The Joy of Obedience

BY BRUCE HILLMAN

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.   2 Timothy 3:16

Can there be joy in obedience? That depends on if obedience if a free choice or the result of threats. When obedience is coercive, it dominates and subjugates our wills, or at least attempts to do so, and no one wants to be ruled by another. This refusal to be ruled and the desire to be independent is a significant part of sin’s effect on human nature that is often forgotten. Sin is rebellion because it says, "my will be done" instead of, "thy will done." It is prideful precisely because it refuses to submit itself to the reign and rule of God. To put it another way, if there is a God, there must be subordinates who, as subordinates, are required to serve his will. Therein lies the problem, for sinners refuse to do this. They are unable to do this.

That does not mean we are never obedient to God’s law. We may, out of fear or competition, follow many of God’s rules. Fearful obedience is when we do what the law says because we are afraid of the consequences that may follow our disobedience. God may punish us, or be upset at us, or we fear letting God down or messing up our lives. Competitive obedience is when we obey God’s law because we want people to respect and admire us, so we follow the law to, “be a good person” and take pride in that identity, competing for righteousness over and above our neighbors. But both fear and competition are wrong reasons for following God's law.

It is important to recognize that when we follow God's law for the wrong reasons our neighbor still benefits. We don't cheat, steal, commit adultery or murder—those are all good things. And society benefits from such commitments. But there is a dark side to this obedience. Those who obey the law out of fear and competition harbor anger, disappointment and guilt. These feelings arise because obedience in this sense is suppressive, requiring us to bottle up urges and desires, or deal in lots of soul searching and guilt. Such suppression fuels disobedience in other parts of life because obedience can never be a cure for sin or wash away our rebellious nature. Therefore, we find ourselves in a real dilemma: Obedience for the wrong reasons has some benefit to society because people don't always act as they want. But by not acting as they want and being coerced to obey, they find a storm of trouble swirling in their hearts and bursting out in other contexts against their neighbor. In trying to be obedient, we continue to feed the dark impulses of disobedience and perpetuate harm to our neighbor and society.

This is the result when obedience is coercive and why the law cannot promise a better world, only a haphazardly orderly one. But what about when obedience is free? That is a different question and in many ways an impossible ideal. Since sinners are incapable of being freely obedient the only way such an ideal could be reached is if you had another kind of person altogether. This person would have to be sinless and freely desire to do God’s will neither out of fear or coercion. That impossible ideal has been made possible in Jesus Christ. He is the New Adam or first fruits of God’s new reality. He is a new man because he is not like the old man Adam who was lost in his sin. Jesus lives a life of perfect obedience so that this new reality of personhood might be true for us. God does a new thing in Jesus Christ, subsuming the old man into the New so that the new might enter into the harmony of God’s order. This new man prays, "thy will be done" not "my will be done." He comes to do the Father's will and not his own. His obedience is crucially different though because it is not done out of fear or competition but out of love.

Such obedience is free. Love for the Father, what might also be called worship, is the free offering of life to God. All worship entails this love because worship that does not come from love is manipulation.  Jesus demonstrates this free love when he goes to the cross, in obedience to the Father’s will. But he is not coerced. No one—including the Father—takes his life from him, he lays it down of his own accord.

We too, as those baptized and born again in Christ, share in the new obedience. It is new because it does not come from fear or competition but love. The love of God in Christ has worked to shape our desires so that we love God and neighbor not because of what we get, but because of Christ. The new obedience is not perfected, it resides alongside the old man who rages against it. But it is a wakening of the new life within it. Paul expresses this reality in Romans when he says:

“Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.” He continues, “For I have the desire to do what is right but not the ability to carry it out[1].” This is every sinner’s confession. It is the reality that would be hopeless except that Paul adds, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord![2]" When Paul says the law is good he expresses his desire for obedience, but it comes from fear: “The very commandment that promised life proved death to me.” Once Christ comes Paul can say, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and having been set free from sin, have become slaves to righteousness.”[3]

The characteristic of a slave is that they are not free to do as they wish. Slaves must be obedient. Paul’s metaphor is odd because we do not think of slaves as enviable in any way. But his point is inescapable: you will serve (obey) someone. Who will that be? To those who have been set free and are obedient from the heart, emancipated from sin, the law of God instructs us on how to live out that love. And that’s what lovers want, instruction in how to love their beloved.  

So when we hear Jesus say things like, “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven," or "If you love me you will keep my commandments." And also, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come and make our home with him,” Jesus is expressing the reality of joyful obedience.[4] Notice how love connects with obedience in these passages. Those who try to please God with their works of fear or competition, who see their righteousness as a currency to buy God’s favor are utterly deceived. But those who have been awakened by faith into Christ find obedience a joy because, as Paul teaches in 2 Timothy 3:16 such obedience is “training in righteousness.” That’s another way of saying that we get to live our lives as little Christs. It’s also a way of saying that we get to enact what we are already declared to be, and our neighbor reaps the rewards. For obedience that comes from love needs not suppress anything. Such obedience is an overflow, an outpouring of the new man at work within us, the new life bursting with love for the world.

This new man always remains at war with the old until our glorification. As such, we cannot be perfectly obedient. But we can be obedient to God in such a way that we share what we have first received. That is what it means to be a slave of God. The slave of God is bound to Christ, and therefore, is the most truly free. That’s good news. That’s cause for joy. “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.”[5] That is, to paraphrase, “By this we know that we are the truly bound and freed in God-we freely and lovingly choose to pray thy will be done.”

[1] Romans 7:16, 18b

[2] Romans 8:1

[3] Romans 6:17-18 emphasis mine.

[4] Matthew 7:21, John 14:15, 23

[5] I John 2:3

Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.

Twitter: @HillsideLBC