Many believe that the God of the Old Testament was exceedingly severe and strict in his judgments against humanity; while, in New Testament times, he has “relaxed” his austerity with more grace. Intriguingly, the Bible offers us a different point of view.
On several occasions in the New Testament, Biblical authors suggest that God was more lenient toward sinners in Old Testament times than he is today. Consider a few examples of this:
(1) Jesus spoke of God “permitting” the Israelites to “divorce [their] wives” due to the “hardness of [their] hearts” (Mt. 19.8). The term (epitrepo) denotes a yielding to, turning over to; i.e., God deferred to them on this matter.
However, that was never the divine ideal, for Jesus explains that “since the beginning it is still not to be this way” (v. 8). The perfect tense verb which the Lord employed here in the original language indicates that while God had tolerated (deferred to) frivolous divorces under the previous regime (without immediate reprisal), never, from the beginning of time until now, did he endorse them (cf. Mal. 2.16).
Thus, whereas God was more lenient on non-fornication related divorces in the past, now, under Christ, the ideal standard for marriage is strictly enjoined (Mt. 19.6; cf. Rom. 7.1-4; Heb. 13.4).
(2) Furthermore, the Lord indicated that the ancient inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, whom God destroyed with fire and brimstone (Gen. 19.24-25), shall have a “more tolerable” judgment before God than various cities who rejected Jesus in New Testament times (cf. Mt. 10.15; 11.21-24). A more severe judgment awaited them.
(3) Likewise, in the city of Lystra, Paul and Barnabas proclaimed that God “in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways” (Acts 14.16). “Allowed” (eao) does not signify approval; rather, it has to do with putting up with something; letting it be (cf. Acts 27.32; 40).
Though God certainly censured the nations, and even occasionally enacted punitive measures against them (cf. Zeph. 2.1-15; Amos 1.3-2.3), he nonetheless, by and large, put up with their sinfulness. He deemed them guilty of iniquity, but gave them temporary clemency.
(4) Similarly, in Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus at Athens, preached to pagan Gentiles, the apostle affirmed: “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17.30). Paul’s message was this: God, though displeased with man’s sins in the past, “passed over” them (Rom. 3.25), and in his “forbearance,” he let the Gentiles develop their own systems of religion and ethical codes free from the restraints and punishments of his own written law (Acts 17.22-29; cf. Rm. 2.14ff); however, now he is tightening up the reigns of human accountability. With increased accountability, then, “all men everywhere” must abandon their false religions and take penitent action “now”!
(5) Finally, the writer of Hebrews observed that the Mosaic regime was certainly stringent in its punishment of criminals; even so, those who stampede on the new covenant of the son of God shall suffer an even “worse punishment” (Heb. 10.28-31).
Contrary to common misconception, therefore, the God of the Old Testament was not more strict than the God of the New. Rather, the same God, who was comparatively lenient under previous dispensations, has ratcheted up human responsibility under the era of Christ. Now, humanity is held to a much higher standard!
If that is so, what changed? Why are we, who live during the Christian era, more accountable to God than our ancestors were?
There is a principle of justice, in legal systems both sacred and profane, that is known as proportionality, which states that the severity of the punishment of the offender should fit the seriousness of the crime. Our Lord himself articulated the essence of this principle in Luke 12.48. He said:
“For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.”
Illustrating this principle, the Lord spoke of two different kinds of servants. One disobeyed his master deliberately, with full knowledge of his treachery; the other disobeyed unwittingly. While the Lord’s judgment insists that both shall receive punitive “stripes” (i.e., floggings) for their sins, the more informed servant shall receive an even harsher judgment than the one who violated his master’s will out of ignorance (Lk. 12.45-47).
The principle is this: the greater the information, the greater the accountability.
A parent may be tolerant of a young child who behaves poorly, due to their youthful ignorance; however, the older they become, the more accountable they are, since they have had more chances to learn the difference between right and wrong.
With that in mind, we must note that God’s will was revealed to humankind in cumulative stages, little by little over the course of thousands of years. The people of Isaiah’s generation (cir. 700 B.C.) were “given” less knowledge of God’s will than we have been given today; and the people of Moses’ generation (cir. 1500 B.C.) were given even less than that. Before Moses, the will of God, spread purely by word of mouth, was just budding in the world.
Compared to New Testament times, then, the preceding millennia truly was an era of “ignorance” (Acts 17.30), for God had not yet revealed to them the full picture of his will. For us, the divine standard of right conduct is complete; we have been given “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pt. 1.3). Before Christ, however, our ancestors had access to less information from God. It was only fair, then, that God should be more lenient to them.
To be sure, ignorance is no excuse. In every generation, God has held humanity accountable for their sins, whether they commit them deliberately or ignorantly (cf. Lev. 5.17; Deut. 17.8; 2 Thess. 1.8-9; Ps. 79.6).
Still, God is equitable. People who lived in ages prior to the coming of Christ shall be given much more leniency at judgment than we who have been given the full light of sacred revelation under the Christian dispensation. Since we have the entire Biblical message, God “asks the more” from us in turn.
That said, it is also true that, in some sense, grace is proportionally more abundant under Christ as well (cf. Rm. 5.20-21). But what does that mean?
It certainly does not mean that God is more forgiving, for he is as forgiving now as he has always been (cf. Dan. 9.9; Neh. 9.17; Ps. 130.4, 7)—the nature of God does not change (Heb. 13.8; 1.12; Jms. 1.17; Mal. 3.6).
