In every area of life, it seems dichotomies make the world go ’round. Mutually exclusive arguments make everything so simple, don’t they? Coke or Pepsi. Republican or Democrat. Religion or relationship. Grace or works.
It’s that last one, especially, that always grinds my gears. Not because I don’t believe it—when it comes to how we are saved, the Bible makes it abundantly clear that the two are opposed—but in how people tend to paint the Old Testament as a picture of one and the New as a picture of the other.
Under the Law, the Israelites were saved by works, but now we’re under grace, some say. And yet, when we read the Old Testament, we find a very different story, particularly in a book like Deuteronomy. See, in this book, as the Israelites are about to enter the promised land, and Moses is about to die, Moses is tasked with reaffirming the covenant with God’s people. And as he does—as he shares the 10 Commandments and the remaining laws once again, and as he recounts the history of the people—Moses tells them to remember what the Lord has done.
“Be careful not to forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery,” he said. “Be sure to remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and all Egypt” (Deuteronomy 6:12; 7:18). More than 12 times, the people are told to remember and not forget what the Lord has done in rescuing them from Egypt, as they are about to enter the land. To remember that it was God—Yahweh—who rescued them, not some imposter made with human hands.
But why did he do it? Why was he bringing them to this place? Was it because these were super-great people? Were they so naturally obedient that God couldn’t help himself? Here’s what Moses told them:
You are not going to take possession of their land because of your righteousness or your integrity. Instead, the Lord your God will drive out these nations before you because of their wickedness, in order to keep the promise He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Understand that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stiff-necked people. (Deuteronomy 9:5-6)
Notice the key words: “The Lord your God is not giving you this good land… because of your righteousness.” These, then, were not “good” people, in the sense that they were particularly obedient. They were “stiff-necked,” stubborn. Prone to wandering away from the Lord their God. They could in no way claim to be righteous. And why not? Because they didn’t have any righteousness of their own!
Instead, they gained the land because of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They would enter the land because God is gracious and merciful—because God is always gracious and merciful.
And when we come to the Old Testament, we cannot forget this. We cannot forget that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. That God has not changed his mind about how he would bring people into relationship with him. It was never through the people’s obedience, but through the first promised and later fulfilled obedience of Jesus Christ. It is his obedience that gives us (and them) righteousness, for he is the only one who could fulfill the demands of the Law. The fruit of his works are given to all who believe by grace.
The Old Testament is not about works, while the New is about grace. The Old is about grace, too. Our standing before God is always of grace. Because our God is a God of grace.