Thursday, October 2, 2014

What Does Your Obedience Look Like?

In the New Testament,  Jesus gives a summary of the entirety of the moral law as taught in the Old Testament: 
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Matt 7:12
 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matt 22:37-40
The exacting and uncompromising standard of what is required of man by the Law of God is distilled into these two basic commands of loving God and loving neighbor. In other words, 1) Put the Lord your God first in all that you think, purpose, say, and do... and 2) In all your interactions with other people put them first in all that you think, purpose, say, and do. 

Christians are those who by God's grace have trusted in Christ for salvation. Through faith they are justified before the moral law, i.e. forgiven their sins and accounted righteous (perfectly obedient) for Christ's sake. And as believers in Christ they have a new heart and renewed will by which they have a new desire to obey. Sealed by the Holy Spirit and no longer under the reign of sin, God is now their Father who further sanctifies them by the Spirit of Christ. This and more is the status of the redeemed as they begin each day.

So, in light of all that God has done in Christ for us, my question is, what does your (and my) obedience look like? In other words, how obedient is your obedience to the perfection of the Law as described above? What does your obedience look like? To answer that, if you're like me, your mind races to whatever examples you can find of overt acts of other-centeredness such as going out of your way to help a disagreeable customer at work or surprising your wife by doing the dishes so she doesn't have to. As to God-centeredness, you recount your times of prayer and Scripture reading in the morning and faithful attendance of Lord's day worship. You might also venture into those examples of fighting temptation. At this point, you're probably not be feeling too bad about your obedience. Sure, you slip up every now and then. But who doesn't? More or less, as they say, you're imperfectly yet sincerely obeying. Come on, can anyone realistically perfectly obey the law? Hmm... Careful, unwittingly you may begin lowering the standard of God's law.

Well, how about those "occasional slip-ups?" What do they look like and what do they reveal? 
An example: 
At work you go through a long day of seeming non-stop interruptions from fellow workers, customers, and phone calls as you are attempting to complete various time sensitive tasks. Despite the impatience you feel, you more or less keep your frustrations relatively in check. Finally the day is done. You "did your best." How's your obedience looking? Well, outwardly, not too bad. But don't look too deeply.  
Next, you arrive home from work. Sitting down comfortably on your front porch and looking forward to some well-deserved relaxation, you finally get back to reading that book you've been trying to finish. Moments later your neighbor drops by and asks to borrow your lawn mower, as his won't start (he always has trouble starting that old mower) . Reluctantly you get up and head off to the garage thinking, "Great, now I got to listen to a lawn mower while I read." You pull the mower out of the garage and your neighbor thanks you as he heads off to his chore. 
At last... back to your book. Leaning into your chair and now reading, you begin to hear the stuttered sounds of unsuccessful attempts to start the mower. Minutes later your neighbor sheepishly returns asking for some help starting your mower... Frustration now peaking and visibly showing, you head off to help. After several yanks on the pull cord without success, you open the fuel tank. Empty. "Come on, Harry... You got to put gas in the thing!", you exasperatingly point out with a forced smile. Looking somewhat reprimanded, Harry thanks you. Problem solved, you walk back to your porch shaking your head, feeling justified in your frustration and yet also somewhat unsettled by a vague sense of failing. Loving neighbor as yourself... how's that obedience looking right about now? Apparently after you "obeyed" the law's command to help your neighbor, it had not yet finished doing its work, it's most important work.
In sanctification, God's moral law does much more than direct (WLC Q/A 97). It exposes us as we are in order that we might, more and more, come to see ourselves not as we want to see ourselves or want to be seen by others but as we really are: self-centered people who don't love as we ought. The law requires perfection and diagnoses our real problem, not just our outward sins of selfishness but - us - as self-absorbed individuals who at the core are first and foremost committed to ourselves and not others. When confronted with that inescapable evidence we can try to slough it off as just the product of a tough day at work or an inconvenient neighbor. Or, by following up on that vague sense of failure, we can weakly and soberly agree with Paul (Rom. 3:19) and let the law slay our self-justifying thoughts. The air goes out of our balloon. Cataloging our good works seems vain and pathetic. Convicted, we know we are worthy of rejection. We can't and don't keep the law in its perfection. In that inexcusable and helpless state the burdened soul needs and desires only one thing and that is the cleansing mercy and forgiveness of God in Christ. And it is there in our wretched state (Rom. 7:24) that God's grace (Rom. 7:25; 8:1) is most available and most realized (Heb. 4:14-16). I would argue that it is precisely at times like this that the work of sanctification is especially present in our lives. And then, with a more realistic humbled view of ourselves, we can commit to a renewed thankful obedience expressed as our uneven growing love of God and love of neighbor - yet paradoxically with less self-confidence - which is a good thing (Isa. 66:2b). We might call this progressive sanctification through Spirit-wrought self demolition (Luke 9:23-24)...

We go through life building, enhancing, and protecting an image - a self-image - the purpose of which is to gain certain affirmations and positive responses from others; and even more to avoid the self-exposure that leads to the dismissals, the rejections, and the not-being-taken-seriously in our carefully constructed self-project. This is what it means to be a sinner. Yet even though our faith in Christ for salvation is lively, we're not yet so convinced. Thus God, again and again, applies the hammer of his law to us at the most inopportune times. And he does so in order to methodically and lovingly dismantle our carefully crafted mirage of ourselves, that in its place his grace might abound more and more. With this gradually-more-healthy view of ourselves we find that we can more honestly agree with the words of Jesus, "So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’" Why? Because we're beginning to realize that our feeble obedience really doesn't look all that great under the bright light of God's law and the abundant grace that has been poured out upon believers in Christ.


  1. Surely, the new covenant summaries of God's law give us a standard by which to live. But they also never fail to remind us that we do not meet the standard. Matthew 5:33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.

    38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic,[h] let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

    43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers,[i] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?