Why “The Lord will Fight for You, You Have Only to be Still” is Bad Advice

Moses Parting the Red Sea, from the Hortus Deliciarum (1180)
Moses Parting the Red Sea, from the Hortus Deliciarum (1180)

It’s two nights after Passover, and the Israelites flight from Egypt has run into a serious snag. At the Lord’s instruction, they encamped by Pi-hahiroth, trapped between wilderness and the Red Sea. And it was here, at this strategically vulnerable position, that the Egyptian army caught up to them.

They were trapped. Upon seeing the approaching Egyptians, the Israelites (in what would become something of a continuous theme) panicked, blamed Moses, and claimed that they never really wanted to do the whole “exodus” thing in the first place (Exodus 14:11-12):

Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”

Moses famously responds (Ex. 14:13-14):

Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.

It’s the sort of response that inspires t-shirts. And particularly for a certain type of faith alone Christians, this is something of a rallying cry. For example, Jefferson Bethke (the “Why I hate Religion, but Love Jesus” guy) offers this commentary:

But God’s answer through Moses to the Israelites that day is my favorite part. After they lament that they were even saved, he responds by saying: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”

Does that last verse strike anyone as peculiar? God says He will fight for us, and the only thing we are required to do is be silent. He doesn’t say work harder. He doesn’t say pray harder. He doesn’t say try harder. He says be silent. Just sit in silence. Rest. Quietness. Trust.

The only problem with all of this is that it’s totally wrong. God isn’t speaking through Moses here. Moses is wrong, and God immediately corrects him (Exodus 14:15-16):

Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go on dry ground through the sea.

In other words, Moses’ plan to not do anything, but to just stay still, is a bad plan. God’s plan isn’t for them to remain still in silence, but to go forward. He wants Moses and the Israelites to act in faith. To be sure, God could have saved the Israelites some other way, but He chose to make them active participants in their own salvation.

 

Cosimo Rosselli, Crossing of the Red Sea, Sistine Chapel (1482)
Cosimo Rosselli, Crossing of the Red Sea, Sistine Chapel (1482)

If Moses and the Israelites had instead decided to remain still and do nothing, you know what would have happened? The Egyptians would have massacred them.

Does all of this have anything to do with Baptism? You bet it does. “I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,” St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2. Paul views this parting of the Red Sea, in which the minister (Moses) and the people are called to play a role in their own salvation, as a prefigurement of Baptism.

But let’s talk about another Old Testament watery death: Noah’s Ark. God warns Noah of the coming Deluge, and calls upon him to build an Ark to save his family and the various animals (Genesis 6:13-21), and “Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him” (Gen. 6:22). As a result, Noah and all those onboard the Ark are saved. If Noah had instead just listened to God, believed Him about the flood, and sat there in silence, he and the rest of the gang would be caput.

Does this prefigure Baptism? You bet it does. 1 Peter 3:18-23,

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

So both Peter and Paul look at these accounts of (as Peter describes it) salvation through water, and say: this is about Baptism.

For many of the same Protestants who think Moses’ counsel in Exodus 14:14 is good advice, that’s a problem. According to their line of reasoning, any actions we have to do are something added to faith (as if from outside), and faith alone is what saves us. Therefore, the reasoning goes, Baptism can be nothing more than a symbol. The problem with this view is twofold. First, the Bible is clear that Baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21) by washing away our sins (Acts 22:16). Second, the Bible is also clear that faithful acts are an important part of faith. Listen to how the Book of Hebrews describes Noah and the Parting of the Red Sea (Heb. 11:7, 29):

By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith. [….]

By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as if on dry land; but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.

So the authors of Scripture look at these examples, the prefigurements of Baptism, and say, “that’s what it looks like to live by faith.”  It wasn’t enough for the Israelites to simply believe that God was God or that what He was saying was true: they then had to act upon that belief. Their “faith was completed by works” (James 2:22). That’s the fullness of faith, what St. Paul calls “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6), which points to the centrality of love in resolving the justification debate.

So it isn’t the case that we have our relationship to Christ over here, and from some other place we get the grace to do good works or to somehow earn that relationship. Neither Baptism nor meritorious works are something that we add to that faith from outside. Rather they are integral to faith, and come from within. Christ’s example of the vine and branches in John 15 is telling: the branch must grow fruit, but it doesn’t do this apart from its relationship to the Vine (Jn. 15:5). But in saying this, we want to avoid the opposite error: the good works follow upon faith automatically, as it were. There are branches that are connected to the Vine that yet don’t bear fruit, and they’re cut off (Jn. 15:2).

