How Were Old Testament Believers Able to Obey God's Commands?

Hello everyone!

So I was raised evangelical, but am curious about Catholic beliefs, and have thus been lurking on these forums to learn more on and off for several years now. I figured there was no point in making an account and posting questions when the same questions have been answered over and over. But now I think I’ve finally got a question that isn’t answered here already. So this is a great time as any to break the ice.

Lately, I’ve been studying the debate between Augustine and Pelagius. In some places in Pelagius’ writings (Commentary on Romans, Letter to Demetrius), I can see where he is much too glib about the human condition. However, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how Old Testament believers were able to live righteously. Take, for example, the life of Job. I’m sure he suffered from original sin just like the rest of us. According to the Protestant tradition I’ve been raised in, New Testament believers have special help to obey God–the Holy Spirit lives inside of us and helps us overcome temptations. But in Old Testament times (according to Protestants and what I can read myself in the Bible), only specially annointed people had that privelege, and that often only intermitantly. For example, kings, judges, and prophets would have the Holy Spirit, Who could come and go at any time. The common Joe living in Israel wouldn’t have that extra grace at all.

So how did the average Joe Israelite, who wasn’t one of the “Chosen Ones”, manage to obey God?

The best explanation from Protestants is that they could be regenerated, and that the Holy Spirit acts from outside of them. It seems a bit weak to me, since I see no clear evidence in Scripture of the Holy Spirit acting from the outside like that. If the Holy Spirit does the same thing on the outside as on the inside, then what’s so special about Him being on the inside in the New Testament? Pelagius’ views that the conscience God gives every human is sufficient to help us obey God almost makes sense for Old Testament believers. Even more helpful, according to him, is the law of God itself in enlightening people regarding God’s commands. He also teaches that whatever God commands can be obeyed. At least it is a clear explanation. But obviously that view is not without its problems, as it also denies any need of the Holy Spirit’s help (though Pelagius does see it as extra and very welcome help).

So what does the Catholic Church teach, and what Scriptures and church writings are used in support?

Thank you for reading all this, and thank you for helping me struggle through these deep questions. I look forward to your replies!

I’m not sure if you’re asking from where they got the POWER to obey God’s law, or from where they learned the LAW, so they knew what to obey…(This would be through oral tradition.) Anyway, I copied / pasted this from Bible.org, which may answer your question in part:

The study of the Jew in the Old Testament clearly reveals that God has a special purpose for this people. Paul described this special place in these words, “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen” (Rom. 9:4-5).

As the summary in Romans 9 indicates, the Jews were a special people who were designed by God to be the channel of divine revelation to the world. From them would come the prophets, the writers of the Old Testament, and most of the writers of the New Testament. From them would come the twelve apostles and, supremely, Jesus Christ. The Jews were given the Law of Moses, which was not extended beyond Israel. To them were given the special rules for worship in the tabernacle and in the temple; and to them were given special promises that were not extended to the entire human race. Though Israel did not choose God, God chose them; and with extraordinary patience and tenacity, He fulfills His promises to Israel even in times of apostasy and departure from God. It is in keeping with this purpose of God that Israel had such a prominent place throughout the Old Testament, and the course of human history is developed in the Old Testament period as it revolves around Israel and the Holy Land. God’s dealing with them both in judgment and in mercy provided a divine revelation of the nature of God, His righteousness, His love, His grace, and His infinite wisdom.

They had a heck of a time trying. Seriously. Every time the Israelites had a free moment, they slipped into what we would consider to be mortal sin. Seriously. The golden calf incident. The worship of Baal of Peor. The lawlessness of the time of the “judges”. Begging for a king, not trusting in God. Saul consulting a witch for necromancy. David committing adultery with Bathsheba and then covering it up by ordering the Israelite army to leave her husband behind to be killed by the Ammonite army. Joab killing two Israelite generals to maintain his role as leader of David’s army. King Solomon worshipping idols of his 100 wives. King Jeroboam I of Israel promoting false places of worship. King Ahab promoting worship of Baal. King Manesseh of Judah promoting worship of Molech and child sacrifice. The list goes on and on and on.

Part of the problem was that pre-exilic Israel had no concept of an afterlife - they looked for God’s favor in this life. When they saw people prosper who had committed wicked acts and people suffer who were just, their faith in God wavered. It was quite easy for them to fall into the trap of, “God doesn’t really care what I do, I’ll die anyway.” The fullness of revelation had not been given to them. And when God tried to warn them through the prophets, they refused to listen. Jeremiah was so despised by the Judahites that the remnant that the Babylonians left behind dragged him with them to Egypt and killed him there.

