So yesterday, I asked for some folks to submit questions or topics for the blog. I got a good response (exactly three!) and wanted to tackle one today. The question was simple:
Is the pious pious because God loves it, or does God love the pious because it’s pious?
I’m not entirely certain what the question is referring to (whether an individual or an action or some notion of piety), but my best guess is that the inquiring party is curious to know if something is holy because God loves it, or if God loves something because it’s holy. I’m assuming it’s a question of intrinsic/extrinsic worth – whether something is valuable in and of itself, or whether it’s value is derived from an outside source.
I could be completely wrong on this, but I’m going with the answer of A: something is holy/pious because God loves it, which would be extrinsic value. It is because God says so. This applies across the board, which will be a point of contention for some people.
See, many folks believe that humans have intrinsic worth – that is, by virtue of being human, they are valuable. This is a notion that has long been affirmed from the pulpit: how many times have you heard a preacher say that humanity is “God’s special creation”? Heck, I’ve said it (and typed it) because it’s something I think most of us want to be true. That we are somehow different from everything else in the world, because God made us special.
But stop for a moment and take a look at the very definition of what we call “intrinsic” value: we are special because God made us that way.
We’re not special just because. We’re special because that’s how God made us. He gives us our value; it’s His mark within us that makes us special, so in a sense it’s understandable that we would consider that intrinsic value; but it’s still extrinsic because the value is only there if God puts it there. Take him out of the equation and what are we?
Perhaps there’s no better example of this than Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees and scribes in the New Testament. Over and over again, they sought to have their righteousness upheld before Jesus, to have their personal holiness labeled as “worthy”. And yet time and again Jesus told them that they had missed the point:.
Take this passage from Luke 11 for example:
37 When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. 38 But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.
39 Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.
42 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.
43 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.
44 “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”
45 One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.”
46 Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.
47 “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. 48 So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. 49 Because of this, God in his wisdomsaid, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ 50 Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.
52 “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”
53 When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, 54 waiting to catch him in something he might say.
The Pharisees thought that their piety was worthy of being loved by God, but Jesus pointed out just how woefully unlovable their pious deeds were. He pointed them to a higher standard than their understanding and execution of God’s Law. He pointed them to a life that was found worthy because God loved it, not because it was earned. Piety without grace is impossible; it takes the grace of God to make us capable of any kind of pious living. The moment we forget that – the moment we assume that we hold the keys to godliness within ourselves – that’s the moment we become well and truly foolish.
In Scripture, anything that was considered holy was only considered such because God said it was so. It begins with the acts of creation – “God saw that it was good” – and continues: Abel’s sacrifice, Noah’s character, Abram’s faith, Moses’ obedience. On and on and on. Those things were holy/pious because God blessed them, not the other way around. And the same is true today. We are not made right with God because we are righteous, we are made right with God because we receive His righteousness as our gift. Or as Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9:
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
Yes, it’s true that God died for you, but He didn’t die for you because you were special. He died for you because He was merciful, forgiving, compassionate, good, gracious. We are who we are only because He Is Who He Is.
And we should never forget that.