Obedience by Choice: A Contradiction in Terms

by Geert ter Horst

It is not easy to make sense of the recent stream of publications flowing from the FFOZ ministry on the subject of their “Divine Invitation” theology. This is probably due to the fact that self-contradictory ideas don’t allow for much clarification. These ideas can only survive through their conceptual vagueness and power of confusion. Clarity is their enemy, because it brings out the incompatibility of their contradictory parts.

The latest slogan to promote the “Divine Invitation” doctrine seems to be “obedience by choice”. That is at least at the heart of Toby Janicki’s article: “We are the God-Fearers” in the just released Spring Issue of Messiah Journal (# 103). This article is such a specimen of vagueness and confusion that one scratches one’s head about where to begin to clear things up. For this reason I’ll limit myself to some purely logical remarks on the two inherent contradictions present in it, both in Janicki’s description of the Gentile position and in his concept of obedience by choice.

Janicki essentially classifies Gentile believers in Messiah as G-d-fearers, and describes their position in relation to Israel as follows (p. 36):

Although the Gentile God-fearers have not been given the Torah in the same manner as the Jews (i.e. they “do not have the law”), they nevertheless choose to obey it”.

At the end of the article we find a more extensive and theologically framed depiction of the Gentile position (p. 38):

God-fearers were not compelled to keep the Jewish aspects of Torah such as circumcision or Sabbath by decree or law. They did so out of a sincere and intense love for God’s Torah and his ways. They saw the light of Israel and sought to draw themselves close to it, so that they might warm themselves in its glow. As Gentile believers today realize that Messiah has spiritually grafted them into the nation of Israel, they feel drawn to the Jewish people and desire to worship alongside God’s chosen as fellow-heirs of the covenants and promises.

One of the curious things is here that Janicki says that the Gentile believers are “fellow-heirs of the covenants and promises”. This implies that he considers them to be members of the covenant. But it is clear without any further burden of proof that the ancient G-d-fearers — and their modern-day Noachide successors — are not considered as covenant members. For exactly this status would make them liable to the covenant obligations found in the Torah. This is the first contradiction of the article. It both includes Gentiles believers in and excludes them from the covenant.

The other contradiction is found in the concept of obedience by choice. Let me first clear up a possible misunderstanding here, by pointing out that, obviously, in a sense all real obedience involves choice. A child has to choose whether or not to obey the instructions of his parents and teachers, and an employee has to choose whether or not to obey the instructions of his employer. In morally normal cases the choice between obedience and disobedience here is the choice between good and bad, or between good and evil. In these normal cases disobedience is not morally permitted. It is simply the possibility of the wrong choice, and deserves punishment.

The position of the G-d-fearer or the Gentile follower of Messiah is not about this type of choice, however, in Janicki’s eyes, at least not for a considerable part. The kind of choice which is prevalent here is the choice to obey the Torah — or at least parts of the Torah — without being under the obligation to do so. The Gentile believer may choose to obey the commandment of the Sabbath, for instance, but he may equally choose not to obey it. He is free to obey or not obey. He may do as suits him, particularly in the domain of the ritual mitzvot.

This whole idea is, however, hopelessly contradictory, in more than one way. First, it is completely unclear, under the hypothesis of this theology, what the Gentile who “obeys” a certain mitzvah, e.g. Shabbat or kashrut, really does. More specifically, one can ask in what sense he is “obeying” these commandments. I’ll elaborate a bit on this.

To get more clarity in this matter let us ask the question whether a Gentile who keeps the Sabbath while supposedly not being legally obligated to do so really keeps the Sabbath. In other words: Is it really the Sabbath which is the thing kept by him? The answer must be negative. Keeping the Sabbath is only possible by obeying the instructions and commandments of the Torah pertaining to it. But obeying a commandment is only possible if the commandment is directed to you. If you are not the intended and proper addressee of a particular commandment or instruction, then it is impossible for you to obey it. It is simply not for you, and even if you “do” it, this is only so in your own imagination but not in reality. If a passer-by accidently hears the instructions given to a group of police officers on the street and decides to carry out these instructions, he’ll soon find out that by doing so he’ll be found a transgressor instead of a doer of the law. The necessary presupposition for the very possibility of obeying a commandment is that this commandment is given to you, directed to you.

