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The Doctrine of the Remnant in Genesis

A Faithful Remnant in an Unfaithful World - Part 2


Last week, I took a brief look at some disturbing events and trends in our culture. Christians are facing a rising tide of opposition to their beliefs, and an escalating amount of retaliation for seeking to live in light of God’s teaching concerning human sexuality, gender, and marriage. I argued that we need to recognize what the Scriptures say about the nature of God’s people in a fallen world. The hard fact is that while we Christians in the West have grown rather accustomed to having our cultural values predominate and Christianity serve in some sense as “the majority religion,” the Bible is quite clear that the true people of God has always been, and can on this side of heaven probably always expect to be, the minority.

It’s important to stress that we teach and hold this doctrine of the remnant, and we prepare to engage the culture from a position of being a minority, because it is what the Bible teaches. This idea of being a “remnant” is no mere grouchy reaction to losing our place of influence in Western culture, nor is it a desperate attempt to claim a privileged “minority status” after the manner of the progressive “competitive victimhood” that characterizes so much of political discourse and campus conversation in our day. Rather, we believe we are a remnant because the Bible teaches God’s people have always been a remnant. So this week, we’re unpacking a bit of what the Bible says on the subject, starting from the very beginning, in the book of Genesis.

Remnant in Genesis

The theme of God’s people as a faithful “remainder” in the midst of dissolution and chaos is introduced very early in the Bible. Genesis introduces Noah in this way: The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually….But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord (Gen. 6:5, 8). The common threads of the remnant motif are present in this text. There is a small minority of the righteous, who are dwelling in the midst of a wicked majority, all under the looming threat of judgment. And when judgment comes, God saves his people, carrying them through it. Noah and his household were the sole survivors of a great flood that wiped out almost the whole human race, leaving them as a remnant after judgment.

A second example of a (relatively) faithful remnant out of judgment is Lot and his daughters, who by God’s grace survived the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18-19). The sheer isolation of Lot as the only righteous man in Sodom is stressed in many ways. First, Abraham pleads with God to spare the city even if only ten righteous are present (18:32). As it turned out, there weren’t even that many. Yet God keeps the spirit of his promise, and does not destroy the righteous with the wicked—underlining the key role of God’s character, his promise-keeping faithfulness, as a foundation for this doctrine of the remnant.

Lot and his family, four people—not even half of Abraham’s number—are the only ones saved out of the city. Lot’s story continues the theme of a righteous minority dwelling in the midst of a wicked majority in the face of divine judgment, but adds a foreshadowing twist. Lot’s wife does not escape judgment as she disobeys the angels’ command not to look back and is turned into a pillar of salt (19:26). After Sodom’s destruction, even Lot’s daughters resort to incest out of desperation (vv. 30-38). The four who escape Sodom are not uniformly righteous; instead, this remnant is a mixed group. In other words: God saves sinners, not the perfectly righteous. Furthermore, as a result, the remnant is, before the New Covenant at least, a mixed people. Simple deliverance from physical judgment is no guarantee that one is actually right with God, and God will not hesitate to discipline those he saves.

A little later, it’s interesting to read Joseph’s explanation to his brothers of why God allowed them to sell him into slavery: And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors (Gen 45:7). This statement is fascinating not only because it describes Jacob’s sons and their future offspring as a “remnant on earth,” an idea that is "pregnant" with foreshadowing, but particularly because Joseph rightly recognizes that this remnant is, indeed, God’s work in saving sinners. Don’t forget that the context of Joseph’s statement is reassuring his brothers that he will not take vengeance upon them for their past sins against him. Here Joseph is talking to sinners—sinners saved from, again, physical calamity. In this case, they didn’t even know they were being preserved by God, unlike the cases of Noah and Lot. Behind and underneath God’s preservation, though, is one of the key themes of the book of Genesis. God continues to keep his promises. He will preserve the seed of Abraham, even in the midst of judgment.

While I’m planning a whole article on applications later, it’s encouraging to stop and note, briefly, a couple right here. First, don’t forget that God watches over his people, and will act to save them. Second, God keeps his promises. We can trust him. Third, and more ominously, we shouldn’t interpret providential deliverance from suffering as an endorsement of our spiritual state—or, by extension, being identified publicly with the “remnant” minority does not mean you actually belong to them. God will discipline his children, and those found not to be his will not escape judgment.

Next week, God willing, we’ll turn to the Old Testament prophets for more on the doctrine of the remnant.