“Faith Before Works” Deuteronomy 1:1-46 January 12, 1992
Today we begin a new series of Sunday morning sermons and for them return to our most common pattern for preaching, namely, the consecutive exposition of passages of Holy Scripture. Last year our morning sermons were taken up with topical series: the first concerning ‘Doctrines in Dispute,’ the second concerning ‘Christian Experience,’ and the third and most recent concerning ‘The Cross.’ But prior to that we had two consecutive series of expository sermons, the first taken from John’s First Letter and the second from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. I thought then that we should turn to the Old Testament for our next series of sermons on a book of the Bible and I have chosen Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy is a large book and, were we to do it complete justice, I could spend years preaching my way through its 34 chapters. I intend to go more quickly than that, but, still, I expect that we will be occupied with Deuteronomy, at least through the coming year. But, if you find your heart sinking to think of so many sermons from one of the books of the Pentateuch, from a book the largest part of which contains laws and commandments, I assure you, that can only be because you do not yet know well this great book of the Bible. I think it is entirely fair to liken Deuteronomy to Romans in the NT, even to call it the Romans of the OT. It is chock full of the great themes of Holy Scripture. It is a book which, in some ways even more comprehensively than Romans or any of the letters of Paul, puts flesh and blood on the Bible’s doctrines of salvation and the Christian’s life in the world. It is a wonderfully down to earth and practical book, with counsel for us about both the very large and the smaller but still important issues and questions of life. It addresses itself both to private matters such as the inner conflicts of the believing soul, the way of faith under trial, marriage and family, and to such public and corporate issues as right worship and the proper stewardship of the environment.
Deuteronomy is a very important book of the Bible. Its rediscovery during the days of Josiah the King led to a revival in the church of that time, and we should hope and pray that it may have a similar effect among us as we attend to it, as unto the Word of God, Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day through this coming year.
This morning I want to introduce the book to you and draw your attention to a very important theme and perspective which appears immediately in the first chapter. Some of you will be aware that archaeological finds earlier in this century have thrown wonderful new light on the literary structure of the Book of Deuteronomy. In the ruins of the ancient Hittite kingdom archaeologists discovered a treasure trove of old legal and diplomatic documents, especially international treaties between the Hittite kingdom and other nations. Since then similar documents have been unearthed in other places indicating that such treaties were a feature of Ancient Near Eastern life in the second millennium before Christ.
A particularly interesting discovery was that these treaties had a standard form. After an opening preamble, there followed an historical introduction or prologue in which the past relations of the two kingdoms or two kings or two peoples were surveyed. Then came the particular stipulations which the two kings agreed to keep in their new relations with one another — the provisions of the treaty itself–; then came the sanctions, what blessings would be the reward if the king proved faithful to the treaty, what curses would fall upon him if he broke it, usually followed with some form of oath taking, a record of which would be included in the treaty document, to which was added the testimony of witnesses to the enactment of the treaty. Then the document would conclude with arrangements for the preservation of the treaty document itself and stipulations providing for the perpetuation of the covenant after the death of the particular kings who signed it.
A fact of great interest is that most of these treaties were, what is called, suzereignty treaties or treaties of sovereignty. They maintain a certain appearance of bi-partisanship, but, in fact, the treaty was ordinarily being imposed upon a weaker king and nation by a stronger one, often after a battle had already settled the question of whom was dictating terms to whom. After these treaty documents were read and analyzed, several very bright scholars noticed striking parallels with the form of the covenant which the Lord God had made with Israel and which is recorded in Exodus, in the first instance, and then again in Deuteronomy. The more study was devoted to the parallels in form, the more obvious it became that the Lord had given Moses this covenantal revelation in form drawn from the custom of ANEastern diplomacy. It provides a wonderful example of God’s condescension, of his employing a literary form that would have been easily appreciated and understood in Moses’s day. He wanted to be understood and wanted his covenant to be kept!
Deuteronomy appears to be an almost perfect example of that ANEastern treaty form. It opens with a preamble, 1:1-5; it is followed by a long historical prologue recounting the relationship which has existed to this point
between God and Israel; that is, in turn, followed by a long section of stipulations, the laws of the covenant, which is followed by its sanctions — blessings for faithfulness to the covenant, cursings for unfaithfulness - which are in tum followed by Israel’s taking of an oath to be faithful to the covenant. The oath-taking is then followed by provisions for preserving the document, and for the perpetuation of its terms in successive generations. Of course, like the Hittite treaties, this too is a treaty or covenant of sovereignty, not two equal partners entering into a mutual pact, but a great King disposing his will upon a subject people. But this great King imposed his will with a mercy and love and kindness and to a benefit that no subject people of the ancient world ever received from their conqueror. No people should ever have been more grateful to be made the subjects of a great King!
