In an earlier post on salvation I mentioned that I would try to expand on some of the points I had only briefly mentioned. I have followed up with an extract from my earlier essay A Fruitful Faith. I encountered an excellent example of the grace before law principle in my devotions the other day to which I’d like to call attention.
(Those who want to complain about the grace before law pattern based on passages such as Romans 5:20, I’ll simply note that the perspective there is a bit different. Wesleyans will probably recognize discussion of varieties of prevenient grace.)
The first verse I noted was a turning point in the speech of Moses to the Israelites in Deuteronomy:
(1) And now, Israel, listen to the statutes and judgments that I am teaching you to follow, so that you may live, and may enter and possess the land that YHWH, the God of your fathers, is giving to you. — Deuteronomy 4:1
The reason this verse caught my attention is that Moses has just completed a review of the way in which Israel was rescued and what God has done for them. Having recited God’s prior actions, he then turns to the teaching of commands. The right to give the commands and the reason to hear them is rooted in God’s saving activity–the grace that was given before the law. (An extension of this principle is that God’s grace is truly undeserved, that is it comes before anyone has done anything to deserve it.)
This point is made more explicit here:
(20) When your child asks you, “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the judgments that YHWH our God commanded you?” (21) you will tell your child: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and YHWH brought us out fo Egypt with a strong hand. (22) And YHWH provided powerful and terrible signs and wonders in Egypt against Pharaoh and against his whole household while we watched. (23) But he brought us out of there so that he could bright us here and give us the land which he swore to our fathers. (24) And YHWH commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear YHWH our God, for our benefit all the time, and to keep us alive to this day. — Deuteronomy 6:20-24
What I really like about this passage is that it uses the principle in a very practical way–in providing us with a pattern for responding to our children’s moral questions. The first part of our response is to be our testimony, both our personal testimony that lasts “to this day” and our testimony as part of the corporate body. Consider what would happen if we started answers to our children’s question about the “why” of morals starting from God’s saving grace given to each of us while “we were still sinners!” Imagine also if we tied our answers to such questions to our community of faith.
The instruction here is not to hammer home to the child the specific law that applies to their particular circumstance. Rather, the parent is to establish the basis of the law and the reason to listen, which is God’s saving power. Then one goes to the laws that God gave as part of that grace. In this pattern it is easy to see law as God’s gracious gift. (I’m indebted for that phrase to my teacher Dr. Alden Thompson, especially as used in his book Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?.)
I’d like to note here as well that much of our salvation terminology is taken from physical salvation from physical servitude. This is not to suggest that it is improper to derive spiritual principles from physical events. But we should always remain aware that texts on salvation in the Hebrew scriptures frequently relate to rescue from physical danger, and take that into consideration when applying them. In this case, God’s rescue of Israel from physical bondage in Egypt is given as the foundation for God’s activity of legislating for the Israelites.