The Nature of New Testament Obedience (2)
Obedience is not simply a response to grace, it's part of the structure of a life lived in grace. Obedience is not an "add-on" it is life being lived. The moral shaping and expression of our lives in Christ is not independent of our life with him it is our life with him. It isn't the totality of our life, of course, but it is our life. How loving spouses respond to each other is not only "how" they live with one another, it's the living out of their life; it's their life showing itself.
When God gave redeemed Israel the Torah he wasn't simply laying down conditions for continued life with him, he was profiling the nature of life with him. Obedience was how they lived with and before him. It was never merely a matter of, "I did this for you so you must do this for me." An element of that is present in the grand sweep of the Torah. But in giving the Torah God was revealing himself and showing Israel what being alive with him consisted of. Life, Jesus once said, doesn't consist of what you possess. It's "made up of" holy mutual relations with God who alone has life.
What's true in the Older Testament is true in the New. Obedience is life lived out before God. There is no life without holy obedience. Obedience is a trustful confession that life with the holy Father has a fitting structure. Obedience is the glad recognition of the character of the one we have a life-giving relationship with. New Testament obedience and trust don't stand over against each other as if they were distinct they are aspects of each other.
New Testament obedience is the glad and concrete confession that life with God must be lived in the light. The day to day obedience that is moral uprightness is light bearing witness against the darkness; it is never merely "complying with God's commands." New Testament obedience is never merely "something you do to get into Christ so you can be free from sin." Paul does say in Romans 6:17-18 that in obeying from the heart the teaching to which they were given over ("paredothete") they were made free from sin. But he didn't think of obedience merely in terms of "a condition that must be met" if they were to get life. He saw obedience in all its richness. He saw it as a condition to be met, he saw it as the nature of life in Christ, he saw it as the proof of God's saving presence in their lives, and much more.
Paul certainly severs "works of the law" from salvation but he doesn't do that with obedience. That itself should tell us that "works of the law" and New Testament obedience are distinct. In a book that stresses grace Paul insists that moral obedience is inextricably connected with salvation and life, here and hereafter (see Romans 2:6-16 and 6:16). He insisted that salvation was a matter of God's grace and that humans didn't earn it by virtue of their virtue. One isn't saved because he's morally "good enough" or because his moral goodness outweighs his moral evil. Salvation and life with God is a gift, it always was a gift and can never be anything other than a gift.
It's one thing to reject a legalism that panders to human pride and self-sufficiency and it's another to confuse that with the clear New Testament teaching about obedience and its connection with salvation by grace.
Why does Paul connect obedience with salvation and life? It's a mistake to say we can't have life with God unless we're personally sinless but it's correct to say we can't have life with God while we remain impenitent and willingly hold God in contempt. God is light and cannot fellowship darkness. Life only exists in relationship with God so we can't have it if it's our heart's desire to remain "darkness". See Ephesians 4:17-24 and 2 Corinthians 6:14-17.
Properly understood, obedience is the heart's willing submission to God and in light of his character. It isn't the quantity of obedience that proves that submission. That is, the genuineness of the submission is not determined by "how many" good works we engage in. Nor is it the perfect quality of obedience that makes it acceptable to God. That is, we're not to ceaselessly analyse our obedience, questioning its motivation and spirit to see how pure and full it all is because we can be sure it's flawed in one way or another. When Paul says our obedience results in righteousness (Romans 6:16) he isn't speaking about Christ's sinless obedience and he certainly isn't speaking about our sinless obedience. God graciously receives even our flawed obedience (flawed because it comes from flawed people) as acceptable homage.
If it's not quantity or its quality what is it that makes our obedience the fitting link and response to life with God? What makes it acceptable homage to God? Our flawed obedience is acceptable to God because of Jesus Christ and our union with him. Faith in Jesus Christ makes it acceptable and it is never acceptable apart Christ. It is faith that recognises and confesses what "Jesus Christ" means. Obedience is not distinct from faith and it certainly not separable from faith. Obedience is not merely "keeping God's commands". It is faith making its presence visible and known. Without faith there is no "obedience" to God in Christ because New Testament obedience is the "obedience of faith" in Christ (Romans 1:5; 16:26). It isn't faith and obedience it is faith's obedience. Conceptually we can differentiate these two but in life under God they are not separable.
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, theabidingword.com.