Given the New Testament’s emphasis on salvation as a free gift of grace, which we can by no means earn, and the assurance we have in Christ, it’s not surprising that some might think this contradicts the notion of obedience. The Bible, after all, is full of commandments and imperatives. These range from the requirements of the Law, which were specific to the Israelite theocracy of the Old Testament, to the commandments of Christ; do to others as you would have them do to you. Little wonder that the ignorant opponents of the Gospel accused Paul of antinomianism (Romans 3:8). Paul’s response was to vigorously deny that grace was in any way a licence for sin or slackness concerning obedience. “What then, are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Rom 6:15). But extremism can work both ways. In the medieval church, and in moralist or legalistic denominations through the ages and down to today, there can be such an emphasis on the necessity for obedience that it becomes seen as the means of salvation, rather than the response to salvation.
The Law was given to the theocracy of Israel, to teach God’s ways and principles, to separate them from the nations as an example. The Law draws attention to sin, but it cannot save, because no one is able to keep it, other than the Lord Jesus Christ. He kept it perfectly for us with the result that we are now dead to the Law, and under grace (Rom 3:19–24; 8:1–4; 2 Cor 5:21; Eph 2:8–9).
Yet we are still commanded not to sin, and have been given, if anything, stricter precepts by which to live (Rom 6:12–14; 14:23). Because it’s not enough just to refrain from murder; we must refrain from the brooding hatred and jealousy that can lead to murder. We are not just to refrain from overt sexual immorality, but from lustful thoughts and desires (Matt 5:19–22, 27–29). “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:1–2; 1 John 3:4–9).
Which brings us to the issue of obedience. “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam 15:22) even though sacrifices were part of the obedience required of Israelites. Is this a contradiction? How can we be fully justified by grace, apart from works, and yet still be required to obey? “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). Here obedience seems to be a prerequisite for salvation, however that interpretation would ignore the first part of the verse, that to believe is the key to eternal life. The problem only arises if we force a dichotomy between belief and obedience. In the New Testament, particularly in John’s writings, belief and obedience are inseparable, because belief (faith; same word) is not mere intellectual subscription to theological concepts or a list of propositions, but belief IN Jesus Christ. Belief IN Jesus necessarily involves a change of behaviour, that results from a genuine relationship with him. The work of God IS faith in Jesus (John 6:28–29) and genuine faith will always be demonstated by obedience (John 13:34–35; James 2:17–22). Right behaviour and obedience to Christ is the expected flow-on from being in Christ, indwelt by the Spirit and “equipped for every good work” (Gal 5:22–25; 2 Thess 2:16–17; 2 Tim 3:16–17). This doesn’t mean we will never sin, this side of perfection, but it is no longer a way of life. We do not continue in sin (Rom 6:11–18; 1 John 3:4–9) but in sanctification. But if and when we do fail him, and sin, there is forgiveness, because we have an Advocate with the Father and the cleansing blood of Jesus whitens our soiled garments anew (1 John 1:7–10; 2:1).
The difference between legalistic obedience and the fruit of the Spirit comes down to a focus on internals rather than externals. Ritual obedience to sacrificial laws, tithes and ritual cleanliness are useless and even offensive, if the heart is not right with God. Without right motives, the greatest works are pathetic posturing (Amos 5:21–24; Matt 7:21–23; Luke 11:42; 18:9–14; 1 Cor 13;1–3). This is why the New Covenant had to involve more than prescriptive behaviour and external obedience. It had to address the heart, for that is the origin of evil (Mark 7:20–23; James 1:14–15). “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33).
What motivates obedience? Essentially it comes down to one of two things; fear or love. A child might obey his parents out of fear of consequences; being spanked, or having privileges revoked. But every parent would prefer that the child obeyed out of love for the parent, trusting that the parent actually has the child’s best interests at heart. Obedience through fear of consequences can be powerful for a time, but it is an immature form of obedience. The parent wants the child to mature in order to discern potential dangers for themselves and make sensible choices. The same applies to moral choices. The parent hopes the child will learn to not hit her sister, out of love for her sister, rather than fear of consequences. When an adolescent turns 18 his parents hope he will have an adequate moral foundation to not drink recklessly or be sexually immoral, even though those things are now “legal” for him. Similarly, there are laws prohibiting drink-driving, speeding, theft, murder and so on. These laws are established for the good of society. It would be great if every citizen obeyed the laws all the time out of common sense, moral decency and a love for country and fellow citizens. Moral people actually do this; they restrain selfish impulses because they realise that crimes do not help the greater good. They obey laws out of love rather than fear of consequences. Nevertheless, in any society there are people who put themselves above the law, and their interests ahead of the common good. That is why we have a judiciary system, to punish offenders. For a proportion of society, it is only fear of consequences that keeps them on the right side of the law. Even people who would never dream of stealing or murdering might only be restrained from speeding because of fear of a fine.
Likewise, God set rules for Israel, and because he knew their immaturity, he set down clear consequences for obedience and disobedience (Deut 28). He set before them life and death, good and evil. He literally put the fear of God into them. Sometimes that worked for a time, but not in the long run. They obeyed when it suited them, and reverted to cycles of sin, punishment and repentance, only to sin again, as the book of Judges attests. The problem was, fear is a poor long term motivator for devotion. What God really wanted was Israel’s love. He wanted them to obey him as a child loves, honours and obeys a loving Father. He wanted them to understand that,
As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust… But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments” (Psalm 103:13–18).
He appealed to them on this basis: “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name.” (Mal 1:6). By putting his law into our hearts, and establishing us as his sons through adoption in Christ, the game has changed. Our obedience springs not from fear, but from the vigorous, empowering motivation of love.
God’s love is the cause of our justification and sanctification, not its result. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). Greater love has no one than this, that Christ laid down his life for his friends (John 15:12–14). We are his friends if we do whatever he commands us, which we will if we genuinely believe IN him. Paul tells us “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Was this because we were already obedient? No! “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…. but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We have already been justified (declared not guilty) by his blood, saved by him from the wrath of God (against the children of disobedience Eph 5:6), so we are not motivated by fear.
“For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Rom 5:5–11). We are reconciled NOW, not after a lifetime of endeavour. Because we are now God’s children in Christ, we have the sure and certain hope of being fully conformed to his Son. We are Spirit-indwelt, and Spirit-enabled. Because of this we are motivated and empowered as never before, to obey. He has sent the Spirit of adoption into our hearts whereby we can cry “Abba, Papa,” (Rom 8:11–17) and progress from an immature, fear-based obedience which seeks to impress by works, to a now-natural, genuine, obedience from love. See how all this comes together in John’s first letter; our themes of obedience, not continuing in sin, belief IN Jesus, being children of God, abiding in him and overcoming.
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are… Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure… No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:1–10).
Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:15–21).
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world —our faith. (1 John 5:1–4)
To insist that obedience is somehow the foundation of salvation, and the means by which God is coerced or persuaded to love us, is to promulgate a different gospel (Gal 1:6–9). Legalism is obedience from fear, and is no gospel at all. The true Gospel of Christ is the Gospel of love. To love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves, is the sum of every commandment, the motivation and enabling of true obedience.