Does Obedience Get a Bad Rap?

I don’t believe anyone can make an honest case for works righteousness, meaning we can do enough good things to merit or earn our salvation. Paul and Jesus both kill that one outright. But what is interesting is that both of them still thought obedience was important. When Jesus finished the sermon on the mount he ended it with a story about two men. One built his house on sand and the other built it on the rock. Jesus says was differentiated these two men was not hearing but doing, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock…But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (Mtt 7:24,26).

Once we find out our good deeds and obedience cannot save us it somehow gets discounted and emphasized very little. To be perfectly fair much of the problem is because we talked like obedience saved us for so long that once people realized it wasn’t really the case that the baby got thrown out with the bath water. Just because obedience doesn’t save us by twisting God’s arm enough to make him cry uncle and be forced to save us doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about or is not looking for obedience in our lives. Paul mentions twice in Romans (1:5 and 16:26) that the Gentiles have an obedience that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, their faith in Christ (which does play a role in salvation – Gal 2:16, 3:14; Eph 2:8-10) resulted in obedience. Paul tells us in Eph 2:10 that our salvation by faith in Christ leads us to good works which God prepared in advance for us to do. 2 John 1:6 is a marvelous circular passages that weaves it all together for us in perfect balance – “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.” Wow! So our love is shown by our obedience and what we are to be obedient to is God’s command to live a loving life!

It seems to me that the New Testament still teaches obedience (properly defined) is important. We don’t run around like lunatics trying to check boxes. Instead, when God has transformed our hearts the natural outcome will be for us to obey the command to love God and neighbor. Doing so is being obedient. It is interesting that our generation has come back to those two greatest commands as sort of a mantra for the Christian life but often misses the point that even living that way is being obedient to those two commands because if my memory is right commands is what the young man asked Jesus to lay out for him.

Let me close with one example. You have been married 20 years and you decide that the marriage covenant is secure, she should love you just the way you are. So you decided to never again lift another finger to help her around the house. She married you for love, not for housework, right? Was housework in your vows 20 years ago? So you give it all up. What would that result in? Do you think she might eventually question if you really loved her if you had a heart that saw good things that needed to be done and saw that she needed you to be involved in those things but you no longer cared because you married for love not for chores. Chores don’t make a marriage but they show you are on board and invested on the greater good of the household.

Obedience matters to God because obedience reveals the condition of our heart. The one thing Jesus had to learn was obedience (Heb 5:8). Maybe God wants us to learn it as well. Last thought here. Words like Lord and principles like submission have obedience implied all over them, right? If Jesus is Lord and calling the shots in my life what am I supposed to do with that? If I am supposed to live a life of submission wouldn’t that result in my being obedient to someone, somehow? I have never regretted any decision that I have made that was an effort to be obedient to God. I have many regrets from times I chose another route.

Does obedience get a bad rap?

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

9 Responses to Does Obedience Get a Bad Rap?

  1. guy says:

    Matt,

    What do you think of New-Perspective-on-Paul stuff?

    My fear is that we’ve bought into a very Reformation-esque interpretation of the definition of terms Paul uses and his general subject matter–when i find that it’s unlikely that either accurately portrays what Paul meant.

    Further we act as though saying that anything is necessary is equivalent to saying that it is meritorious. That can’t be right.

    Don’t you think passages like John 3:36 or lots of the “commandment” talk in 1John shows that faith and obedience are not separate concepts? –not just that there’s a causal link, but that obedience is somehow intrinsic to the term “faith”?

    –guy

    • mattdabbs says:

      NPP has brought some balance and much needed perspective on Paul. At the same time there are some weaknesses to it that others have pointed out. I don’t agree with E.P. Sanders on a number of things but if my memory is right he had a point in trying to derail the notion that Paul was basically a student of Luther, if that makes sense. I would have to brush up on it some but that is what I remember thinking.

      • guy says:

        Matt,

        Of course–in fact, as i remember several guys who get labeled “NPP” actually don’t all agree on what Paul’s perspective is. So “NPP” is a little vague i admit.

        Yeah, the unifying mark though is what i was referring to. Namely that Paul simply wasn’t talking about the same things as Luther and Calvin were talking about. i agree with that substantially. i just don’t think Paul was using the terms “works” or “faith” in the way that those terms have been used in debates ever since the Reformation–none the least of which the way CoC’s and Baptists have beat each other over the head with verses on the subject for decades.

        i think *Paul’s* use of “faith” and “works” in particular have little if anything to do with a lot of *our* debates about what a person needs to do to be or stay saved. Some hardline CoC’s believe that and just bite the bullet and blantantly admit they believe James over Paul. A lot of modern CoC’s feel the need to capitulate to opposition and make a big show over how they no longer believe in “works” salvation. i think as long as we take Paul to be speaking Reformation language, these debates aren’t ever going to go away or get any better. They force us to categorize and conceptualize in a way that i think Paul simply didn’t.

        –guy

  2. “So our love is shown by our obedience and what we are to be obedient to is God’s command to live a loving life!”
    Um. Yeah.

    “when God has transformed our hearts the natural outcome will be for us to obey the command to love God and neighbor. Doing so is being obedient.’
    Mmmhmm.

    “Obedience matters to God because obedience reveals the condition of our heart.”
    Well, of course.

  3. Jerry Starling says:

    Our problem is that we redefine obedience to those commands we stress – and ignore it for others. We are prone to say things like, “Of course, our obedience does not save us – BUT….” and we add a pitch for whatever commandment we judge to be absolutely essential – usually baptism.

    Paul said that circumcision does not matter – but only faith working through love (Galatians 5:6). This was just after he had said we are children of God through faith “for as many of us as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27).

    Evidently Paul included baptism with faith. We separate them into two different things – and by doing so make baptism into a “work”

  4. guy says:

    Jerry,

    Paul also said what counts is keeping commandments (1Cor 7:19)

    Surely, then, we can’t understand faith working through love in a way that excludes obedience, no?

    –guy

    • Jerry Starling says:

      Guy,
      I do not believe I said in any way that we are not to obey God. My point was that we make faith and obedience two separate things – and that by doing so we make obedience into a “work” of merit. At least that is how we are perceived, and the loud way we insist on obedience + faith gives credence to those who so perceive our argument.

      We persistently fail to understand that “faith” also means trust and faithfulness. Trusting God means we accept His teaching as to how we should live. Faithfulness means we loyally follow Him. When you mix faith like this with the love that Jesus commanded, you get a life of obedience – not perfect obedience, but obedience. This is the life Jesus speaks of when He invites us to take up our cross and follow Him.

      Jerry

  5. Agreed: obedience is sort of ‘out of season’ in 2011. Needs re-emphasizing

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