Was God once a legalist? (2)The notion that God ever offered life with him to anyone on the basis of their moral worth or the quantity or quality of their obedience is manifestly untrue. Life with God begins and ends with grace. And God never said anything to suggest the contrary! Adam and Eve didn't earn their life with God by obedience or moral worth. God gifted them with life in relationship with himself and asked them to live out the character of that life and relationship. Not even Jesus earned his life with God. His whole earthly life was lived in holy, sinless response to God's prior gracious gift.
That being the case, when we come to God's call and promise in Leviticus 18:5 we're not to understand the text as legalism spelled out. He was offering life. He wasn't offering life by virtue of "doing" or what is called "law keeping".
"You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live: I am the Lord." (Leviticus 18:5)
This verse is part of the whole narrative and experience of Israel with Yahweh. The Lord made it clear to them that he entered into a covenant with them because he loved them and their fathers and was keeping his promise to their fathers (Deuteronomy 7:8; 8:18; 9:4-6). He made it clear he covenanted himself to them not because they were morally upright or worthy.
"Do not say in your heart when the Lord your God has driven them out before you, 'Because of my righteousness the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,'It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your hearts that you are going to possess their land, butin order to confirm the oath which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness...for you are a stubborn people." (Deuteronomy 9:4-6)
When we set Leviticus 18:5 alongside a passage like this it becomes very clear that Leviticus 18 is not advocating life with God on the basis of moral worthiness or the quantity or quality of obedience. Deuteronomy 9 insists it is all God's grace so it makes no sense to understand Leviticus as life on the basis of "law-keeping".
And Leviticus 18:5 only says in different words what Deuteronomy (and many others) say repeatedly. Here are two examples from scores. Deuteronomy 4:1 says, "And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I am teaching you to perform, in order that you may live"
Deuteronomy 10:12-13 says this, "And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the Lord's commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you to today for your good."
It is poor biblical interpretation to wrench a text from its grace foundation and call it a text that embodies legalism.
We hear people doing this with New Testament texts and rise immediately to the defence of the New Testament's justification by grace through faith. But one can as easily isolate calls to obedience in the New Testament from their grace setting. In 1 Corinthians 7:19 Paul says, "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God." And in Romans 2:6-7, "[God] who will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life"
The Romans 2 text is especially pointed. By perseverance in doing good some seek for glory and honour and immortality. How is it they seek for these things? "By perseverance in doing good." And won't God damn them for seeking glory, honour and immortality by persevering in doing good? No, we're told he rewards every person according to his or her deeds. Instead of branding that as legalism and an attempt to gain life by good works God rewards them according to their deeds.
How will God render to every person?
According to his deeds!
What will he render to some persons?
To whom will God give (render) eternal life?
To the person who seeks glory, honour and immortality!
How does that person seek glory, honour and immortality?
By patient perseverance in doing good.
If that isn't legalism why must we construe Leviticus 18:5 to be legalism?
Romans 2:6-7 is part of a grace-saturated book. Leviticus 18:5 is part of a grace-saturated Pentateuch.
Whatever else we need to do, we need to revise our view of what Paul says about the Old Testament covenantal torah and we need stop severing glad-hearted obedience from the sheer grace of God.
To protect the honour of God and give glory to him for his grace we completely sever the obedience of faith from the relationship to God without which no one is reconciled or saved. Life, reconciliation or salvation is certainly "gift" but it doesn't exist except as an aspect of a relationship with God.
When we continue to give a specialist meaning to the keeping of God's commands, it generates a reaction in those who over-stress human obedience precisely because it places the human response of faith outside the realm of grace. This inadvertently encourages some people to believe that salvation is indeed by grace+obedience of faith. It "justifies" those who have a tendency to stress what is often called "man's part" of salvation because they see the obedience of faith as completely distinct from grace.
We dichotomise so severely between grace and the obedience of faith that those who over-stress human response believe us! Knowing that salvation is by grace and also knowing that obedience must be forthcoming if life with God is to be enjoyed they conclude that salvation is by grace and works (obedience).
Still, evangelicals insist that Paul did indeed see Leviticus 18:5 as fitly representing salvation by good deeds as opposed to salvation by grace through faith.
But does Paul so interpret Leviticus 18:5?