This is part of the saga of my ongoing journey from legalism to love as I tried to figure out the real reason for obeying God. The premise for this article is, yes, we need to obey God, but why? We don't obey God to be saved, but we do obey God. What are the good reasons and what are the bad reasons for obeying God? Are there bad reasons for obeying God? Read on!
I wanted to share with you some of my thoughts and discoveries, and some conclusions I came to over a period of years, as I came to a better understanding of what our relationship with God ought to be.
I read an article not too long ago in a religious magazine. The author of the article began by telling a story about a wife who had a demanding husband. This husband had given her a list with a number of things she had to do if she was going to make him happy.
Being a good wife, she tried to do all the things on the list every day. But over time, she grew to resent the list. And she grew to resent the duties she had to perform, and the husband who had given her the list. She came to hate the list and the husband. Of course, that marriage ended.
Later, the woman met another man, fell in love with him, and they got married. This fellow was not like her first husband. He didn’t give her a list of demands. Instead, he respected her, honored her, loved her, cared for her, and made a good and lasting marriage with her. She came to love him even more deeply as time went on.
One day she came across the list from her first husband. She started to read it, and she began to chuckle. She was doing everything that was on that list for her new husband, and a good deal more besides! Not only that, but she enjoyed doing those things for her new husband.
What was the difference? Her first husband was a strong, authoritarian dictator. Her second husband genuinely loved her and cared for her. She did these things naturally for her second husband, because of the love they shared. It wasn’t just a checklist of duties that had to be accomplished.
Then the author of this article said, “Scripture indicates that God intends our relationship with Him to be like this woman’s second marriage. He wants obedience that comes from the heart, that is based on love and respect for Him, and that results in peace and joy for us. Yet it seems that so many Christians don’t have the joy that should accompany obedience. …
“Could it be that so many of us fall short … because our relationship with God is like the woman’s first marriage? Could it be that we think of our Lord as a demanding husband instead of the lover of our souls? Are we too preoccupied with lists of requirements instead of being captivated by God’s love? Are we too focused on what we think we must do for Him and not on what He has already done for us?” (“The Root of Obedience,” by Richard A. Wiedenheft, in Bible Advocate, Vol. 140, No. 4, June 2006, pp. 12-13.)
When I read this, a number of things went through my mind, as I'm sure they're going through your mind, too. But as I read the rest of the article, there was a lot of activity going on in the back of my mind as I was reminiscing about things that had happened in my own personal development over the years.
For example: I was thinking about how I had a recurring question years ago concerned the relationship between obeying God and being saved. And when I say “being saved,” I’m not just talking about being in the first resurrection when Christ comes. I’m talking about being saved from our sins, being saved from sin and sinfulness, and from the penalty of our sins. I’m talking about being saved from being a slave laborer in Satan’s sweatshop. I’m talking about being saved from one thing, and saved for another thing. I’m talking about being loaded into the torpedo tube, ready to be fired on into eternity as a resurrected child of God. Salvation is a “big picture” kind of thing.
But here’s what I mean about the relationship between obeying God and having salvation. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this type of conversation. Somebody would say to me:
Them: “Oh, you guys are legalists. You obey God in order to be saved.”
Me: “No, we can’t earn our salvation. Salvation is a gift from God.”
Them: “Oh, so you don’t obey God.”
Me: “Well, yes, we do.”
Them: “But if you don’t obey God in order to be saved, why do you obey God?”
Me: “Well, God wants His children to be obedient to Him.”
Them: “Otherwise He won’t save you?”
Me: “He might not.”
Them: “Then you’re earning your salvation.”
Me: “No, we can’t earn our salvation....”
And around and around it would go. And because of conversations like this, I realized I didn’t have a really good explanation about why it is that we have to obey God, if that isn’t what saves us. Now I think I do. And I wanted to share that with you in this article.
As I read the magazine article I was quoting, I was also thinking back to a time when many of us began a journey through doctrinal shifts, and broken relationships, and cafeteria Christianity, and a complete re-evaluation of what we’d always believed, what we knew, or thought we knew. Some of us went through a number of churches, daughter churches, granddaughter churches, great-niece churches, splits, spin-offs, take-overs, take-unders, and a whole lot more. Some of us remember watching friends give up the faith and go back into the world. Their faith wasn’t in the right thing, and when the thing they had faith in failed, so did their faith, and so did their interest in coming to church.
