"God will never give you a command you cannot keep." Whether it has been in sermons, at Bible studies, in small groups; I have heard this said a number of times. It is the notion that God would never give a person more responsibility than he or she could bear. Theologies concerning sanctification have been formed around this very thought. Think of Charles Wesley and Christian perfection. Worse yet, theologies concerning justification have been formed around this notion. Think of Pelagius and his denial of total depravity. Is it true that God would never ask of His people to do something that He knows they are incapable of doing? Let us test this idea against Scripture.
Think about the way God commanded the Israelites when they came out of Egypt. He gave to them the ten commandments and many other laws to follow. (Exodus 20-23) The people claimed that they would be obedient to the law. (Exodus 24:3) Afterwards, Moses went back up the mountain where God gave him instructions on how to build the tabernacle and establish the priesthood. (Exodus 24:12 - 31:18) Why did God do this? Because He knew that the people would not obey. He knew that the people of Israel would need to make sin offerings before Him. Moses was up on that mountain for only 40 days, yet during that short span the people had already prostituted themselves by creating a golden calf to worship. (Exodus 32)
Again and again throughout the Old Testament we read stories about sinful people breaking the commandments of God. Even David, the man after God's own heart, committed adultery and murder. He tried to cover up his sins with a web of lies, but God graciously humbled His chosen king. (2 Samuel 11&12) There is not one person in those first thirty-nine books who could claim to have the ability to keep the commandments of God.
Although this argument strongly supports the idea that God does give His people commands they cannot keep, this really doesn't answer the question of if they were capable of doing it or not. Maybe there were examples of people not recorded in scripture who did obey God fully. Let us look now to the New Testament to see what it has to say on this matter.
Fast forward to the first century AD. Jesus had now stepped onto the scene and He gave His most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew chapters five, six and seven we read exactly what God expects of His people. Not only are worshippers of Yahweh not suppose to commit murder, but they should not even have anger in their hearts towards their brothers. (Matthew 5:21,22) Not only are they to refrain from committing adultery, but they are not even allowed to look at a woman with lust in their heart. (Matthew 5:27,28) They are to serve their enemies and allow themselves to be abused further if their right cheek is struck. (Matthew 5:38-44) Their righteousness must exceed that of the pharisees and scribes. (Matthew 5:20)
If all of that were not enough, Jesus decided to raise the bar just a little higher with these words, "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48 - ESV) I know there are some perfectionists out there who are cheering Jesus on right now, but seriously? Be perfect like God is perfect? What kind of standard is this? Who is capable of doing this?
If the ten commandments were not enough, Jesus upped the stakes for us by condemning our own thoughts and feelings. The standard is perfection, and nothing short will do. Is this attainable? From the stories we read in the Old Testament, none before Jesus could do this. If you are honest with yourself, you will realize that you are incapable of fulfilling God's commands for your life. The Apostle John states this very fact in his epistle. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." (1 John 1:8 - ESV)
If God has given us commands that we are incapable of keeping, then what is His reasoning behind this? Why would Jesus lay out a way of life that is impossible for us to live? What purpose is there in the law if all fail at it? The Apostle Paul articulates the answer to this question beautifully in his letter to the Church in Rome. "Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin." (Romans 3:19,20 - ESV)
The main purpose of the law is to show human beings just how sinful they really are. It is a taskmaster that holds people accountable to God. Is this the only purpose of the law? No, but it is the preeminent purpose. This is why basic Christian doctrine teaches that man is not saved by works, but by grace through faith. (Ephesians 2:8,9) Yet, even after a person has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, they still contend with their sinful flesh. Every time a Christian sins, it is a reminder of their need for a savior. (Romans 7)
The next time you hear someone say that God will never give you a command you cannot keep, gently rebuke that brother or sister out of love. While it may seem like a wise teaching, it only puts a heavy yoke on the hearer. God has given us many commands that we cannot and do not keep this side of Christ's return. Do we strive to obey God? Yes. But we do so out of a knowledge that God has freed us from the law. We do so with the help of the Holy Spirit. We do so out of thankfulness for the one who did keep all these commands perfectly for us.
Jesus is the only sinless man. Yet He is also the creator God. He died on the cross taking upon himself the wrath of the Father in man's stead. He bore the sins of the world and in exchange gave to those who believe this good news His righteousness. He rose from the dead three days later and now reigns at the right hand of the Father. No longer do you have to live in bondage to a law you cannot keep. Repent and believe the gospel message and you will be saved.