By Karlo Janssen
Joshua 24:15 is a favourite text for Christian families. It is for ours. Those who enter our house via the front door are confronted with the last words of this text. “But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
Words from the first part of this verse are popular too. “Choose (for yourselves) whom you will serve.” They are often used in outreach campaigns. The thought seems to be: people are free to choose to serve God or not. “The choice is yours: serve God or someone else.”
However, is that what the text says? Selective quoting misrepresents Scripture. There’s the joke that a minister who disliked the Old Testament once preached on Matthew 22:40b (King James Version): “Hang all the law and the prophets.” That’s of course ridiculous.
Yet, the same happens “choose this day.” Here’s the whole passage, Joshua 24:14-15 (NIV-1984). “Now fear the LORD and serve Him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
What’s the free choice here? It is not “God or someone else”. It is “Sumerian gods” or “Canaanite gods”. The gods of Egypt are mentioned earlier. One could argue that’s an option too.
But the LORD is not an option like these others. In verse 14 we don’t find an invitation to choose for the LORD. Rather, we find a command: “Now fear the LORD and serve Him with all faithfulness.” There’s a free choice among many false gods only for those who reject the LORD.
Quoting Joshua 24:15 as if it says “you are free to choose whether or not you will serve the LORD” is as inaccurate as that minister preaching on “hang all the law and the prophets”.
All this is not to say that people do not choose for God. Joshua 24:22: “Then Joshua said: ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the LORD.” What needs to be noted is that this choice is the response to the call to serve the LORD. It’s a response which exists by the grace of God (1John 4:19). The choice is not made freely, autonomously, but by the pleasant coercion of the Spirit.
An outreach event should not end with “choose this day…”. We do better to follow the example of Joshua (and Christ and Peter and Paul and…): “Fear the LORD”, “Repent and believe.”