Interesting topic!!!

The Old Testament implies that it was possible to obey God’s commands simply as long as you KNEW his commands…

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 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?’ 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?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it." (Deut 30.11-14)

But the Catholic Church teaches all of this is possible only through God’s grace… I recommend the book, *Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” *by Dave Armstrong.

Thanks for the replies! Good points brought up by everyone!

I think the terminology I was missing in my original post was “sanctifying grace”. (Sorry, I’m still learning all the Catholic terminology. It’s like learning a whole new language!)

So one way to rephrase my question is, how did the Old Testament average-Joe believer receive the sanctifying grace necessary to obey God? How is it different from how the New Testament believer receives sanctifying grace? As edarlix so eloquently states:

The Old Testament implies that it was possible to obey God’s commands simply as long as you KNEW his commands…

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 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?’ 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?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it." (Deut 30.11-14)

Pelagius would have agreed in full with this, but only so far as God naturally endows every human being the ability to obey as part of his nature. I’m not sure yet how Augustine would have taught on this verse. I know how a Calvinist would respond, however. (Most Calvinists I’ve interacted with would simply ignore the verse and tell you that God punishes people for not doing something they are totally unable to do, and is just to do so because He isn’t obligated to help anybody believe or obey.)

I wonder if the middle ground is what Jesus prays to the Father–“Sanctify them in truth. Thy word is truth.” (John 17:17)

Is it the truth that is the beginning of sanctifying grace, coupled with the power of the Holy Spirit to enlighten the mind to it and help us obey (including OT believers)? I know a common theme in Scriptures is that if a person responds to a bit of truth, God will give them even more truth (or take it all away and hand them over to blindness and even depravity). (Matthew 13:12, Romans 1) Perhaps Pelagius denied that God’s truth is not just words written in stone, but is living, breathing, powerful, and transformative–and that we have a desperate need for it to change us. Jesus said He is the Truth. The Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin (giving them the truth about themselves). In which case, maybe the OT believers wouldn’t need per se the Holy Spirit indwelling them 24/7 to empower them to obey. They would just need the Holy Spirit enlivening the truth they have received?

I could be entirely off base here. I am curious if anyone knows more about Augustine’s opinion on this, as well as the Catholic Church’s official teachings.

I’m not sure the Catholic Church has an official teaching on this, but I’m not an expert, and could just be speaking out of ignorance. However, here are my thoughts on the matter:

We do know that people from the OT went to heaven after Jesus descended to Sheol in death and freed the saints residing in Abraham’s bosom. Moreover, we know that if one dies after sinning unto death and without repentance that they will not enter the Kingdom.

So there is a two-fold question that arises. First, did those OT saints never commit a sin unto death? Second, if they did, what form of repentance was acceptable?

In Catholic moral theology, Sanctifying Grace is the life of the Holy Spirit given to us, that resides within us, and enables and strengthens us to do the Will of the God. This Sanctifying Grace was lost with Original Sin, and regained in Baptism, is lost in Mortal Sin, and regained through Confession. Original Sin was a one-time occurrence, but Mortal Sin is not, and existed both prior to the Messiah’s coming, and after it.

So the question then becomes, were there equivalents to Baptism and Confession in the OT? The answer is yes. In the NT, we see that Baptism replaces Circumcision. Circumcision was the entrance into and the Sign of the Old Covenant. Baptism, likewise, is the entrance into and the Sign of the New Covenant. Circumcision looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, while Baptism looks backward to the Salvation event.

Theoretically then, one might say that just as Baptism is the entry into the life of Sanctifying Grace, so too might circumcision have been.

But what about mortal sin and confession? In the New Covenant, the priest confers absolution on the penitent sinner to forgive and cleanse the sinner from his sins. This power is given to him from the Holy One, through Apostolic succession, and the way we understand this power is that it is the High Priest, Jesus, Himself, acting through the Signs of the priest, who confers this forgiving Grace.

There was a similar practice in the OT. I’m not sure if this occurred only once a year (at Passover), or if it was more frequent, but I think it was just at Passover. Anyone with more accurate knowledge of this, please feel free to correct me. Anyway, the sins of the people of Israel would be confessed and placed upon the sacrificial lamb. The High Priest would slaughter the lamb, and the sprinkle its blood upon the Ark in the Holy of Holies. The presence of God therein would cleanse the blood offering, thereby cleansing the nation of its sins.

