Christians have a complicated relationship with obedience. On one end of the spectrum, legalists believe they earn and maintain favor with God by their own perfect adherence to God’s law. At the opposite end of the spectrum, antinomians believe they can live however they please – because they are saved by grace. In between these extremes is a lot of confusion, indifference, and even bickering over which rules we have to obey and which we don’t. To simplify the conversation, ask this question: Should we do what Jesus wants us to do, or should we do something else?
Let’s be clear about a core truth of the Gospel: Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We are not saved by our obedience, but rather for obedience. Those who are united to Jesus by faith will follow him, imperfectly, in obedient surrender because they are a new person in him.
In the ancient rabbinic model that Jesus lived and modeled, the obedience of disciples was assumed. The whole point of living in apprenticeship to a rabbi or teacher is that you’d hear his words, mimic his life, and pattern your life after his commands. So obedience is a core practice of all who follow Jesus.
But why? And what are we to obey? And how can we do that?
1. The Why of Obedience to Jesus.
We don’t obey in order to earn the love or approval of God; we obey because we’re already loved and accepted, unconditionally, in Jesus. In response to his grace, obedience is a grateful expression of our love and affection for God. To put it differently, those who continually do their own thing demonstrate a self-love and a self-will that is far greater than their passion for the Lord.
There’s also a wisdom to obedience. God made us and he knows what’s best for us. His way isn’t burdensome or arbitrary; it’s designed to correspond to reality and to lead to human flourishing. Even when we don’t understand or agree with God’s commands, his path leads to wisdom and life.
Obedience also bears witness to others that we love and trust God, and that he is worthy to be followed.
Negatively, disobedience conveys indifference to God. It communicates pride. Fundamentally, it’s the failure to treat God as God. It destroys the credibility of our witness. And it always leads to harmful consequences that God, in his love, intended for us to avoid.
2. The What of Obedience to Jesus.
The most obvious category of things to follow and obey are things that Jesus commanded his disciples. Now, clearly, there are specific commands given only to specific people at a specific time. We don’t all go fetch a baby donkey for Jesus. So the context of Jesus’ words is important. But when Jesus gives timeless instruction – in the Sermon on the Mount, for example – his words are intended to be followed by all of his disciples.
But Jesus’ witness and instruction does end with the four Gospels. Remember, Jesus is fully and eternally God. So the Word of God is the word of Jesus Christ. It’s a false distinction to draw a line between the “red letter words” and the other moral commands in Scripture.
This brings us to a second category of teachings we are to obey as followers of Jesus: the apostles’ instructions to the church in the balance of the New Testament. We’d be wise to read these letters as the will and way of Jesus further explained for his disciples.
Finally, we’re also called to obey those portions of the Old Testament that still apply to followers of Jesus today. Though this point seems to cause a lot of confusion, fighting, and posturing, it doesn’t have to be that way. The Bible itself makes it fairly clear which parts of the Old Testament law (Torah) are still binding on the Church today and which parts aren’t.
A quick primer: The Old Testament law is broken down into three basic categories: ceremonial, civil/judicial, and moral law. The ceremonial law told the Jews how to be distinct from the kingdoms and nations around them, and included laws on ritual purity, diet, festivals, and so on. The civil/judicial law told the Jews what kinds of punishments, restitutions, and sacrifices were appropriate for various offenses. And the moral law – like the Ten Commandments – expressed God’s timeless will for his covenant people, based on his own character.
God himself made clear in Acts 10-11 that the ceremonial law was no longer binding on the Church. Similarly, the book of Hebrews makes it clear that the civil/judicial law of Israel was fulfilled by the perfect, complete, once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. The balance of the New Testament shows that our fundamental identity is no longer Jew vs. Gentile, but a new family in Christ. And none of us live in a theocracy. So learn from the ceremonial and civil laws of Israel, and appreciate and apply the principial wisdom beneath them, but don’t bind others to avoid shellfish and bacon, or to tithe on their herb garden. On the other hand, don’t throw out the timeless moral law of God as it’s stated in the Old Covenant.
3. The How of Obedience to Jesus.
Let’s state the obvious: it’s easy to obey Jesus when it’s easy to obey Jesus. If you agree with a certain command or principle, and you don’t struggle with compliance at all, you probably don’t even think about this as obedience. But what do you do when you don’t like a command or principle of Scripture? Maybe you think it’s antiquated or narrow-minded. Maybe our culture scoffs at it, and you don’t want to sound like a jerk. Maybe you don’t understand why it matters in the first place. Maybe you just don’t like it. Yet this is where true discipleship rubber meets the road: surrendering your opinion and will to Jesus. But how?
Christian, don’t forget about the personal resource of the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised as a Helper to his disciples (John 14:16, 26). The apostles went on to say that if we walk in the Spirit, we will not gratify the desires of the flesh. We don’t have to figure out how to obey on our own; we have the presence and power of the third Person of the Trinity!
Particularly when obedience is hard, we can pray to the Spirit and confess that. We can admit that we are weak, or frustrated, or angry, or completely disagree, and need his strength to empower our obedience. And we can do this in community with other Jesus followers, who also provide healthy encouragement, exhortation, and support.