Obedience – The Gateway to Moral Freedom
By: Dr. Steven C. Riser
“Freedom is not the right to do what you want, but the power to do what you ought.”
Today, in an age of cheap grace, there are many who are professing Christians but few disciples who are obedient to the Great Commandment and Commission. Cheap grace can be understood as “a faith that does not spring from repentance nor issue in Christian discipleship” — submission to the person and teaching of Christ. Obedience to Jesus begins at the cross with “the obedience of faith” (John 3: 36).
Being a Christian involves: 1) the person of Christ to be received, 2) the truth of God’s Word to be believed, and 3) a life of loving obedience to be lived. The obedient Christian is one who knows, loves and obeys Christ and His wise and loving Word.
The theme of obedience runs throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
- The Bible begins by God giving Adam and Eve a single command to obey.
- The Old Testament prophets were constantly calling Israel back to obedience.
- The central call of the Gospels is to follow Jesus and become His disciple.
- The concluding commission is to teach others to obey what Jesus taught us.
- Acts and the Epistles record the Apostles obedience to this commission.
- Revelation 14:12 says the saints “obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.”
- The Bible ends when everyone shall bow and confess, “Jesus is Lord” (Phil. 2:10-11).
Preview of the Process – Questions for Consideration
Here are a few of the questions we will attempt to answer in this article:
- What is biblical/Christian obedience? (John 8:32-36)
- Why is obedience so important? (Luke 6:46; Jas. 1:22; John 14:23)
- What is the relationship between faith and obedience? (John 3:36)
- What is the relationship between love and obedience? (1 Jn. 5: 3; John 14:21)
- What is the reason and root of obedience? (Rom. 8:29; Titus 2:11-14)
- What is the reality (true nature) of obedience? (John 14:21)
- What are some of the biblical blessings associated with obedience? (John 13:17)
The Reason for Obedience – Response to God’s gracious action in Christ
God has made us new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) and has good plans for His children (Jer. 29:11). He wants to conform us to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:28) through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. This life-long process of sanctification involves learning to sin less and to please God more. As we grow in the knowledge and grace of God (2 Pet. 3:18), we grow in our desire and ability to trust and please Him through loving obedience from the heart. God wants us to become Christ-like in our love by becoming Christ-like in our obedience. God’s plan is for us is to know, love and serve Him. He is a relational God and does not desire for rules to take precedence over relationships. The reason that we are motivated to please God through obedience is that we have personally experienced His saving grace in Christ giving us a new nature with new desires. God calls us today to “come and see” the freedom, joy and blessing associated with obedience (John 13:17).
The Root of Obedience — The Glory of God — 1 Corinthians 10:31
What is the root of all sin? Disobedience — the source of all evil that fills the world. It is responsible for the heartache and suffering that fills our world today and is responsible for destroying our relationship with God, ourselves and others (Isa. 59:2). Disobedience is rebellion against God, which is the essence of sin. First John 3:4 says, “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness [or rebellion].”
What is involved in obedience? In obeying, one adapts one’s will, energies and abilities to whatever extent is required to respond to a command or call to perform a specific action or service. Only an intelligent free person is capable of obedience. That’s why those who are living according to their sinful nature cannot please God.
What is the root of righteousness? Obedience — a specific, tangible expression of love.
What is the root of obedience? A godly desire given by the Spirit to please God.
What is the goal of obedience? Conformity to the character and conduct of Christ.
The goal of obedience is ultimately the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). God is the Sovereign One who desires, demands and deserves the obedience of His creatures. The root of obedience is our experience of God’s grace which gives us a desire to please God. We please Him by loving Him. We love Him by trusting and obeying Him.
An old Gospel song many of us are familiar with contains these words:
But we never can prove the delights of His love, until all on the altar we lay;For the favor He shows and the joy He bestows are for those who will trust and obey. Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy with Jesus but to trust and obey.
One of the truths captured by this Gospel song is that Jesus is not only a Savior in whom we trust, but He is also the Lord to whom we are to submit and obey. God’s reputation is at stake in the way we live. This truth must become the driving force to motivate us to live an obedient Christian life. We obey God for no better reason than our life will please God and bring glory to Him.
The first question in the Westminster Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man? The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” The chief end of man isn’t our own happiness. The primary issue isn’t what benefits me or makes me happy but rather what pleases God. Too many people are asking what can Jesus do for me instead of what can I do for Him. If we have the wrong reason or an inadequate motivation, it becomes burdensome and we’re likely to fail in our efforts.
The Reality of True Obedience — Love from the heart — 1 Peter 1:22
Obedience must be viewed in the context of a loving relationship with Jesus Christ. We don’t always know what the loving thing to do is, but God shows us through His commands. Jesus said, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him…. 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” (Jn. 14:21, 23).
