God's Glory and the Sovereignty of His Grace
By Mark Webb
It was nothing short of a disaster! While Moses was up on Mt. Sinai meeting with God, receiving the Law that was to govern the new nation being formed, anarchy was breaking out below. The people, panicked at Moses’ absence, prevail upon Aaron to make them new gods. Aaron readily complies, manufacturing two golden calves. Before long, this illicit worship degenerates into a veritable orgy as the people debase themselves before their new gods.
Moses is alerted to what’s happening below by God himself. God throws out a solution: Let Him destroy the people, and He’ll begin again with Moses and make of him a great nation. Backing away, we observe that God often gives such threats, not because it’s His purpose to follow through with them, but in order to spur prayer and intercession from His servants. Such is the case here.
Moses’ argument is that God must not do this—not because of anything good in Israel or that they’re undeserving of such judgment, but because God’s own reputation will suffer. The Egyptians, says Moses, will slander Your name, accusing You of delivering them only so You could destroy them. Further, Moses reminds God of the promises He had sworn to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the end, God complies, “repenting” of the evil He had said He would do.
Now Moses descends to the people to do ‘damage control’. He angrily confronts Aaron, who offers him a completely bogus explanation and lame excuse for what has transpired. Then he instructs the Levites to arm themselves and slay the perpetrators of this insurrection. Finally, on the next day, Moses heads back up the mountain to see if there’s any way to repair the damage done to the relationship between Israel and their God.
Moses begins by confessing Israel’s sin to God and offering to be cast away for them. Yet God refuses this offer, stating instead that Moses is to go ahead and lead the people to the land He had promised them. However, God himself will not go with them. Seeing they are a ‘stiff-necked’ people, He’s likely to destroy them all along the way. Instead, He’ll send His angel with them.
To Moses, this concession isn’t enough. Instead, he tenaciously beseeches God for two things. First, that God himself—not just His angel—will go with Israel. Moses had rather not move a step further without God himself going with His people. Second, he asks God to display to him His glory. This appears, under the circumstances, to be an inquiry by Moses into the nature and heart of God himself. Moses already knows of the power of God from the plagues sent upon Egypt. He also knows something of the holiness of God from the Law he’s just received. Further, he readily a d m i t s G o d ’ s assessment of Israel as being a ‘stiff-necked’ people (see Ex. 34:9). What Moses is probing for in his request appears to be an answer to this question: Can this holy and righteous God cohabit with a sinful, rebellious people? Can He be the God of a people who have already violated their covenant relationship with their God almost before it has even begun? And the odds are long that Israel will continue to sin. How then can such a relationship survive? Is there really any point to going on? The answer can only lie within the nature of God himself. He is a holy God—to that, there’s no question. But is He a merciful, forgiving God? That’s the question to which Moses seeks an answer.
This, then, is the historical setting of God proclaiming the fact that He will be gracious to whom He will be gracious, and show mercy to whom He will show mercy. It comes, contextually, as God is explaining to Moses what He is about to reveal and display to him. What follows is not so much a visible display of God’s character (although I’m certain it was accompanied by visual effects), but is what some call a “verbal theophany.” God’s character is peculiarly made known to Moses as He communicates it to him (and us) in verbal propositions.
Many and varied have been the attempts by scholars to avoid the obvious import of these words! Some have appealed to the tactic of claiming that the tenses of the Hebrew verbs are mistranslated. They would render it, “I will be gracious to whom I have been gracious, and will show mercy on whom I have shown mercy.” Rendered such, it reads as God’s determination to continue to show grace to those He has begun to show grace, without respect to why He showed grace in the first place. But those far more expert in Hebrew than I state that this proposed rendering is incorrect.
Still other scholars state that this is not to be understood as a statement of God’s general dealings with man. Rather, according to this view, it’s only a statement of how God deals with Moses at this particular moment in time. In essence, such an understanding of the text implies that it’s only this peculiar favor—namely, granting Moses’ request for a theophany—that is in view here. So, this would have God stating that the only reason He’s granting Moses’ request for a peek into His nature is because He desires to do so and not because of any merit inherent in Moses. Thus, it’s simply a statement of how God is acting in this peculiar setting, and not a general statement of how He always acts.
Perhaps the easiest way to reply to these interpretations—at least, for those of us who hold to the inspiration and unity of Scripture—is to observe how Paul understood this text when he quotes it in Romans 9:15. Paul is in the midst of a discussion of how it is that God has blest only a portion of the Jewish nation with salvation. While most Jews saw such blessing as guaranteed to them by birthright or by their obedience to the law, Paul shows that recipients of this promised blessing were not chosen based on anything God sees or foresees in man. His opponents—both then and now—shout “That’s not fair!” Paul answers this by quoting Ex. 33:19 and shows that for God to bestow grace and favor in this way is entirely harmonious with what He reveals His nature to be. Note the conclusion Paul draws from this quote in Romans 9:16: The determination of who will or will not be the recipients of God’s mercy is not based on man’s “running” or “willing”, but purely on the will of the God who is showing the mercy! Thus, the use Paul makes of Ex. 33:19 confirms our view that the text is declaring the general way God’s mercy is dispensed in human history.
Further, note that when God actually does proclaim His name in Ex. 34, it includes a declaration of His mercy and grace. Note Ex. 34:6: “And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD GOD, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.’ (my emphases). This corresponds to what He had earlier said He was going to declare to Moses in Ex. 33:19. Why is this important? It shows that Ex. 33:19 isn’t referring only to the way God is dealing with Moses at that moment, but to a way of dealing with man that is inherent to God’s very nature and to something that comprises God’s name! It discloses the general manner in which God bestows His grace to every man in every age.
