Does God *Need* Our Obedience? A brief thought on the “necessity” of sacrifice

In recent atonement discussions, one annoying bit of equivocation turns on the notion of who “needs” the cross. Actually, it comes up most of the time in discussions of sacrifice where the question is often framed as,”Who needs the sacrificial system? God or us?” Now, given God’s own declarations in Scripture that he stands in need of no one and nothing, not our rams or bulls, nor the blood of goats or rams, etc., well, it seems that the obvious answer is “us.” In which case, it is strictly speaking unnecessary.

In which case, so the argument goes, we should not talk about God being appeased, or needing sacrifice, reparation, etc. to forgive us. He doesn’t need them. No, God instituted these things in Israel (or allowed them to be instituted) for us. It is then further asserted that things are “for our benefit” in a way analogous to a mother and father marking gifts as “from Santa” and leaving out cookies for him on Christmas Eve is for the benefit of their children until they are old enough to understand what’s going on. We needed a visual system of assurance that God is gracious and so God accommodated himself to us, but the sacrificial system isn’t actually doing anything in procuring forgiveness, mediating our relationship to God and so forth.

And from there, we get a trail of steps leading forward into the NT, such that if such things were unnecessary and efficacious in the OT,  we can go on to understand they are absolutely unnecessary, and so reject anything like a divine necessity to the cross, or rather as a particular interpretation of it as an efficacious sacrifice effecting atonement, and so forth.

It’s all more complicated than that, but I just wanted to briefly point out the way these discussions fudge the nature of necessity and tend to run several together. Some take the fact that an act does not benefit God, or adds nothing to the fullness of his Triune life, and is therefore “unnecessary” to him metaphysically, to rule out the idea that it plays any necessary role in governing our relationship to him at all. That as unnecessary to him, they are not truly ordered to him, or an effective component in our moral relation to him.

I think if we tried that same sort of argumentation with other acts directed to God, the problem with that sort of move would become clearer.

Let me ask it differently, “who needs our obedience? God or us?” Again, not God. There is a very clear sense in which God doesn’t need our obedience to maintain any ontological or moral equilibrium in himself. In fact, as Ireneaus points out, it is we who need our obedience for the fulfillment of our telos, the glorification of God and the enjoyment of his presence. Strictly speaking, again, our obedience is not anything God needs. Obedience benefits us.

Okay, but that said, that doesn’t settle the matter of the necessity of obedience in our relation to God. Our obedience is unnecessary to God in one sense, but it is still ordered to God, owed to God, and properly demanded by God. God doesn’t lose anything he needs when we disobey him, but there is a sense in which it is still a necessary ingredient to our relationship with him that concerns him. It is morally required and in that sense necessary.

The same sort of reasoning can be deployed with respect to worship. God doesn’t need our worship: it doesn’t benefit him, nor does he depend on it, but rather it is something that benefits us. That said, it is rightly ordered towards him, demanded by him, is owed him as a recognition of the truth of his glory, and is therefore an ingredient to our relationship with him that does concern him. Insofar as we are going to be rightly related to him as he is, worship is necessary and required by God.

We can say something similar with respect to a sacrifice of atonement. God doesn’t need it, it doesn’t “benefit” him, but it is still not a morally self-enclosed act. Though not *needed* by God it is still ordered to God, owed to God, and properly demanded by God as an ingredient of our continued relationship to him. It may be entirely for our benefit but that doesn’t rule out that it is rightly required by God and morally necessary in some sense given who God is.

Soli Deo Gloria