John 14, LDS and mitzvot

The other day, I wanted to check the location of the statement “If you love me, keep my commandments” (it’s John 14:15, BTW). Google is by far easier than my trusty concordance for such questions, and it duly gave me the reference.

What struck me, however, was that once I’d got past the online bible entries, almost all references to this passage were from or referencing Latter Day Saints writing. There were maybe two or three non-LDS entries in 20 plus pages. One from John Piper, but otherwise pretty much nothing from any other branches of Christianity whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, Evangelical, Mainstream or Progressive. (I should note here that I include LDS as Christian, despite their having some additional scripture, which is commonly a dividing issue between religions. I also include Seventh Day Adventist, despite their having, arguably at least, an extra prophet in the form of Ellen White).

Why is this, I wondered? But then a possible answer occurred to me; it is perhaps unpopular in mainstream Christianity because it suggests to many people a form of “works righteousness”. I’d just done some thinking about this as a result of a Bible study of Colossians 2. Now, there isn’t really a clear “no works righteousness” statement there, but there is this:- 20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.” (from Bible Gateway NRSV). There’s also the more or less obligatory warning against succumbing to suggestions that circumcision or keeping kosher are appropriate for Christians.

This prompted questions for the group such as “What might be the result of trying to base one’s whole relationship with God on rule-keeping…?” and “What convinced you that trying to live up to religious rules couldn’t change you on the inside?”. I stayed quiet, as it was clear to me that my input would not be what the group wanted to hear at this point (not least because I don’t think Paul wrote the epistle).

The trouble is twofold. The first problem is that the clear implication is that Judaism is “basing your whole relationship with God on rule-keeping” and “can’t change you on the inside”, and this is an outdated picture. A chain of scholarship of which E.P. Sanders’ “Jesus and Judaism” is the early high point has shown beyond any doubt that the Judaism of the First Century wasn’t the ineffective obsessive rulekeeping which it’s so often portrayed as in conservative circles, based on Paul’s commentary in Romans 1-8. It wasn’t that in the first century, and it hasn’t been that in any century since, though it must be granted that there are probably individuals and groups within Judaism for which it is actually no more than that.

Sanders and those following him in the “new Perspective on Paul” have, I think, shown very clearly that the basis of Judaism then was “covenantal nomism”. The covenant (land and favoured status) is given to the chosen people as a free gift, and the Law is also given as a gift, to be followed as evidence of and a practical form of gratitude and love for God in return. Granted, widespread failure to follow the Law results in episode after episode of disaster for the people of God recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, but following the Law is not the precondition, it’s the way in which you display that you individually are within the covenant, and in which you contribute to the collective faithfulness which will, it is hoped, bring about the reign of God on earth. The formula is therefore gift given (grace) followed by belief, love and trust, followed by the evidence of that in behaviour.

This is pretty much exactly the model which Christian theology has put forward as the model for Christian belief, extracting this from Paul’s words primarily in Romans and Galatians; receive by grace forgiveness of sin, have faith in Christ, proceed in the path of sanctification by acting out that faith. OK, some say “believe and you will be saved”, putting belief first, with considerable scriptural authority, but it is just possible that Calvin was right, and that the ability to do that is given by grace (and I say that as someone for whom the name “Calvin” is near to swearing…); the logic is that to believe first is an action, and no action can be sufficient in the hard linefaith not works” climate of Reformed theology.

I don’t remotely espouse that; I take Jesus as having confirmed that he came to save everyone. I assume the effort to have been a success. However you get there, though, it remains an act of grace, unmerited and not earned. As does the election of the descendants of Abraham and Jacob as the chosen people…

To deny that is, I think, adding insult to injury following the lamentable history of Christianity’s treatment of the Jews.

On analysis, I come to the conclusion that the only substantive difference between Paul’s position and that of the Judaism of the time is that whereas Judaism asked for faith in God’s promise to Abraham, evidenced by following the covenant given to Moses, Paul asks for faith in God’s promise via Christ Jesus, evidenced by the fruits of the Spirit. Where Paul appears dead set against following kosher rules and circumcision, it isn’t because this is damaging as such, it’s because it shouldn’t be regarded as either something which is necessary or as something which “buys” justification in God’s eyes.

So, why do the LDS like the passage so much? Well, I might suggest that it’s because they also have a large body of rules and regulations which they follow. It’s not uncommon to find fundamentalist and evangelical Christians criticising them also as being a religion of “works justification”. Maybe so, maybe not – let’s look at my second problem with a negative view of actions.

Actions do, of course, proverbially speak louder than words. Paul himself considers that works will naturally flow from accepting Christ, and James suggests, entirely rightly, that “faith without works is dead”. Indeed, it is probably not unreasonable to suggest that whatever you may say you believe, what you actually believe is evidenced by what you do.

There’s more, however. There is now plenty of psychological literature to back up the proposal that acting as if you believe something has a tendency to produce a change in beliefs to match the actions; the “act as if” principle is a major cornerstone of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. In Twelve Step, a common catch phrase is “You’ve got to fake it to make it”, and curiously that does seem to work, not in a guaranteed way, but as at least a strong tendency.

Returning to Judaism, but modern Judaism this time, I find from long discussions with Jewish friends, of whichever flavour (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist) that the long list of things which one is expected to do or not to do in order to be faithfully Jewish are, firstly, looked on very much as expressions of faith (I love God, God commands that I do this, so I do it as an expression of that love – very much in line with John 14:15). They are definitely not looked on as something which has to be performed in order to win favour, whether that be eternal life or something else (forgiveness of sin is not really on the radar there; there is a system within Judaism to deal with that, even absent the Temple and its sacrificial system); they are however, looked on as something which contributes to the communal good and the possible full expression of messianic hopes. Put simply, if you ignore the Law, you’re not excluded from Judaism or from God’s election of you as one of the chosen people, but you’re not a good team player and may be contributing to a losing streak for the team…

There is also substantial anecdotal evidence that actually performing these “mitzvot” (which translates better as “blessings” than as “commandments”) deepens faith in and love of God. You’d expect this, given the “act as if” principle.

So, I conclude, LDS are probably finding the same principle at work, though I’m not aware that they have quite the same view of the “not a good team player” aspect. I’d expect the same to be true of other Christian branches which stress activities (“praxis”), such as Catholics and Orthodox.

The other really popular passage to quote here is, of course, James 2:14-26, from which I quote 14 “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (from Bible Gateway NRSV). This is, of course, dear to my heart; love your neighbour is next to loving God and is the greatest practical expression of that. However, observance (praxis) which is directed purely at actions pleasing to God but not clearly having a beneficial effect on one’s neighbour is also a valid form of expressing ones love for and gratitude towards God.

There’s time for both in  my life.


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