the obedience factor
The Christian faith has always been under attack. Christians are used to it. After all, as the Bible says, the battle is not of flesh and blood but of invisible spiritual forces. But it seems that what is under attack is not as much the belief in Jesus Christ as the long-promised Messiah and Savior of mankind, as the Bible itself. What is most assaulted is the claim that we should obey the Bible.
It seems that the Bible is increasingly viewed as an old-fashioned book that no longer applies. While there tends to be loose agreement in society that the Ten Commandments are generally good for us, the assault against biblical morality begins here. People have no trouble agreeing with the Commandments against murder or theft, and even grudgingly accept the fifth Commandment to "honor your father and mother." People begin to waffle on the seventh Commandment, about adultery, applying it only where it feels painful -- marital unfaithfulness -- and ignoring it everywhere else. The third commandment, not to take the name of the Lord in vain, is so widely ignored even mainstream media no longer blanks out swear words. And the ninth Commandment, about bearing "false witness"? You only have to look at sales figures for supermarket tabloids to see how often people follow that one!
Dr. Laura Schlessinger, in the preface of her wonderful book "The Ten Commandments," identifies the typical mindset of those rushing through our modern world:
Each day we make innumerable, seemingly minute decisions about things that don't really seem earth-shattering. So what if we broke a promise? Lots of promises are broken, and people get over it and get on with it. So what if we find passion in another bed while we or they are still married? We're entitled to derive pleasure and self-fulfillment. So what if we are too focused on work, TV, or clubs to spend time with family? No one has the right to tell us what to do. So what if religion is not a big deal in our lives? Religious types are all hypocrites, and God is a silly myth for the weak.
Unfortunately, the attack against the Bible is being led in part by those who claim to be religious! Liberal higher criticism leads the charge, with so-called "Bible scholars" holding theological degrees claiming that the Bible is not trustworthy, outdated or even wrong. People are busy and tend to take such claims at face value, never bothering to check them out.
Witness the impact of Dan Brown's bestselling book "The Da Vinci Code," which casts doubt on everything we have been taught about the Bible. Do people check out these so-called facts before they draw their own conclusions? Sadly, too many accept this work of fiction as fact.
As a result, our culture's disdain for biblical obedience extends even into the church. An increasing number of churches are setting aside Bible teaching to find ways around rules that feel uncomfortable. Arguments are made on purely human or cultural basis, claiming that these rules were only meant for a specific time period or culture, or that in our modern culture the need to "fit in" outweighs the need to obey what the Bible says. I've heard otherwise solid biblical leaders tell me "if an issue can be divisive, then we must let grace rule," as if God's Word can be set aside just because some people don't like what it says.
There is some confusion about obedience. People have a sense that the appearance of Jesus on the scene meant we no longer have to worry about obeying Scripture. This study is an effort to explore the issue of obedience to see if it still applies.
From the Law to Grace
Even as the Roman empire flexed its muscles and roared across Europe and northern Africa, Jesus of Nazareth ushered in a bold new concept of faith in God, replacing salvation under a complex Jewish "Law" with grace from God through our faith in Christ. No longer did people have to depend on following over 600 detailed instructions given to Moses to be made right with God (though, to be fair, God provided considerable room for grace even in those days). Now, by simply trusting in Christ as their Lord and Savior -- their Mediator between God and man -- they would be guaranteed eternity in the presence of God.
Grace through Christ doesn't mean we are free to willfully disobey God's Word, especially in matters of church leadership. When we find biblical instructions to be uncomfortable, ignoring them is not an option! We have a right to examine His Word in an effort to better understand what it means, but we can't dismiss it as unimportant. We are still required to be obedient.
As far as salvation goes, faith is everything. Yet the living out of our faith is demonstrated through obedient behavior. If we say we have faith in Christ, but continue to behave as we did before giving our lives to Christ, our faith is not true faith at all. We cannot lose our salvation through acts of disobedience, because all of us sin even at the best of times, but continued willful disobedience to God is a sign that our faith is not genuine. Faith that is not genuine is no faith at all and has no salvation power:
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?
You see that a man is justified (pronounced righteous before God) through what he does and not alone through faith [through works of obedience as well as by what he believes].
Although we are saved by grace and not by actions of any kind, the things we do in obedience to God are still important. Jesus Himself testified that works still matter as evidence of our faith, when He told the church at Thyatira:
I know your record and what you are doing, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your recent works are more numerous and greater than your first ones.
Do the Ten Commandments still apply?
