Continuing with some common objections to the Calvinistic doctrine of man’s inability, a second objection can be found in the Old Testament passage of Deuteronomy 30:11-20.
11 “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”
The appeal made from this passage is the phrase I’ve highlighted from verse 19 above, “Therefore choose life”. Since Moses lays the choice before the people, it is often assumed that this is an example of the free-will of man to choose his own destiny. Again, we must 1) Examine this verse in context 2) Realize that God’s Sovereignty in salvation is not divorced from man’s responsibility to repent and believe, as we have previously seen.
The use of the verse as a proof-text for man’s freewill highlights the importance of understanding a verse in its context, both the immediate context of its chapter and where it fits in the flow of the larger context within the book its written. There are really two ways to do this. We could read through Deuteronomy noting the context as we go until we come to this passage in chapter 30 or we could start in this chapter for the immediate context and then expand out from there. The former is probably the better angle for our study because of the covenantal framework of Deuteronomy. It breaks down something like this:
- The Covenant Setting (1:1-5)
- The Historical Review (1:4-4:40)
- The Preparation for the Covenant Text (4:41-49)
- The Principles of the Covenant (5:1-11:32)
- The Specific Stipulations of the Covenant (12:1-26:15)
- Exhortation and Narrative Interlude (26:16-19)
- The Curses and Blessings (chaps. 27-28)
- The Epilogue Historical Review (chaps. 29-30)
- Deposit of the Text and Provision for Its Future Implementation (31:1-29)
- The Song of Moses (31:30-32:43)
- The Blessing of Moses (chap. 33)
- Narrative Epilogue (34:1-12)
Upon examining the book in this way, we find that our verse falls within the section of The Epilogue Historical Review. What this means is that the passage from Deuteronomy 30 is pregnant with a lot of meaning that needs unpacked before it can properly be understood within its context. I’ll try to summarize some of the key points in the narrative that will give us the background necessary to understand this passage.
At this point in the book, Moses has reviewed the covenant made with the people at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments (5:1ff) specifically because the people are about to enter the Promised Land. A key passage for our understanding is in Deuteronomy 10:12-22. In this passage God commands fear, love, obedience, and service and that the people to circumcise their own hearts. Who can do that themselves? Further reading will answer that question. God then provides additional stipulations of the covenant (12:1-26:15) which Moses instructs the people to write on whitewashed stones when they entered the land (note the contrast between the 10 Commandments written in stone by the finger of God and these additional commands written on stone by the people). When we arrive at chapters 27-28 we have God promising blessings for obedience and cursings for disobedience. I take this to highlight the conditionality (IF/THEN) of the Mosaic or Siniatic Covenant, i.e. Do this and live, Don’t do this and die. ( A separate, yet related question might be: Is the covenant here (Mosaic) even referring to salvific blessings? See here and here).
Fascinatingly, weaved within the description of the blessings and cursings are prophecies concerning how the people will respond and what God’s plan for them will be. Ultimately, this shows us the sovereignty of God over His people; not simply His omniscience that they will do such and such, but that He is sovereignly ordaining the events for the purpose of His glory. In these prophecies we see that the people will agree to obey, but that they will ultimately disobey and the full weight of the curses will fall on them. You can read in the passage and get a sense of the expectation for failure. (Deut. 28:36-37)
In chapter 29, this expectation changes though, from an expectation of failure to an expectation of hope in the form of a better covenant, the New Covenant (Hebrews 7:22). Hints of this, which began in chapter 10, surface again here with a brief reminder of what God has done for Israel, yet in 29:4 we see that the Lord “has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” This is significant because of the transition here between the Old Covenant, temporal in nature and the New Covenant, everlasting and salvific. As we’ve seen before, all those under the Old Covenant were not circumcised in heart, evident here, however all those in the New Covenant have the sign of the covenant, namely a circumcised heart. As the transition continues through the expectation of failure to the expectation of the New Covenant in chapter 29, we arrive at chapter 30 and read of the prophecy of what will happen:
“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. 4 If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. 5 And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. 6 And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”
Clearly the people were going to turn from the Lord and follow their uncircumcised hearts (vs. 29:19), thereby suffering all of the curses that God had lain before them. What was hinted at in chapter 29, now blossoms into a fully revealed promise of the New Covenant (30:6). Note also that the language here is not one of conditionality, but of certainty on God’s part. Ultimately, because of Israel’s disobedience, they would not perpetually enjoy the blessings of the Old Covenant promised to them, instead they would experience the curses. However, as we know, there would come One who through perfect obedience would fulfill the covenant law, likewise suffering the curse for all of the covenant breakers who by faith are united to Him. It is in Christ alone that the Old Covenant is fulfilled and the New Covenant is inaugurated (Matt. 26:28; 1 Corinthians 11:25; Hebrews 12:24). All of that is right here, in a “boring” Old Testament passage narrating the history of Israel on the plains of Moab. Oh the wisdom of God!
Returning to our theme of man’s free will, by the time we arrive at verse 30:19 we have seen blessings and cursings for obedience and disobedience respectively; we have read of God’s expectation of disobedience; and we have seen the promise of the New Covenant, out of which One would come who would perfectly obey. So when we read, “therefore choose life” this is a foregone conclusion. Yes the decision is real; yes the command is legitimate, but the outcome of obedience is impossible because the people’s hearts have not been circumcised. In fact, even if perfect obedience to the commandments of God had been possible, it would have been the great result of moralism (see the rich, young ruler), not obedience from the heart.
As we continue into chapter 31, to maintain the rest of our context, we read that in fact God affirms the inability of man to obey and follow Him:
“16 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them. 17 Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ 18 And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods.
19 “Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. 20 For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. 21 And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring). For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.”
Deut. 30: 27-29 (Moses speaking)
”For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death! 28 Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them. 29 For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.”
Again, as in our last post, in a verse that has been championed by those who advocate for the free-will of man, we actually find a passage prophesying about the total inability of man to follow and obey God out of his own corrupt, sin-bound heart and the promise that only God alone can overcome the sinner’s heart by replacing the heart of stone with a heart of flesh and causing them to walk according to His commands and statutes (Ezekiel 11:19-20; Ezekiel 36:24-27).
My prayer for you the reader is to understand that apart from God, we can do nothing and that assuredly includes our salvation. It is entirely a work of grace. Secondly, the Old Testament is so rich in its meaning and deserves not to be neglected, but treasured as the absolute and supreme Word of God which points forward to Christ and provides much of the foundational understanding for the New Testament.
 Merrill, Eugene, et.al. Word and the World: An Introduction to the Old Testament