That reminded me of when Messiah said:
24 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.
25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.
26 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.
27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. (Matthew 7:24-27)
If someone’s house is built on shifting sand, it can’t stand up to the storm. Some people ended their religious life with a great crash. And yet, it says “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice...” Didn’t we all do that? Didn’t we all try our best to do what was expected of us? Still, some people’s houses came crashing down. I kept wondering, what’s the missing factor here? Why would some people lose their faith, and their hope, even though they tried to build their religious house on the Rock?
I also remembered something I had heard in a sermon given years ago by a church leader. He spoke about obeying God. This church leader said something along the lines of, “Brethren, we don’t obey God because we have to.” That got my attention. I was riveted at that point. Then he completed the thought: “We obey God because we want to!”
I had to stop and let that rattle around in my head for awhile. I’d never heard anything like that before in that church—which is kind of sad. And I realized that it was true. I also realized that I had been obeying God all those years because I had to. Of course I wanted to obey Him, but the obedience was rooted in the need to obey Him. Why? Because He had something I wanted! I wanted eternal life, and God was the only one who could give it to me. I realized on the spot that this had been the wrong motivation!
This sermon came shortly after the time an announcement was read in the local churches on the subject of qualifying for the kingdom. This same man said in the written announcement that people were talking about qualifying for the kingdom, or qualifying to be in the kingdom. It was true. I knew it was true. The men who did opening and closing prayers often spoke in their prayers about their hope that we would qualify to be in the kingdom.
This announcement said we were not to say that any more. We will never qualify to be in the kingdom. Salvation is a gift, a free gift from God. We can never earn our salvation, so we can never qualify through anything we do. If we could qualify for the kingdom, we would be earning our salvation.
It wasn’t too long after that announcement that I heard the sermon I was talking about, where the man said we don’t obey God because we have to, but because we want to.
I understood. And I also knew, deep down in my heart, that this was not the way my relationship with God had been up to that point. What the man said made sense to me in that moment.
Actually, I left off one part of the thought. The church leader said something like, “We obey God because we want to, because we love Him, and our obedience to God springs from that love, not from a fear of punishment. We love God so much that we want to obey Him, just as we would want to obey a father we love.” This is approximately what he said in that sermon.
Now, I know what legalism is. Legalism is obedience for the purpose of earning salvation. And I know we can’t earn our salvation. Still, over the years I had often wondered, “Well, if we don’t obey God in order to earn our salvation, then why do we obey God? Because it’s nice? Because it’s a nice thing to do?”
Torah versus Law
For years I attended a church that preached God’s law, and how we have to obey God’s law. After I left that church, I began to see how God’s laws are better thought of as being God’s torah, the Hebrew word which means “instruction.” That’s the word used in the Hebrew scriptures. God gave us His torah. It means “instructions.” Rather than giving us a set of rigorous, concrete laws to rigidly obey, God has given us a set of rules to live by, teachings to learn from, examples of misbehavior throughout scripture that should teach us how not to live, and examples of good behavior that should help us to see a better way to live.
I began to see God’s torah as more like rules of a game, and if you play by the rules, life goes better. If you choose not to live by the rules—well, you’re free to do that, but it’ll hurt you, and you’ll end up losing the game.
Now, don’t think I’m minimizing the importance of the death penalty for sin. We have all sinned, yes, but what was the result? We have fallen short of the glory of God. That’s what sin does to us. That’s what our sinful human nature does to us. It causes us to fall short of the glory of God, as it says in Romans 3:23.
We go through our lives, and we die. What comes next might depend largely on how we have treated God and the torah He gave us to live by.
When I began to see God’s rules for us as instructions from a loving Father, as rules of the game, my relationship with God began to change, and I found myself loving God more than I had before. I’m not saying I looked on God as being a harsh deity we have to be afraid of. I always knew “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). But when I began to change my approach to understanding what God’s laws were all about, I became more at peace in my relationship with God.
