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Relationship Before Rules

Slide01This is a sermon manuscript from what I preached yesterday.

Text: Exodus 20:1-2; 3:6-14; 19:3-6

Bottom Line: For God, rules come after the relationship, and rules are necessary to govern the relationship.

Sermon Function: To call people to full surrender, desiring to be made holy.


This summer we’re preaching through a series called The Ten, all about—you guessed it—the Ten Commandments. Somewhere in my childhood, my parents introduced me to this classic movie with Charlton Heston as Moses. Since that time, every time I think about the Ten Commandments, there’s a part of me that replays that scene in my mind.

The Ten Commandments also bring up images of rules. These are like God’s big rules, we might think, if we don’t take time to prod deeper into them. Most of us look at rules—unless we’re the firstborn obedient, observant types—with a bit of backlash. We tense up. Rarely do we enjoy rules.

Your boss comes out to speak to the company and says, “We’ve got a new set of policies today.” Rarely does anyone applaud that. Yay! More policies. It’s like a Michael Scott meeting from The Office.

I can remember a time when we were kids—and we all have these stories—where my brother and I were at home alone. I was in 6th grade and Dan was in 4th grade. Mom and dad were both at work, and dad had told us to practice our batting. We were both playing baseball that summer. By the way, my dad told this story around the dinner table last Sunday as the Cromers were sitting with us. J We weren’t using balls, so what could go wrong? Right? Dan started practicing first. He was doing really well at first, but then SMASH! He had brought the bat back and cracked our 64-gallon fish tank in the living room. Dad hadn’t specified that we needed to be outside. We ran around grabbing towels, trying to save fish and calling the neighbors for help. It was a mess!

Needless to say, dad made a rule of no batting practice inside from that day on.


We’ve all had experiences with rules that are less than positive. That may be because, in our minds, the average rule was put in place for the wrong reasons.

Why do we have rules today? Most of us could think of at least one of these five reasons. 


  1. Because somebody did something wrong. We create rules after one situation where somebody did something they shouldn’t. And all it takes is one person. One person spills red pop on the carpet. Now, nobody can have red pop on the carpet.
  2. For protection. We wear seatbelts for safety. We have speeding laws for protection of ourselves and other drivers. We have safety precautions in factories so no one loses a finger.
  3. To reinforce the bottom line. We have rules to make sure that, in our companies, productivity and earning are at their best. We set time limits on people’s breaks, days off, amount of product that needs to be exported in a certain time period. We put pressure on teachers to get kids to have high test scores from their kids so our schools can receive funding.
  4. To keep people in power who have power. Those who have the power make the rules. Sometimes they make rules to ensure that others don’t usurp their power. For example, making rules about who can run for public office, Hitler’s marginalization of the Jews, segregation…all of these kinds of things were about keeping a certain person or kind of people in power.
  5. Agendas. We hear this talk regularly in politics today. He has a conservative or liberal agenda. When it comes to issues like immigration, homosexuality, and the minimum wage, we may feel like those in power make rules because of their agenda, not because they care for the common good.

We could go on and on. When you look at this list, it looks scary. Ugly. Corrupt. Wrong. Imposing. It seems like rules are always put in place for less-than-righteous reasons. Is there every any time when rules are good? Was this God’s intention with the Ten Commandments? The good news is that the Ten Commandments—the entire OT Law, in fact—was not put in place for any of these reasons. We’ll get to the “why” later on.

But you and I, if we’re honest with ourselves, have a range of reactions to the rules in our lives that goes from acceptance and obedience to critique and disgust. Somewhere on the continuum, we’ve learned patterns and ways of reacting to the rules in place before us. Whether that tends to be an attitude of obedience or disobedience, I believe that how we’ve come to think about rules bleeds over into our reading of the Bible and our understanding of God’s rules. So as we come to the Ten Commandments today, I want you to be analytical, but not of the meaning of the commandments, but of the state of your heart toward them. Has your tendency to reject human authority, to ignore what others around you say you should do, colored your attitude toward God? If you miss everything else I say, that’s fine. Be sure to give room for God to speak to you this morning.

Let’s pray.


(We read Exodus 20:1-17).

I want us to focus on the first two verses—yes, you heard me correctly, we’re not going to touch on any of the actual commandments this morning.

Verse 1 says, “And God spoke all these words.” I love this. God speaks these words. The Ten Commandments aren’t even called commandments in Scripture. It brings back imagery from creation. God spoke the world into being, and now God speaks His words to His people. But this is not God speaking in order to somehow form Israel as a people for Himself for the first time. God is not creating the nation of Israel by speaking the Ten Commandments. God is not even entering into relationship with them for the first time here.


