Updated: Sep 5, 2019
Shortly before the break of day on Good Friday, April 7, A.D. 1300, thirty-five-year-old Dante gets lost in a dark wood at the base of a volcano. He’s met by three beasts from which he cannot escape. His description of the beasts come from Jeremiah 5:6, symbolizing three kinds of sin. The leopard, symbolic of malice; the lion, violence, and the she-wolf, the lack of self-control. With the sun rising, the beasts drive him back into the darkness where he says the sun is silent. Before beset by any real trouble, Dante is rescued by the poet Virgil. Then on the evening of Good Friday, Dante and Virgil begin their descent into Hell. They wind down, down, down like a large spiral staircase through nine circles in a volcanic crater. It’s black and jagged; each step sets every sense on edge. The shrieks and sighs of the damned jar both your ear drums like you were inside a base drum being beaten by a jack-hammer. The rampant convulsions of all the souls of the lost send shivers up your spine. Every detail Dante describes in his Inferno is so inescapably realistic, when Dante walked the streets of Florence, with the furrowed brow of intensest passion on his earnest face its no wonder the children pointed at him and said, “There goes the man whose been to hell” (William G. T. Shedd, “Sermons to the Natural Man, 338).
How infinitely more solemn are thirteen verses from Luke 16, from the lips of the One who not only “descended into hell,” but who “holds the keys of death and hell.” And it’s this One in verse 25, who solemnly responds to the rich man’s request for one drop of water on the tip of Lazarus’ finger to cool his tongue in the torments of hell: “remember that in your lifetime your received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented.” Such is the awful description of all who seek the selfish enjoyment of their own selfish interests as the chief end of this life, and the amazing description of those who denied themselves in this life for the sake of righteousness (Shedd, 335).
Are the descriptions of punishment and reward in the Bible merely intended to play upon our fears, or do they serve some other purpose? Consider the relationship and rewards of love and obedience from Deuteronomy 7:9-11.
Therefore know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments; 10and He repays those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them. He will not be slack with him who hates Him; He will repay him to his face. 11Therefore you shall keep the commandment, the statutes, and the judgments which I command you today, to observe them. (NKJV)
Five motives for obedience are stated in these verses and we list them from the least to the greatest: punishment for disobedience, reward for obedience, love to God, mercy from God, and the love in God for the other as the fundamental and bedrock motive. “The only God inherently inclined to show mercy is the Father who has loved his Son eternally by the Spirit” (Michael Reeves, “Delighting in the Trinity,” p. 112).
Here is infinite, uncreated, eternal love, the bond of which cannot be broken. Here is infinite, uncreated, eternal love, the power of which cannot be diminished. And it’s this unbreakable bond and this undiminishable power that forms the basis for the covenant of love and mercy that God makes with His people.
To lift Christian love and obedience above nature and above mere motives of punishment and reward, we must understand that we’re united to God by an unbreakable covenant of love. That’s one of the most important points of the Bible in general, and of Deuteronomy 7:9 particularly. And it is the first main point in our outline: The framework for Christian obedience is our covenant union and communion with the Trinity.
Another important truth taught in sacred Scripture in general and in Deuteronomy 7:9 in particular is that the fundamental basis of our obedience is the character of God who is Faithful to keep covenant. And now from Deuteronomy 7:9-11, consider the indissoluble relationship of law and love and rewards for loving and obeying God and the punishments for hating and disobeying God.
It’s easy to see that just as loving God, obedience, and reward go together, so also hating God, disobedience, and punishment go together. But it is not all easy to move away from our natural way of thinking punishment and reward. Do you find yourself thinking this way: “O, God is rewarding me; I must have done good, Or, God is punishing me; I must have done bad.” We’re like Maria in “The Sound of Music.” When she discovers in the Garden that night at the Gazebo that one of the most marriageable men in the world loves her and wants to marry her, she sings, “somewhere in my wicked childhood, I must have done something good.”
By nature we think of God as a great master in heaven and we think of ourselves as his servants and so we must work to receive his wages. This natural law is so engrained in our heart and so instilled in our minds that we naturally view our obedience as the basis upon which we relate to God. Galatians 4:24 teaches that there are two covenants, a covenant of grace, and a covenant of works. The word “covenant,” very simply means relationship, and in the covenant of grace, we relate to God on the basis of grace and good will earned for us by the obedience of Christ. But in the covenant of works, we relate to God on the basis of good will earned by our own obedience. And most careful students of the Bible say that the covenant of works did not begin after the fall in the giving of the law at Mount Sinai, but rather before the fall in the Garden of Eden. And for this same reason, they refer to the covenant of works as the covenant of nature, meaning that we naturally think that the Great Master in heaven gives us the good life in exchange for our obedience.
For this reason, in his commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther says, that our works orientation of life is “so rooted in our minds, that we are wrapped up in it and can hardly get out of it” (quoted in Edward Fisher, “The Marrow of Modern Divinity,” 86). Edward Fisher, a well-read Christian barber in the 1600’s said that there were so many professing believers in the city of London who were so carried away by their own goodness and outward obedience that “no one could persuade them” that they were living upon the merits of their good works and not upon the merits of Christ. And he even went further and said that they were so blind that they made a Christ of their own goodness, and could think of nothing else but obeying in exchange for the good life (Fisher, 86).
Can you be persuaded of your works’ orientation of life? Are you aware of how deeply this natural law is engrained in your heart and instilled in your mind, and how it works itself out in every relationship that you have? Have you ever really considered the very natural way you relate to other people: “You do good to me; I do good back. You do bad to me; I do bad back.” Have you ever considered how powerless you are to do what Jesus commands in Luke 6:27, “love your enemies.” What? “Love your adversary?” “Love someone who has enmity in their heart against you and won’t ‘kiss and make up’.” Jesus went even further. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you.” Then Jesus flatly rejects and condemns natural religion in verses 32 and 33. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. Why does Jesus reject so very strongly doing good on the basis of another person’s good works? Because it’s the natural religion of man, not the religion of God? Have you exchanged Christianity for natural religion?
Now we may ask one of the most important questions of the Bible that could be asked: Why did God create natural religion for Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden? Why did He ever create a religion based on human merit? To demonstrate once and for all, how breakable and changeable is our human love against the backdrop of the infinite, uncreated, eternal love of God, the bond of which cannot be broken. And also to demonstrate once and for all, just how weak and even powerless is our human love against the backdrop of the infinite, uncreated, eternal love of God, the power of which can never be diminished.
Are you living by the power of the natural religion of man? Or are you living by the power of the infinite, uncreated, eternal love of God? What is your view of the kind of love that motivates and the kind of law that guides Christian obedience? Is it a view of love and law altogether too human, too natural? Or is your view of love and law infinite, uncreated, and eternal?
The distinction between the love and law of man, and the love and law of God is what led C. S. Lewis to make the strongest statement I’ve ever considered against the powerlessness of natural religion and the changeable nature of created human law. In a short essay called “The Poison of Subjectivism,” Lewis says, “the moral law of God is not merely good. It is uncreated goodness… and we favored beyond the wisest pagans, know what lends God’s godness to all else, what is the ground of our very lives, is not simply a law, but a begetting love, a love begotten, and the love which, between the Father and the Son, is also present in all who are caught up to share the unity of the uncreated self-caused life and love of God. God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God. These may seem fine-spun speculations: yet I believe that nothing short of these can save us. A Christianity that does not see “love and law” converging to meet in the Trinity has nothing, in the long run, to divide it from devil worship, and a religion which does not accept value as eternal and objective can only lead to ruin (Timeless Writings, 229).
In the covenant of grace, God reveals His boundless, eternal love as the only sufficient motive to love others as He would have us love. And in the same covenant, He commands our obedience to a law as the only sufficient rule of life to guide us in the experience of the love of God. And now, will you turn back to the lowest motives of all, the motives of the natural religion of man, reward for doing good and punishment for doing bad? Or will you ever keep turning away from the love and law of natural religion to the religion of God and the bond and power of infinite, uncreated love which can never be broken nor ever be diminished?
Are you still yet one of those believers Edward Fisher described as so carried away by their own goodness that “no one could persuade them” that they were living upon the merits of their good works and not upon the merits of Christ? Do you make a Christ of your good works?
There is a persuasion, one grand persuasion to turn us away from our natural religion based upon our supposed goodness: the utter brokenness and the powerlessness of all natural love, and the ruin and disaster that follows. And the unbreakable bond and power of the covenant love of God and the rebuilding that takes the place of the ruin,
Will you build your life, marriage, family, church and all on the infinite, eternal covenant love and law of God? May we learn and teach obedience to all that Christ commands that we may enjoy His promised presence together.