Peter said, “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Pet. 1:22).
Paul said to the Philippians, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:12-13).
We are called to work out what God is working in. He gives us the knowledge, desire and power to please Him and we respond in faith, love and obedience. According to Hebrews 5:8, “Although he (Jesus) was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” The reality is that just as Jesus learned obedience, so we learn it as well.
Jesus is calling us to a life of learning what it means to be a loving, obedient person.
The reality of our obedience to God begins with His love for us (2 Cor. 5:14) and they are both connected by our love for God. It looks like this:
- God loves us (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8)
- We love God because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). (We want to please God because we love God.)
- We love God by obeying His commands from the heart — 1 John 5:2, “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.”
You could say that our obedience to God is our love in action. It’s a demonstration of our love for Him in response to His love for us. Can we say as Peter did, “You know that I love you, Lord”? In knowing that, we must understand that our love for Him is simply a reflection of His love for us. The foundation of an obedient life is built upon the reality of God’s love for us and our love for Him. “I would have you learn this great fact: that a life of doing right is the wisest life there is” (Prov. 4:11).
Where does our love for others fit into the mix? Our love for others is a subset of our love for God. “How can we say we love God who we can’t see if we don’t love man who we can see?” (1 John 4:20). Living a life of loving obedience is learning how to live life as God intended it to be. True holiness consists of doing God’s will out of love from the heart, with a smile. The Bible is more a love letter than a rule book. It tells us what God is like and how He wants us to live. In our desire to be obedient, we must not forget that God has given us a mind and expects us to use it (Eph. 5:17).
What kind of disciples or Christ-followers are we? Can we be like Peter who followed Jesus closely up to his death or do we follow Him from afar? Joshua reminds us in Joshua 24:15, “Choose this day who you will serve.” We are still confronted with that choice today. “How long are you going to waver between two opinions?… If the Lord is God, follow Him!” (1 Kings 18:21).
The shortest way to a nervous breakdown is to try and live the Christian life alone. Attempting to obey God through sheer will power can leave one a “basket case.” Paul said, “It seems to be a fact of life that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong… In my mind I want to be God’s willing servant, but… the old nature that is still inside me and loves to sin. O what a terrible predicament I’m in” (Rom. 7:21-25).
It’s impossible to live an obedient life without the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. That is why we’re commanded in Ephesians 5:18 to “be controlled by the Spirit.” The purpose of God’s power is to enable us to obey. He gives us His power to accomplish His purpose. The good news is that what God calls us to do, He enables us to do. God not only commands us to obey Him but His Spirit goes with us and enables us.
Our Christian life moves upon the twin rails of: 1) obedience to God’s truthful Word, and 2) dependence on the loving Holy Spirit.
The seeds of God’s Word sown in our minds are quickened by the Holy Spirit in order to produce the desire and power for obedience out of love from the heart. We need to be convinced the goal of obedience deserves the discipline necessary for achievement. We can’t have one without the other or we will get into trouble. A submissive, obedient and dependent life is one of complete faith, trust and love. We listen to the Holy Spirit; act in faith and in loving obedience to God’s Word.
What is the relationship between God’s law and human freedom?
Does God’s Law restrict our freedom or does it enable our freedom? That all depends on what you think freedom is. Is freedom the right to do what you want or the power to do what you ought? Our decision is no better than our best option.
What are our options? According to Jesus in John 8:34, “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Jesus makes it clear in John 8:32 that we can never truly be Christ’s disciples unless we are obedient. Obedience to His teaching leads one to the truth that liberates the sinner from slavery to sin. We can be a child of God or a slave of sin. Deliverance from sin can’t be achieved by one’s own power but by the supernatural activity of God. The Son initially set us free from the penalty of sin and over time increasingly sets us free from the power of sin in our lives. The freedom we have as Christians consists of the desire and ability given by the Holy Spirit to function for the purpose for which we were created. According to Paul in Romans 6, we can be a slave to sin or righteousness; he gives no third alternative.
The ability to obey is learned by spending time alone with God and it is demonstrated in the battlefield of life. As we meditate on God’s Word, the Holy Spirit teaches us how to apply it to our lives. Obedience is putting God’s Word into action. It is the process by which the written Word becomes living in our lives. Proverbs 7:2 says, “Obey me and live. Guard my words as your most precious possession.” Obedience presupposes an accurate understanding of God’s commands. It has been said that either God’s Word will keep us from sin or sin will keep us from God’s Word (Psa. 119:11). If God’s Word prevents sin, then it must also enable obedience. We might put a minus (-) in the Bible for what God wants to eliminate in our lives and a plus (+) for what God wants to build into our lives.