Now, one of the most happy and interesting results of this discovery of the Lord’s use of the treaty form for his own covenant with Israel is the wonderful way in which it illuminated the opening four chapters of the book. The Reformers and the Puritans after them had already gathered that these chapters serve in much the same way as do, for example, the first eleven chapters of Romans or the first three chapters of Ephesians. That is, they set forth the grace and salvation of God out of which the Christian’s new life of love and obedience to God’s commandments is to come. Characteristically, the Scripture always puts theology first, ethics second. We are saved in order to live, in order to obey, we do not obey in order to be saved. Grace and faith come first, obedience is their fruit, not their cause.
That is precisely what we should understand these chapters to mean because they form the historical prologue of the covenant or treaty between God and his people. These chapters are a record of what has gone before, of the grace of God, of his free salvation, and they serve as the reason for what comes afterward. The historical prologue in the treaties served to provide a reason for keeping the treaty, and the historical prologue in God’s covenant document serves the same purpose, to provide a rationale for obedience to the commandments which occupy the largest part of the book.
Now, this order, historical prologue first, commandments only afterward, is of extraordinary importance. It is not too much to say that the uniqueness of the Christian religion is found in that order. It is here that fallen human beings always go wrong. Unwilling to accept the Lord’s verdict upon their lives — that they are, in themselves, utterly incapable of salvation, beyond hope of ever pleasing God — they continue always to think of salvation as something to be earned, to be won, to be bought by this act of obedience or that, by this kind of life or that, by this measure of goodness or that.
For them it is always works first, salvation second. For them one obeys God’s laws in order to be saved. That is the message of every great religion in the world, except Christianity. It is the message of every great religious book in the world, except the Bible. It is the unspoken assumption of everyone you meet, that those who do good to some measure or another will be saved and that those who do not rise to the standard, however low, will not be saved. But the Bible’s message is utterly different, completely the reverse. It says from beginning to end that salvation must be God’s gift or there can be no salvation, for sinful man is past earning it. It says that the life of obedience and love and purity which the Scripture commands God’s children to live is a life to be lived, not in order to be saved, but because one has been saved by the grace and power of God. Christian obedience is not meant to win something from God, it is meant to thank God for winning something for us. All that the Bible has to say about obedience to the commandments of God, is summed up in the lovely words we sang this morning from Francis Scott Key’s great hymn:
Let thy love, my soul’s chief treasure, Love’s pure flame within me raise; And, since words can never measure, Let my life show forth thy praise.
That is the message of the form and the order of the chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy. Before you come to any commandments, you will hear about the grace and the salvation of God. Lest anyone think that the commandments are to be kept in order to be saved, you must hear at length about how God’s grace met this people in their sin and offered eternal life to them as a free gift which they neither had deserved nor ever could deserve. Before any obedience is called for, first a spirit of obedience, when we give it to God, is given only out of love for God for his salvation which we have already received, never in hopes of winning the favor of God by our own effort.
The first chapter of Deuteronomy, which is, as I said, the first of four chapters of the historical prologue, the review of God’s dealings with Israel, is wonderfully rich with important truth, but I want to draw your attention to three points Moses makes, each of which enforces the main point to be made in these early chapters, that salvation is a gift of the Lord and that in Holy Scripture, the Lord always teaches us that salvation precedes obedience, it never follows it.
First, Moses begins by reminding them that their position, their privilege as the people of God, rests not in themselves, but in his promise and his choosing them long before they ever lived in the world. This point is made right at the very beginning of the book. When Deuteronomy commences Israel as a nation is poised on the eastern bank of the Jordan River opposite Jericho. Two months later she would cross the river, on dry land, into the promised land for the first time. Now, how did those people get to that place? How was it that they had become the rightful owners of Canaan which was, at that moment, populated by a variety of different peoples? How was it that this people had been so favored as to have been wonderfully and miraculously delivered from 400 years of bondage in Egypt and brought to the verge of this great wealth and prosperity?
Moses leaves no doubt about the answer to those questions in 1:8. Their favored state as the children of the living God and their wonderful prospects as a people had nothing to do with them and was in no way the result of anything they had done. They could take no credit for the land and the plenty which was soon to be theirs — or for the spiritual life and bounty of which the promised land was a sign and seal.
No, said Moses, the promise which is being fulfilled to you was made generations ago to your forefather Abraham. You weren’t even in the world when all of this was decided. What is more, lest our devious minds begin to think that perhaps God, who knows the future from eternity past, saw what good people these Israelite folks would be and thus planned to give them his favor as a result — a view which came to be entertained by certain rabbis in Jesus’ day — Moses has an answer already prepared.
