Yesterday I wrote about how the love of God is not entirely unconditional, particularly given that 1) for a person to receive God’s love they must first receive Christ; and 2) for Christians to receive ongoing and increased amounts of blessings, they must obey God. Having reflected more on the issue, something else has struck me recently, and that is the commonly faulty assumption that obedience has nothing to do with life as a Christian.
Grace vs. obedience
One of the hard things that people assume is that if people are asked to do something then it is a negation of grace. After all (the argument goes) if a person comes to faith in Christ not on the basis of obedience, then surely obeying in the life of a believer does little or nothing to keep the relationship going. And in particular, if obedience is not heartfelt but comes from legalistic motivations then obedience is not God-honouring but selfish and demonic.
All those things are, in part, true. Obedience from the heart is pivotal to godly obedience and devotion. In Deuteronomy 28:47-48a, Moses warned Israel: Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you ... Sincerity is so important that if there is none then good acts of service cannot be rendered to God. Paul picks this up in 2 Corinthians 9:7 when he says that God loves a cheerful giver and Jesus makes the point that a person should never offer a sacrifice of devotion to God in the temple if he has unforgiveness in his heart (Matt 5:23-24). God does not, it is said, delight in fragrant sacrifice as much as he delights in a humble, contrite heart (1 Sam 15:22, Ps 51:16-17). True devotion, in other words, begins in the heart.
But the problem for many modern people is that obedience is not a popular, appealing concept. One reason, I strongly suspect, is the self-preserving desire to avoid being called to account for one’s actions. In a form of escapism, it is using God’s grace to avoid committment to doing anything and, in turn, keeps people free of having to give an answer for what they do. There are also historical, theological reasons for it, perhaps. In the Reformation, particularly under Luther, there was such a heavy polemical emphasis on no-one being justified by good acts (c.f. Rom 3:20) and living by faith alone that obligations to live in obedience have been scuttled, if not simply ignored. And that largely suits modern western culture with all the falsehoods it believes about “the Bible saying ‘thou shalt not judge’”, ‘no-one’s perfect’, and ‘I don’t have to give an answer to anybody’. Western culture is like the days of the kings in Israel where no-one was under a king and everyone did what he wanted. If good deeds do not save or keep people in right relationship, then what on earth have they to do with being godly? The other problem here is that it too easily assumes that all obedience is legalistic, though that is hardly what Jesus exemplified when he said that obeying his Heavenly Father was His ‘food’ (John 4:34). Is it not to be the same for His disciples?
Consequences for the Church
The consequences of this in the church today are far-reaching. One major problem is that when people are evangelised they are often not told that the rest of the journey involves painful sacrifice. They are not told to “count the cost” of being a disciple (Luke 14:28), and all that does is set people up for frustration, disappointment, resentment, and even apostasy. If people come to faith believing obedience ‘counts little’ but then read the Bible and see all the places where obedience is essential (e.g. 1 John 1:6, Heb 12:14, 1 Cor 6:11) then it creates a divided loyalty. If churches reinforce that but then find members of their congregations are living in disobedience, who then is at fault? God? The Bible? The unfaithfulness of the disciple? It’s then tempting to shake the head and say of the wayward brother/sister, “Oh he was probably never saved in the first place”. The ‘saved by faith alone’ message is very true, but denying from the outset that people can and must obey God and delight in doing so seems to be setting people up for failure before they’ve even started the journey with Christ. New converts would have good reason to be confused and betrayed if they later found out that they had to meet God’s high demands after being told that obedience didn’t matter for salvation.
In my own journey and previous ministry I heard people saying all the time, “no-one’s perfect, who can keep God’s way?” Particularly when it came to issues of sexual purity and healing, this statement was commonly repeated ad nauseam. They flew in contradiction with statements like the ones in 1 Peter 2:11: Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul and Colossians 3:5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry (NIV). Titus 2:11-12 was seldom explored: For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, (NIV). Hebrews 12:14b put it in salvation terms that without holiness (i.e. godly obedience) no-one will live with God in eternal shalom. What I often kept hearing was how hard it was too hard to be changed and obey, and all that did was breed defeatism and a heart that tolerated disobedience in a cavalier fashion. And I could also see that in others, particularly those who went on to call themselves “gay Christians” and live in contradiction. Few seemed to actually understand that obeying Christ is actually a delight that is made possible by the Spirit (1 John 5:3). Does that mean that everyone will obey them consistently and perfectly? No. But obedience is not about perfection: it’s about consistency and being faithful to one’s true loyalty.
Lack of obedience decays the relationship
What I have come to see and experience in my own journey is that obedience grows the relationship with God. I don’t see myself needing to obey God because I fear Him withdrawing His salvation, per se. I obey because I want to walk as my Father walks. And even when I obey screaming, kicking, and gnashing my teeth I often find that when I do what He says it then refreshes and changes my heart! I needn’t wait around to get my heart right before obeying: obedience changes my heart. Those changes, in turn, make my heart more inclined to God, which enables more and greater obedience! How does that work? I honestly have no idea but it actually makes obedience something to look forward to. It’s becomes a delight and God delights to have His children obey Him! As a father myself, I know how much delight I have when my girls just listen to me and don’t keep doing their own thing.
Lack of obedience, in the end, kills relationship. I have been a Christian now for 16 years and I have seen over and over again that when I don’t obey God – particularly in deeper, more private ways, especially with thoughts and sexuality – all it brings is alienation. When that happens, I don’t want to approach Him in trust and all I do is withdraw into self. I also love and trust others lest and become brittle and self-justifying. As hard as trusting and obedience to God are, without them I really am not all that distinctive as a Christian. I will never obey perfectly, and I don’t expect to but the good thing is: neither does God. To be a Christian is to have the Law written on the heart (Jer 31:31-34) which makes it so much easier – and delightful! – to please God. After all, we’ve been saved for good deeds (Eph 2:8-10) so we may as well get busy doing them and be the distinctive people God has made us out to be. Jesus died to make it possible and the Spirit was given to believers to help and it grieves the Spirit to not obey. God willing our obedience will become our delight as much as God’s.