One of the keys to true, heart-felt obedience is a close and intimate relationship with Christ which can only come about through a vital prayer life. If we’re in close communion with Him we bear fruit, but without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil and through the fear of the Lord, men depart from evil. When we fear the Lord we take Him seriously, including His commands. Spending time with God in prayer increases our love for God and our love for Him produces obedience. Don’t tell the Lord, like Peter, that you will never deny Him; rather, trust the Lord for the desire and power to obey Him moment by moment. Prompt obedience flows from a vital, present, personal relationship with Christ.
Have you ever heard someone say, “I’ve tried to live the Christian life, but I just kept blowing it, so I gave up”? This response overlooks the fact that learning to obey God is a life-long process. None of us are sinless, but over time by the grace of God we can learn to sin less. As we sin less we also obey more. Like a child learning to walk into his parent’s arms, the Christian life involves taking one step of faith at a time with our eyes of faith focused on Christ and our desire to please Him. Paul was clear that those living in the flesh — in their own strength — can’t please God (Rom. 8:8). He promised to never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5), and He promised that He would complete what He has begun (Phil. 1:6).
Failure is only final when we quit trying. God sees our heart; He knows the sincerity of our love for Him which motivates us to obey Him (1 Sam. 16:7). God loves us when we succeed, but He also loves us when we fail. Disobeying God may at times be painful, but the pain is not wasted if we can learn whatever God wants us to learn from it. We all fail, but when we do, we need to act like Peter and not like Judas. We must not permit our failure to obey God yesterday spoil our obedience to God today! God has given us a spiritual bar of soap and we need to use it (1 John 1:9; 2:1-2).
Beware of some of Satan’s methods to discourage our obedience to God:
- Deception by sin and compromise with sin (wrong standards)
- Questioning our motives (wrong desires). Our motives are always mixed.
- Fear that God doesn’t want the best for us (wrong direction)
God knows and wants what’s best and He always gives His best to those who leave the choice with Him. There is no contradiction between what pleased God and what is best for us. Once we understand and accept this truth, the Christian life becomes much more enjoyable.
Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m content with the status quo, I don’t want to rock the boat and make waves, I just want to stay within my comfort zone”? Where did we ever get the idea that the Christian life is safe, convenient and comfortable? The obedient Christian life is filled with adventure and challenge. It’s full of surprises and unexpected encounters. It’s full of risks and rewards. It involves getting out of our comfort zone so God can use ordinary people like you and me to do extra ordinary things. The obedient Christian life is the road less traveled. It is not safe, secure and protected but exciting, challenging and adventuresome. No one walking with God should ever be able to say that he is bored.
Living the obedient Christian life means being in touch with reality at all times. It means facing life head-on rather than hiding from it. It means helping people with problems rather than running from them. Perhaps one of the greatest struggles in obedience has to do with Christ’s great commission. Less than 5% of Christians have ever led someone to faith in Jesus Christ. Over 95% of Christians go through life without ever telling someone about Jesus and leading them to the Lord. The obedient Christian requires courage and a sense of adventure. Being obedient is not always easy, but it is always the best.
When we commit to live a life of obedience, we are permitting God to make of our lives what He desires for us to become. In so doing we are living up to the potential that God has for us. Our goal should be to please and glorify God by trusting Him and obeying regardless of how we feel and regardless of the circumstances.
Since we are eternally related to Christ, we no longer walk alone down life’s pathway, but He is with us each step of the way. As we submit ourselves to His Word and Spirit, He guides our steps further down His pathway of righteousness. His wish becomes our command. We long to know God more and more and we have a strong desire to be glorified in all things. The longer we serve Him the dearer He becomes to us. A deep joy springs from our inner being that touches every area of our lives. A cord of loving obedience binds us to the Savior and His commandments are never burdensome. The obedient Christian life is a delightful life of becoming increasingly free from the power of sin and our lives and it is very enjoyable. Our joy-filled life becomes a powerful demonstration of the reality of God to others.
The great plan and good purpose that God has for us comes to fruition in the life of obedience. The Bible tells us that we become a sweet smelling perfume filling the world with the fragrance of God’s love (2 Cor. 2:15). Our life of loving obedience is a fragrant reflection of Him to those around us. God invites us to come and see that great potential and blessing that is awaiting those who lead a life of loving obedience to Him. And in the end we will make the greatest discovery that our greatest glory is in the Lord Jesus Christ! To His name be all the praise!