I didn’t have to stress out, worrying if I was going to miss the mark and lose my salvation. Instead, I came to realize that I was going to make mistakes, but I could steer a course correction, ask for more help, and more forgiveness, and get back on track and move on down the right road.
As my understanding of God began to grow, I began to have a different outlook on how to live. Over the years, I came to see myself in a different light. I started to wonder if some of the warnings in Matthew 23 might be applied to me.
Messiah said, in Matthew 23:24: “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” There have been people who have criticized my former church for what they call “majoring in the minors.” This is another way of saying that we often concentrated on little picayune things and missed a lot of really big things. I tend to agree. We strained at gnats and let a lot of camels go by.
In Matthew 23:25-26, he said:
25 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
Even back in those days, I began to see, over time, that we all dressed up in pretty clothes and pretty faces when we went to church, but a lot of human nature was bubbling just under the surface. You know what? It still is. All that human nature is still there. We must always be vigilant and on guard against it.
In Matthew 23:27-28, he continued:
27 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.
28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Something had been missing, and we had, to a large extent, been whitewashed tombs, trying to look righteous to people. Not all of us. Some of us. Me.
I don’t think I fully appreciated then, as much as I do today, that being righteous wasn’t something I was supposed to do, but something I was supposed to be. It was hard sometimes to be obedient to God. We had to develop the habit of obedience over the years. And for many of us, that became an end in itself. Obeying God’s law became the thing that characterized our Christian life. For some, it became an object of pride. It was why we were alive. It was why God called us.
Sometimes, some of us did it because we had to, not because we wanted to. “Look, if we want to qualify for the kingdom, then here’s what we have to do.” Not, “here’s what we have to be.”
So, if we were whitewashed tombs, trying to look righteous but full of decay on the inside, what was missing?
What Was Missing
There is a critical bit of instruction, or torah, in Romans chapter 3. Let’s read it:
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law,
[Why?] so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.
20 Therefore [because of this,] no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.
22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference,
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—
26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith.
28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
29 Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too,
30 since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.
31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
There’s a lot of good stuff in this passage. Let me go over the list of points from this passage, so we don’t miss anything. Here’s what Paul says:
· No one is declared righteous because they observe the law.
· The purpose of the law is to make us conscious, or aware, of sin.
· Righteousness comes from God, not from law-keeping.
· This righteousness from God does not come as a part of, or a result of, law-keeping.
· Even though it was attested to by the scriptures (the law and the prophets), this righteousness from God was only then, in the first century A.D., being made known.
· It comes through faith in Jesus, the Messiah.
· Everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.
· We are justified (our sins forgiven) by grace, as a result of Messiah’s sacrifice, his spilled blood, not as a result of our law-keeping.
· This justification leads to our redemption, or being bought back.
· We are justified freely, and not after following a prescribed series of religious activities, or doing penance, or reciting prayers, or walking on hot coals, or walking on your knees to
· God sacrificed Jesus to demonstrate His (God’s) justice.
· God let people’s sins go unpunished.
· He did this to demonstrate His justice.
· He did this to demonstrate how He justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
· As a result of all this, boasting about law-keeping is excluded—it’s useless!
· People are justified by faith apart from observing the law; it’s the faith that leads to justification, not the law-keeping.
· But as a final point, Paul emphasizes that the law is not done away; in fact, he upholds the law.
From this we can learn that God’s instruction to us remains. It hasn’t been done away. However, the instruction is not the thing that determines our salvation. The law, or the torah, or the instruction, determines how we live, and it defines what sin is. But the law is not the thing that brings about salvation. Faith in the shed blood of Messiah, as a substitute for our own death, is what brings about justification.
But wait—justification is not the same thing as salvation! Justification simply means that the slate has been wiped clean and we are free to walk in newness of life, with God’s Spirit in us, living God’s way, living according to His instructions, living in obedience to God.
To do that, we need to avoid sin. To do that, we need to know what sin is. To know that, we need to know what God’s instructions are for our lives, because the law identifies what sin is. To know that, we need to know what the scriptures teach us. To know that, we need to read the Book.
