2007April11, Wednesday

Calvin, Sacrifices, and False Motives

Posted in Uncategorized at 14:23 by Trey Austin

From Calvin’s Commentary on Amos 4:3-6,  

The Prophets reprobated sacrifices for two reasons; — first, because hypocrites brought them before God as a compensation, that they might escape the punishment they deserved, as though they paid God what they owed. Thus at Jerusalem, in the very temple, they profaned the name of God; they offered sacrifices according to what the law prescribed, but disregarded the true and legitimate end; for they thought that God was pacified by the blood of beasts, by incense, and other external rites: it was therefore a preposterous abuse. Hence the Prophets often reproved them, inasmuch as they obtruded their sacrifices on God as a compensation, as though they were real expiations for cleansing away sins: this, as the Prophets declared, was extremely puerile and foolish. But, secondly, Amos now goes much farther; for he blames not here the Israelites for thinking that they discharged their duty to God by external rites, but denounces all their worship as degenerate and perverted, for they called on God in places where he had not commanded: God designed one altar only for his people, and there he wished sacrifices to be offered to him; but the Israelites at their own will had built altars at Bethel and Gilgal. Hence the Prophet declares that all their profane modes of worship were nothing but abominations, however much the Israelites confided in them as their safety.

Now, we all know that God denounces those who invent ways to worship, but what is interesting to me is that Calvin here says that the other reason that God denounces sacrifices is because some men (hypocrites) thought that in bringing them, they were paying off God. They thought they were fulfilling their “duty” to God. Here’s the question, though: is this a proper way to think about how man relates to God, and these men were just hypocritical in the way they did their “duty”? Or is this a fundamentally flawed and inherently unbelieving way of approaching God, and those who seek to come to God this way are hypocrites precisely because of it?

I believe that Calvin is here saying, and we should know from Scripture, that when we come before God doing what he has instructed us to do, we should never think of it as a bare “duty,” as though we were paying God “wages” in order to forgive us (the proper order is God’s goodness bestowed, and our response in light of and because of it, not our action toward God and his response of goodness toward us). God’s instructions to us—whether civil, ceremonial, or moral—are never to be seen as “quid pro quo,” as a way of giving to God so that he will do something for us. This is the fundamental flaw of all hypocrites. It is, in fact, the very flaw of Judaism in Jesus’ and Paul’s day. They had turned the Law into a principle of works, of duty, of paying wages to God—like the hypocrites Calvin speaks of—rather than obeying God out of the sincerity of faith and love, as was the purpose of God’s Law from the beginning (this is clearly seen from the preface to the ten commandments).

This is a roundabout way of saying that, while doing what God commands us is essential, we still have not done what God commands us if we do so with false motives. A motive of paying anything to God is inherently a false motive, because, as Paul rhetorically asked, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor. 4:7). To think that anything we do for God is something we can give to him to “earn” anything, or to “pay” him is deceptive and false, because, even when we do what God requires, it is only because of his grace that we have his commandments and only because of his grace that we are enabled to fulfill them.

It is abundantly clear that this is what Jesus was condemning when he told the Pharisees that they really weren’t obeying God’s Law, in spite of their bragging otherwise. The real question is whether this is what Paul was condemning when he spoke of “works of the Law.” I believe that, for the most part, it is. When he condemned the Law as the way for being righteous before God, i believe that he was condemning anyone who would: (1) try to retain as obligatory for all believers the sacraments of the Old Covenant under the New Covenant; (2) think that their status as Jews—those who have the Law—were inherently better because of it, regardless of whether it made any difference in their lives; and (3) those who would use the Law in such a way as to think that, by obeying it—ceremonially, morally, or civicly—, they are earning something or obligating God to give back to them.

So where does that leave me? Well, i can’t say it any better than Paul did, “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly” (1 Tim. 1:8). Let us with unfeigned hearts obey our God who has graciously saved us by the death and resurrection of our God and King, Messiah Jesus.


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