Category Archives: Obedience to Scripture
Herman Ridderbos, Studies in Scripture and Its Authority (1978), 83–4:
The meaning of Christ’s self-sacrifice provides the New Testament message of reconciliation with a depth-dimension of which the church may never lose sight. To slight this dimension is to lose touch with the very mystery of the gospel.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many who live out of this mystery of salvation and who find there the only consolation for life and death view with suspicion any new ideas putting all the emphasis on what our lives ought to reveal, instead of emphasizing what Christ has done, once and for all, in our place. Is this not a radical shift in focus? And ought we not rather to count as nothing all human effort so that we focus our attention and faith exclusively on what Christ, by his death and resurrection, has fully done, once and for all, in our place?
To think that way is to run the risk of making a serious mistake.
For although we are completely correct to stress the expiatory and atoning effect of Christ’s sacrifice as the focal point of the biblical account of reconciliation, we may not restrict the power of that sacrifice to what Christ once suffered and performed in our place. We refer again to the victorious power of Christ’s death and resurrection in his battle against the powers and demons which, as God’s adversaries, chained persons to their service. But this victory not only affects Satan and his subjects; the suffering and death of Christ also exert a liberating and renewing power in the lives of all who believe in him. The effect of this sacrifice is not only that it frees us from the guilt and punishment of sin, but also that it subjects us to Christ’s regime. Reconciliation means that the world — all things, man included — is again put right with God.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, 479–480:
Good works are not independently and newly brought into being by the believers themselves. They lie completely prepared for them all and for each one of them individually in the decision of God’s counsel; they were fulfilled and were earned for them by Christ who in their stead fulfilled all righteousness and the whole law; and they are worked out in them by the Holy Spirit who takes everything from Christ and distributes it to each and all according to Christ’s will.
So we can say of sanctification in its entirety and of all the good works of the church, that is, of all the believers together and of each one individually, that they do not come into existence first of all through the believers, but that they exist long before in the good pleasure of the Father, in the work of the Son, and in the application of the Holy Spirit. Hence all glorying on man’s part is also ruled out in this matter of sanctification. We must know that God in no way becomes indebted to us, and that He therefore never has to be grateful to us, when we do good works; on the contrary, we are beholden to God for them, and have to be grateful to Him for the good works that we do.
“’When that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away’ [1 Cor 13:10]. The idea of reaching ‘a good life’ without Christ is based on a double error. Firstly, we cannot do it; and secondly, in setting up ‘a good life’ as our final goal, we have missed the very point of our existence. Morality is a mountain which we cannot climb by our own efforts; and if we could we should only perish in the ice and unbreathable air of the summit, lacking those wings with which the rest of the journey has to be accomplished. For it is from there that the real ascent begins. The ropes and axes are ‘done away’ and the rest is a matter of flying.”
In a recent blog comment Tom posted a gem from C. S. Lewis’ twisted little satire Screwtape Letters. It forms a nice complement to the previous Lewis quote. Here we see how Lewis articulates the Christian’s growth in godliness when the desire to obey has vanished but the intention to obey has not. Multiple themes converge here in this rich, little paragraph. I commend it to you for your slow contemplation.
“He [God] leaves the creature [believer] to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with the better. He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” (p. 40)
“…In reality [William] Tyndale is trying to express an obstinate fact which meets us long before we venture into the realm of theology; the fact that morality or duty (what he calls ‘the Law’) never yet made a man happy in himself or dear to others. It is shocking, but it is undeniable. We do not wish either to be, or to live among, people who are clean or honest or kind as a matter of duty: we want to be, and associate with, people who like being clean and honest and kind. The mere suspicion that what seemed an act of spontaneous friendliness or generosity was really done as a duty subtly poisons it. In philosophical language, the ethical category is self-destructive; morality is healthy only when it is trying to abolish itself. In theological language, no man can be saved by works. The whole purpose of the ‘gospel,’ for Tyndale, is to deliver us from morality. Thus, paradoxically, the ‘puritan’ of modern imagination—the cold, gloomy heart, doing as duty what happier and richer souls do without thinking of it—is precisely the enemy which historical Protestantism arose and smote.”
Source: English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1944), 187.
At times I flip back in my Moleskine notebook of sermon scribbles to recollect what I was learning 12 months ago. It’s a humbling exercise to realize that very little of what I actually hear during a sermon will stick in my brain for a year. And it’s a bit discouraging, too. Apparently I require chronic review of everything I’ve ever learned (paradoxical, I know).