The School of Discipleship is the School of Obedience
Christian disciples are learning to obey in order to become like the Master! Christ has not only called us to know, love, trust and serve Him; He has also called us to obey Him. The biblical theme of salvation can’t be separated from God’s call and command for obedience. While good works do not save us, we’re saved for good works (Eph. 2:8-10).
The reason for our obedience is our response to God’s gracious action in Christ. The root of our obedience is to please God out of love from the heart (1 Pet. 1:22) in order that God might be glorified in all things (1 Cor. 10:31). Only a person regenerated by the Spirit is capable of such obedience. The one who obeys Christ’s commands is the one who truly loves Christ (John 14:21) and in so doing proves to be His disciple (John 8:32).
As we learn to obey God more and more, we are increasingly set free from the power of sin in our lives. God’s love for us (2 Cor. 5:14) is what enables our love for God (1 John 4:19). Our love for God enables our obedience to God (1 John 5:2). Being controlled by the Spirit (Eph. 5:18) is essential if we are going to develop the self-control which enabled us to obey God (Gal. 5:21-22). Moral freedom — the power to do what we ought — is directly related to obedience (John 8:32).
The process of learning to obey God is a life long process and the result of this process is that we are more conformed to the character and conduct of Jesus Christ. Living an obedient Christian life means being in touch with reality at all times and experiencing the entire blessing associated with it (John 13:17). As we commit ourselves to obeying God, we are permitting God to make our lives what He desires for us to become. In so doing we are living up to the potential that God has for us. When we have a loving relationship with our Lord, His commandments are never burdensome (1 John 5:3).
Why is Obedience So Important?
- Obedience is one of the certificates of Christian character – 1 John 2:4
- Obedience is the true test of our love for Christ – John 14:21, 23
- Obedience is the pathway to blessing – John 13:17
- Obedience is a key to pleasing God – 1 John 3:18-22
- Obedience is what it means to love God – 1 John 5:3
- Obedience is what frees us from the power of sin – John 8:32-36
- Obedience is the gateway to Christian freedom – John 8:32-36
- Obedience is the mark of a true Christian disciple – John 8:32
- Obedience is the starting point and the goal of our Christian life.
- Obedience is what restores us to our original destiny.
- Obedience is a great source of Christian joy – John 15:11
- Obedience is what characterized the entire life of Christ – Psa. 40: 8; Jn. 4:34
- Obedience is the result of deep humility and submission – Phil. 2:5-8
- Obedience is a learned behavior – Heb. 5:8
- Obedience is essential for the process of sanctification – Eph. 4:23-32
- Obedience is the objective of our study of God’s Word – Jas. 1:22
- Obedience is the way we fulfill the Great Commission – Matt. 28:18-20
- Obedience is essential in order to glorify God – Rom. 3:23; 1 Cor. 10:31
- Obedience is a prerequisite for knowing God’s will – John 7:17
- Obedience is an evidence of true repentance and genuine faith – James 2
- Obedience is loving surrender to God’s will
- Obedience is enabled by faith – Hebrews 11
- Obedience is possible when God gives us the needed knowledge, desire and power.
- Obedience is more than external compliance to a list of rules.
- Obedience is adapting oneself to the workings of the Spirit. Eph. 4:28-29; 5:17- 18
- Obedience is a loving response to both God and our neighbor
- Obedience is essential to human life; without it we are merely animals.
- Obedience is freeing and liberating rather than dehumanizing.
- Obedience is what we always need even though we don’t always like it.
- Obedience is what liberates us from the power of sin in our lives. John 8:32-36
- Obedience is the social foundation for a healthy person and a healthy society.
- Obedience is what liberates us to adapt to God’s purposes. Acts 1:8
- Obedience is better than sacrifice-there is no substitute for obedience.
- Obedience is what enables us to be faithful to who we are in Christ. Eph. 4:1
- Obedience characterized the entire life of Christ — He was never disobedient.
- Obedience is radically different for the Christian as opposed to the unbeliever.
- Obedience is to be understood in the context of a personal relationship with Christ.
- Obedience is more than a specific action; it is a commitment to a way of living.
- Obedience is only possible when we submit to the power of the Spirit. Eph. 5:18
- Obedience is the role the Spirit leads us to play in bringing God’s truth to light.
- Obedience is what enables us to establish bonds of cooperation with one another.
- Obedience is the loving thing to do, based on the clear commands in God’s Word.
- Obedience is an act of love and faithfulness rather than self-righteous legalism.
- Obedience is what enables us to become divorced from the Kingdom of self.
- Obedience is motivated by a desire for other’s good and God’s glory. 1 Cor. 10:31
- Obedience is the gateway to both liberty and the fullness of life. John 8:32; Jn. 10:10