Correct views or warm righteousness? (2)
Because it’s true that God desires mercy (covenant love that expresses itself in kindness and justice toward the neighbour) rather than the keeping of ordinances, people are tempted to dismiss ordinances as close to irrelevant in the lives of believers (OT or NT).
You can’t read the OT without seeing that the prophets rebuked the people for substituting religious ordinances for lives of faith-filled obedience. Micah 6:6-8, Isaiah 58:1-7 and Amos 5:21-24 illustrate this well and see Psalm 40:6-8 and 51:6-17.
So why didn’t Israel simply dismiss ordinances altogether? Why didn’t they say, “God really wants heartfelt allegiance to him and lives of righteousness and kindness so let’s forget all the things like circumcision, Sabbath observance, Passover and such”?
Wise men and women who are at home in the Scriptures and biblical theology would be able to give us a long list of good reasons why they didn’t but the rank and file of us have a couple of obvious ones we can rest on.
For one, God instituted these ordinances and whether the Jews understood all his wise reasons for doing so it wasn’t for them to debate with their King. God is a great King and as such he must be honoured even in the matter of ordinances (compare Malachi 1:6-14).
Secondly, ordinances that embodied truths about God’s self-disclosure proclaimed things about God! It’s true that the fundamental truths about God were lived out in how they lived in honour and justice with each other but ordinances like circumcision, Passover, Ingathering, Tabernacles and Sabbath gave meaning to their community living. Circumcision reminded them that they were children of Abraham and covenanted with God through him by grace. Passover reminded them that they were a people redeemed by grace from national oppression and so forth.
There were non-elect Gentiles that treated one another with neighbourly kindness and justice (compare Romans 2:14-16) but they had no mark of circumcision saying they were the elect of God, they had no Passover saying they have been the object of a gracious redemption and they had no Sabbath to signify election and God’s total provision. If the lives of non-elect people like Ruth the Moabite were compared with other fine Jewish women they would all be admired for their gentleness and generosity of spirit.
The ordinances spoke their truthful message about God even if Israel abused them! The ordinances spoke a condemnation on Israel when Israel refused to live up to the meaning of those ordinances. The ordinances proclaimed truths about God and his character and purpose as surely as the lovely lives of obedient and faith-filled Israelites did.
We don’t learn to despise or think little of the ordinances of God from the Bible because they shape the believer’s understanding of his/her life of obedience. The ordinances proclaim the soil out of which their virtue takes it rise. The believing Jew would tell the world of Passover and Sabbath and the Christian world tell the world of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper because the ordinances were a witness to God and his work (see 1 Corinthians 11:26). While a life pursuit of holiness, righteousness and kindness is an indispensable marker of the believer it is not to be severed from the God-appointed ordinances which shape the identity of God’s people and the nature of their pursuit of holiness.
“But who cares why we are virtuous and righteous or what kind of religious soil they spring from? Is it not enough that we all treat one another decently and with justice?”
I’ve heard that question expressed hundreds of times in my life. I’ve often asked it! For those who have little time for religion (but who nevertheless live on the bread brought to the world via the Hebrew—Christian scriptures)—for those who have little time for religious ordinances, their theological meaning and witness are wholly irrelevant. “Look at me! I live as well as any of you religious people so it’s clear I can get along very well without your ‘truth’ and ordinances.” I’ve often heard that too from decent and upright people who weren’t speaking in arrogance but in honest debate.
With many others I would answer that God is at work in their lives whether they acknowledge him or not and that our faith and ordinances included proclaim truth about God that their lives without faith or ordinances do not. [To be continued, God enabling.]
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, theabidingword.com.