But I do remember one sermon from last summer. At about this time at Covenant Life Church, Joshua Harris’s father Gregg Harris preached a fantastic message on the topic of parenting (so good I remember it!). The entire message is worth a listen but the following excerpt previewed the topic of parenting and highlights an essential character of the wisdom literature of Scripture. Obedience is its own reward.
“The thing that we sometimes fail to understand about God’s Word, and the wisdom that it offers us, is that it’s intended to be the light upon our path. Some of us read our Bible’s like a man looking into the glare of his flashlight in a dark cave. He is as blind as if he had no light at all because he is not relating what Scripture says with what he’s doing. It’s intended to be a light upon the path.
Sometimes we fall into the mistaken notion that when we obey God’s Word that somehow we are putting God in our debt. But obedience is its own reward. When you step over something that’s in your way because you are walking in the light of God’s Word, you don’t suddenly turn to God and say, ‘Okay God, I obeyed, now pay me!’ The fact that you did not fall on your face is reward enough. And sometimes we fail to make that connection.
Wisdom itself is that ability to see how one thing relates to another in God’s purposes. That this relates to that because of who He is—and He is good and wise. And when we understand this, the commandments of the Lord and the wisdom literature of the bible become a delight to us, not a burden. It is not a distraction from what would have been more enjoyable but rather it’s rescuing from what would have been horrible.”
—Gregg Harris, sermon: “Don’t Waste Your Kids,” July 27, 2008, Covenant Life Church, 1:39-3:15 markers.
And for more on the idea that “obedience is its own reward” check out Deuteronomy 6:24, 10:12-13, and Proverbs 9:12. May we live this out, being people who truly delight in God’s Law (Psalm 1:1-2). And may I never forget it!
“A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people) like a crutch which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it is idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits, etc.) can do the journey on their own.”
—C.S. Lewis, Letters, 18 July 1957.
On Sunday Covenant Life Church was given a gift of a sermon from Joshua Harris’s father, Gregg Harris, on the topic of parenting. The entire message is worth a listen (as is Joshua’s Mother’s Day message). The following excerpt previewed the topic of parenting and highlights an essential character of the wisdom literature.
Gregg Harris said,
“The thing that we sometimes fail to understand about God’s Word, and the wisdom that it offers us, is that it’s intended to be the light upon our path. Some of us read our Bible’s like a man looking into the glare of his flashlight in a dark cave. He is as blind as if he had no light at all because he is not relating what Scripture says with what he’s doing. It’s intended to be a light upon the path. Sometimes we fall into the mistaken notion that when we obey God’s Word we are putting God in our debt [legalism]. But obedience is its own reward. When you step over something that’s in your way because you are walking in the light of God’s Word, you don’t suddenly turn to God and say, ‘Okay, God, I obeyed now pay me!’ The fact that you did not fall on your face is reward enough. And sometimes we fail to make that connection. Wisdom itself is that ability to see how one thing relates to another in God’s purposes. That this relates to that because of who He is (and He is good and wise). And when we understand this the commandments of the Lord and the wisdom literature of the Bible become a delight to us, not a burden. It is not a distraction from what would have been more enjoyable but rather it’s rescuing from what would have been horrible.”
- Gregg Harris, sermon, “Don’t Waste Your Kids,” July 27, 2008 at Covenant Life Church (1:39-3:15 markers).
The excerpt reminded me of a sermon by Jonathan Edwards that connected the goodness of God in giving his wisdom and the happiness of man in obeying that wisdom. He said, “Knowing the terribleness of the misery that we shall bring upon ourselves by our disobedience and our own blindness, folly, and backwardness to obedience, He graciously condescends to urge us, and uses and abundance of arguments with us, to persuade us to obedience.” And later Edwards said, “If God should leave men wholly to themselves, to their own exorbitant and wicked dispositions, without any restraints, men would make a hell for themselves. It is a great part of the misery of hell that sin has there its full and free course, and has no restraints.” 
For more on this idea that “obedience is its own reward” read Deuteronomy 6:24, 10:12-13, and Proverbs 9:12. May we see God’s kindness in giving His wisdom and be people who delight in His law (Psalm 1:1-2).
 Don Kistler, ed. The Puritan Pulpit American Series: Jonathan Edwards (Soli Deo Gloria, 2004) pp. 236, 240.