While we are no longer saved by the Law, that doesn't mean the Law has gone away. Far from it. Jesus said that the Law would always remain in place as a guideline for proper spiritual conduct for those who love God:
I assure you, until heaven and earth disappear, even the smallest detail of God's law will remain until its purpose is achieved. So if you break the smallest commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God's laws and teaches them will be great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
He said each law would remain until "its purpose is achieved." Since some of the laws guide spiritual conduct, their purpose is not yet fulfilled, even to this day. Jesus commanded people to obey the teachings of the spiritual leaders, even though their own actions did not reflect what they taught:
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.
This doesn't mean that Christians must follow such rules as circumcision or animal sacrifice. These were misconceptions that the early church leaders struggled with, as described in the book of Acts. Those were symbolic laws designed to set the nation of Israel apart. The purpose of those laws has been fulfilled. What Jesus meant is that when our hearts are aligned with God we will genuinely want to obey the rules of conduct as set out in the Ten Commandments. Thus, Christians who continue to keep themselves holy by living out the Commandments and teaching them to others are doing the right thing. We cannot be saved by those actions, but lives are blessed through them because these actions are evidence of genuine faith.
God doesn't change, and His guidelines for living do not change either. He cannot change His mind (a detailed article on passages like Exodus 32:14 is available here) and He does not change what He says He will do or what we must do. His unchanging character is the reason we can fully trust in God at all times!
God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?
I the LORD do not change.
When King Uzziah, who was generally a godly king, became powerful, he decided that the rules God had established were flexible. After all, he was the king, had done right, and had been blessed by God. Many hundreds of years had passed since God had established guidelines for priesthood. Uzziah entered the temple to burn incense. But God was not pleased. His rules still applied. The priests confronted Uzziah:
They confronted him and said, "It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honored by the LORD God."
It would seem that this was a small indiscretion. Yet God took it seriously. When Uzziah resisted the command of the priests and became angry that they hindered him, God struck him with leprosy right there in the temple, a disease from which he would never recover. God's rules don't change over time, because God doesn't change.
Is an emphasis on obedience just legalism?
There is a common argument that those who claim we need to obey biblical teaching are just being legalists. Legalism has certainly been an upleasant reality in the Christian faith. For centuries, fiery preachers implored their congregations that if they so much as set foot in a saloon they would be condemned to an eternity of judgement. Tony Campolo tells a childhood story of how his pastor informed him that if he ever went to the movie theater, he would be left behind if the Rapture came. Even the first-century apostles struggled to help people understand how to reconcile legalism and grace. There is something universal about placing trust in rules. In contrast, grace seems so freeing we often don't know what to do with it. So we try to structure it.
Christian legalism is when we place specific behaviors above others, either considering them as requirements for salvation or expecting others to meet them in order to be acceptable to God. For example, some people believe that baptism is required to be saved, which is not true. Baptism is for most Christians their first act of obedience, but anyone who puts their faith in Christ is saved regardless of whether they are baptized.
Because the Bible already deals with many sins by naming them, legalism usually rears its ugly head on issues that are not specifically covered in Scripture. Legalists will go so far as to impose rules for how you should dress for church! This is not the same as imploring other believers to obey God's Word.
How do we reconcile grace with obedience? God's grace is so all-encompassing it is hard for us to grasp. Yet we are commanded to deal with sin in the church -- to say something when we see sinful behavior. Grace doesn't mean "anything goes," or Paul would not have told us to be firm about some things.
In our obedience, we are also called to love others, and especially other believers.
Love is the first and greatest commandment for every believer. Thus, even when we must reprimand another believer for disobeience, it must be done with deep and genuine love. If love does not ooze out of every pore of your being, you have no place to even point out the sin of a brother or sister in Christ! There is no room for tight-lipped criticism, gossip, or angry confrontation. Our love for each other stands as the defining element of our public confession of faith:
By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.
The definition of grace is the "free and unmerited favor of God." It is the receiving of a gift we don't deserve. This is often confused with mercy, which means to not receive punishment we deserve. Both concepts apply in terms of salvation.
Scripture calls us to know, love and obey God. Grace is demonstrated by accepting sinful people to let them know they are loved and accepted by God. But it does not mean we extend the same gentle acceptance to those who claim to follow Christ yet continue to willfully sin. We can joyfully welcome an adulterer into the church and dine with him in the spirit of God's love to let him know that Christ loves him as a person. That's grace. It is another thing entirely to joyfully welcome a Christian who engages in adultery. Paul tells us very specifically what our response should be in this situation. We are not even to share a table with such a person:
But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
So, to claim that grace must be extended to all situations, making all things acceptable, is not scriptural. It is not legalism to say that disobedience is wrong.
