“If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth.” Deuteronomy 28:1, NIV
Many people like to speak of “the good old days” as an idyllic time of innocence that was free of the stresses and controversies of modern life. If asked, most would willingly paint a verbal picture of a time when simple virtues were paramount and vices were not tolerated. They would speak of hard work, respect for authority, and faithfulness to one’s family, community and nation. In contrast, they would explain, all of these virtues were sadly lacking today.
Christians are not exempt from this nostalgic impulse. They also are known to speak of a past that is somehow purer than the present. They urge a return to that past, a restoring of the old foundations and repairing of what has been weakened. When asked how we ever got off that noble path, the answer is ever the same: obedience. If we would only return to a state of obedience, all would be well. We are told we must do this. We are told that we must reproduce the character of Christ in His people before He comes as though that were the key to His return. Some go so far as to say that we hasten or delay His return by our obedience or disobedience.
This is a strange assertion for even though we are told that no one, not even Jesus or the angels know when He will return (See Mark 13:32), somehow man is in control of when it happens? This belief is foundational to a misunderstanding of great significance. Just as the Platonic concept of an eternally existent “essence” or soul has played havoc with the Christian concept of what happens when we die, this belief that our obedient works somehow control the future actions of deity has greatly weakened our understanding of our relationship to God and the nature of grace.
We see this misunderstanding in the terms used to describe the relationship. We use terms like “covenant,” as in “Old Covenant,” “New Covenant,” or “Covenant of Circumcision.” The problem with this terminology is that it implies that God’s grace is only His fulfillment of a contract. We have been obedient to our portion of the contract, so God must be obedient to His. But by definition, a contract can only be a contract if each party is able to exert accountability over the other party’s performance liability. In short, can we hold God accountable by our obedience?
Paul refuted the idea of our being able to hold God accountable in any way. He wrote, “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?” Romans 9:20-21, NIV
God claims the rights of creation. He, as our Creator, is above accountability to His creation. Therefore, man cannot enter into a contract with his Creator for he has no ability to compel performance. It is only because of man’s failure to understand this unique nature of God that we have spoken so much of contracts or covenants both in the Bible and extra Biblically. We have in the “good old days” been blind to God’s loving nature, and we continue to want to negotiate our salvation with God, even though He has freely given it to us.
Just as the Judaizers who confronted Paul wanted to establish a contractual relationship between the new believers and God, we continue to do this today. They taught that if the new believers were circumcised then God would save them. Fulfill your part of the contract, and God will fulfill His. This is very close to shamanism. It imparts a magical element to practice that teaches that perfect performance of ritual will bind the supernatural in obligation to the one performing the ritual.
We teach either directly or through innuendo that this is possible in several ways. For example, we teach that sexual purity is an avenue to salvation. But in doing so, we stumble at the examples of Tamar (See Genesis 38), Rahab (See Joshua 2), and even King David who committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband in the process (See 2 Samuel 11). Salvation cannot in any way be based on obedience, for if God allowed these individuals into heaven but not others who may not have committed these errors, He will be unfair. But God is eminently fair.
If this applies to sexual purity, it also applies to every other virtue we may hold in high regard. It does not matter whether we are talking about the adultery of the seventh commandment or the Sabbath keeping of the fourth, God is not bound to save us by our obedience to any of it. We must not think that we can wave 80 years of Sabbath keeping in His face and say, “You have to take me into heaven. Look what I did.” Even King David understood this. Perhaps that is why God called him a man after His own heart. (See Acts 13:22) You see when David committed adultery and murder, he did not presume on any contractual obligation on God’s part. He simply said, “I have sinned against the LORD.” (See 2 Samuel 12:13)
He knew he could not point to the things he had done for God to negotiate his salvation. He had done many things, not the least of which was standing up to the giant Goliath in the name of the Lord. But this could not save him. God was not bound by David’s past obedience. David could be saved by only one thing: the merciful and loving character of God. David knew this. He even wrote of it. “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” Psalm 103:8, NIV With this knowledge, he could admit his mistakes and trust in the Lord’s character to bring about redemption in a situation that had nothing redeeming about it. It is this golden thread of God’s loving character that runs from Tamar, through Rahab and David and all the way to Jesus and makes possible our own salvation.
How so? Just as God is not contractually obligated to save us because of our obedience, He is also not contractually obligated to destroy us because of our errors. He is God and He is not bound by what we wish to bind Him to. He, Himself, has said “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” Exodus 33:19, NIV Do we naively believe that we can bind such a Being to our ideas of right and wrong by what we perceive to be obedience? In the end we can only repent in Job’s ashes for our naiveté. This is what David did. This is what we must do.
There is no glorious past of obedience to return to. No human edifice of near perfect works is worth restoring. All we are left with is an abiding trust in the character of God and a willingness to walk entirely by faith in that compassionate character. This is what Abram did when He left Ur of the Chaldeans. This is what David did generations later. This is all we can do. Yet, it is everything.
God does not produce salvation through a perfect church. He does not produce it through perfect people. That perfection does not exist anyway. (See Romans 3:23) However, He does produce salvation through His perfect love. When He does, that love arises in our hearts like the sun and far from producing a judgmental confidence in our own understanding, it will produce a humble knowledge of our own lack of compassion. Like David, we will see it in how we have treated others. (See Matthew 25:31-46) Then in that knowledge we will utter along with David, “I have sinned against the Lord.” When we do that, God’s love will then have its way with His creation.