Discussions surrounding the subject of obedience in Scripture intermingle with questions about salvation and the nature of the Law. Subject to the revelation of the new covenant, our Christian perception of the Law (which is sometimes associated with ideas like obedience) has been evaluated differently across various theological traditions. Any investigation of praxis and human-oriented action is bound to invoke concerns about works-based-righteousness, indicating the lasting residue of this Reformation-era concern. A careful reading of Scripture yields a holistic understanding of the necessary juxtaposition between works and faith or law and gospel. In the combined and inseparable narratives of the Old and New Testament, we find that obedience cannot be severed from the Christian life.
Scripture refers to the following actions when casting a broad vision for obedience:
- To guard.
- To observe.
- To keep.
- To maintain.
- To preserve.
- To comply.
- To submit.
As indicated above, obedience is about our disposition towards God and vitally, our willingness to act in accordance with what God desires and wills for us.
John’s Gospel states, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The “you” here is plural and expresses the subjunctive mood, which indicates a wish or hope for God’s people. This passage reflects God’s desire for His people to keep His commandments. The subjunctive mood and the first clause of the sentence (“If you love me”) indicates that there is a potential to obey or to disobey. On the other hand, we can see that the second statement (“you will keep my commandments”) is predicated upon our love of God. Because of this, the two parts of verse 15 mirror a classic “if/then” formula, which is commonly used in Scripture to describe a conditional statement. If we love God, the natural outflowing of this love will be obedience to God.
The first epistle of John echoes this same sentiment. In chapter 5 we read, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3). This point, is emphasized over and over again in the Johannine letters. Here is a sampling of these passages:
“And whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him” (1 John 3:22).
“Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he was given us” (1 John 3:24).
“And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it” (2 John 1:6).
For God, obedience is no trivial matter. It is inseparable from our loving relationship to God, just as fidelity is to a spouse. And yet, we know that Scripture also speaks of grace and mercy and our need for both due to our inability to perfectly follow God’s purposes. This explains the paradoxical language that Scripture uses. We are simultaneously incapable of justifying ourselves through any action or deed (Romans 3, Galatians 3) and yet also esteemed to be essentially spiritually dead when living a life that is devoid of actual obedience and righteousness (James 2, Matthew 25).
The testimony of Scripture informs us that obedience is expected (and commanded) of those who truly love God. Therefore, obedience involves not just the hearing or reading of God’s commands, but in acting and living in accordance with them to the best of our abilities. Obedience reflects the degree to which we acknowledge Christ as Lord.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus himself poses a question that cuts to the heart of this matter. In Luke 6:46, Christ asks;
“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I say?” (NASB). Immediately following this question, Jesus provides the proper response stating, “everyone who comes to me and hears my words and acts on them, I will show you whom he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it bad been well built” (47-48).
Obedience lays a solid foundation for the believer. It prepares us for the floods and the storms, so that we are not inevitably shaken when trouble or temptation comes our way. At the same time, we know and acknowledge that we are imperfect and prone to sin and failure. Because of this, we can fall, willfully or naively, into the clever trap of performing for others in public, while living a double life in private. To be frank, performative righteousness is a phenomena that plagues both the sacred and the secular spheres. Obedience then becomes a way to display our seemingly righteous character to those around us, while our secret thoughts and actions stray far from God’s high standard. How often do each of us live rightly according to the “letter of the law,” while failing to grasp the “spirit of the law?” This indicates a disconnect between our actions and our heart. We may do the right thing on the outside, but if our heart is not in the right place, we have fallen short of God’s expectation.
Obedience entails our whole being – the external and the internal. It impels us to address the baggage that prevents us from doing what we know to be right. But it is Jesus Christ alone who represents this perfect model of obedience by living an entire life of perfect and holistic obedience, including being “obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). Through His perfect obedience, Christ reconstitutes the integrity and freedom of humanity. Those who unite themselves to Christ through allegiance, obedience and submission are provided the most joyous gift of life, which is the ability to participate and cooperate with the gracious gift of life in communion with Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In the context of ministry, both for Damascus Way and Destiny Dads, obedience is an expected ethic for staff and resident alike. Excellence begins, with the desire to exemplify standards of compliance and “obedience” to contractual agreements and organizational standards and policies. When we abide by all of these expectations, we are practicing a form of obedience, which in turns builds trust. It is extremely important for our program participants to see that we “walk the talk.” The example of one individual can set the tone for one of his or her peers. A passage in Hebrews 10 which states, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” may describe how our actions influence the actions of others.