Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:9-14
A friend of my sister’s, a member of my church youth group, chafed at the rules and expectations for behavior that our church taught its youth.
And he found an “out” through his own simplistic understanding of grace:
“I love to sin, and God loves to forgive sin, so we make a good pair,” this 16-year-old budding theologian observed one day after church, no doubt thinking of his plans for the coming weekend.
The writer of Deuteronomy (not to mention the Apostle Paul) wouldn’t recognize this statement as a valid expression of faith. Paul writes, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Romans 8:1-2).
Deuteronomy, for its part, exhorts its readers over and over again to “obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances” (Deuteronomy 30:16).
It is a choice, Deuteronomy says, a choice that we can make — to obey or not to obey. To obey means blessing and life. Not to obey means death. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:29).
Now, churches of the Reformation, including my own, have some trouble with this idea of choosing to obey God’s Law. The Law condemns and kills. We are sinners and depend completely on God’s grace. We cannot choose to obey the Law even if we try.
Our passage for today doesn’t seem to agree. “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).
This passage echoes the Shema, the prayer that observant Jews pray twice daily, which begins with this well-known passage from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:4-8).
The word, the commandments of God, are to be in the Israelites’ heart and on their lips, according to the Shema. They are to memorize them, recite them, talk about them daily. So later in Deuteronomy when Moses assures the Israelites that “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe,” it would seem to be a direct result of obeying the previous command.
The thing is, though, that the Israelites did not obey that command. This latter part of Deuteronomy knows of the exile and understands it as punishment for disobedience: “It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord … They turned and served other gods … The Lord uprooted them from their land in anger, fury, and great wrath, and cast them into another land” (Deuteronomy 29:25, 26, 28).
So if the Israelites cannot obey the commandments of God at the beginning of Deuteronomy, when God calls them to love him, what makes them think they can do so at the end of the book?
Because God promises that they will: “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
If the Israelites cannot love God with all their heart and soul, then God himself will make it possible for them to do so. God will circumcise their hearts, removing their disobedience and their callused disregard for God’s covenant, so that they might indeed love God and thereby live.
Ezekiel speaks of God giving Israel a new heart — “I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant — “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31). Likewise, Deuteronomy speaks of a circumcised heart and a word that is “very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deuteronomy 30:14).
In all of these instances, it is God, not Israel, who makes it possible for Israel to be in relationship with God.
Lutheran ethicist Gilbert Meilaender speaks of this grace of God that empowers God’s people to be who God intends them to be:
“The more God’s grace empowers their lives, the more they know their need of his pardon. And the word of pardon carries with it God’s commitment to make us people who will want to live in his presence — to make us what he says we are. Hence, God’s promise is embedded in his command: ‘You shall be holy.’”1
God’s promise is embedded in God’s command: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
It is a word of law. It is also a word of promise. You shall love the Lord your God.
So, my sister’s friend didn’t have it quite right. He was espousing what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called, “cheap grace.” And the biblical witness is not about cheap grace. It is about costly grace. God doesn’t love to forgive sin. God loves sinners. God calls sinners to love him in return, and God through Jesus Christ gives them the grace to do so, to become the people God says that they are: freed, forgiven, sent out.
“Costly grace,” writes Bonhoeffer, “is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him … Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.”2
“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart,” writes Paul, quoting Deuteronomy. And what is this word? “The word of faith that we proclaim” (Romans 10:8). Gift of God for the people of God.
1 Gilbert Meilaender, “Hearts Set to Obey,” in I am the Lord your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments, ed. Carl Braaten and Christopher Seitz (Eerdmans, 2005), 274.
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 44-45