Finally, I want to touch back on the passage that started off this post. I don’t want to give the wrong impression: there are times when we need to stop working, and sit at the feet of Christ, as Mary of Bethany did (Luke 10:41-42). In the words of Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth!” But there are other times when faithfulness to God requires getting up and doing something. How do we know which times are which? Short answer: prayerful discernment.

A sufficient account of the life of faith has to look at the role of prayer, Baptism, and good works, and Biblical exegesis that praises a sort of spiritual sloth in which we’re being still and not praying, working, or getting baptized just doesn’t cut it.

12 Comments

  1. I am having a hard time following this post (I write confusing stuff too 😉 ) so my response is not comprehensive.

    First, Ex 14:14 might be a rebuke of the Jews from Moses. It seems to me that Moses is saying, “Shut your mouths and stop complaining, God is about to go about His saving business,” which then God goes about and does.

    For what it is worth, Gregory the Great wrote, “You, therefore, if you wish to stand above adverse nations, if you would speedily, with God’s leave, be victorious over them, receive with trembling the commandments of the same Almighty God, that He Himself may fight for you against your adversaries, Who has promised in Holy Writ, saying, The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace,” so he took an interpretation that would contradict yours, but we can all agree to disagree.

    Second, we have a discussion on faith alone as opposed to faith + baptism. You seem to pose one against the other, which I find strange being that Lutherans as an example would have no problem saying a believer needs both, but would affirm faith alone. It would seem to me that you are making a faith alone strawman, beating it up, and ignoring some very mainstream Protestant theology which does not seem to run into any problems embracing faith alone while also having an essential role for sacraments.

    Lastly, you write, “we want to avoid the opposite error: the good works follow upon faith automatically, as it were.” Your reasoning is “There are branches that are connected to the Vine that yet don’t bear fruit, and they’re cut off (Jn. 15:2).” I do not see how the latter by necessity disproves the former. Perhaps you care to elaborate? James writes, “You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected” (James 2:22). Doesn’t this show that faith is part and parcel with works and not mutually exclusive?

    I wrote a rather long rebuttal on your exegesis of James 2 a while back here: http://christianreformedtheology.com/2015/02/25/saved-by-works-and-not-by-faith-alone-james-2-and-a-response-to-shameless-popery/ . I think that instead of rehashing everything again, it is best just to point back to what has already been written.

    God bless,
    Craig

    1. Besides, what are called our merits may be properly described as seed plots of hope, incentives of love, tokens of a hidden predestination, foretastes of future felicity, the way by which we reach the kingdom, not the cause of our kingship. In a word, not them who He found righteous, but them whom He made righteous, did God also magnify (Concerning Grace and Free Will, trans. Watkins W. Williams in 1920, p. 91).

    2. Gregory the Great’s take is very interesting, but I think it’s worth noting that it’s not from a Biblical commentary or a homily or anything: it’s a reference at the end of an unrelated letter, which makes me suspect he might have been quoting it from memory without checking the context (other verses might have been a better fit). I didn’t actually find a Patristic commentary on point either way, although I did find this great passage from, of all people, Charles Spurgeon:

      “Moses was no doubt praying in his heart, though it is not recorded that he uttered any words in prayer—but it was not the time for prayer—it was the time for action! When people sometimes say, when they know their duty, “We will make it a matter of prayer,” they generally mean that they will try to find some excuse for not doing it! You need not pray about any matter when you know what you ought to do—go and do it!”

      I disagree with him on half of this. Any time is a good time for prayer. The Fathers treat God’s response as responsive to Moses’ silent mental prayers, rather than a rebuke of it. But I agree with Spurgeon that this prayer shouldn’t be an excuse to not do what needs to be done, and faith and prayer aren’t the same as quietism or inactivity.Bethke’s account, to my reading, is exactly the sort of quietism that Spurgeon (rightly) condemns.

      1. Joe, what do you think of Ex 14:14 possibly being a rebuke?

        Further, in response to ” we want to avoid the opposite error: the good works follow upon faith automatically, as it were,” what do you think of what Augustine wrote:

        When someone believes in Him who justifies the impious, that faith is reckoned as justice to the believer, as David too declares that person blessed whom God has accepted and endowed with righteousness, independently of any righteous actions [Rom 4:5-6]. What righteousness is this? The righteousness of faith, preceded by no good works, but with good works as its consequence (Augustine, Exposition 2 of Psalm 31, Paragraph 6).

        So, I would disagree that saying “good works follow faith” is an “error.” The faithful, according to the Scriptures, are sealed in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit creates fruit in the lives of the faithful. So, it seems to me pretty uncontroversial that righteousness come from faith, preceded by no good works, but with good works as its consequence.

