No doubt in my mind, it is one of the more difficult aspects of living in line with the gospel. Is it about grace, or is it about obedience? If I say “both” – which I do – then how does this not add a requirement of works to the gospel requirement of faith alone for our justification/salvation? If I say obedience is not necessary to our salvation – which I also say – then are we not very close to the precipice of anti-nomianism (lawlessness)? No wonder people scratch their heads, and then revert back to patterns learned or to personal instinct – both of which are often wrong.
To avoid confusion, I answered “Yes” to both grace and obedience for a reason. Let me clarify.
I must say that our obedience is not necessary to our salvation, because we are incapable of perfect obedience – and perfect obedience is what the Law demands. To add any measure of obedience to our justification would be to minimize the law and deny the gospel at the same time. Christ became like us, and lived in perfect obedience to his Father, and then died in our place, because we are not and cannot be perfectly obedient. And it we are not perfectly obedient, we are not obedient. But by faith, we are counted as righteous – credited with Jesus’ righteousness as if it were our very own. But part of what we must believe, as part of that faith is that we are disobedient. In a real sense the admission of being disobedient is requisite to be saved. How then could we say that obedience is required for salvation?
On the other hand, God does demand obedience – and he is worthy of our total obedience. But two things occur here, in some ways simultaneously. First, the demand for what we do not and cannot do highlights our brokenness and our dependence upon grace – the grace of a savior. The demand, coupled with our lack of obedience, drives us to either despair or to the cross. Those driven to the cross find, not condemnation, but forgiveness and love, through unmerited grace extended to us by God, because of Jesus. This breaking, because we become aware of our disobedience, is a necessary step toward healing and wholeness. But second, God’s demands are not a mere bait and switch. When he commands obedience, he means it. Inability it no excuse. He commands because obedience not only pleases him, we find that his ways are the ways the work, that lead us to the greatest joy. In short, we find in both obedience and our failures to obey that God’s commands are really a tremendous gift of his love.
While I hope the reader will see the dichotomy – the two distinct tracks – I also hope all will be able to see how these two tracks work together. Obedience cannot be required for salvation, because it denies both our reality and the necessity of the gospel. But in walking with God, obedience is expected – though we fail, and are reminded of our continual need of grace – but it is expected, demanded, because through obedience we are able to bring joy to both God and ourselves. Failure, or disobedience as a Christian does not cause the forfeiture of our salvation; but as Job discovered, we can forfeit the grace of joy that would otherwise be ours – and rob God of the joy that we would give to him. But if that drives us back to the cross, we find grace anew, and we are renewed in faith, strength, to experience the joy that comes through gospel-prompted obedience.
Because this can be such a dizzying subject, I was appreciative when I recently read a short piece by Brad Watson, titled 5 Obedience Killing Lies. Watson rightly notes:
Our ability to quit and become sidetracked is great.
I believe we get sidetracked by the confusion of the place of obedience, as well as by many other things that creep into our consciousness that hinder our pursuit of obedience. Watson focuses on the more practical issues, rather than the confusion of the relationship of Law vs. Grace. As he says in his article:
Our hearts are constantly being attacked by lies that keep us from persevering in faith. These five lies are particularly successful. They are deceptive and effective in killing our conviction to follow Jesus and trust in his work.