As this chapter proceeds Israel’s terrible spiritual shortcomings will be described. She was a very sinful people, not a righteous one. The parents of this generation of Israelites had perished in the wilderness for their rebellion and even this generation of Israel, like its fathers, was spiritually weak, worldly, and deserved not one whit of what God was about to give them. What is more, later in the opening chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses will face head on the whole question of Israel’s election by God. Why was this people chosen and so favored. And there he will say straightaway: it was not for anything in them. God loved them, that is all that can be said. Even Abraham himself, as we learn elsewhere in Scripture, was an idolater, until the grace of God drew him out of his sin and unbelief and made him the father of a great people. So says Joshua in 24:2.
In short, this people, poised to take possession of a fertile and prosperous land, living under the favor of Almighty God, inheritors of spectacular promises both for this life and that which is to come, had done nothing to deserve any of this. It was all God’s gift, God’s perfectly free gift. This will be an important theme in the book of Deuteronomy, just as it is in the book of Romans, and it must be just as important a theme in your life and mine. It is the bottom line of our faith and religion. All that we are and have as Christians, all that is promised to us in heaven to come, the privilege of belonging to God’s family, of knowing Jesus Christ, of having light, peace, and hope in our hearts, it is all, from start to finish God’s gift, his free, unqualified, unmitigated goodness to us. We deserved to be banished and got instead life in the Eternal City.
Deuteronomy opens saying that, to a very great degree, what kind of Christian you are will be determined by just how fully you understand and appreciate how much you owe to the grace of God.
Second, in this book of the law of God, God’s people are reminded that God’s fundamental requirement is not obedience at all, but faith. The account of lsrael’s failure at Kadesh Barnea 38 years before her cowardly refusal to enter the land that God had promised to give her, is a most instructive beginning to the whole book for just this reasons.
All God asked of his people was that they trust his Word. He would win their battles for them, he would give them the land he promised. As Moses recollects in v. 21, the Lord had already given them the land, as it were, all they had to do was walk in and take possession. All he asked was that they believe him. But this they did not do. That it was really a matter of faith is indicated in v. 32. ‘You did not trust in the lord your God.’ That was the problem and the reason for their cowardice and disobedience. The Lord had already proved his might and his faithfulness to his people and his commitment to their safety and welfare over and over again in bringing them
out of Egypt by the plagues, in taking them through the Sea, and in providing for their food and water in the wilderness. Now they stand poised to enter the promised land; it is theirs for the taking. But they are unnerved by the report the spies bring back of fortified cities and warlike people, and they refuse to budge. They can see with their own eyes the thick and high walls of Jericho, but only faith can see the hand of God. What the Lord is telling us through Moses is that their refusing to enter the land at that moment was not so much an act of disobedience as it was a failure to trust the Lord, a lack of faith. And that is what the Scripture always says about that generation of Israel that the Lord brought out of Egypt on eagles’ wings: they were a people without faith. Despite all they had seen the Lord perfonn, they had no faith.
And Moses is telling us as he was telling the children of those same faithless Israelites, the real issue of life is whether one has faith in God or not, whether he takes God at his Word and trusts him to be true to his promises. That is what separates the saved from the lost, the righteous from the wicked, and the true people of God from those, even in the church, who really belong to the world. Obedience is not the issue, faith is the issue.
It is the same in your life and mine and it will be the same for everyone we meet and speak to: God is not asking us to do anything to win his favor. He is asking us only to accept and receive favor and blessing and salvation he is offering for free! People who believe the Lord receive, those who do not will not. This is so today. Faith is everything because grace is everything. Doing is nothing; believing and trusting is everything because God is the doer in our salvation, not us!
Whether you are a non-Christian wanting to know how to be saved and have peace with God and eternal life, or you are a Christian wanting to know how to live a better life for God’s sake, the answer is the same. Faith is the key. Christians can no more sanctify themselves than non-Christians can convert themselves. God must do all and does all for those who trust his Word, his goodness, and his power. Or as the Lord himself puts it: ‘Look unto me, all you ends of the earth, and be saved, for I am God and there is no other.’ And, ‘Without me, you can do nothing.’
Neither you nor I, brothers and sisters, has any idea of how radically unique this message is. The Greek philosopher says know yourself; the Roman says control yourself; the Buddhist says extinguish yourself; the Hindu says sink into yourself; the modern American of the liberal tradition says affirm or actualize yourself. But Jesus says, ‘without me you can do nothing.’ The whole truth and genius and wonder and salvation of Christianity is that it does not rely upon utterly unreliable men and women to do anything, but points them to God who will do for them what must be done.
