, what does He see as your chief hope? (Ezekiel 14:3) Is it nationalism? Is it money and unbroken prosperity? Is it beauty and fitness? Is it your earthly family and the good times middle class families can afford together? Is it the freedom the freedom to have just enough of God to avoid hell but not so much of Him to be change your current way of life?
There is a pantheon of both lawful and unlawful things that sinful hearts turn into idols. Wherever any of these have become a counterfeit god to you - making counterfeit promises to your soul and requiring counterfeit devotion - you can be sure that if God's grace has saved you His grace will also be at work to smash these altars of Baal. Why? Because Jesus has known from eternity what we are just beginning to learn - man's chief end is to glorify and enjoy God. Only by God's initiating and jealous grace can sinners enter the forgiveness and fidelity that glorifies and enjoys Him alone.
Yours in Christ,
Pastor John Hartley