God had a very unique relationship with one man first. Abraham. Then with Abraham’s family, the patriarchs—Isaac, Jacob, his twelve sons, and especially Joseph. And from the end of Genesis to the beginning of Exodus, a period of roughly four hundred years passes. During this time, Joseph and his brothers grow into a nation and became enslaved in Egypt. Then God once again spoke, this time to one man. To Moses.

In Exodus 3, God meets Moses in a burning bush on Mt. Sinai. He sends Moses back into Egypt to rescue the Israelites from Pharaoh. To identify himself to Moses, God says in Exodus 3:6-10: Slide08

“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

Notice here that God does not say, “I am the LORD your God.” Instead, he identifies himself by way of his relationship with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Verses 7-10 continue:

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

Notice how here he calls the Israelites his people already. In God’s mind, they are His people even before He acts. They are His people because of His covenant with Abraham.

Moses then asks God what His name is. Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” (Exodus 3:13) He first refers to him as “the God of your fathers”. This is how people would think of God. They would have known the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They would have known about their heritage, that they were not Egyptians, that they came from another land.

Slide09Moses is not ignorant of who He is talking to. Neither would the people be ignorant of who God is. It is not as if he hasn’t figured out that the God of the patriarchs is Yahweh. It was not unusual for ancient gods to have several names, and as we read our Old Testaments, we hear of God being called many different things. “Moses’ question concerns which identity of the deity is pertinent to the mission on which he is being sent” (Walton, ANE Thought, p. 92). It is not that Abraham did not know Him as Yahweh, only that God had not acted in concert with the meaning of this Name for Abraham. God would wait to act as Yahweh until He needed to “create” or “cause to exist” this people, Israel, and He could only do that by rescuing them from slavery.

Slide10Yahweh has been translated “I am who I am” in Exodus 3:14. The NIV and other translations used an all-caps “LORD” to show the Hebrew word “Yahweh.” It may come from a verb meaning “to be” or “to exist,” but on behalf of His people, it would mean “to create” to “to cause to be.” I know this is technical, but we’re trying our best to think like the ancient Israelites would have thought about God. In their minds, the name Yahweh only meant something if Yahweh acted like the meaning of His name. Thus, Yahweh acted as Yahweh by causing Israel to exist as a people in relationship to Himself. Yahweh acted as Yahweh by giving Israel a function as well—to be a holy nation.

So when we reach Exodus 20, and the text says God spoke the words, “I am Yahweh your God,” we say that God’s relationship with His people did not change. They had always been His people, even before the rescue from slavery. But that event, where God gave freely of Himself, changed how they knew God. They now knew Him as Yahweh, the one who would cause them to be His covenant people through His rescue.

Exodus 20:2 says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” The Hebrew “your” is singular, which means that God is the God of the one nation of Israel. It also means He is the God of every individual person. When God delivered Israel from slavery, that was when He became the personal God of every Israelite and the God of the nation. To say it another way, God did what it took to start a relationship with this particular people. And because He rescued them, he could be known as their God.

But we have to look at this from Israel’s perspective. Are they thinking, “Great. Thanks for saving us from that misery. But now we’ve got new rules we have to follow? C’mon, God. Give us a break”? No. They are just figuring out what it means for Yahweh to be their God and for them to be His people. They have no clue. The change from slavery to freedom was so drastic that it was going to take some getting used to.

People today talk about how there are two types of change: continuous and discontinuous.

Continuous change develops out of what has happened before and can be anticipated, and therefore can be planned for and managed. One good example of this is the maturation of our kids. As they move from one stage of life to the next, we can look back on our own experiences of growing up and the experiences of those around us to deal with this change. While every child is different, their development will happen on a similar path as those who have lived and died already. Continuous change.

Slide11Discontinuous change is quite the opposite. It is disruptive and unanticipated. It creates situations that challenge our assumptions. The skills we have learned aren’t helpful to deal with it. One example of this is the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. You may even see it coming, but the skills you have cannot be your resource for dealing with it. If your spouse has died, you know this.

In discontinuous change,

  • Working harder with your habitual skills won’t address the new challenges you face.
  • An unpredictable environment means new skills are needed.
  • There is no going back to normal (Roxburgh & Romanuk, Missional Leader).

