Obedience to the Law: A Christian Conceit

More often than not, when we Christians discuss biblical law our discussions invariably construct a dialectic between ethical behavior and faith. Only faith, we insist, is salvific. Good works((Also known as “works righteousness“)) does not. To make this explicit, Christians (and especially Protestants) teach that the Judaism of Jesus’ day was legalistic and that Jesus preached that salvation depended on their faith in Him, not on their success in meeting Judaism’s legal standards.

But was the Judaism of Jesus’ day as legalistic as we are often led to believe? Did the Jews of Jesus’ day really believe that to earn a place in the afterlife they must meet the obedience requirements of the Law down to every jot and tiddle?

Not at all, writes George W. E. Nickelsburg, Lutheran theologian and Professor Emeritus at the University of Iowa((Nickelsburg, George W. E., “Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins“, Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003)). He writes,

…we should not presume that Judaism was characterized by a “works-righteousness” that excluded the grace integral to the structure of biblical covenantal theology. [In fact] the evidence points in the opposite direction.

Nickelsburg quotes from the Dead Sea scrolls (1QS 3-4) a passage that he says Paul may have had in mind when he wrote Rom 7:14-25;

The mercies of God shall be my salvation always
    And if I fall in the sin of the flesh…
He will free my soul from the pit
    and make my steps steady on the path:
He will draw me near in his mercies,
    and by kindnesses set in motion my judgment…
and his plentiful goodness [will] always atone for my sins;

Is this Legalistic? Do these words lack Grace? Hardly. In fact, the Qumran community responsible for this particular scroll was arguably the strictest of the Judaic sects of Jesus’ day. The idea that the Old Testament demands”works righteousness” is largely a conceit of the original reformers — an anachronistic reflection of Luther’s critique of medieval Catholicism — which, unlike the Judaism of Jesus’s day, was manifestly oriented towards works-righteousness.

God’s central demand of human beings is to be a good person as Micah 6:8 teaches;

He has showed you, O man, what is good. So what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God

The context here is important: In the preceding verses, God scolds the Israelites and describes how He has redeemed the Israelites at every turn. For their part, the Israelites are confused by this. In verses 6 and 7 they ask what, then, must they do to merit salvation. What do want if not worship and sacrifices what they do you require of us? God answers as above: sacrifices and worship are insufficient for redemption. What is required is that God’s people be a just, kind, and humble people according to His will((The figurative meaning of “walk with your LORD“)).

Related: Faithfulness – The Path to Holiness and Salvation

In the Hebrew Bible, scholars have enumerated 613 commandments (“mitzvot”), among which are the ten commandments. Of these, 365 are negative (“Thou shall not…“) and 248 are positive (“Thou shall…“). In secular cultures laws are negative (“thou shall not break the speed limit”), not positive. To illustrate this, think about the following hypothetical story:

An Olympic athlete, a multiple gold-medal winner, was lounging in the sun near the shallow end of a public swimming pool. A two-year old toddler walks over to edge of the pool, falls in, and drowns while the athlete looks on. The athlete sees all this, but does nothing to save the child!
He has broken no law, yet he has violated one of the deepest values of God and all of Judeo-Christian ethical behavior — the requirement to express self-sacrificial love for others. No court will prosecute this man, but God surely will at the end of days?
Based on a misunderstanding of St. Paul’s writing((See the New Perspective on Paul in which scholars who hold to this perspective have come to believe that Paul’s theology does not omit works righteousness but, in fact, requires it as a means by which membership in the covenant is maintained. Entry into the covenant, but contrast, is strictly and only offered to those who believe and have faith.)), theologians and clergy of modern Christianity argue that the Law is important only to the extent that we might be made aware of our sin and so be able to repent. But the problem with this formulation is that it is too narrow. This is the view akin to secular law. A view that interprets the law as a set of “thou shall nots”.
In Jesus’ time, the law was viewed as a gracious gift from God; a “guidebook” to ordering their lives for His purposes and to His glory. Modern Christians largely ignore the importance of the 248 positive commands – two of which are the most important commands in all of the Judeo-Christian traditions: (1) Love the LORD your God, and (2) Love your neighbor. When fully and rightly understood Christians obey the negative commands AND perform the positive commands.
The ancient Hebrews understood that if you only and completely fulfill the negative commands, you are not a good person. You are simply an obedient one. To be a good person you must do good for others. And herein lies the fundamental question for which Christian salvation theology has no answer: If the Law must be taught in order to know of what to repent, how does one repent of not doing good?
Now, go and study
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3 Responses to Obedience to the Law: A Christian Conceit

  1. Anonymous says:

    >Q: "How does one repent of not doing good?"A: Do goodIt is similar for traits such as "trustworthiness" or "respect". One can actionably repent untrustworthiness by being trustworthy. Likewise they can actionably repent "disrespect" by being respectful.My kids do it all the time.

  2. Michael says:

    >Just a couple of quick notes in response to your excellent comment: First, the question is deliberately constructed as a non-sequiter. My intent was to bring into focus the protestant view that the Law is primarily a constellation of "thou shall not…" commands. My view, FWIW, is that the important laws, laws that are not contemplated in Protestant salvation theology, are positive, as in "love you brother as yourself".To put this another way, Protestant salvation theology implies that being a person who does good is not as important as one who simply obeys.The second comment arises from your use of the word "actionably", a great choice here. Liberal protestantism is very nearly antinomian in its view of "good works". Yet, repentance (and virtue) require action, deeds, results — not words and emotions and intentions.Thanks for the comment.Michael

  3. Anonymous says:

    >Agreed, that is precisely why the golden rule is positive and actionable. "DO unto others as you would have them DO unto you." Love is a verb.

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