The Dawn of Redeeming Grace?

A URC Psalmody ChristmasThe God of the Old Testament was a God of judgment.  When Adam and Eve sinned, he expelled them from the Garden of Eden and pronounced a terrible curse on the earth.  On Mount Sinai he issued the Ten Commandments to his people Israel, and filled up multiple books with minute instructions for their everyday lives.  Their disobedience resulted in death.  As the centuries went on, the Lord was still angry with his people; eventually he forsook them and sold them into slavery in foreign nations.

At some point between the Testaments, however, God had a change of heart.  Suddenly he was filled with love for his people.  In fact, he loved them so much that he sent his Son to be born of a virgin and free mankind from sin and death.  The birth of Jesus marked the definitive turning point in history: on one side was a God of damnation; on the other, a God of love.

If you smell a rat by this point, you should.  The heresy I’ve outlined above comes in many forms and through many avenues, but its central thesis is always the same: equating the Jehovah of the Old Testament with wrath, and the “Abba Father” of the New Testament with love.  As a result of our covenantal theology, we roundly reject this teaching in our Reformed churches—and rightly so!  But that doesn’t mean we can safely file it away in the False Doctrine drawer as just another heresy to be forgotten.

Take, for example, a modern Christmas carol by Ken Bible, which begins, “Love has come—a light in the darkness!  Love explodes in the Bethlehem skies.”  The clear implication of these words is that Christ’s birth marked the debut of God’s love on the human stage.  Even the beloved carol “Silent Night,” #342 in our blue Psalter Hymnal, includes this perplexing stanza to the same effect:

Silent night! holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth!

But how should we react?  Although “the dawn of redeeming grace” might raise a red flag in our minds, it’s tempting to let this one pass.  “Silent Night” is one of the most familiar carols in existence.  It’s mostly correct, and what’s more important, it’s sung from the heart.  And, after all, it’s Christmastime!

Perhaps “Silent Night” could be safely ignored if it weren’t for a piercing three-word statement we mentioned while discussing Chapter 4 of Sing a New Song: “Heretics sing hymns.”  This statement isn’t meant as a condemnation of uninspired songs; instead, its point is that music presents one of the primary avenues through which false doctrine infiltrates the church.  From that perspective, maybe we ought to give the above stanza of “Silent Night” a second thought.  (For a deeper explanation, head back to Tuesday’s post on Three Christmas Music Theses.)

My real intent isn’t to embark on a Christmas-carol-bashing expedition, however.  Instead, I’d like to consider how the psalms and the whole of Scripture can properly shape our response to this heresy.

As always, our entire perspective on Christ’s coming should be framed within the timeless refrain of the psalms: “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1 ESV).  True, as a holy and righteous Judge, God condemns sin and punishes the wicked: “For behold, your enemies, O LORD, for behold, your enemies shall perish; all evildoers shall be scattered” (Psalm 92:9 ESV).  Yet his steadfast love to his chosen people extends all the way from the confrontation in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:15) to the consummation of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:17).  The Lord manifested his love to the nation of Israel as he led them out from Egypt; he manifests it to us, his chosen people, by calling us out of sinful darkness and into his marvelous light.

May we never accept the notion that the birth of Christ marked a turning point in the Lord’s attitude.  No—Jesus’s advent occurred at the “fullness of time” determined by God, from of old, in his all-wise providence!  Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, provides us with this divinely-inspired summary:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

–Luke 1:68-79 (ESV)

Song of ZachariasSinging the songs of Scripture, as always, can help us recover the true teaching regarding God’s salvation plan.  Psalms that speak of the Lord’s steadfast love are too numerous to list, but some of the most applicable are Psalms 65, 67, 92, 99, 103, 107, 111, 118, and 145.  A few well-placed Christmas hymns that focus on the Old Testament’s Messianic prophecies could also be a welcome addition to worship (such as #331, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”).  And don’t forget that the Psalter Hymnal even contains an excellent version of the Song of Zacharias set to music: #333, “Blest Be the God of Israel.”  A thoughtful combination of these Biblically-grounded songs won’t leave us stranded in the darkness of an unreal “Silent Night.”  Instead, it will illumine our hearts with the psalmists’ continuous refrain: “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”

All in all, may Jesus’ birth mark for us not the mere “dawn of redeeming grace,” but rather its consummation—the climactic point at which, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4,5 ESV).

–MRK

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