While the practices look different, they are actually the same. Jesus is both the High Priest and the Lamb of Sacrifice. When we confess our sins to the priest, who is united in his priesthood to the High Priesthood of Christ, Christ places those sins upon His bleeding and wounded shoulders and offers them along with Himself to the Father as the sacrificial offering. Jesus is the presence of God, and by placing our sins on His shoulders, they are blotted out by His Grace, they cannot stand up against His infinite goodness.

Circumcision and the Lamb of Sacrifice were parts of the Old Law, the Old Covenant, and therefore part of God’s plan for Salvation. We know this because Christ tells us that He came to fulfill the Law. That is, it bring it to its final purpose, to give it its final meaning.

We may therefore speculate that it was through Israel’s sacrificial offerings, it’s holocaust and blood offerings, that the penitential rites were carried out, and the individual Israelites came back into Sanctifying Grace after having fallen out of it.

After all, we know that David committed mortal sins, for example, yet found deep favor with God. So, speculating on this matter, I would suggest that it is indeed the Holy Spirit who moves within the OT saints and empowers them to obey the Law as it was given them, just as He does so in the New Covenant, but in a new and more perfect way (not because His action was somehow less perfect in the OT, but because now the perfect work of Christ is complete).

Part of this reason was that Jesus’s sacrifice transcended time and space. It forgave all past sins as well as all future sins, insofar as a person accepted such forgiveness. The OT saints certainly sinned (David, for example, is considered an OT saint, but he committed adultery and murder-by-opposing-army; Moses lost faith in God’s mercy at one point; Aaron contributed to the golden calf incident). The key is that all of them realized what they had done and repented. The only form of repentance that was truly acceptable was true contrition of the heart. God is quoted many times in the OT that he doesn’t really care about sacrifices that mean nothing - He wants true repentance, what we Catholics would call “perfect contrition”. The sacrifices were more in line with what we would call “penance” today, but penitential prayers without contrition mean nothing. Just the same, going to confession without being actually sorry for what one’s sins are makes a mockery of the sacrament.

There was a similar practice in the OT. I’m not sure if this occurred only once a year (at Passover), or if it was more frequent, but I think it was just at Passover. Anyone with more accurate knowledge of this, please feel free to correct me. Anyway, the sins of the people of Israel would be confessed and placed upon the sacrificial lamb. The High Priest would slaughter the lamb, and the sprinkle its blood upon the Ark in the Holy of Holies. The presence of God therein would cleanse the blood offering, thereby cleansing the nation of its sins.

This was not done on Passover - it was done once a year on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, and holiest of the Jewish holy days).

Yes, thank you for the correction. Also, this is an excellent clarification on repentance. I did not mean to imply that the ritual itself was what brought forgiveness. True contrition of heart is the essentially necessary element of repentance. That said, God also requires ritual to accompany it in order to make it complete. We are a body/spirit being, an essentially unique nature in the order of beings, and neither physical acts, nor spiritual acts alone are enough. To act out of our whole being, what is held in the heart must be expressed in word and action. Thus, God gives us a means to express the contrition of our heart. In the New Covenant, this is confession, in the Old Covenant, this was Yom Kippur (thanks again!).

I think there’s confusion on what sanctifying grace is vs…the holy spirit.

Sanctifying grace is literally a share in God’s very own blessed life! We are taken up into God we become part of His “past, present and future”…we enter into His eternity.

The Holy Spirit has always been apart of our salvation History. The Holy Spirit is a person and has always been in existence. He is symbolized in genesis as the mighty wind before creation began. He overshadows the tent of God in the old testament, He overshadows mary in the new and fills simeon when he prophecies.

The Holy Spirit is the “breath of life” in all man and Remember as Christ the God-man says "without me you can do nothing "

I think you ought to read a part of the Retractions by St. Augustine entitled, “on Nature and Grace,” which is addressed against Pelagius. It answers most of your questions from Augustine’s point of view and would be a good starting point for further reading.

For example he says (chapters 49-50) that man is capable of fulfilling whatever God commands with the help of his grace.