Last night 60 Minutes aired a segment on popular pastor and author Joel Osteen. Michael Horton, Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, appeared briefly. Horton has spoken out with concern over Osteen’s message. Here’s one concern that strikes me:
“There is no condemnation in Osteen’s message for failing to fulfill God’s righteous law. On the other hand, there is no justification. Instead of either message, there is an upbeat moralism that is somewhere in the middle: ‘Do your best, follow the instructions I give you, and God will make your life successful.’ …
Instead of accepting God’s just verdict on our own righteousness and fleeing to Christ for justification, Osteen counsels readers simply to reject guilt and condemnation. Yet it is hard to do that successfully when God’s favor and blessing on my life depend entirely on how well I can put his commands to work. ‘If you will simply obey his commands, He will change things in your favor.’ That’s all: ‘…simply obey his commands.’
Everything depends on us, but it’s easy. … Osteen seems to think that we are basically good people and God has a very easy way for us to save ourselves — not from his judgment, but from our lack of success in life — with his help. ‘God is keeping a record of every good deed you’ve ever done,’ he says — as if this is good news. ‘In your time of need, because of your generosity, God will move heaven and earth to make sure you are taken care of.’
It may be ‘Law Lite,’ but make no mistake about it: behind a smiling Boomer Evangelicalism that eschews any talk of God’s wrath, there is a determination to assimilate the gospel to law, an announcement of victory to a call to be victorious, indicatives to imperatives, good news to good advice. The bad news may not be as bad as it used to be, but the good news is just a softer version of the bad news: Do more. But this time, it’s easy! And if you fail, don’t worry. God just wants you to do your best. He’ll take care of the rest.
So who needs Christ? At least, who needs Christ as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn 1:29)? The sting of the law may be taken out of the message, but that only means that the gospel has become a less demanding, more encouraging law whose exhortations are only meant to make us happy, not to measure us against God’s holiness.
So while many supporters offer testimonials to his kinder, gentler version of Christianity than the legalistic scolding of their youth, the only real difference is that God’s rules or principles are easier and it’s all about happiness here and now, not being reconciled to a holy God who saves us from ourselves. In its therapeutic milieu, sin is failing to live up to our potential, not falling short of God’s glory. We need to believe in ourselves and the wages of such ‘sins’ is missing out on our best life now. But it’s still a constant stream of exhortation, demands, and burdens: follow my steps and I guarantee your life will be blessed.”
- Michael S. Horton article, Joel Osteen and the Glory Story: A Case Study
Horton’s comments are reminiscent of J. Gresham Machen’s view that the theological liberalism of his own day was not a new path of freedom but a “sublimated form of legalism” [see Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans: 1923) pp. 143-156].
Instead of preaching that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” the popular trend says, “God blesses you with all physical blessing because you have asked enough and obeyed a certain way to unleash the blessing.”
Horton and Machen both recognize that while contemporary shifts in preaching may seem to liberate the believer, the opposite happens — God’s promised blessing becomes contingent on personal obedience. This is the very bondage to the Law Christ frees us from!
So why has God blessed your life? Why do you have life? A job? Money? Food? Clothes? Are your successes expected because God likes you more than others? Are you blessed because your obedience is superior? The proper answer is that all of God’s blessing comes to us in Christ. We don’t get what we deserve (His wrath), we get what we don’t deserve (grace, forgiveness and blessing from God through the death of Christ).
At the end of the day the prosperity gospel is a radical break from Scripture that tells us we have already received everything necessary from God in Christ.
The Gospel – the message that sinners are justified by faith alone in the perfect life and work of Christ alone – is the true path to eternal blessing and freedom. When this Gospel is clouded (or even forgotten), we no longer get a clear view of God or eternal reality by which we interpret our world, our job, our pain, our successfulness.
In the end, to presume God’s blessing is an award for obedience is bondage to age-old legalism, albeit with a kinder and gentler face.
RELATED POST: A short essay answering the question, What is legalism? (5/22/07)
RELATED POST: “Like pangs of death”: Letting go of legalism (3/19/07)
RELATED POST: Cross-centered obedience (08/16/07)
RELATED POST: Deeper into the Glories of Calvary (09/03/07)
RELATED POST: Sinclair Ferguson on supporting the imperatives to holiness (07/23/07)
RELATED: What constitutes ‘relevant preaching’? … “The Christian is in the midst of a sore battle. And as for the condition of the world at large — nothing but the coldest heartlessness could be satisfied with that. It is certainly true that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. Even in the Christian life there are things that we should like to see removed; there are fears within as well as fightings without; even within the Christian life there are sad evidences of sin. But according to the hope which Christ has given us, there will be final victory, and the struggle of this world will be followed by the glories of heaven. That hope runs all through the Christian life; Christianity is not engrossed by this transitory world, but measures all things by the thought of eternity.” Machen in Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans: 1923) pp. 147, 149.
