Earning God’s Favor in the Old Testament

Growing up in the church, I regularly heard how Christians depend on God’s grace, in contrast to how the people of God in the Old Testament had to “earn” favor with God.

The logic was that following the Law — maybe better translated as Instruction — would earn righteousness for the people. However, I was told, they could not actually achieve this because we now know through Jesus that everything from God must be a gift.

Apart from potentially dangerous anti-Semitic implications, I think that there are other issues with this oversimplified reading.

The so-called Ten Commandments (I say “so-called” because the words “ten” and “commandment” do not actually show up!) provide a good example. These words have been used in multiple places at various times. They are often treated as if they make up an objective moral code, maybe even an “entrance exam” for belonging to the community of Israel. We might think, “The people had to follow the Ten Commandments in order to earn God’s favor. But they weren’t capable of that.”

What is often lost in these conversations is this: those words, the Ten Commandments, are part of a story. In fact, verse 1 of Exodus 20 says, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt . . .” before it goes into the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments came after God had rescued the people from Egypt. First, God delivered them. Then, God gave them the “Law,” the Instruction, on how to live.

In other words, the logic of the movement is the exact opposite of what is assumed by the reading I pointed to, above. It’s not that the people had to earn God’s favor by following the Law. God favored the people first, and that’s why God gave them the Law. Following the Law was a response to God’s favor, not a means of earning it.

This has several implications, a couple of which I’ll talk about here. First, in the Bible, God is always initiator — God works to rescue people not because of, and often in spite of, their ability to “earn” anything from God. The whole Old Testament is founded on this. God comes to the people first. There’s never a moment in the Bible when God expect people to initiate the rescue. Readings of the Old Testament or of Jewish faith that suggest this have missed the point.

Second, in the Bible, God expects — demands — a response to God’s rescue. In the Old Testament, the people were expected to live out this new way of being. And the people saw it as a joy! They viewed the Law as God’s gracious gift. They didn’t see it as a burden to be carried; they saw it as a light for their dark path. Likewise, Jesus makes demands of his followers. God actually expects people to live in certain ways, do certain things, as followers of Jesus.