In some circles, obedience has gotten a bad name. Mention the word in any positive way, and a sermon on “salvation by grace” will be immediately forthcoming. But in the Scriptures, is obedience the negative concept it is portrayed as being in popular preaching? Can it be de-emphasized as we do (if by nothing more than by our praising it so infrequently) and those who hear us still understand the scope of what God has said about it?
The problem which the gospel of Christ proposes to fix is the problem of sin — and the problem of sin is that of disobedience. Our deeds are produced by our thoughts and attitudes, obviously, and those must be brought back to God if we are to be saved. But we are fooling no one but ourselves if we think we’ve given our “heart” to God while our deeds are still showing no regard for His commandments. If we think that way, Jesus would say to us, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46).
The fact of the matter is, our will (and not just our intellect and emotions) must be brought into subjection to God or it can’t be said that we’ve been saved from sin. The rebellion that separated us from God has not been put down until our deeds have become loyal to the King — in other words, until we have become obedient to Him. The old hymn “Rock of Ages” got it right when it said, “Let the water and the blood, from Thy riven side which flowed, be of sin the double cure, cleanse me from its guilt and power.” It is not just the guilt of sin that must be removed; its power over us must be broken — and that is measured by our actions, our actual obedience.
Of course, the kind of obedience the gospel wants to produce is a unique kind. It is what Paul referred to as “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26). Unlike a legalistic obedience in which the outward action is thought to be enough, regardless of the heart, the gospel calls for an obedience that comes from faith in God. And unlike the faith which presumes that it alone will save a person, the gospel calls for a faith which obeys God. Neither the faith nor the obedience is optional: (a) the obedience must be motivated by faith, and (b) the faith must show up in obedience.
Paul emphasized that everybody serves either God or the devil. There is no such thing as a human who has no master at all. But how can we tell whose servant we are, not just in our words but in actual fact? Paul said that our obedience is the real test. Whatever we may say, it is what we do that tells the tale. “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Romans 6:16).
One of the primary principles in the Scriptures is that of reaping and sowing. In the spiritual realm just as in the physical, we get whatever harvest we have planted. Paul used this metaphor in Galatians 6:7–9, where he wrote, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” If these words do not emphasize the importance of obedience, it is hard to imagine what words would do so.
And similarly, in Romans 2:6–11, Paul stressed that God’s judgment of us will be impartially administered, based on the deeds that we have done: “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.”
When we are baptized into Christ and begin our lives as His disciples, one way of describing the difference between what we used to be and what we are now is to say that we are now living under the “lordship” of Christ. He wasn’t our Lord before, but now He is. We’ve given up our self-will and begun submitting ourselves to Him, trusting that His will can always be counted on to be in our best interests. But whether Jesus is truly our Lord is determined by the reality of our situation: have we or have we not actually begun doing His will? “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
It would be helpful if we saw obedience to Jesus Christ as a privilege — something we are blessed to be able to give to Him. In contrast to the deadly will of Satan our adversary, the will of our Savior is good and wholesome, even when it requires the doing of difficult things.
So let’s reconstruct our concept of obedience and see it in the positive light in which it is presented in the Scriptures. Yes, it can be perverted and made into something other than what God intended (as can every other good thing, including love and joy). But let’s not “throw out the baby with the bath water” and fail to emphasize its importance in God’s plan of salvation.
And finally, let’s consider it a privilege to grow in our obedience. “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).