“Well, be it so,” says he, “I agree; he testifies to the fact that all were sinners. He says, indeed, what they have been, not that they might not have been something else. Wherefore,” he adds, “if all then could be proved to be sinners, it would not by any means prejudice our own definite position, in insisting not so much on what men are, as on what they are able to be.” He is right for once to allow that no man living is justified in God’s sight. He contends, however, that this is not the question, but that the point lies in the possibility of a man’s not sinning,— on which subject it is unnecessary for us to take ground against him; for, in truth, I do not much care about expressing a definite opinion on the question, whether in the present life there ever have been, or now are, or ever can be, any persons who have had, or are having, or are to have, the love of God so perfectly as to admit of no addition to it (for nothing short of this amounts to a most true, full, and perfect righteousness). For I ought not too sharply to contend as to when, or where, or in whom is done that which I confess and maintain can be done by the will of man, aided by the grace of God. Nor do I indeed contend about the actual possibility, forasmuch as the possibility under dispute advances with the realization in the saints, their human will being healed and helped; while “the love of God,” as fully as our healed and cleansed nature can possibly receive it, “is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given to us.” In a better way, therefore, is God’s cause promoted (and it is to its promotion that our author professes to apply his warm defence of nature) when He is acknowledged as our Saviour no less than as our Creator, than when His succour to us as Saviour is impaired and dwarfed to nothing by the defence of the creature, as if it were sound and its resources entire.

What he says, however, is true enough, “that God is as good as just, and made man such that he was quite able to live without the evil of sin, if only he had been willing.” For who does not know that man was made whole and faultless, and endowed with a free will and a free ability to lead a holy life? Our present inquiry, however, is about the man whom “the thieves” left half dead on the road, and who, being disabled and pierced through with heavy wounds, is not so able to mount up to the heights of righteousness as he was able to descend therefrom; who, moreover, if he is now in “the inn,” Luke 10:34 is in process of cure. God therefore does not command impossibilities; but in His command He counsels you both to do what you can for yourself, and to ask His aid in what you cannot do. Now, we should see whence comes the possibility, and whence the impossibility. This man says: “That proceeds not from a man’s will which he can do by nature.” I say: A man is not righteous by his will if he can be by nature. He will, however, be able to accomplish by remedial aid what he is rendered incapable of doing by his flaw.

So, even while Augustine is hesitent to say that there is anyone who has lived without commiting sin, he says that it is possible with God’s grace. God could not punish us for failing to do what we could not. He also teaches that justification is to be attributed to the grace of God, and that sin is attributed to our own fault. He says (Chapter 25), “[T]hat free will, whereby man corrupted his own self, was sufficient for his passing into sin; but to return to righteousness, he has need of a Physician, since he is out of health; he has need of a Vivifier, because he is dead.”

Of the saints of the Old Covenant, he says (Chapter 51) that they were justified by faith in Christ like we are presently:

But why need we tarry longer on general statements? Let us go into the core of the question, which we have to discuss with our opponents solely, or almost entirely, on one particular point. For inasmuch as he says that “as far as the present question is concerned, it is not pertinent to inquire whether there have been or now are any men in this life without sin, but whether they had or have the ability to be such persons;” so, were I even to allow that there have been or are any such, I should not by any means therefore affirm that they had or have the ability, unless justified by the grace of God through our Lord “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” For the same faith which healed the saints of old now heals us—that is to say, faith “in the one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” — faith in His blood, faith in His cross, faith in His death and resurrection. As we therefore have the same spirit of faith, we also believe, and on that account also speak.

Interestingly, he says earlier, that while none of the other Old Covenant saints were without sin, he says he does not mean to include the Blessed Virgin Mary (Chapter 42).

[Pelagius] then enumerates those “who not only lived without sin, but are described as having led holy lives—Abel, Enoch, Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joshua the son of Nun, Phinehas, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Joseph, Elisha, Micaiah, Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael, Mordecai, Simeon, Joseph to whom the Virgin Mary was espoused, John.” And he adds the names of some women—“Deborah, Anna the mother of Samuel, Judith, Esther, the other Anna, daughter of Phanuel, Elisabeth, and also the mother of our Lord and Saviour, for of her,” he says, “we must needs allow that her piety had no sin in it.” We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honour to the Lord; for from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin.

He also addresses other examples later and although his own opinion is that they had sin, he says that they could have avoided sin by God’s grace though and he wouldn’t fault others for believing such.

If you are interested on reading more about what he says about the Old Covenant versus the New Covenant, it might be helpful to consult another work (also from the Retractions), “On the Letter and the Spirit.”

Jeremiah 1:2 The word of the LORD came to him

This is repetitive with the Prophets and many of Gods Holy People through scripture. They are convicted by the Holy Spirit. Supernatural infused virtue of grace-faith.

Wow, thanks, guys! Especially to QNDNNDQDCE. Very enlightening quotes you posted. I’ll be sure to add what you recommended from Augustine’s writings to my reading plan. (Still plowing through Justin Martyr’s Dialog with Trypho at the moment, but I may reprioritize, as this is so interesting.)

Amen to that! :slight_smile:

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