Lastly, others point out that the statement itself is in the form of a Hebrew figure of speech called an “idem per idem”, meaning “same for same”. Several examples of such can be found in the Old Testament. In I Sam. 23:13, David and his men leave the village of Keilah and “go whithersoever they could go.” In II Sam. 15:20, David seeks to persuade Ittai the Gittite to not flee Jerusalem with him by saying, “Seeing I go whither I may [go.]”. In II Kings 8:1, Elisha says to the woman whose son he had spared, “Sojourn wheresoever thou canst sojourn.” In each case this figure of speech means simply that they were to go where they themselves wanted to go. In other words, they were free to act as they wished. Thus, this same figure of speech found in Ex. 33:19 is an expression of the freedom of God to bestow His favor as He himself pleases.
One thing remains. We need to explore why God’s sovereign freedom in bestowing grace and mercy is intrinsically part of His glory. To many, this connection is anything but obvious. In fact, to state that God is a God who bestows His grace sovereignly, without regard to the merit of the recipient, renders Him anything but glorious in the eyes of many! They respond by ascribing, not glory, but injustice, wickedness, and tyranny to the name of God! How is it that such freedom is essential to God’s glory?
It helps, I think, to consider what would be the case if God didn’t have this freedom. If grace isn’t bestowed on the basis of God’s free choice—irrespective of what He sees or foresees in man—the only other alternative is that it comes in response to some good thing He does detect in man. Such an arrangement would strike right at the heart of “salvation by grace.”
For man, it would mean that salvation isn’t really a free gift of God’s grace all, but that it’s man’s reward for some good thing. For if grace doesn’t come to a man irrespective of what God sees in the man, the only other alternative is that God bestows it on the ground of something good that is in the man and bestows His grace due to something meritorious in the man himself. Such would be disastrous for us, seeing that there’s nothing good or meritorious to be found in lost man. But I would submit that the consequences of such an arrangement would be equally disastrous to the glory of God! Consider the following three things.
First, if God is no longer free in the dispensing of His favor—instead, responding to man’s doing or choosing—the whole matter of whether or not salvation takes place is lost to the control of man! God, then, could really have no eternal purpose or plan, for whatever gracious thing He might propose would always be subject to man meeting the conditions of that grace. To plead that God can still plan and purpose because He foresees what men will do doesn’t solve the problem, as He’s still dependent on man’s move before He can make His own move. As our dear brother, the late E.W. Johnson, used to remind us: “Saying ‘sovereign grace’ is a bit like saying ‘country butter’—what other kind is there?” For if God doesn’t have absolute freedom in the bestowal of His grace, He is then bound and controlled by man’s will and subject to man’s manipulation! Further, God would no longer be in a situation where He is ‘out front.’ Paul declares in Rom. 11:35, if I may paraphrase, that no one has first given to God and then been repaid for it. He’s stating a principle, flowing out of God’s sovereignty over His grace, that states you can never beat God to the punch! If you choose Him, it’s because He first chose you; If you know Him, it’s because He foreknew you; and if you love Him, it’s because He first loved you! For God not to be sovereign over His grace would mean God isn’t an initiator but a reactor. For if God being God means He must always and only render favor based on what man does or doesn’t do, He must always wait on man to act before He can act. The Creator, then, would always be behind the eight-ball of man the creature’s actions.
Lastly, it might help us to place ourselves in Moses’ shoes (or sandals). For God to declare Himself as One who always and only must bestow favor upon those who deserve it wouldn’t have been ‘good news’ to Moses! Maybe that would have been okay had he been leading a righteous and holy people. But he has a stiff-necked, rebellious and disobedient people on his hands! They’ve just sinned a sin of such magnitude that Moses is unsure of whether it’s in the capacity of this holy and righteous God to forgive or pardon it. Before taking another step forward, Moses wants to know if God can be gracious. In that context, I submit, there’s no more wonderful message one could possibly hear than that God can be, might be, no, will be gracious to those to whom He will be gracious! It means that no one, absolutely no one—not even stiff-necked Israel or sinners like you and me—is beyond the scope of God’s grace. Conclusion Recently, we’ve witnessed the earthquake in Haiti. Some have pointed out that the Haitians made a pact with the Devil in 1791. A group of rebels met with Voodoo priests and swore that if Satan gave them their independence from France, they would serve him. The insinuation is that this earthquake came as a retribution from God for their entering into that pact.
Certainly, such was a horrible thing to do—no question about it. For their rebellion was directed far more towards God than it was towards France. Does such render them liable to the righteous judgment of God? Of course it does! But does it mean that they are more wicked and more liable to the judgment of God than the rest of us? May I remind you: We’ve all made such a pact with the Devil! Our first parents repudiated God’s rightful rule and bought into the Devil’s lie, hook, line and sinker! We enter this life manifesting the same stiffnecked and rebellious behavior of Israel we’ve been witnessing. We’ve imbibed the same kind of idolatrous and self-centered worship as they. What hope is there for sinners like us? I’ll tell you! There’s a God in the heavens Who—in spite of us, irrespective of us—is still in the business of bestowing grace on the worst of sinners simply because He’s pleased to do so! That’s our hope for all men, whether Haitians or Americans!
Viewing this whole matter from the perspective of our sin makes quite a difference, doesn’t it? For our own salvation is then grounded and secured, not in our works, not in our willingness, not in our constancy, but in God’s! And, if this is so, then all the glory, all the credit, and all the praise belongs to Him for His saving work. God declares that to sovereignly bestow grace is intrinsic to His glory, and all those of us who receive this grace recognize it and respond by shouting “To Him be glory both now and forever.”