The way I see it, the most delicate balance of the Christian life is in maintaining a Cross-centered perspective and pursuing personal obedience. Push a little too hard on the one side, I fall into self-righteousness and legalism, thinking God’s acceptance of me is rooted in personal obedience. This is spiritual suicide. Or I fall on the other side in thinking the Cross demotes personal obedience to the status of “minor importance.” This too is wrong.
In John 15:1-17 Christ gives us a radical alternative. Here He teaches us that the high calling of personal obedience presses us into the Cross-centered life. Let me explain.
Obedience and comfort
I’ll begin with a hypothetical. What if you somehow discovered that your friend was going to endure, over the next week, the most horrible experience of their life? They will learn another close and beloved friend has experienced a ghastly and painful death. What words today would you leave with your friend to prepare them for the coming pain?
My guess is that we would speak only words of comfort. We would weep with those about to weep. God is faithful, we would say. He will be with you. He will not leave you even in the darkest times.
I think we would agree that – on this brink of tragedy – it would be odd and out of place to call our friend to pursue personal obedience.
Yet on the brink of the crucifixion this is exactly what Christ does. As the disciples are about to forsake the Son and see Him crucified, Christ prepares them by calling them to pursue obedience and fruitfulness (John 15:1-17).
‘Abide in my love’
“Abide in my love” Jesus tells the remaining 11 disciples (v. 9). The Cross will forever exhibit the greatest expression of love ever displayed (v. 13). It’s here, on the Cross, that Christ gives His Body to be murdered to bear the wrath of God’s judgement as the Substitute. He will bear our guilt. He will bear our sins. The wrath we deserve will be redirected into the perfect Son. This is the greatest love. So rest, delight, dwell, find your life, “abide” in this love.
This is to say the spiritual life of the Christian is sustained by the Cross. “Abide in my love” is Jesus’ call to live and breathe and find all nourishment and life in the Cross. Paul says it well, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). The Christian life is now sustained “by faith” in the Cross of Christ!
All my righteousness before God and all my spiritual vibrancy derive from this love, this Cross!
Fruit for the Father
In light of the Cross I think it is natural (though not accurate) to de-value personal obedience. Quite the opposite! By giving us the spiritual life necessary, the Cross actually strengthens the call of Christian obedience.
For the Christian (those with “new life”) only abiding in the life-giving Cross makes fruitfulness possible! Previously, the sinner outside the Christ was nothing more than a dead branch seeking to bear fruit but dehydrated from all spiritual life. Christ is our life.
Tucked in verse 8 we glimpse at the very heart of the Trinitarian motivations behind the Cross. Jesus says His Father is glorified when we bear fruit. The fruitfulness of the saint is a direct growth from the life and nourishment of the Cross. Think of it this way: We bear fruit by abiding in the Cross, the fruit of the branches is plucked by the Son and then carried to the Father in a bushel basket as an offering of glorification from the Son to the Father. Here we see the profound motives of Christ to glorify the Father.
In this cycle of the saints feeding off the Cross and bearing fruit, of the Son plucking the fruit and offering His Father the glory, we see Cross-centered thinking and diligent obedience come together. It’s important that we fight the tendency to emphasize works over the Cross and the tendency to think the Cross makes obedience an optional or secondary pursuit.
The calling to pursue diligent obedience and bear fruit came packaged with a stern warning that fruitless branches are thrown into the fire (v. 6). So why the hard demands of Jesus to bear fruit? How can He get away with such strong words? Here’s why: His Cross can sustain the weight of these high demands.
Here is what I’m getting at. In light of the coming tragedy, Christ raises the bar of obedience and fruit-bearing expectations for His disciples. This is how Jesus saw fit to comfort His disciples in the coming storm! He knew the higher the bar was raised in personal obedience the deeper He would drive the disciples into Himself.
We cannot miss this: The high calling to pursue personal obedience will (graciously) press the saint into Christ and into the Cross. And this means, at a profound level, the Cross-centered life is compromised by laziness in the pursuit of personal obedience.