      2. Craig,

        I agree with v. 14 being a rebuke (given the context- the Israelites complaint about the Exodus, one was called for), and agree with you and Augustine that good works flow from faith.

        What I’m objecting to in this post is that it happens automatically and necessarily. There are people who believe, don’t act on that belief, and then have their faith die. The parable of the seed is clear that we need to remain receptive to the Word, and that we need to bear fruit. A believer can become arid and can stifle the Word.

        1. For all practical reasons I agree, but I would like to add the caveat that those who fall away have made false professions, which is why their faith never resulted in works. That faith cannot save. However, true “faith [comes] of a sincere will” (Chrysostom, Homily 34 on Hebrews). Those with this faith are given perseverance to the end. Augustine writes:

          “Whosoever, therefore, in God’s most providential ordering, are foreknown, predestinated, called, justified, glorified—I say not, even although not yet born again, but even although not yet born at all, are already children of God, and absolutely cannot perish.

          These truly come to Christ, because they come in such wise as He Himself says, All that the Father gives me shall come to me, and him that comes to me I will not cast out; and a little after He says, This is the will of the Father who has sent me, that of all that He has given me I shall lose nothing.

          From Him, therefore, is given also perseverance in good even to the end; for it is not given save to those who shall not perish, since they who do not persevere shall perish” (Augustine, Chapter 23, On Rebuke and Grace).

      3. “You need not pray about any matter when you know what you ought to do—go and do it!

        This is the very point of the Lord’s Parable of the Good Samaritan. Many faithful Jews, and even priests, walked by the beaten and severely injured man. They probably justified themselves while reciting their prayers along the way. But Jesus taught what true love and true action was to be for His disciples. And often these good actions need to be split second decisions, to be done when the providence of God puts in front of us an opportunity for great charity. This is also what differentiates the cowardly from the heroic.

  2. It is in the Sacraments that we lie still and let God work in us. But only those who cooperate with His actual grace and keep the commandments who are justified and only those who persevere in good works to the end who are saved.

  3. Perhaps an even more explicit Scriptural account about Moses that details the necessity of action in the spiritual life can be found in Exodus 16:9 with Moses praying for Josue on the mountain top as the Israelites repelled an attack against them by Amelec:

    “…Moses said to Josue: Choose out men: and go out and fight against Amalec: tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill having the rod of God in my hand. [10] Josue did as Moses had spoken, and he fought against Amalec; but Moses, and Aaron, and Hur went up upon the top of the hill.

    [11] And when Moses lifted up his hands, Israel overcame: but if he let them down a little, Amalec overcame. [12] And Moses’ hands were heavy: so they took a stone, and put under him, and he sat on it: and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands on both sides. And it came to pass that his hands were not weary until sunset. [13] And Josue put Amalec and his people to flight, by the edge of the sword.”

    Herein we have an example of both great faith and determined action working together to accomplish the will of God for the survival and well being of Israel. We might note that even prayer is a type of spiritual action which indeed can demand physical strength and energy, as is demonstrated here with the raising of the arms and the needed help of others to accomplish the intended goal.

  4. In other words, Moses’ plan to not do anything, but to just stay still, is a bad plan. God’s plan isn’t for them to remain still in silence, but to go forward. He wants Moses and the Israelites to act in faith. To be sure, God could have saved the Israelites some other way, but He chose to make them active participants in their own salvation.

    Hm? I see it a bit differently. When they obey God and move into position, they are sitting still and letting God do what God can do. This is the same attitude that we disposition which we adopt when we obey God and submit to Baptism. It is an attitude of faith. That is why we are children of Abraham. When we submit to the Sacraments, God sees our faith and credits it to us as justice, then He washes our sins away with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

    So, to make a long story short, when the Israelites obey God and move, they are dong exactly what Moses told them to do, sitting still and letting God do His work.

  5. I was reading Exodus 14:14 and was very.. I don’t want to say confused, but I didn’t feel like I was totally grasping it, so I did a little research online (such a trustworthy place to get info! Haha). Landed a few places and ended up here after all of that, this is what I think Moses was trying to convey:
    I think in that verse Moses wasn’t trying to tell them to physically be still or to physically be quite, I think he was saying more as to remain, to not waver or doubt because the thing coming at you is scary. If we put our focus on the mean (Egyptians/Hard times/Sin/ETC.) and not the end (Jesus) we obviously are going to lose our focus. So I don’t think that he was saying to be still or shut up or anything to that nature I think he was saying stay focused on Jesus, He’s got this.. He’s the one who will be fighting this battle, so keep your faith in Him and trust that He will! God’s got this, He’s got the situation handled. He already knew/knows the outcome. You just have to let your faith be still, to not waver because things look impossible! God is good y’all!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *