Did Moses Think Sinners Could Keep the Law?
Today we have a question from a listener named Max, who asks about whether or not Old Testament saints were under the impression that the Mosaic law was achievable by a sinner. “Dear Pastor John, I have been reading Deuteronomy, and 30:11–14 caught my attention. It states that the commandments in the Book of the Law are ‘not too hard for you.’ Thus, because obedience is attainable, they were forbidden from asking: ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us?’ (Deuteronomy 30:12). That’s as anti-Christological as it gets. But I’m also aware that Paul uses this passage in Romans 10:6–8 to explain righteousness based on faith. Based on the context of the beginning of Romans 10, I am curious of your thoughts regarding whether God in chapter 30 of Deuteronomy was giving the Israelites the notion that their righteousness would be based on faith, or that following the commands of God perfectly was actually achievable, so achievable a savior wasn’t needed.” Pastor John, how would you solve this conundrum for Max?
I don’t think the Bible anywhere, Old or New Testament, encourages us to believe that perfect obedience in this life is possible. Even where law-keeping was held out in the Mosaic law as required for God’s salvation, the sacrifices were put in place precisely because of the inevitable disobedience. But I would add to this that, both in the old covenant (the Mosaic law) and the new covenant (secured by the blood of Jesus), obedience is required — only there are two different ways to require obedience.
“Obedience is required in a new-covenant way as the fruit of the Spirit, written on our hearts.”
One is this: salvation by law-keeping requires obedience — indeed, perfect obedience — as the basis of our salvation. That’s never going to happen. If we want to try to be saved by law-keeping, Galatians 5:3 says to have at it, and you’ve got to keep the whole law, and it isn’t going to happen. So, salvation by law-keeping is a dead-end street. By the law comes death.
The other is that salvation by faith also requires obedience, but not as the basis of our salvation, but as the evidence and confirmation of it.
Now, here’s the most important thing I can do, I think, in answer to or in response to this question: Let me see if I can paint the big picture of the Old Testament Pentateuch, because that’s going to explain this passage in Deuteronomy. Let me paint the big picture of the Old Testament Pentateuch — that is, the first five books of the Bible — and show the contrast between salvation or righteousness by faith versus salvation or righteousness by law-keeping. In other words, what I want to show is that this tension between righteousness by law-keeping and righteousness by faith is not found just between the Mosaic law and the New Testament gospel. That tension between law and gospel is not just found between Old and New Testaments or between Mosaic law and gospel; it’s found right here in the Pentateuch itself.
Genesis, at the front end, and Deuteronomy, at the back end, both highlight righteousness by faith. And in between, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers — the heart of the Mosaic law — highlight righteousness by law-keeping. But both of them treat obedience to God as essential, only in two very different ways. Righteousness by law-keeping treats obedience as the basis of our right standing with God, and righteousness by faith treats obedience as the result and confirmation of our right standing with God.
Let me illustrate this from Genesis and Deuteronomy — and this will explain, I hope, how I understand the text that he’s asking about in Deuteronomy 30. The fundamental statement of righteousness by faith in the Pentateuch is Genesis 15:6: Abraham “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Paul makes a big deal out of that text. And then he says in Galatians 3:17–18, “The law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise” — namely, to be received by faith.
“In both Genesis and Deuteronomy, obedience to God from faith and out of love is required.”
And Paul sums up the law that he has in mind — when he says the one that comes 430 years later — like this in Romans 10:5: “Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law.” And then he quotes Leviticus 18:5: “that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.” So, Paul contrasts righteousness by faith from Genesis 15:6 with the righteousness through the law in Leviticus.
In the Pentateuch itself, there is the gospel way of righteousness by faith, and the law-keeping way of righteousness through the law. But long before law came, Genesis made plain that Abraham’s obedience to God was essential, not as the basis of his right standing with God, but as a confirmation of the righteousness that he had by faith. For example, in Genesis 26:4, God says to Abraham, “In your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” That’s the promise that he believed by faith back in chapter 15. And then it says that it will come “because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 26:5). In other words, the promise that Abraham had by faith in Genesis 15 is confirmed by his obedience to the law in Genesis 26 (as much as God revealed it to him and as much as he knew it). We see the same thing in Genesis 18:19 and the same thing in Genesis 22:16.
Then after the giving of the Mosaic law, with its emphasis on righteousness by law-keeping, comes the book of Deuteronomy, with the chapter that Max is asking about in this question. What I’m arguing is that just as Genesis taught righteousness by faith, confirmed by obedience, that’s what Deuteronomy 30 is about as well. And the clearest signal is that in verse 6 you get a prophecy of the new covenant, which will be more fully prophesied in Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36, and then fulfilled when Jesus lifts up the cup at the Last Supper and says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25).
So, Deuteronomy 30:6 says, “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that [this is the effect of God’s sovereign, inner-transforming, by the Spirit miracle-working] you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” Now that verse, I would argue, is a description of the righteousness that comes through faith. Why? Because you can’t earn this by works, because the works are the very thing that the circumcision of heart is making possible. The only way to embrace this promise is by faith.
This is a promise from God that he will put his people right through the blood of the new covenant by faith. So, when we read in Deuteronomy 30:9–10, “The Lord will again take delight in prospering you . . . when you obey the voice of the Lord your God . . . with all your heart and with all your soul” (which is a clear echo of the new-covenant promise three verses earlier), we see again, just like in Genesis, the necessity of obedience — not as the basis of our right standing with God, but the confirmation of it made possible by the circumcision of our hearts, which comes through the blood of the covenant before we can do anything to deserve it ourselves. We can only receive it by faith.
From Faith, Out of Love
Then, finally, comes the passage that Max is asking about. He is probably wondering, “Are you ever going to get to my question?” Let me read it. This is Deuteronomy 30:11:
For this commandment [the one you’re obeying now in new-covenant faith] that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
“Salvation by faith requires obedience, not as the basis of our salvation, but as the evidence and confirmation of it.”
In Romans 10, Paul quotes these verses explicitly (in Romans 10:6–8), and he sees them as pointing to the righteousness of faith in contrast to the righteousness that comes through law-keeping, which he cited in Romans 10:5, because he sees, just like we do, that Moses is writing about new-covenant reality — things God is going to do sovereignly in the heart of his people through the forgiveness of sins by the work of the Holy Spirit in the days of the Messiah.
Here’s my summary; here’s what I think we’ve seen: Genesis, at the front end of the Pentateuch, and Deuteronomy, at the back end, both draw our attention to the righteousness that comes through faith. And sandwiched in between is the Mosaic law, which came in 430 years after Abraham, and it does not nullify what was taught as the righteousness of faith.
So, in both Genesis and Deuteronomy, obedience to God from faith and out of love is required, but not the way obedience is required for the righteousness by law-keeping — not as the basis of our standing with God, but rather obedience enabled by this new-covenant, inner-work of the Spirit, blood-bought by Jesus in the new covenant. This obedience is required in a new-covenant way as the fruit of the Spirit, written on our hearts, and confirming — not creating — our right standing with God.