In the car lately I’ve been listening to a series of lectures by Paul House on the theology of the Old Testament. Here are some of the things that I’ve been learning:
What does it mean to be a covenant keeper?
For a long time, I’ve thought that Israel was meant to keep the law perfectly. I suppose the reason I thought this was because people often talk about Jesus fulfilling the law perfectly, and especially “doing what Israel could never do.” That part about Jesus is true (he did do that). The first part about Israel is not (they weren’t called to be perfect). House makes a compelling case from one simple fact: the presence of the sacrificial system in OT law.
The presence of the sacrificial system as part of the law ought to eliminate any notion of Israelite-law-perfection. The sacrificial system is there, it exists, to deal with sin. It assumes the presence of sin. You could put it this way: in order to keep the law perfectly, you have to observe laws that God himself wrote about what to do when you stray from the covenant. If you’re going to keep the law perfectly, you have to observe sacrifices for your own sin. Unless you’re Jesus, who simply doesn’t sin, and therefore does not need to make any provision for sin (since it’s not there, and since his fellowship with his Father is never broken).
The OT’s sacrificial laws, take the annual day of atonement for example, are based on the continual (at least annual) presence of sin. It assumes that restoration between covenant partners (God and Israel) must be made. You do not have to keep the law perfectly to be a covenant keeper. You don’t. What then does it mean to be a covenant keeper?
Seeking forgiveness in God’s way
In order to live a life pleasing to God, Israel was called to seek forgiveness in the way God prescribed. This call rests on the assumption that Israel will, in fact, recognize that it has sin in the first place. And then, once people realize that, they seek God’s means.
Obviously, a reading of just about any OT book proves that Israel was not aware of this — let alone the need to pursue it in God’s way. But this is, nonetheless, what God wants: for his redeemed but still sinful people to seek forgiveness in the way he prescribes. This is what it means to be a covenant keeper.
“Seeking forgiveness in God’s way” is language that prepares us for one of the most important New Testament words: faith.
Pointing forward to faith
This idea, that you can be a covenant keeper (even though you sin) as long as you are seeking forgiveness in God’s way, is in line with New Testament teaching that justification is always by faith.
Paul makes a big deal in Romans 4 about Abraham being justified by faith. In essence, Abraham trusted. That is what faith is — trusting (and it’s always faith in something, faith always has an object). This faith – trust that God can and will do what he promises – is how Abraham stood justified before God. Paul says it was credited to him as righteousness. And it is also how Israel, later, was justified. Individual Israelites had faith, as they laid hands on that animal before the altar, that what God said was true. Imagine a worshipper saying this to the priest who was helping him, “God says that if I seek forgiveness for my sins by doing [this sacrifical act], then I’ll be restored to fellowship with him. I have faith that God is true to his word. I trust that this act, accompanied by belief in God’s word, is what he desires.” The animal is sacrificed. And person has sought forgiveness in God’s way. They are a covenant keeper.
Why this matters
I had always thought that there was a tectonic shift, from OT to NT, in how God related to his people. And there are, to be sure, huge changes from OT to NT. But this is not one of them. The people of God have always have always had one answer to the question: what do I do, now that I’ve broken covenant with God? How can I be reconciled to him? The one answer to that question, for covenant keepers, is this: seek forgiveness in the way God prescribes.
For whatever reason, I would have answered the OT version of this question with: “well, observe the law. In the OT, you are a covenant keeper if you keep the law.” And that is simply backwards: OT saints kept the law because they were already in a covenant bond with God. They knew that their sins were dealt with through the sacrificial system, and that they could, therefore, draw near to God in love and with obedience.
But what about the law’s relation to covenant breakers? That’s a topic for another blog post I think.