Nor does it mean that God lets man pursue his own lusts more today than in ages past, giving us a license to behave however we want, as some erroneously believe (cf. Jude 4; Rm. 6.1).
Rather, God’s grace is more plentiful due to the increase in sacred revelation. Note the connection between the abounding of grace and the revelation of God’s gospel plan in these passages (Eph. 1.7-10; 3.2-7). Next, consider these points:
First, grace is not the same as tolerance, for while the tolerance of God permitted humanity to displease him, grace, on the other hand, is God’s way of expressing his favor toward us, even though we do not deserve it (Eph. 2.8). Tolerance is rooted in disfavor (putting up with what displeases him); grace, conversely, is rooted in favor. Tolerance keeps God distant from us; grace, though, draws us to him and brings us back into friendship with him.
Second, God does not bring man back into favor with him merely with the wave of his hand. Instead, in the present age, grace is dispensed “freely” (Rm. 3.24) and “apart from works” (Rm. 4.6) to “all men” through the instruction of the gospel (Tit. 2.11-12; Jn. 6.44-45; Rm. 1.5; 16.25-26). Humanity did nothing to provoke God to extend his grace to us through the gospel. He is not indebted to us for something good we have done for him (Rm. 4.4). It is his gift to undeserving man.
However, we can only gain access to his grace “by faith” (Rom. 5.1-2) in that gospel; only through it may we obtain a “full assurance of hope” for the life to come (Heb. 6.11-12; 10.22ff). Apart from the gospel message, no man can “access” God’s grace (1 Cor. 15.1-2; Rm. 5.1-2; Acts 20.24; 1 Cor. 1.21), for it is “the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Rm. 1.16).
Third, the gospel message, in one form or another, has existed since the garden of Eden (cf. Gen. 3.15; Gal. 3.8-9; etc.). As that message increased through the centuries, so too did our awareness of our own sinfulness before him; the more he spoke, the more we were exposed as unjust. As that increased, the need for grace became even more acute. Thus, God revealed even more of his plan to dispense his grace to us through faith in the messianic promises. And as that increased, so too did our responsibility to him who was showing us such mercy! Consequently, he demands more from us, since more has been committed to us.
Accordingly, during Old Testament times, God was more tolerant, though still displeased, with sinners. Certainly, righteous people could find grace (be favorable to God) in those days; and unrighteous people could certainly be held accountable for their sins (cf. Gen. 6.1-8); yet, for the most part, humanity’s ignorance of God’s will served to mitigate both the favor of God toward them, as well as their accountability toward God.
However, as the will of God was increasingly revealed to the world through prophetic revelation, the tolerance of God toward sinners decreased, and man was held more accountable for his sins. The more revelation they were given, the more responsibility they bore to adhere to it.
At the same time, as more sacred revelation came to light, God was offering them, through his word, more provisions to be redeemed from those sins, in order to bring man back into favor (grace) with him. According to Romans 5.20, then, with more teaching (law), came more accountability (offense); and with more accountability, came more grace (i.e., promises of redemption through the coming Christ).
Finally, with the sacrifice of Jesus (Mt. 26.28; Jn. 1.29; Gal. 1.4; 1 Pt. 2.24; 1 Jn. 2.2) and the completion of the New Testament, the tolerance of God toward sinners has dropped to minimal levels (1 Tim. 1.13-16; Rm. 9.22; 2 Pt. 3.9); and man now has “no excuse for their sin” (Jn. 15.22). Divine tolerance is at its nadir; while grace and accountability are at their zenith.
Consequently, if man wishes to be spared from the consequences of sin, he can no longer rely upon God’s forbearance, as in previous generations; instead, he must turn from his sinful ways and follow the gospel of Christ, for God has placed his unmerited favor in its power, sending it freely into all the world (Acts 28.28; Mk. 16.15), that all who embrace it may be saved (Rm. 1.16-18; Lk. 2.30-32; Mk. 1.14-15; Eph. 1.13).
The more revelation we have, the more accountable we are, and the less lenient God is toward us; in turn, with more accountability comes more grace, so that we are not merely tolerated by God, but made friendly with him again by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Finally, the more we “grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3.16), gained through studying and obeying the gospel, the closer we draw “to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5.21).
Therefore, those who reject or ignore the gospel today shall be “without excuse” (Rm. 1.20) on Judgment Day, for “we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” and “each of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rm. 14.10, 12), and the gospel shall be the standard by which we all are judged (Rm. 2.16; Jn. 12.48).
Thus, humanity is more accountable to God today than ever before, and by virtue of his completed revelation to us, God is less lenient toward sinners, who now have “no excuse” for their ignorance (Jn. 15.22; cf. 2 Cor. 4.3-6); and yet, through Christ and his gospel, we also have more access to God’s favor than ever before!
Wayne Jackson summarized the matter well:
“The previous era of history are dubbed “the times of ignorance” because divine revelation was incomplete in those days. The arrival of Christ heralded a new era of responsibility. Jehovah had not “overlooked” man’s evil in the sense that it was ignored; otherwise, there would have been no need for the Savior’s mission. Rather, God patiently bore with them (cf. 14.16), not extracting the full penalty that sin justly was due. However, with the arrival of Christianity, a new day had dawned — and something better is expected” (p. 217).
Jackson, Wayne. The Acts of the Apostles: from Jerusalem to Rome, 2nd edition. Christian Courier Publications, Stockton, CA: 2005.