In a recent post, Tim Keller expressed frustration over reading or hearing “columnists, pundits, or journalists dismiss Christians as inconsistent because ‘they pick and choose which of the rules in the Bible to obey.’ What I hear most often is ‘Christians ignore lots of Old Testament texts—about not eating raw meat or pork or shellfish, not executing people for breaking the Sabbath, not wearing garments woven with two kinds of material and so on. Then they condemn homosexuality. Aren’t you just picking and choosing what they want to believe from the Bible?’”
To counter this misperception, Keller explained how Scripture must be understood in the context of the unfolding plan of redemption fulfilled in Jesus Christ. This is a helpful and necessary point but there is another side to the nature of Scripture that is too often overlooked.
A context of divine concession
Evangelicals have not always adequately recognized how the Bible itself reflects the concessionary nature of God’s dealings with humanity. Divine concession started early in history with the convergence of a divine promise and a divine concession. This set a new kind of starting point and tone for the ways of God with humans:
“‘Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease’” (Gen. 8:21b-22, NIV).
We might not like to hear it, but we should be humble enough to admit the staggering truth that, “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.” This is a divine assessment of humanity and it’s notably the second appearance of it (see: Genesis 6:5-7).
Everything in history is affected by the truth in Gen. 8:21b-22 – including Scripture itself.
Many parts of the Old Testament will be misunderstood if we miss the point about concession. The Old Testament reflects many concessions related to life in Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultures with their fallen social structures and hardened hearts (see: Matthew 19:3-9). The Old Testament law is often concessionary to ANE social structures and realities. It doesn’t always reflect God’s perfect will but His will in the context of concession. The Old Testament was never meant to be a final guide for human beings. It testifies to its own insufficiency by pointing to the coming of a New Covenant (see: Jeremiah 31; Ez. 36, Hebrews).
We should not be surprised to find some strange things in the Old Testament Scritputes, because (as a cursory reading of ANE history will validate), they address strange times. Again, we must recognize how God mercifully meets people where they are and graciously condescends to reach out to them.
The OT days are summarized as times when God “let all nations go their own way” (Acts 14:15); times “when He held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past ” (Romans 3:25-26); times when He “endured with much patience vessels of wrath” (Romans 9:22-23) and times when He “overlooked such ignorance” (Acts 17:30-31).
Divorce was permitted (in some cases) as an accommodation to realities of life in a sinful world (see: Matthew 19:3-9). It was not God’s plan from the beginning just as many things were not God’s plan from the beginning nor His perfect will. When hard hearts brought destitution on others, divine allowances outside of God’s perfect plan were permitted in the mercy of God (see: Exodus 21:10-11; 1 Corinthians 7:15).
Even when Jesus said, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery,’” he was (in some way) dealing in the realm of concession. Jesus’ words should be understood as a provision not a prescription but He they were given in a context of concession because of the hardness of sinful hearts.
Moral progress from OT to NT
What should be said about the discernible moral advance from Old Testament to New? Why didn’t God require everything to operate on the teaching of Jesus during Old Testament days? Jesus said, “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36); “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:44-45).
Perhaps the heart of his teaching is in the Old Testament since Jesus said that all the Law and the Prophets hang on two commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-40). Yet during Old Testament times, God took people where they were (in ANE cultures) and guided them toward His perfect will. The Old Testament characters are not to be emulated in all their actions (I Corinthians 10). Do not assume that what is described is also prescribed. The Bible does not provide rose-colored glasses to upgrade what is wrong in the world. Even the heroes of Scripture are described unsparingly in their moral failures.
If you’re uncomfortable using words like “concession” regarding God and Scripture, alternatives like “accommodation” or “compromise” feel equally difficult. But it shouldn’t surprise us realize that we need some uncomfortable terms for understanding how a perfectly holy God could be in a relationship with sinful beings like ourselves.
Let these ominous words sink in: “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21b-22; cf. Jeremiah 17:9).
Five Personal applications:
1. Reflect on the grief God has endured since His concession in Genesis 8:21b-22?
“‘For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God, Therefore, repent and live’” (Ez. 18:32), “‘As I live,’ declares the Lord, `I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live’” (Ez. 33:11), “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:3-4cf. cf. II Pe. 3:9); 1 John 2:2: Christ died for the sins of “the whole world” —the same “whole world” that “is under the control of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19) and that Satan will lead astray (Rev. 12:9).
“Then when they are exiled among the nations, they will remember me. They will recognize how hurt I am by their unfaithful hearts and lustful eyes that long for their idols. Then at last they will hate themselves for all their detestable sins.” (Ezekiel 6:9, NLT); What does it mean that people “resist” (Acts 7:51), “grieve” (Ephesians 4:30) and “quench” (1 Thessalonians 5:19) the Holy Spirit? Genesis 6:1 opened with the divine declaration: “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever” (6:2).
2. Recite this truth to yourself everyday –
“He does not treat us as our sins deserve… As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:9, 13-14).
3. Be realistic about life in a world filled with the kind of people described in Genesis 8:21b-22. (II Corinthians 4:7).
4. Keep the big picture of the gospel in front of you at all times. God solved our main problem:
“For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25-26; cf. II Corinthians 5:17-21).
5. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36). “love your enemies (Matt. 5:44-45).
James 2:13- “… judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” Romans 12:19-21- “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
- Do you think God makes concessions to be involved in your life?
- Are there any other possible “permissions” of God because of the hardness of human hearts?