Does that sound at all like what Israel experienced? You better believe it. The Hebrew of the phrase “who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery,” uses a verb that has the sense of a completed action in the past. God has finished the job. As they stand at the base of Mount Sinai, hearing these words, they have assurance that they are never going back to slavery again. This moment, when they stand at the base of Mount Sinai and hear the words of Yahweh for the first time, is monumental. They have been assured of their freedom and their identity as God’s people, and now they are about to discover how to live in relationship with Him.

For God, rules come after the relationship, and rules are necessary to govern the relationship.


In the ancient Near East, other nations had law codes similar to Israel’s. There were not any other “10 Commandments,” but other nations had their law codes. And we know that they had intentions behind creating these. The intentions, however, had nothing to do with a covenant relationship like Yahweh had with Israel. Here’s a simple chart that helps to set Israel apart from its neighbors.


Every other nation around Israel viewed its laws as showing them who the ideal king was and how he might execute justice. The rules were made to help the nation to function correctly, with a just king ruling. And whether they viewed their rules as coming from their deity or not, in the end, it was the king who not only carried out justice but also who created the rules for justice.

In Israel, the law is not made by Moses or any other person, but spoken by God. God’s rules are not about justice—not about right and wrong, primarily—but about Him and what it means to live in relationship with Him. Are the concepts of morality and ethics within the Law? Yes. But they are not the center. God is the center. And the goal is not simply figuring out what God requires and then doing it; the goal is becoming a covenant-keeper who is sanctified, holy, as part of the holy nation.

In Exodus 19, the Israelites had just made camp at the foot of Mt. Sinai when God spoke to Moses. Exodus 19:3-6 says, Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

God’s intent with His law, His rules, is to create for himself a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Some of us hear this and think, “Uh oh. We’re going down that road of trying to follow the rules in order to get better,” as if God’s intent to make us holy people happens when we obey the rules perfectly.

Slide14Rules matter, in one sense, but as we’ve discovered, they’re not the problem. Otherwise, God would be to blame, for He initiated not only a relationship—something we think is positive—but also gave rules to guide that relationship. You can’t have it both ways. The problem, then—and this I think is where our real angst is—is with a rules-based mentality. Not so much “what to do” but “why you do it.” People who assume that the reason… Our angst is with the motives we spoke of earlier. The larger framework within which rules appropriately fit is in context of a relationship with a holy God. The goal is not to obey all the rules, but to be holy as He is holy, understanding that part of living holy lives will mean obeying the rules (see N.T. Wright, After You Believe, pp. 43ff.)

This ought to speak to us today, especially we who tend to get so turned off by what we perceive to be restrictive rules all around us. God first and foremost desires people who want relationship with Him, and He has done everything necessary to make that possible. In the Old Testament, he rescued Israel from slavery. In the New Testament, he rescued his people from slavery to sin and death by sending His Son, Jesus.

If God wants relationship before rules, and rules only in the context of relationship, what does it mean for you and me?

  1. You can end up like Pharaoh or like a sanctified Christian. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart through a series of 10 plagues. I don’t think it is a coincidence that it took 10 plagues before he let Israel go and that God gave 10 commandments to His people. You can use the Ten Commandments, or any other set of rules you think God has for, as an excuse to harden your heart toward God, or you can obey them in the context of a deep, satisfying, life-giving relationship. You can allow the way you’ve reacted to somebody else’s rules jade you toward God, or you can choose to submit to all of God and all that He calls you to do.
  1. You can continue in frustration with God for having rules, or you can be grateful for His act of giving himself for you. It is gratitude that is a proper response toward the Ten Commandments. Obedience, yes, but grateful obedience. When we choose to keep the Sabbath and rest by not doing unnecessary work later today, we are doing so in gratitude for a relationship with Yahweh our God.
  1. You can choose holiness today. You can choose what Wesleyans call being made perfect in love. And don’t let the word “perfect” bog you down. What we mean is that all of our intentions and motives are driven by love. In other words, when we go and make rules and when we choose to obey them, we are doing so out of a heart compelled by God’s love for us. There is never a moment where you and I have to choose rebellion and disobedience toward God; we can always choose an obedience empowered by His Holy Spirit and driven by love. Wesleyans believe that just as God did a work of grace in you when he saved you, he wants to do a work of grace to make you holy. And he can do it today.

In a minute, we’re going to receive communion. You’ll come to the front. After you’ve taken communion, I want to make the altar available to anyone who wants to come kneel and pray. Here’s who I’m inviting.

