A Christian is compelled to do good works not so she might earn God’s favor but in response to receiving God’s favor as a divine gift. She puts that love on display by loving God and neighbor. Despite our inability to keep it, God’s law remains a perfect blueprint for loving God and neighbor. When we fall short, as we undoubtedly will, we can run back to Christ (instead of running from him in fear).
In recent years, it’s become commonplace for employers to put underperforming employees on a performance improvement plan (PIP). Though they’re often interpreted by the employee as a sign that termination is inevitable, PIPs crystallize job expectations and highlight the ways a worker is falling short. This covers the employer in the event of termination, and it removes cause for accusation on the employee’s part.
I thought about this modern practice when I read Old Testament scholar Stephen Dempster’s observation about God’s law in his book Dominion and Dynasty: “Israel is treated differently after [receiving the Ten Commandments at] Sinai. Pre-Sinai violations lead to reprimand; post-Sinai trespass[es] lead to death.”
Dempster wouldn’t call the law a PIP, but he observes one sense in which it functions similarly: it clearly reveals where Israel has fallen short of God’s standard. It shows them where they haven’t lived up to the performance God requires. But we’re in trouble if that’s our entire perspective on God’s law. When we look at the text, we find a bigger picture.
Our Poor Performance
God’s law is a perfect blueprint for human flourishing (Ps. 19:7). In this sense, God’s law is an encouragement to greater obedience. But it also reveals a massive problem: we can’t keep it.
Before they received the law, the Israelites grumbled and complained (Ex. 16). After the commandments were given, that attitude didn’t improve. What did change, however, was the severity of God’s response. God punished them with death (Num. 14).
What’s going on here? Did God suddenly become stricter? God’s people’s performance before the law wasn’t any more stellar than it was after they received it. What changed? Before Sinai, God’s expectations hadn’t yet been written in stone. But after the people received their PIP, after expectations were clear, they tragically believed they possessed the inner strength to obey God’s demands (Ex. 24:3). So when the grumbling and ingratitude returned, some were literally terminated.
In Romans, Paul helps us understand:
If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. . . . I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. (Rom. 7:7, 9–11)
Like Paul’s, the Israelites’ sin lay dormant. But after the law was given and God’s metric was made clear, it was also clear how abysmal their performance was. The result was death.