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Obedience: Not a dirty word

cartmanThis follows on from my series "Why be good?"

Kath has been writing about obedience and asking what's helpful in seeking to love an obedient life.  It's a good question, because people in the Bible seem pretty thrilled by the idea. The Psalmist sees the law as eminently loveable (Psalm 119:97), Paul calls it "holy, righteous and good" (Romans 7:12). Jude, Peter, James and Paul all introduce themselves as "Slaves of Christ" in their letters.  They love obedience!  They have seen an awesomely attractive vision of life and they've submitted themselves to it with joyful abandon.

We don't like obedience - as a rule. (If it were a suggestion, we'd be much more amenable).

Why don't we like it?

  1. We're not any good at it. I'm always inclined to hate something I'm bad at. (I'm afraid there's no real solution to this one - we'll always be really bad at obedience.  All of us.  Until we die. But it's we who are bad, not the law).
  2. Obedience feels like it's taking us away from the good life. We imagine that God has set up an arbitrary set of hoops for us to jump through. We imagine he's not really interested in goodness, in justice, in flourishing, in cosmic shalom.  We fear that he just sets little tests for the world in order to sort out the pious wheat from the irreligious chaff.  It rarely occurs to us that God has laid out "The Good Life" for us.  We consider it to be merely "The Hard Life."
  3. Law sounds like the opposite of love. Somehow someone convinced us that law and love are on opposite sides of an unbridgeable chasm.  They must have had their bibles firmly shut at that point because law and love go together everywhere you look in Scripture. But, according to the caricature, over there are law people obsessing over irrelevant duties, but over here, we're just liberated lovers, leading with our big, warm hearts. In this world, the word obedience definitely belongs over there. But notice too - in this world, both sides of the supposed chasm are far from self-forgetful gospel faith.
  4. Works seem like the opposite of faith (rather than the fruit). In our minds, we set up the difference between gospel faith and legalistic religion like this: YOU are faithlessly busy.  I am trustingly inactive.  God prefers my internal "faith" to your external "works".  Notice though, that this understanding is actually Christless - it makes me the Saviour, through my cognitive contribution.  But the gospel is that we're saved in spite of our inactivity and in spite of our busyness - we're saved by Christ. It's not really our faith that saves us (as though God prefers internal mental assent to external physical acts!) It's Christ who saves us and sets us on our feet as children of the same heavenly Father.  Now that we're in the family, how could obedience be a dirty word?  All of a sudden obedience makes sense.
  5. Obeying God seems besides the point, perhaps even Pharasaical. If, in the gospel, my goodness is irrelevant to my standing with God, we very quickly ask the question "Why be good?"  We rarely round on the question and ask an equally incredulous: "Why on earth be bad??" (We don't react that way because we've bought into lie no. 2 - we think that badness is a kind of delightful naughtiness). Positively speaking, it rarely occurs to us to answer the "Why be good?" question with an emphatic: "Because goodness is good!"  Or "Because Father knows best".  Or "Because the life of Christ works through us!"  Or "Because there's a world out there to bless!"

Once the incentive of heavenly reward is absent we seem to lose whatever interest in obedience we might have had.  But that's not a sign that we're too focused on the gospel.  The very opposite - it's a sign that we haven't allowed the gospel to properly re-calibrate our thinking.

It's the legalist who sees obedience as an arbitrary set of hoops to jump through.  Legalists are like the older brother of Luke 15 - happy to prove themselves by jumping through the hoops. The licentious are like the younger brother of Luke 15 - happy to find themselves by casting such burdens away.  But both of them completely misunderstand obedience.  We should think of obedience as one way - a beautifully attractive way - of characterizing 'the father's house.'  Yes it is a place of love, blessing, security, celebration, joy, mercy, peace, etc, etc.  But it's also a place where the beautiful will of the Father is done.

