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OBEDIENCE IS NOT OPTIONAL
by Philip Owen

            The perception of some is that the concept of obedience was tossed out the window during the transition from law to grace—at least for adults. We still talk of obedience with regard to children and their parents, but beyond that the thought that believers have a responsibility to obey has been consigned to the dusty recesses of antiquity. Nevertheless, obedience is a major theme in the New Testament: some form of the word obey occurs at least thirty-eight times in the epistles. We put ourselves in serious jeopardy if we ignore such a biblical emphasis. In reality, the hallmark of faith is obedience—to God and His Word and to all the human authorities God places in our lives.

            Although saving faith and obedience are not identical concepts and cannot be said to be synonymous, they are closely related in Scripture.  In Paul’s terminology, to obey the gospel is to exercise saving faith. To the Romans he wrote: “though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (6:17b,18). To exercise saving faith, then, is to obey from the heart, an action that Paul equates with being delivered from an unholy slavery (or obedience to sin) to a holy slavery (or obedience to righteousness). He expresses a similar idea in a negative context to the Thessalonians, telling them that God will deal out “retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (II Thess. 1:8). That he uses this term to speak of what occurs with saving faith is clear from his conclusion. Those “who do not obey the gospel . . . will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord” (vv. 8b, 9a). Peter understands the phrase in the same way, contrasting believers, or the household of God, with those who do not obey the gospel. “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (I Pet. 4:17).

            Scripture reveals a second aspect concerning the concept of obedience, namely, that it is an incontrovertible fruit and evidence of salvation. Using a term associated with election, Peter expresses what we might call the inevitability of obedience in the life of a believer. For, he writes, believers “are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood” (I Pet. 1:1b, 2a). Salvation entails a sure result: obedience to Jesus Christ. God has saved us in order that we might be delivered from being enslaved to sin and become Christlike in our behavior, i.e., obedient to the Word of God. Note that Peter explains that believers have been “chosen” to obey. In similar fashion, Paul explained the human element involved in being chosen to obey. “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete” (II Cor. 10:5, 6). Paul suggests the centrality of obedience in the life of a believer when he writes to the Romans: “the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you” (16:19a).

            We cannot afford to be cavalier about obedience: Scripture indicates that it is not optional. To obey the gospel and to obey Jesus Christ are legitimate and accurate ways to speak of the saving faith that God imparts to those He has called and chosen. Furthermore, that obedience includes more than the initial yielding in submission to the saving work of Christ; it involves a change of heart and mind that predisposes the believer to obey the Word of God while also energizing him to do so. Any faith that leaves a person in a settled state of rebellion against the claims of the Word is genuinely suspect. For the children God is bringing to glory have been redeemed and created in the image of His Son, who became incarnate in order to do the Father’s will—to obey Him. None of this is to suggest that salvation is the product of human effort or man’s works, but it is to underscore the truth taught in the Word that salvation delivers a believer from sin, transforms his life, and empowers him to live out the righteousness of Christ in his daily life. Is your life marked by obedience to Christ and His Word?

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