When we read the Bible we can see a pattern in the way God deals with those he saves. In the Exodus, God saves the Israelites and then gives them the law, telling them how they are to act as God’s people (Ex 20ff). Similarly, when we are saved as Christians we are called to repent from our sin and turn to God (eg. Romans 6, James 2:14ff).
Now initially I can sympathize with the person who gets the impression that God is, in some sense, “trapping” his people. Like he’s imposing these rules after they get saved.
But once we think about it a bit we realize that both Jesus and the authors of the new testament are quite clear that repentance is a central aspect of being a Christian. In fact, the definition of Christian is someone who trusts in the power of the resurrection and follows Jesus as Lord according to Paul (Romans 10:9). A Christian is someone who believes and repents and follows Jesus according to Jesus himself (Mark 1:15, Mark 8:34) and if a Christian claims to have faith without deeds then whatever that faith is is dead without deeds according to James (James 2:14ff). Also, Peter (and YHWH) sees it like this: the one who calls us is holy, so be holy like him (1 Peter 1:15-16).
So far from trapping or burdening the person once they believe, repentance is part of the belief in the first place!
Recently I’ve been thinking about this and there seem to two more things we can add by way of interpreting the whole “giving the law and expecting good works” thing:
- Far from burdening us, God is showing us how we were designed to live in the first place. By giving us his law, he tells us exactly how we were designed to relate to him and to our neighbor. So really, God is enabling us to reach our full potential (excuse the cliché) and lifting the burden and corruption imposed by sin (this thinking fits quite well with Paul’s thinking in Romans: we are no longer slaves to sin, but are able to honour and glorify God [as we were made to]).
- We read many of the 10 commandments (for example) individualistically not realizing that God is enabling not only us but a whole community to follow him and his precepts. So while we might be bleak because now we shouldn’t steal, murder, etc. God has placed a punishment for anyone who does that to us too. So we should be thanking him for imposing this order on his community so that we can feel safe. Just like in Martin Luther’s prayer on the 6th commandment (“do not murder”), where he said, “I give thanks for such ineffable love, providence, and faithfulness toward me by which he has placed this mighty shield and wall to protect my physical safety. All are obliged to care for me and protect me, and I, in turn, must behave likewise toward others.”