The Blueprint, Part 2: Torah Laws vs. Gospel Principles
by Loren Seibold | 9 September 2022 |
There’s a whole body of writing in the Bible, numbering hundreds of verses, that another group of God’s people regarded as their blueprint. The Torah laws contained the rituals of worship, but also very precise rules about how to build your houses, how to manage your land and your animals, the way family relationships were to be conducted, how to cut your hair and treat your slaves, what crops to plant and what fabrics to wear, precisely what to eat and what not to eat, sexual and body mores, and much more.
These people believed that if they followed the blueprint, God would guarantee their success:
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’” Zechariah 8:23
Follow the rules and God will see to it that you become the ancient equivalent of “influencers.” If you don’t follow the blueprint, God will curse you so that you and your tribe will lose all your blessings:
Did not your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this disaster on us and on this city? And now you are rekindling His wrath against Israel by profaning the Sabbath!” Nehemiah 13:18
Question: why don’t we modern Adventists keep that blueprint, too? Why don’t we men leave our forelocks long, and take multiple slave girls for wives? Why don’t our women leave the house during their monthly period and live in tents in the desert for a week? Why don’t we solve questions of sexual fidelity by making the accused woman drink mud from the filthy floor of the tabernacle?
Do these strong rules accurately describe the personality of our God, who in such blueprints as this appears as overcontrolling as the mother I mentioned earlier? Strong rules don’t make perfect people. Wise Christians realize that that set of rules didn’t work in the first place. Israel failed in “everything that the Lord has said, we will do” because people aren’t by nature able to live in lockstep with such a detailed life plan.
Another reason is that as time passes and the world changes, even good rules become superannuated, as the Torah rules are now, and as the Ellen White blueprint is, too. In the end, people do them because they think God is a demanding creature who is only happy with us if we obey him perfectly, no matter how arbitrary the rule.
Which is precisely why Jesus kept saying about that old blueprint, “You have heard it said by people of old times… but now I say to you…” Jesus replaced the blueprint with salvation based on acceptance, forgiveness, and grace—thank God for that!
So why should we Adventists be so attached to the Ellen White blueprint? Shouldn’t Jesus’ setting aside the Torah blueprint tell us that the blueprint idea is insulting to the character of God, not to mention an immature and ultimately unsuccessful way to live?
Sadly, some still use the Old Testament “blueprint” rules in addition to Ellen White’s blueprint. But they do this in a rather subjective, unprincipled way: they pick and choose which elements they want to follow, such as clean and unclean foods and condemnation of homosexuality. The rest they ignore. When have you ever seen an Adventist fret about whether their shirt or dress was of mixed fibers—something clearly condemned in the Torah?
Right principles, not right answers
So blueprinting our life choices really isn’t a useful way to live. It didn’t work for Israel. It doesn’t work today. Those with a remora-like attachment to blueprints end up doing silly things, like the back-to-the-blueprint couple I know who begged money from all their friends to start a “natural life” ministry, moved to the country, and filmed themselves for YouTube clumsily trying to farm with horses. YouTube, I wished I could have reminded them, isn’t in the blueprint either—and indeed, broadcasting their obnoxiously preachy and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to live by the blueprint ended up making them and their blueprint risible.
No, the blueprint is a well-intentioned but mostly romantic notion: no one needs to live the way people did in the 19th century to be a Christian, much less like the children of Israel in the desert.
So let us return instead to the principles in Scripture, principles that are eternal. Surely the moral principles of the Ten Commandments work in every context and culture throughout history. The fruits of the spirit are never obsolete, and the same can be said of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount—indeed, of all of Jesus’ parables and teachings. Isaiah 58 and Matthew 25 reveal God’s priorities—and those priorities are about kindness to people, not food choices or science-free Bible colleges.
The Bible isn’t unclear about what sin is, either: the Ten Commandments provide a pretty clear guide. The Bible is equally clear about what godly people should do: “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God,” along with “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” is the frame of a moral life.
The Bible asks us to live by such principles, and we should.
Fortunately, the Bible adds that because “all sin and fall short of the glory of God,” God gives us through Jesus the gift of eternal life. This is far better than expecting that a set of perfect answers, applied with unrelenting discipline, will lead to a perfect life or perfect institutions.
What I’ve found is that when those perfect answers don’t work, people end up blaming themselves and their fellow believers, rather than correctly targeting the erroneous notion that there is a blueprint to follow that guarantees happiness. What is the point of having a loving, forgiving, omnipotent, happiness-giving, eager-to-save God if we have to blame ourselves for the failure of God’s promises? That sort of cause-and-effect, earn-your-own-way, is precisely how the worldly economy works. It’s not how God gives blessings: God lets the rain fall on everyone.
No ideal lives
Until we get to heaven and the new earth, life will never have only good outcomes. Even people with perfect diets get sick and die. Even people with daily worship with their families can have intractable relationship problems. Not all children who are taught perfectly and raised according to a plan turn out perfect. Not all marriages end up fantastic just because the partners pray together and eat vegan food together.
In short, as I used to remind my church members, there are no ideal lives, and it is a devilish misdirection to hold out hope for that.
That’s why we need God’s forgiveness and grace. Life is not a set of equations with only one right answer. Human beings have much more nuanced lives than any blueprint can anticipate. So we do best, it seems to me, to live by common sense Biblical principles rather than adhering to a list of precise rules.
As long as we muck about trying to achieve perfection with a blueprint, we too will fail as spectacularly as the city folks trying to farm with horses. We will likely fail in our big corporate plans and our more personal ones. Life is not just a striving for perfection. Life depends on acceptance that the blueprint simply won’t get us what we’re after, because, our value is in our God who “so loved the world” that through Jesus grace was poured liberally over our imperfect lives like healing oil.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today