A friend of mine once described herself as “an Old Testament Christian.” What she meant was immediately obvious; the mechanisms and results of devotion to God in the Old Testament were much more attractive to her than those in the New Testament. Only later did I realize that she was not alone.
Reading the Christian Story from an Old Testament Perspective
I grew up in a Christian home in small-town America. I was deeply embedded in a culture that (at least on the surface) valued Christian identity, but I knew that the decision to follow Jesus was one that I would have to make for myself. I also knew that it might cost me something. After all, many of the people I went to school with were not believers, and they often ridiculed the life patterns and moral standards advocated by the Christian faith.
Still, I realize now that I had inherited some peculiar assumptions about what Christ was doing on the cross and what it meant for me to be saved. I did not realize it at the time, but I saw God as the cosmic enabler. I assumed that the problem with sin was that it inhibited my spiritual, moral, vocational, and relational success. I reasoned (subconsciously) that Christ died on the cross to eliminate that impediment to my success, and that He sent the Holy Spirit to help me find the right path for my life.
Before you sneer at my somewhat heretical understanding of the gospel, there are a couple of things that I ask you to consider. First of all, my views were (and are) not nearly as uncommon as you might suspect. Americans value successful living above almost anything else, and we often confuse our nation’s values with God’s purposes. My guess is that there are a lot of people out there just like me. They want God to help them have a happy marriage, raise well-adjusted kids, and retire with a sizable nest-egg. Some of them fall short of these goals, and they have a hard time understanding why God did not answer their requests for assistance.
Second, if the model for how we interact with God that I sketched out above seems familiar to you, that is because it should be. It comes directly from the Old Testament. Notice—just to choose a single example—the argument that Moses presents to the people of Israel in Deuteronomy 28-30. He calls them to make a decision, one that he characterizes as the choice between life and death, between prosperity and destruction. All the people of Israel had to do was obey God, and, in return, they would receive God’s blessing. If they chose not to do so, their lives would become a cesspool of depravity, injustice, and oppression.
Reading the Christian Story from a New Testament Perspective
There is definitely a certain appeal to this way of understanding God’s work in our lives. The expectations that God has of us are clear (obedience), and the expectations that we are permitted to have of God are also clear (blessing). But what happens when we fail to live up to our end of the bargain—as we certainly will. Moreover, how do we explain those times when God does not seem to hold up His end of the bargain? After all, Deuteronomy itself makes it clear that there will always be people who suffer from sickness or poverty, and the implication is that we cannot assume that those who suffer these fates have somehow violated God’s law. So what are we to make of these circumstances?
These questions may explain why the New Testament puts a somewhat different spin on God’s role in the lives of the faithful. Romans 6-8 is one of the more complex arguments in Paul’s letters, but it also beautifully illustrates how early followers of Jesus—and probably Jesus himself—saw the phenomenon of salvation. In these chapters, Paul presents initiation into the Christian community as a process of moving from death to life. True enough, people are dead in sin before they ever encounter Christ, but following Jesus requires another, more intentional death. We voluntarily give up our old life (which is no life at all) and receive from Christ a new life.
Most of us have heard this many times before, but perhaps we have not fully recognized its significance. We do not come to Christ because we know that our lives will be marked by failure without him. We come to Christ because our lives are already an abject failure, and we need to exchange our life for his. We do not come to Christ asking him to bless what we already have. We come to Christ with the recognition that we have nothing and that we need what only he can provide.
Now, it is true that Christ promises us an abundant life (John 10:10), and perhaps it is through this lens that we can appropriate the witness of the Old Testament for our benefit. But the fact that Christ gives us a new life when we follow him should remind us that we are not in charge of what shape that life will take. It is Christ who defines abundant living, and his definition may not conform to the expectations of ancient Israel or the dreams of modern America.
Perhaps you are reading this and thinking to yourself, “I know all of this, but I still feel conflicted. I know that Christ wants all of me, that he wants to be the one who authors my dreams and shapes my desires. But I also still feel the tug of normal life. I still want certain things for myself and my family.”
Well, join the club. I know that I certainly feel conflicted at times. I long for the security of a transactional relationship with God, and yet I am painfully aware of my inability to live a perfectly obedient life. I want to be blessed by God, and I want to define the terms by which blessing is defined and administered.
But that isn’t how God works. Even when He is offering grace to us and pursuing a relationship with us, He always remains God. He always remains sovereign. And that is (among other places) where faith comes in. As we grow in our devotion to God, we begin to see through the false premises and empty promises that are inherent in our old life. In turn, we learn to trust Him more and more to define the grounds and the parameters of our happiness.
Unfortunately, I cannot say that it gets easier as we go along. Sometimes, it only gets harder. It is one thing to relinquish dreams and desires that we know are harmful to us or to others; it is quite another to relinquish dreams and desires that really do seem to be good. But our hope is that we serve a good God and that, through Christ, He is in the process of giving us something better than what He is asking us to give up.