First, if you say, “God, I’ve been hesitant to obey your rules. I’ve wanted the relationship but not the rules that come with it. There is an area of my life that I need to let you break down the walls of my heart in.” I want you to come and pray.

Second, if you say, “God, I hear the call to holiness. I hear the call to love you with all my heart and love my neighbor as myself. I believe you want me to live a holy life and that you can empower me to give everything I am completely to you in full surrender.” If that’s you, I want you to kneel and pray. God will meet you there and change your heart.


Ordo Salutis: Transforming the Will

Now we turn to a transformation of the will. The will is something that God gives humans so that they might create new things. The will is what makes each person unique. It is our capacity to create new things, concepts, events. It comes from us alone. It is part of being made in God’s image for us to have a will. It is the nature of the spiritual to be self-determined. Without elevating our will to the sinful place Americans give it–freedom being the ultimate right–we must recognize that God created us to have free will, un-coerced by outside wills to some extent.

N.T. Wright says that people tend to focus on outward behavior rather than on the will. In doing this, they opt for one of two things:

  1. Obey rules imposed from the outside
  2. Discover the deepest longings of your heart and try to be true to them.

Neither of these is a valid approach to life. The will must be shaped and aligned with God’s will. Both of those options are shortcuts to a life of character and virtue. They want what virtue offers without the hard work–yes, I said hard work–required to become a person of character.

For example, the person with a rules-based mentality knows what to do but does not have the power to follow through. Wright says, “We must search for the larger framework within which appropriate rules may play their proper, though ultimately subordinate, part” (After You Believe, p. 45). Maybe the rules are only signposts pointing us to a larger purpose, a grander end, that God wants for us. Maybe we need them but not in the way we’ve been taught to need them.

For those who choose option 2, the problem becomes when the longings of one’s heart are wicked and cruel. What if one’s “true self” really just wants to steal? To have an affair? What then? The more they choose to be “authentic” in this way, the more they will become this person in habitual ways and their wills will indeed be shaped inwardly. The heart cannot transform itself by looking inwardly; the answers to life’s deep questions about purpose and meaning are never found by simple meditation and authenticity, no matter how well-intentioned the thought.

“Certainly the will of a spiritual being is the one thing in his creation that God chooses not to override and force to take on a specific character…. It has its choice–though it does not have its choice of the consequences of choosing what it wants. And one of the consequences of choosing what one wants without regard to God’s will is enslavement to one’s own self-conflicted will. On the path of self-will people eventually come to the place where they cannot choose what God wants and cannot want God” (Willard, Renovation of the Heart, p. 146).

Willard is saying that the effects of habitual choice of what you want are only being able to choose what you want. You eventually lose sight of God and are unable to do what He wants.

Before this happens though, most of us live lives of duplicity. Our wills are fragmented. If we think about the choices we make in a given day, we have varied motives and thought processes that go into making them. Our duplicity begins to manifest itself in deception, where we pretend to feel and think something when we really don’t. We do what we want to do but hide it because we’re afraid of being found out.

We don’t exercise our wills unless we’ve first used our minds. The mind and will are connected. The will or heart can change the thoughts and feelings that are available in our future choices. But we must first have those new thoughts and feelings through new information.

In John 8:28-29, Jesus says, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.”

Jesus’ will was aligned with His Father’s will. It was not that He did not have His own will–Jesus could have sinned against God just like any one of us. But He did what pleased His Father. “Single-minded and joyous devotion to God and his will, to what God wants for us–and to service to him and to others because of him–is what the will transformed into Christlikeness looks like” (Willard, p. 143).

But how do we go from self-will or duplicity to being aligned with God’s will? According to Willard, it means…

  1. Surrender. We begin by surrendering our will to God’s will, telling God that we really want Him to be God. We stop asking God to bless us while still living life as we wish.
  2. Abandonment. We move beyond surrender to abandonment when we not only want God to be God, but surrender to every circumstance of life as happening within God’s permission. We do not gripe and complain when bad things happen to us, but remember that there is no suffering that God cannot use for our good. We choose not to fight against God when we suffer but embrace God (and even the suffering) for we know He is working in it for our good.
  3. Contentment. We are grateful and rejoice in our “lot in life.” We are content with surrendering to God, and so duplicity becomes a thing of the past.
  4. Participation. Somewhere along the line, we choose (or we have chosen) to participate with God to see His will played out in the world. “The strongest human will is always the one that is surrendered to God’s will and acts with it” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 152).

What do you think?

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