This salvation that only God can provide is precisely what Paul wishes for Israel, God’s chosen people. Paul had no doubts regarding the zeal of his people, but their zeal was getting in the way of their salvation, rather than facilitating a salvation. Had they been willing to submit to God’s righteousness rather than being set on achieving their own they could have realized everything they hoped to achieve in their religious observation of the law, and more, in Christ.
Paul recalls Moses’ words that those who keep the law will live. The context in Leviticus gives this the sense that those who keep the law will realize an enhanced quality of life, as well as a likelihood of a longer and better life. It is noteworthy that this notion is repeated no less than three times in Ezekiel 20, when God recounts how He has dealt with Israel over the generations of their rebelliousness. God’s sentiments in Ezekiel 20 (and throughout the prophets’ warnings and admonitions) resonate in Paul’s words here regarding Israel’s choices as over against God’s choices. God chose Israel to be an instrument of God’s grace to the world. God’s desire was to bless Israel, and to bless the whole world through Israel. Israel repeatedly refused to obey. Israel repeatedly rebelled, and brought well-deserved curses on themselves and their children, but just as repeatedly God wooed them again, not because of Israel, but for the sake of God’s own name He restored them again, and instructed them again, only to have them rebel again. Were it not for God’s choices in favor of the human race whom He loves self-sacrificially we, like Israel, could only be cursed. Because of God’s grace we, like Israel, are not irretrievably cursed, in spite of our sinfulness, but we are given new life and a call to serve our Maker and Saviour. When we respond in obedience we enjoy the blessings of the salvation God freely provides for all. When we stubbornly insist on our own way we break the Father’s heart and eschew opportunities that cannot be realized by any other means then out of the incredible grace of God.
The righteousness that is by faith has already been introduced in the Old Covenant, as Paul reminds us. The context of his quote is the culmination of an extensive recapitulation of the covenant (Deuteronomy literally means second law). It is a long and detailed set of instructions for how to live, how to worship, and how to live as God’s children in God’s world. It is indeed an intimidating instruction manual and the children of Israel could be excused for saying “This is all far too much!! How can we ever hope to observe all of these laws? Who will go to the distance required to ensure we keep all of this in mind and walk in perfect obedience to this formidable book of the law?” To this concern God’s reply is that this law is neither too much nor too strange. All that is really required is the law of the heart that loves God with an integrity that is displayed in the life one lives in God’s world and with God’s children. That is the message that Paul was proclaiming. If you hold God in your heart, if you know Jesus as Yahweh and live the life of God in your daily walk, you will not be disappointed, even though not everything will be as you wish.
A narrow evangelicalism that sees Paul as referring only to a salvation consciously recognized as being in Jesus Christ, through a deliberate naming of Jesus Christ, is not warranted, as is clearly indicated in Paul’s quotes from the Old Testament. These passages could not refer to an explicit message of Jesus Christ, though they do anticipate that gospel in a prophetic sense. Paul recounts passages that revel in those who bring good news, but not all who hear the good news believe what they hear. In disbelief that anyone could hear the good news and reject it Paul asks “Surely, they have never heard, have they?” and his response is “Indeed they have”, again supported with scripture, this time from the well-known words of David: “Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Paul’s intent is clearly not to limit the hearing to those who hear the name of Jesus, but it includes all who hear and see the truth of God expressed in God’s creation. It is impossible not to recall that this is how Paul begins his letter to the Romans (1:19, 20) “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” It is a monumental error to understand Paul’s reference to the name of Jesus to be a technical reference that ultimately underwrites a name and claim it prosperity gospel. What Paul has in mind is not only a technical naming of Jesus Christ, but a recognition of Jesus Christ, and the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ, through the work of God in His Person and in His creation. Indeed, in the time of Israel, as in the time of Jesus Christ, and in our own time, it is not those who speak loudest and most explicitly about God who are necessarily those who honor Him most. It is frequently those who quietly go about their lives looking only to do the right thing who are the ones who walk closest to God though they are unaware of it. “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.” But concerning Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” (10:20f quoting Isaiah 65:1f). Evidently God’s invitations are not always cherished, and His call is not always obeyed. Israel did not walk in the ways God laid out for them, in spite of His pointed instructions, and in utter disregard for His pleading invitations. God did not sovereignly determine their actions, though He did reserve the right to be gracious to those who did not merit such favor. That is the God we see in the Old Testament, and that is the God who deigns to take on creatureliness in order to show us His indomitable love.