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


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

  1. Ah subtweeting Zahnd… I think I’m coming to a place of thinking that Calvinist theology is mostly incomprehensible to non-Calvinists. I imagine that you have 20 pages of biblical exegesis behind each of the phrases you use in this essay. What I experience when I worship is a joy that God wants me to share in rather than a performance that I deliver in which I say all the correct and appropriate things because “God deserves it,” etc. To me, obedience and inspiration are the same thing, and I prefer to think and talk in terms of seeking God’s inspiration. I don’t have anyone in my audience on a secular liberal campus who would respond to your line of argumentation (the small sub-population who would have already circled their wagons in RUF and the other evangelical campus ministries).

    I may be stuck in my own rabbit trail, but I’m still in a place where I see authentic worship and performance in opposition to one another. And from my vantage point, Calvinist theology looks like performative rhetoric. Maybe the way y’all enjoy God’s glory is just more rationalistic than the way I do. What I’m stuck on perhaps is the conviction that my theology should never be driven by the purpose of making the traditional doctrine work. For me, an argument whose primary appeal is to say what we need to believe in order to make the traditional doctrine work is not compelling in itself. I’m too much of a pragmatist, which I suppose makes me an infidel, heretic, or whatever word you want to use.

    • I’m not subtweeting Zahnd. It’s a common trope.

      As for you not understanding this, well, we’ve been misunderstanding each other for years! I will say that you’re probably confusing rationalized language and thought with a rationalized experience. And maybe assuming just a bit much about such things. Calvinists know joy in worship too. We just know that some of that is cognitive, rational, and when we sit and reflect on it, it is right and good. Much like the Psalmist says, the Lord deserves praise. He is worthy of it. Maybe that’s just performative rhetoric to you, but to me that just sounds like David.

  2. I’m probably closest to a classical Wesleyan Arminian, and I find Calvinism and double predestination entirely untenable, but I fully agree with your post and find it well said. There must be a divine moral framework around which such things work, and I think you articulated it well. It is not based on what God “needs”, but rather on who He is. It actually is the basis of the need for the gospel. Good article.

  3. Yes! That is the inspired hermeneutic that Jesus and Paul used to deconstruct a religion that has a god who needs blood! A non-sacrificial read of these texts always brings light and life! Well done.

  4. Thanks for this Derek. It’s a good point. On a related note, I’ve noticed that some progressive Christians have begun directing traditional doctrines like the deity of Christ toward some pretty untraditional readings of scripture. Cruciform theology for instance—the idea that God is revealed in toto on the cross dying for his enemies—dispenses with depictions of God in which he destroys his enemies or inflicts vengeance as suspect. Have these kinds of arguments always been around? If not, what sparked them?

  5. It’s almost sounding like such tropes imply all of God’s actions in history, particularly with Israel, are somehow able to be tossed aside and we can keep a “spiritual” part. Like historical contingencies can be sloughed off and God isn’t mediated through anything but an individual experience or something. How dare God choose the Jews?!?! How dare God work transcendent purposes *through* immanent and embodied cultural practices!?! I love philosophical theology as much as the next person, but salvation comes from the Jews so, you know, gotta stay faithful and moored to that in the Scriptures. Thanks for this Derek.

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