Recently, I shared blog posts on why good theology matters, and another on the dangers that result from putting righteousness before man in front of righteousness before God. Because good theology matters and because legalism is harmful, it is important to discuss obedience.
I love this quote. It sums up a lot of biblical principles very well, without putting our actions above the Gospel. Those who truly love God, are truly his and will possess a true desire to obey him.
Obedience can be a complicated issue, though. Those who speak on it must tread a fine line between legalism and grace. There is nothing we can do to earn or keep righteousness before God. Salvation is by grace through faith alone. It is not brought to us because of our good works and thus we have no room to boast (Ephesians 2:9). On the other hand, those of us who are in Christ are now new creations. The old has passed away, we have been made new (2 Corinthians 5:17). Our salvation is evidenced by the difference in our lives. We are not what we once were, we have been made new, and thus, we will not only obey God and his word, we will want to. Paul deals specifically with this problem in Romans 5-6.
So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men,
even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.
For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners,
even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.
The Law came in so that the transgression would increase;
but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,
so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign
through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Chapter 5 of Romans closes with Paul explaining that although our sin was great, God’s grace was even greater. If we are in Christ, we have been made righteous through his death. Our sins our gone, we stand holy and complete before God. But that’s not all.
What shall we say then?
Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?
May it never be!
How shall we who died to sin still live in it?
Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus
have been baptized into His death?
Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death,
so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father,
so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death,
certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection,
knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him,
in order that our body of sin might be done away with,
so that we would no longer be slaves to sin;
for he who has died is freed from sin.
Do you see what is happening here? Jesus did not die so that we could live as we wanted, but “debt-free” with a free ticket to Heaven. No, Jesus died for so much more than that. He died to pay a debt we could not owe and so that we could be free from the crushing weight of our own sin. So that we could go and sin no more. Salvation is more than just a “get out of hell free” card. Salvation is the radical transformation of our lives from slaves to sin to freedom in Christ. In Christ, we are not only saved from an eternity in hell, but we are also completely new creatures. This means we have a new nature, with new inclinations, and a new focus. We are not who we once were, and that is the best news we could get as a result of the gospel.
If you are in Christ, you will naturally want to obey him. But why? Well, as I explained above, first, because you are a completely new person. But also because we will be motivated by his love for us.
For the love of Christ controls us,
having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died;
and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves,
but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.
2 Corinthians 5:14-15
In Christ, life is no longer about us, and that is a good thing. The love and mercy bestowed upon us at the moment of salvation compel us and motivate us to obey. So not only do want to obey God because of our new natures, we also are motivated by his love for us. Obedience to God is the very demonstration of our faith, as seen in James 2:14-26:
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works?
Can that faith save him?
If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food,
and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,”
and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?
Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works;
show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.
But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow,
that faith without works is useless?
Was not Abraham our father justified by works
when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?
You see that faith was working with his works,
and as a result of the works, faith was perfected;
and the Scripture was fulfilled which says,
“And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,”
and he was called the friend of God.
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works
when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
When Abraham and Rahab became believers, their faith was evident through what they did. Salvation through Christ is life-changing. It is evidenced by what we do, what we say, and how we do and say it. But don’t miss what I’m saying or pick up what I’m not saying: If you do lots of good things, those good deeds will not get you into Heaven. Just as faith without works is dead, works alone are worthless. We cannot “good person” our way into Heaven. We will never make it. Salvation is through grace by faith alone, but the evidence of our salvation is shown through our obedience to God, which includes good works.
Let me also say this: what I am saying is much, much different from the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation. Catholics believe that our salvation is kept through our good works, a heresy that has no place in the Christian religion. In Catholicism, if you mess up, you have to go to confession, do penance, pray to Mary, the whole nine yards. And if you commit a mortal sin and die before going through confession and penance for that sin, Catholics believe you died without salvation. So essentially, in Catholicism, you achieve your initial salvation through faith, but good luck keeping it, because you have to be on your best behavior. This is heresy. It is wrong. It is not true salvation. It is people trying to get to Heaven by being on their best behavior. Please do not confuse what I am saying with this.
But what are the implications of what I am trying to say? What does it mean to obey God? The Bible is not merely a list of do’s and don’ts – it is much more than that. And Scripture is not exhaustive on what is and isn’t sin. So what do we do? Try our best, make some guesses, and hope for the best? Not at all. Because while the Bible does not list every sin (if you thought Leviticus was rough, just imagine the entire Bible like that!), it does talk about specific sins along with principles for Christian living. The more you read and study God’s Word, not only will you be closer to him, you will also better know what is and isn’t righteous in his sight. The Bible is not just nice stories for us to read and feel good about ourselves. It is instructions for life, God’s word directly to his children, and how we know how the Christian life should be.
The Bible is honest, simultaneously simple and complex, and compelling. Through the Bible we learn of the gospel, how we should and should not be if we are in Christ, and how God brought about salvation for his people. The Bible contains very clear commands that are not to be ignored, and the principles taught in it implicate countless others. It is the ultimate source of truth and understanding, but especially for the believer.
So let’s go back to the quote from the beginning:
If obedience to God contradicts
what I think will give me pleasure,
let me ask myself if I love him.
Sin is hard. It seems so appealing in the moment, but it does not last. But even as believers, we still struggle against our old nature. It’s hard. I am no stranger to the struggle against my old self. But God’s love and grace are greater. If you are in him, he will never tempt you to sin and he will always give you a way out. Sin is never worth it. But our faith is. Believer, when you are tempted to dismiss clear commands in Scripture, when you are tempted to say God is fine with your sinful lifestyle, remember your salvation. Remember the love, grace, and mercy of God that saved your soul, transformed your heart, and made you a new person. Remember God’s love for you, and your love for him. And run as fast as you can, away from your sin, and towards God. Obey his word, it is there for you. Ask for wisdom, he will give it to you. And rest in the knowledge that when you mess up and sin (because you will), your salvation is not lost, and God is there to help you through.