When we read the book, we can see that we must have faith in the forgiving power of Messiah’s shed blood; and we must also have the law, God’s instructions for us, to teach us how to live. But that isn’t enough. We also need to have the righteousness that comes from God. On top of that, we also need to have the gift of salvation.
Now, how do all these things come together?
Righteousness (being right, living right) is just as much a gift from God as salvation is. Righteousness comes “apart from law,” that is, not as a result of our obedience. We can’t work up righteousness by law-keeping, any more than we can earn salvation by law-keeping. That’s what people mean by “legalism”—trying to earn our salvation through the “righteousness” of law-keeping. It won’t work!
Then, how do we find this righteousness? The answer is in Romans 1:17: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”
Remember, Paul also says that this righteousness from God is apart from the law. Here Paul says we find God’s righteousness in the gospel. Not in Moses. In the gospel. Not in law. In the good news!
Now, don’t get me wrong. Man’s righteousness can be found in the law. If you manage to obey the law, somehow, and never do anything against the law, you can be considered righteous, by men’s standards. But God’s righteousness is different. It isn’t merely the absence of breaking the law. It’s a regeneration of the spirit, from the inside out. It’s cleaning the inside of the cup and dish, and the outside becomes clean as a result. God’s righteousness is not something you do; it’s something you are!
Now, why do I say that? Because I don’t want any of us to make the mistake the Jews in the congregation at
made. In fact, I don’t want any of us to make the mistake many of us made back in some church we may have attended, or following some religious leader. The righteousness from God comes by faith, from first to last. It’s found in the gospel. Rome
, there were some people in the congregation who thought that their own righteousness, as demonstrated by their own law-keeping, was all that was needed to save them. They thought righteousness came from the law. That’s one extreme. Rome
On the other extreme, though, there is also an idea that, “Well, if righteousness comes by faith, then all I need is faith. Forget about Moses, forget about all that Old Testament stuff, Christ did away with the law, and we’re free from having to obey the law. The righteous will live by faith, and faith alone. That’s all I need!” That’s the other extreme.
My personal opinion is: Both extremes are wrong.
God gives us His righteousness through His Spirit. And because we have God's righteousness in us, from the moment of baptism, we are free—free to go about our lives in obedience to God, empowered by the righteousness that comes through the Spirit.
Let’s look in Romans chapter 6.
16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or [slaves] to obedience, which leads to righteousness?
17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin [forced laborers in Satan’s sweat shop], you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.
18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
We have become slaves to obedience, which leads to righteousness, and we have become slaves to righteousness so we can begin obeying the teaching—the instructions of God. We have become slaves to God, not because we have to, but because we want to, because He loves us, and because we love Him.
Paul continues, in Romans 6:22-23:
22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This is a key point. Because we are now slaves to God, and obey the teaching, He gives us a great benefit: His righteousness. God’s righteousness in us, in turn, leads to holiness. We become holy people, with God’s Spirit in us, helping us live our lives in a holy and righteous way. But it doesn’t stop there; “the result is eternal life”!
Here is where we obtain the salvation we have been talking about. Here is the answer to my search! Here is the solution to my question about why we obey God. God’s holiness in us results in eternal life. God’s righteousness guiding our lives is what brings us to salvation. This all comes about as a result of our faith in Messiah’s sacrifice, and in the grace, or favor, that God shows us in wanting to give us, first, His own righteousness, and second, the gift of eternal life as His resurrected children.
This is what Paul is writing about in the book of Romans. The Jews of the day tried to earn their salvation by scrupulous law-keeping. The Gentiles who came into the faith didn’t have that background. All they had was faith in this Yeshua guy, and they devoted their lives to learning about God and about His plan for their lives.
In Romans chapter 9, Paul said that the Gentiles had achieved something the Jews had not accomplished:
30 What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith;
, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Israel
32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.
The Jews of the day believed in salvation by works, which we today call legalism. Paul teaches that people simply can’t pursue a law of righteousness and try to gain eternal life by doing works, or deeds showing how righteous they are as law-keepers. Paul says the Gentiles who came into the faith understood the righteousness that comes by faith.
Earn salvation by works?
I can’t go past this idea of works without going to Ephesians chapter 2.