This means that no matter what a believing Gentile does to keep the Sabbath, in reality he does not keep the Sabbath if he is not commanded to keep it. He may meticulously “do” all the scriptural commandments pertaining to the Sabbath and even “follow” the Oral Torah laws according to the strictest schools of rabbinic halachah. But no matter whatever he does, or whatever this “doing” may be called, it is not keeping the Sabbath and it is not doing the Sabbath commandments. It is simply not an act of obedience. For it is only logically possible to obey if one has also the possibility to disobey. However, under the presupposition of “Divine Invitation” theology a Gentile may neglect the Sabbath without any disobedience involved. From the perspective of this theology he does not transgress any commandment by not keeping it. Consequently he also doesn’t fulfil or do any commandment by “keeping” the Sabbath. His Sabbath “keeping” can only be called a purely superfluous and fictitious act. It is a “keeping” of the “Sabbath” which in reality is not a keeping of it; nor is it the Sabbath which is being kept by this “keeping”. It is a self-contradictory activity.

“Divine Invitation” theology is thus not compatible with the idea of obedience. Real obedience presuposes obligation and where there are no obligations there is nothing to obey. Moreover, the “obedience by choice” introduced by this theology cannot repair the fundamental logical flaw detected above. Obedience by choice is no real obedience at all. If I have the free choice of obeying a commandment or not, and if I don’t transgress by disobeying it, then my choice of obedience is no real obedience of HaShem. Instead of obeying HaShem I’m obeying myself and my self-styled religion.

This is a concept which may well suit and flatter the modern and the post-modern man of a secular epoch. It is in fundamental conflict, however, with the idea of obedience found in the Torah. In the Torah man is a dependent creature, who simply ought to follow the commandments given by his Father in heaven, whether he feels inclined to them or not, whether he loves them or not. Following the commandments because he feels inclined to do so is not a good reason for obedience. For if the inclination is the decisive criterion, then it is the inclination which is obeyed instead of HaShem. One of the purposes of the commandments of the Torah is to liberate us from own caprices and whims, and to elevate us to a sphere which transcends our own arbitrary self-will. Obedience of self is contradictory because it is not true obedience. It is autonomy. A Gentile who does the commandments because of his own choice ultimately belongs to a completely different religion than the Jew who obeys his heavenly Father because He says so.

Does this mean, then, that love is not a motivating force for doing the commandments? It is, but in another way than is understood by “Divine Invitation” theology. For to sincerely love HaShem’s commandments is to love them because they are commanded, and not consider them to be commanded because they are loved by us. Our love is unreliable and unstable. HaShem’s commandments are firm and reliable. His love is based on engagement. It does not leave us “free” or unobligated. It is a love that binds us to Him and which commands us to a response which is binding and lasting: “Hear O Israel, HaShem, our G-d, HaShem is One. And thou shalt love HaShem thy G-d with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Dt. 6:4). The love of HaShem, and his commandments, is a love which is itself commanded by HaShem.


11 Responses to “Obedience by Choice: A Contradiction in Terms”

  1. 1 Dan benzvi April 18, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    Excellent article Geert. when adding it to all the other reasons it is quite clear that the bizarre doctrine of “divine invetation” is just a farce.

  2. 2 Gene Shlomovich April 21, 2010 at 1:48 am

    I agree – “divine invitation” is not a biblical doctrine. I’ve come to appreciate the folks at FFOZ after seeing their almost 180 turnaround and humble repentance of their old One-Law theological invention, however I still find it very hard to scripturally support their second compromise invention that Gentile followers were somehow invited – but not required – by G-d to become defacto observant Jews.

    However, I can get on board with Gentiles desiring to voluntarily observe certain commandments (like Shabbat) if they feel this would help their spiritual lives or honor G-d is some way, but as it says in Colossians 2:16, we shouldn’t judge them if they do or they do not. All of us, Jews and Gentiles, should learn from Torah, however, the Mosaic Torah observance shouldn’t be actively promoted among the non-Jews.

    • 3 messianic613 April 23, 2010 at 1:56 pm

      Your position doesn’t seem to me to differ much from FFOZ’s position. It could, I think, be described as “Divine Permission” instead of “Divine Invitation”. Therefore I think that you essentially face the same logical and conceptual difficulties.