Jesus on obedience
Jesus spoke about obedience constantly, and associated it with fellowship.
You are my friends if you obey me.
What kind of obedience was He referring to? The Bible records 125 specific commands by Jesus. All of them were wrapped up in a general desire to obey the spirit of God's Word as revealed in the Ten Commandments and other life-affirming commands throughout Scripture.
Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.
If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.
Note that the "Word of God" Jesus mentioned was the Old Testament, because the New Testament hadn't been written yet. The "commandments" referred to the Ten Commandments.
Be careful not to assume that Matthew 19:17 means we are saved by the commandments. This response was given before Jesus was crucified. Since then, we are saved entirely through faith in Christ. But obedience to His commands still matters, because our spirit of obedience shows where our heart is.
Jesus gave one major, overriding Commandment, to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength and all your soul" and a second one "to love your neighbor as yourself." But His references on obedience go beyond these two specific Commandments and the other 123 recorded in Scripture.
There is nothing in Scripture that says the grace of Christ dismisses the Ten Commandments or other scriptural teachings from the Old Testament. Instead, it affirms that He recognized them as valid.
Jesus associated an obedient heart with love for Him. The two are intricately linked! If we truly love Jesus, we will have an intense desire to be obedient to Him.
Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.
Jesus replied, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching."
We are not only to obey the laws that God put on our hearts through the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are even to obey earthly governments, almost always led by godless people!
Obey the government, for God is the one who put it there. All governments have been placed in power by God. So those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow. So you must obey the government for two reasons: to keep from being punished and to keep a clear conscience.
Why would Paul tell us to obey secular government, especially during an era in which these same governments ushered in agonizing persecution of Christians? Because an obedient spirit is a sign of genuine faith in Christ!
Paul understood that a spirit of gentle obedience was a key component to our witness for Christ, recognizing that all things are under God's authority, including secular governments. This doesn't mean that we are to obey orders that would cause us to disobey God, but when those orders are not in conflict, we are obeying God when we obey government.
The working out of our faith
Obedience to God's Word is a way of working out our faith in practice. If we truly believe, we will want to obey. Genuine faith leads to obedience. Paul wrote about this many times in various letters.
Through him and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.
Therefore, my dear ones, as you have always obeyed [my suggestions], so now, not only [with the enthusiasm you would show] in my presence but much more because I am absent, work out (cultivate, carry out to the goal, and fully complete) your own salvation with reverence and awe and trembling (self-distrust, with serious caution, tenderness of conscience, watchfulness against temptation, timidly shrinking from whatever might offend God and discredit the name of Christ).
We "work out" our faith through obedience. Thus, the Bible still has a significant role to play in the Christian life. Paul even subscribed penalties for those who refused to obey, telling the church that they should no longer fellowship with people who were disobedient, so that they would miss the familiar loving warmth of the fellowship and "be ashamed" of their failure to follow God's Law.
Obedience brings a glorious outcome
Paul implored us to obey because it involved a glorious outcome: a crown of blessedness offered as an eternal reward from Jesus Christ. He compared the process of scriptural obedience to that of a race run by an Olympic athlete.
Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor's crown unless he competes according to the rules.
Paul's first letter to Timothy eloquently expresses the beauty of a life lived in obedience "without spot or blame":
But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ
The Bible tells us that faithful, obedient living in submission to Christ will bring about an eternal reward from Him when He returns.
because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does
Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that dayand not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.
This is a concept that can be hard to understand. Dr. Earl Radmacher taught that the reward is not like a trophy that sits on a mantle gathering dust, but something that shines forever as a testament to our faithfulness in life. While salvation is not based on works, our reward is directly related to works. Christians who have no works are still saved, but "only as one escaping through the flames," an indication that it will be a painful process when we discover that we did not act in accordance with our beliefs:
If any man builds on this foundation [of salvation in Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
Though all believers are eligible for a reward, only certain believers will receive it, because the reward is based on what we have done with our faith. Things you did for the wrong motives will be burned up. If you offered a homeless person a meal, but your motivation was that someone important was looking, your effort will be like "straw" in the fire of judgement and will burn away, leaving nothing to show. Only those things done with a motive of genuine love, compassion, faith -- and, of course, humble obedience -- will be blessed.
God takes obedience seriously. There are rules set out in Scripture by Paul and other apostles (as well as Christ) that are to govern our conduct as Christians. Living in joyful, humble obedience promises a wonderful reward when we are called to our heavenly home to join Christ for eternity. Naturally, obedience to Scripture includes guidelines for operating the church. Ignoring them is not an option.