Ephesians 2:8: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—”
What is? What is the gift of God? Grace? Being saved? Faith? Actually, all three are gifts from God. This grace is not of ourselves; it’s the gift of God. This faith is not our own; it’s the gift of God. And being saved is not of our own; we can’t do it. This too is a gift from God. So when it says, “this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God”—they’re all gifts from God.
Verse 9: “not by works, so that no one can boast.”
So, we have been saved by faith, by grace, and not by works. So we don’t have to do works to be saved. We don’t have to do works to earn “Brownie points” with God. We don’t have to do works! Wait a minute. Yes we do!
Verse 10: “For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
God has prepared good works for us to do. We still need to do good works. Why? To be saved? To earn our salvation? No, of course not. We need to do good works because somebody needs help. We need to do good works because that’s what children of God do. We need to do good works, not because we have to, but because we want to! Because God has prepared good works for us to do. And He wants to see what we’re made of. He wants to see if we’re just in it for ourselves, for our own salvation, or if we really have the mind of Christ:
3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.
4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Messiah said, in John 10:17-18:
17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again.
18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.
He humbled himself, and took on the form of a servant. Why did he do that? For his own ego? To save himself? To earn his salvation? No, he did it because God asked him to do it. God prepared a lot of good works for Messiah to walk in. He became obedient to death, even death on a cross. He did it for us. He did it because he loved us. He still does. He did it, not because he had to, but because he wanted to.
Once I understood all this, over a period of several years, I came to see that there was something that I had missed in earlier years. I learned that we don’t qualify to be in the kingdom; we gratefully accept the free gift. I learned that we don’t obey God in order to get salvation; rather, I understand that we already have it, and we love God so much for His kindness and generosity that we do, truly, want to please Him. I learned that we don’t know ourselves half as well as God knows us, and sometimes, when we think we’re approaching God with pure motives, we really aren’t—unless we first have the righteousness that comes from God, through faith, by His grace.
So, that’s what I learned about our relationship to God. It took years, and I’m sure it took a few kicks to the head, spiritually speaking, before I got it. Now, what do I want you to do with this information? All this sharing of my voyage of discovery won’t have much meaning unless there’s something you can take home from it.
How about this? God’s righteousness will change people’s lives. When we truly repent, when we really mean it, when we aren’t pretending to God (because He’ll know we’re faking, even if we don’t know it), when we stop trying to do it ourselves, when we are truly ready to give up and give ourselves over to God—only then will we be ready to become a slave to righteousness, and reap the benefit of holiness, which results in eternal life.
And I think, if we wonder if we might still need to try harder to be good, or if we think God won’t really love us unless we become perfect by our own might and power, through our own law-keeping, that we might want to consider this concept that we need the righteousness of God, not our own righteousness. You may have heard what God thinks about our own righteousness. He likened our own righteousness to filthy rags in Isaiah 64:6.
Do we earn our salvation through law-keeping? I hope by now you can see that the question itself is silly. If we even ask the question, we’ve missed the concept entirely. Legalism? Not even close! But do we need to obey God anyway? Yeah, we do. I think if we have a loving Father—and God is often portrayed as a loving Father—I think we owe it to Him. He’s made us happy. It’s the least we can do.
And I think if we have a loving husband—and Messiah is often portrayed as a loving husband to the church—I think we owe it to him, too.
So to circle back to the tale of two husbands: Let’s suppose you are the wife in the story. Which husband would you rather have: The demanding husband who had come up with a list of duties the wife was supposed to perform every day in order to satisfy him? Or the second husband, the one who treated her with great respect, who honored her, and whom she came to love deeply, and obey out of that love?
The wife obeyed the first husband’s demands, but hated the demands, and hated the husband. The same wife loved and cherished her relationship with the second husband, and ended up doing the same things, and more, out of love—not because she had to, but because she wanted to, because she loved the husband who loved her.
This article is a transcript of a sermon I gave recently. However, since there are some concepts I'm trying to get across here which might not sound familiar or comfortable to some in my audience, I thought it best to write an addendum to this article, in an attempt to better explain what I am trying to convey in this message. Please click here to go to the addendum.
-- Jack Lane