      As to Col. 2:16, I suspect that the traditional exposition of this verse gets you on the wrong track here. Paul doesn’t say here that no man should condemn us for neglecting the Sabbath or New Moons &c, but that no man should condemn us for observing them.

      The subject Paul is dealing with in this chapter is emerging gnostic ascetism, which he condemns as a beguiling philosophy. This school of thought held in contempt the “materialistic” observances of the Torah and condemned its festive celebrations, such as the Sabbath, as being not “spiritual” enough. From Paul’s perspective this ascetism in reality was the product of being “puffed up” and having a “fleshly mind” (Col. 2:18).

      Paul encourages the Colossians to observe the things mentioned in Col. 2:16, because these are shadows of Messiah and of the things to come.

  3. 4 Gene Shlomovich April 26, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    “Your position doesn’t seem to me to differ much from FFOZ’s position. It could, I think, be described as “Divine Permission” instead of “Divine Invitation”.”

    Geert, while I do not promote EITHER “permission” or “invitation”, I would say that of the three proposed relationships of Gentiles to the Torah of Moses (the first one being “obligation”), the one of “permission” (where Gentiles are given freedom beyond certain specific practices as outlined in Acts 15) appears to have the most scriptural support.

    “As to Col. 2:16, I suspect that the traditional exposition of this verse gets you on the wrong track here. Paul doesn’t say here that no man should condemn us for neglecting the Sabbath or New Moons &c, but that no man should condemn us for observing them. ”

    Note that it doesn’t say OBSERVING in that verse – it just says “concerning”, or “in regard”, “in respect”, or “in matter”. Therefore, far from encouraging observance, one could at most interpret it as going either way (permissiveness). However, in the light of Acts 15 (and other admonitions of Gentiles placing themselves under Torah, as found elsewhere), the verse has a much higher likelihood of supporting Gentile freedom FROM observance of the things listed in the verse.

    “Paul encourages the Colossians to observe the things mentioned in Col. 2:16, because these are shadows of Messiah and of the things to come.”

    The shadows analogy here seem to be more specifically used to refocus Gentiles on the things they represent, instead of the shadow themselves. The general attitude of these verses is of discouraging Gentiles from these and other observances. We find additional support just a few verse further in the text, where it tells Gentiles to pay no attentions to some others things they were observing as well (which could be a version of diet based on Jewish kashrut laws, or it could have been some pagan dietary restrictions they still practiced, or some other observances).

    • 5 messianic613 April 27, 2010 at 2:04 am

      The context of Col. 2:16 should be taken into duly consideration. For a detailed exegesis of this verse I refer to the article of Erich Matthew Janzen, “Understanding Colossians 2:16”, at: http://ministersnewcovenant.org/articles/a-024.pdf
      (It goes without saying that I’m not amused by, and don’t in any way support, Janzen’s Lunar Sabbath teachings. The article on Col. 2:16, however, shows good quality scholarship and is not contaminated by this weird doctrine.)

      A careful reading of Col. 2:8-23 informs us that Paul’s warnings to the Colossian believers had nothing to do with warnings against the Torah and its commandments. These warnings were all against human teachings. 2:8: “Beware lest any man spoil you […] after the tradition of men […]”. :16: “Let no man therefore judge you […]”. :18: “Let no man beguile you”. This culminates in :22: […] after the commandments and doctrines of men“. It is false human doctrine about the Torah and the things of G-d that Paul’s warnings are about here. These false teachings could take the form of outright rejection of the commandments of the Torah, but also of mixing them with paganism or false human philosophy.

      Although I do not agree with it in all details, John K. McKee’s article: “Does the New Testament Annul the Biblical Appointments?”, on the TNN website, contains a good explanation of Col. 2:16, on pages 8-14, at: http://www.tnnonline.net/theonews/bibpractices/annul-appointments/Does_the_New_Testament_Annul_the_Biblical_Appointments.pdf

      A less detailed explanation can be found in the book of Thomas Lancaster, Restoration, FFOZ — Littleton, Colorado 2005, on pages 97-99.

  4. 6 judeoxian April 30, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    The problem with this entire post, is that you haven’t at all interacted with Apostolic Teaching on the matter, but instead simply appeal to “common-sense logic” to make your point (so who’s the one being the secular modernist?)

    • 7 messianic613 May 2, 2010 at 4:22 pm

      To Judeoxian:

      Although I have tried to comprehend your comment, this is not easy for me because it is very short. So I may have misunderstood it. If so, please explain yourself more fully and correct me.