And, finally, this first chapter of Deuteronomy emphasizes the priority of God’s grace and salvation before our obedience by reminding us that obedience itself is primarily important because it serves as an indicator of the state of the heart, of the convictions of the inner man, of the loves and hatreds of a woman’s soul.
The conclusion of the incident at Kadesh Barnea, as Moses recollects it in vv. 37-45, is a striking indication of this. A day after their first refusal to enter the promised land, and immediately after hearing that for that refusal they would never be permitted to enter Canaan, the Israelites saw the error of their ways and marched across the border. The Lord did not go with them and they were soundly thrashed by Canaanite armies and chased back into the wilderness. They gathered in the camp and wept before the Lord, but he would not hear their cries and would not relent.
How can we explain this? Does not God delight to show mercy? Do we not find him countless times in the Bible forgiving the sins of his people and not holding their sins against them? Why was he unwilling to forgive Israel’s rebellion at Kadesh Barnea? And why would he not even hear them as they called to him asking for forgiveness and another chance?
It is clear enough that what lies behind the Lord’s unwillingness to hear and answer Israel’s cries is his knowledge that their hearts were far from him. They were bitterly sorry for the consequences of their stupidity, for themselves, that is, but they still had neither true faith in the Lord nor true reverence for him. Their disobedience disclosed this. As the Lord says in Numbers 14:24, in the original account of this episode, he would not punish Caleb the same way, because Caleb had a different spirit. It was not the disobedience itself that was so important, God is always forgiving the disobedience of his people and his mercy is from everlasting to everlasting! But this disobedience was final evidence of a faithless heart and it was that persistent unwillingness
to take God at his Word, lack of loving response to God’s grace and mercy, Jack of gratitude for what he had done, that placed those Israelites beyond hope.
The Lord never asks his people for perfection; indeed, his great message to them is that he will forgive their sins and remember them no more. What he asks from them is that they trust him, accept the gifts he offers to them, and respond from their hearts to the love he has shown them. A sincere effort to keep God’s commandments, however imperfect, is the most important indication, the most important outward sign of that trust and love in the heart. As Jesus said, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’
Now, remember, it was clear to believers in Moses’ day and it is made clear over and over again in the OT Scriptures that the real issues here had not to do with real estate, with the promised land itself, but with the knowledge of God, the forgiveness of sins, and with heaven itself, of which Canaan was only a sign and seal. That point is made explicitly many times in the Bible, Hebrews chapters 4 and 11 being but cases in point. We are speaking here about a people forfeiting not only their opportunity to live in Canaan but their eternal salvation because they had no faith, and we are concerned here with a people who did not obey God precisely because they neither trusted his Word nor loved him for his goodness to them. First things first. First faith, then obedience. First the glad acceptance of God’s gracious salvation, then a life lived in demonstration of undying gratitude to God. Deuteronomy spends most of its time teaching us how to live so as to demonstrate our love and gratitude to God, how God would have us think and speak and act, but it begins by reminding us that the only obedience that pleases God is that which flows from the love and gratitude of a person who knows full well that he or she has been saved by the grace and mercy and goodness and power of God alone.
Now, you see, you too have an historical prologue to write and read, an account of God’s gracious dealings with you in the past. For some of you it will be an account of many years of God’s untold mercies to you, his drawing you to himself, his showing you his love, his showering your life with kindnesses without number, his patient forbearance of your constant ingratitude, disobedience and faithlessness. It will be an account of a great many wonderful promises which he made to you, and you cannot explain why he made them to you. He has fulfilled so many of them already that there can be no doubt that he will fulfill them all in due time, even the greatest of them all: that you will see God, that you will in the resurrection set your feet in the Eternal City, and that you will become like Christ Jesus in being without sin because you will see him as he is.
Others of you would have to write an historical prologue of a very different kind, recounting a life apart from God and without interest in him, a life of self-love and not the love of God, and yet, you would continue to write, still after all that, he came to me and said ‘Come to me and I will give you rest’; in spite of everything he still said to me: ‘Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow’; and ‘He who comes to me, I will never drive away.’
Either way, if you have an historical prologue at all, any account to give of the grace of God in your life, and really mean what you say: you are going to love the book of Deuteronomy, because more than anything else in all your life, you want to know how to live so as to make your entire life, in every part, one giant ‘Thank you!’ and ‘I love you!’ to God your kind and merciful Savior! That is precisely what Deuteronomy will teach you!