Obedience is Elementary

by Justin Lonas

Justin LonasIf one were to ask Christians the desire of their hearts, a significant number would likely claim intimacy with God as their deepest need. Indeed, we teach our children from the nursery on up that Christianity is all about our relationship with Jesus. Our bookstores are filled with titles promising steps to vibrant communion with our Savior.

However, many believers struggle to get past the peripheral connection they've had since they first encountered the Lord. No amount of Christian service, church attendance, or "worship experiences" draws them any closer. For some, even the earnest prayer for real intimacy seems to go unanswered. Is God content to let some believers languish as "spiritual acquaintances" while a precious few make it into His "inner circle"? Hardly. Perhaps, then, the burden of proof for our relationship rests not on God, but with us.

In our desire to relate to God, we need to remember who He actually is. Of all His many characteristics, one stands out above the rest: His holiness. Not only is God often called "The Holy One" in Scripture, but His holiness is referenced more often than His power, mercy, or love.* Because He is holy, He is just. It is because He is holy that His mercy and grace are able to save us. His mercy is almost always linked with His righteousness (Ps. 103:17-18, etc.). His holiness is the primary aspect of His being that we are commanded to aspire to (Matt. 5:48,
1 Pet. 1:15-16, etc.). When we refuse to strive for holiness He often sends suffering to test us and set us back on the path (Judg. 2:21-22, among many examples).

But for the sacrifice of Christ, we sinful human beings could never approach our holy God in love-He always defines the terms of our relationship. While through Christ, God imputed His righteousness to us, He makes it abundantly clear that we are to pursue a lifestyle of holiness in response. Hebrews 10:14, among other passages, illustrates this twofold process of sanctification-"For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified."

This is not an unreasonable or even an "over and above" requirement for believers. Rather, responding to God's holiness with obedience is only natural. Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserted in The Cost of Discipleship that trusting in God and obedience are inseparable actions. He states that "only he who believes can obey; only he who obeys can believe." What he means by this is simply that the very act of belief is an immediate obedience to God's call and will, if sincere, necessarily result in further obedience to God's will-the call demands response.

The words most often translated as "obey" in Scripture shed light on the interplay of belief and obedience within our relationship with God. In the Old Testament, the verb shma, (meaning "to hear intelligently" or "attentively call") is the primary word used for this concept. Most English translations, in fact, do not render this word as simply "obey" but use the construction "obey God's voice" as in 1 Samuel 15:22, "Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams."

In the New Testament, the verb hupakŏuō ("to hear under" or "listen attentively") is the root of most occurrences of "obey." Another word, pĕitharchĕō ("to be persuaded by a ruler," by implication "to submit to authority" or "to conform to advice,") is also used to refer to our obedience to God. The Greek goes one step further in its concept of disobedience-apĕithĕō, often translated as "disobey" or "will not obey," literally means "to willfully and perversely disbelieve."

In both Old and New Testament usage, it is clear that the concept of obedience is tied to listening to God. In essence, as my pastor put it, intimacy with God is impossible without obedience. Strictly speaking, obedience is equally impossible without a relationship with God-it is only when we are close enough to hear His voice that we can truly live in holiness. As Jesus states in John 14:15 (and elsewhere), "If you love Me, you will keep my commandments."

How then are we to live in obedience to God's holiness? The answer is much less complex than we tend to make it. Micah 6:8 is often cited as the distillation of the Christian life, "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." The same passage can be applied as the methodology of true obedience.

1) "Do justice." Perhaps this simply means that we are to follow without fail the clear-cut commands in Scripture. While "following rules" is by no means the essence of our faith, God's call to holiness comes with many straightforward instructions. We can't hope to be close to God when we are in willful disobedience to His statutes.

2) "Love mercy." Throughout Christ's teaching, we are clearly told to do things that don't add up in the world's terms. His paradoxical call to "treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Matt. 7:12) reflects God's intent for us to live under His grace. He desires that we live in the awareness of our forgiveness through the cross, being quick to show mercy.

3) "Walk humbly with your God." If we are faithful to follow God's precepts and live according to His grace, we put ourselves in a position to relate to Him fully. It is then that His will is made plain to us, and He is able to teach and guide us. Through this, we are able to discern the right path in the many gray areas we face each day. Only when we walk with Him are we able to obey His voice.

Thus obedience is the key to our relationship. To truly know Christ is to obey Him fully.

*According to The Attributes of God by Arthur W. Pink, Baker Book House, 1970, p. 36.

Hebrew and Greek spellings and definitions are according to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance
of the Bible
, AMG Publishers, 1994.

Justin Lonas is publisher of Pulpit Helps magazine.

2011 Disciple 155x50 2011 AMG 155x50
Disciple Banner Ad