      In the beginning of the article (2nd paragraph) I announced to limit myself to some purely logical remarks. Thus the whole article is in the context of the internal logical consistency of the argument given by Janicki. This seems a legitimate and sensible approach to me.

      I have two formal remarks on what you say:

      First, logical analysis of a concept, or of a complex of concepts, always follows upon the process of acquiring these concepts. And this process is naturally dependent upon a context of experience. These concepts are dependent upon a written source, a tradition, or derived from sense perception, things which are part of our broader context of experience and meaning. But the principles or laws of logical analysis, i.e. the very means by which this analysis is carried out, cannot be derived from a source or from experience. They are a priori and precede sources, traditions and other domains of experience, since they are needed and actually used in every possible understanding of them.

      Second, logical analysis in itself is not based on what is called “common sense” and certainly not on modern or secular common sense. We do not derive our logical principles from the Torah or the Apostolic Writings. Nor do we derive them from modern secular ideas in our society. Whether we live in antiquity or nowadays, the same basic logical laws — e.g. the principle of non-contradiction — are inherent in our minds. In my opinion this has nothing to do with secularism or modern autonomous thought.

      I have also two material remarks, or better, questions on the contents, or perhaps the implied contents, of what you say, if I understand you correctly.

      First, apart from the question what is exactly meant by it, I’m unable, thus far, to detect a concept of “obedience by choice” in the sources, in particular the Apostolic Writings. Therefore my question to you: where is this concept found in them?

      Second, I’m unable to imagine what this concept should imply in the domain of practice. If, for example, a messianic family is partly Jewish and partly Gentile, then what rule of observance does apply to it? Should the Jewish members lead a life of strict observance and the Gentile members a life of “obedience by choice”? Everyone understands that this doesn’t work. In one family there can only be one rule of obedience. Similarly, in one congregation there can only be one rule of observance. Otherwise the congregation, or the family, will fall apart.

  5. 8 graspingmashiach May 2, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    Interestingly, Boaz Michael, in his blog post article
    Moral vs. Ceremonial, understands the judging described in Colossians 2:16 to be referring to legal judgment before a Torah court of law. In Michael’s opinion if Paul were addressing Jewish believers he could not have said “let no man judge you” for the Jew could indeed be judged before a Torah court. Paul’s admonishment that Gentiles are not to be judged is understood as an affirmation of their non-obligatory status toward Torah observance by which they are not held accountable before a religious Jewish court.

    What I personally do not understand about this line of thinking is why Paul would present a strong admonishment regarding something that was impossible? In other words, if Gentile believers as G-d Fearers would never be expected to be appear before a Jewish court of law regarding their manner of voluntary observance of Torah, because they had absolutely no legal standing within the community, then why affirm or admonish the body toward something that would never take place?

    Actually, if judging in this context is understood as coming before a Torah court, and Paul’s admonition is more than just mindless words, but instead referring to real judgment that the Gentile believers may experience, the entire passage takes on an interpretation that Divine Invitation advocates would find most unpleasant. For if it was possible for a Gentile believer to be judged by a Torah court of Law, being held to certain community standards, this suggests that the Gentile did, in Paul’s eyes, have a legitimate and legal standing regarding Torah and within Israel itself.

  6. 9 Zion May 4, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    Excellent post, bro! and excellent responses! I look forward to hearing more of what you have to say.

  7. 10 Dan Benzvi May 6, 2010 at 10:10 pm


    If you stop running all around the blogsphare defending FFOZ, maybe you will have enough time to write more posts on your own blog?

  8. 11 matheusrinco March 28, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    I’m too against the Divine Invitation, specially because of what you said regarding being part of the convenant – which the gentiles are, according to ephesians – but not being part of phisical Israel and, therefore, not obliged to the ritual aspects of it, because this just doesn’t make sense, once I recognize that the convenant is a whole, can’t be divided.

    On the other hand, although, again, I agree with you, I think that there is a little problem regarding the fact that, in rabbinic judaism, it is possible for someone to accomplish a mitsvah that was not directed for him, without falling in the contradiction appointed by you. I’m specific talking about the liberty that women have to, for example, use tsitsit. Although they don’t have to, they are, according to rabbinic thought, free to do so.

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