On this understanding, legalists are like the older son, self-righteous in the field. The licentious are like the younger son, lost in the far-country. The true position is to be a sinner robed, in the father's household.  But just imagine that younger son, the morning after the feast.  With what eagerness he will serve his father now!  He'll get it wrong.  He'll have to learn. But obedience in the father's house is not a dirty word, it's the very atmosphere of home.

It's true that there is a slavery on the near side of sonship and that is spiritual death.  But there's a slavery on the far side of sonship and it is life and peace.

11 thoughts on “Obedience: Not a dirty word

  1. Steve Martin


    It all boils down to which type of obedience we are focused on;

    Obedience to the law...or the obedience of faith.

    "What is it to do the works of the Father?" they asked Jesus. "This is what it believe in the one whom the Father has sent."

  2. Cal

    Good post, Glenn! I have been relearning the goodness of the word 'obedience' though I thought it was so dirty before. With so many wicked kings/presidents/ministers yelling "OBEY" throughout history, it's hard not to become jaded to the idea that there is a good king!

    Not to rabbit trail, but I've been thinking about the law in the context of what James called the "perfect law of liberty". I'd match that up in the commands Jesus gives, the true life our king leads by examples and empowers us, is the seed in the heart of Moses. Is this the purpose of the law in Jesus people's lives?

    I've never agreed with Luther's mere use of the law to drive people to despair. I think the Torah, as Paul said, revealed sin as sin and made it all the more sinful. But that is because the Torah of Moses was a reflection of the Torah of Messiah, a Torah engraved on the heart. Obedience to Moses, while a faith in the Messiah, shadowy as that may have been compared to now, is what wrought liberation, was a gracious arrangement until the real was revealed. Same with the land, temple, throne all pointing to their heavenly realities found only in Jesus. Obedience is the work of learning how live as a real human, that humanity we see in Messiah.

    Am I getting it?


  3. Cal

    PS. Luther is more nuanced than I presented, and I put it crudely. I'm aware, it was just for sake of summary and Luther always paired with Gospel, so it was not fear-mongering (though it could be used as such).

  4. Steve Martin

    Luther spoke of 2 uses of the law;

    that we might live together in this world as best as is possible for expose us and drive us to Christ.

    We all know what obedience to the law will get us, for righteousness sake. Death. (St. Paul even called the 10 Commandments, "the ministry of death").

    But the obedience of faith, brings us authentic Life.

  5. Glen

    Hey Cal, yes the law does judge us (the 2nd, theological, use of the law is crucial). But it's so easy to characterize the law therefore as a stick to beat us into despair - rather than as an articulation of the Good Life. Of course it judges us, but it does so *because* of its wildly liberating goodness.

    I often reflect on the fact that "God's son" (Ex 4:22) receives the household rules at Sinai. When God's Son comes in the flesh He embodies and gives to us that Good Life in Himself. It is filled-full in Jesus (Matt 5:17) and then given to us as a gift from beyond ourselves.

    Of course the written code has nothing to do with my standing before God. And it cannot call forth Christ's life in me - His life can only be received by faith. But the law does describe and give definition to that other-centred life - it remains holy, righteous and good.

    I think if those kinds of thoughts were properly articulated when folks teach the first 2 uses of the law you could be a faithful Lutheran and avoid that crude (but recognisable) presentation.

  6. alan1704

    Thanks and I agree that it is all about the goodness of God and his loving son united in our life. I would see it just slightly different, but it is just a matter of perspectives. To me obedience is not a work, not a decision, not a choice, not a response to a request, but the overflow of a spirit united with Christ. It flows out of a place of rest. It is the overflow of grace with my union with Christ. The effortless response to Christ living and working through me. My amen to all the promises that are given to me in Christ. When I get contaminated with the world and its thinking then I start to associate with my flesh over the spirit and then I struggle with my obedience to my loving father. But as I live by my perfect, united spirit and let God permeate through me, all the grace of God works and flows through my life.

  7. John B

    Hi Steve,

    Are you using the phrase "obedience of faith" in the same sense that Paul uses it in Romans?

    Do you interpret Paul's meaning there as obedience consisting of faith only, apart from any active response that results?

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