Welcome to week 2 of our More Like Jesus series on our Shepherds Heart podcast. Just a quick reminder that the Sonrise Café channel is a designed to be a follow-up supplement to our morning gatherings. If you are not a part of the Sonrise café gatherings and want to be, feel free to get more information here on our website; and if you are listening at a distance, welcome to the podcast.
This morning we discussed three small passages of Scripture that illustrate the fact that Jesus calls his people to follow him in obedience to his will and his word in complete surrender to God. The question we are addressing in this episode is: What is the nature of Christian obedience, and how do we make sense of it for us today?
The texts we read this morning were Ezekiel 36:27, John 14:15-17, and Philippians 2:12-13, all of which speak to the Christian’s responsibility to be obedient to God, his will, his Word. Let’s take a brief look at these passages…
God speaking through a prophet to his people:
And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
This is not saying you better be careful to obey God’s rules, rather it is saying that when God places his spirit in his people, which happens at salvation, we will want to follow God carefully.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
The first 13 chapters of John express Jesus’ love for people, especially his followers. Here Jesus now says, “this is how I know that you love me.” What are these commandments? We will look at that in a minute, but here just know that Jesus reiterates Ezekiel 36:27 that the holy spirit is essential to obeying Jesus.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
A phrase that I have often heard from many pastors is that following Jesus is about a relationship, not rules. The spirit behind this phrase is moving people in the right direction, as the personal and relational nature of faith in Christ is one of the many things that sets Christianity apart from other religions that teach “If you do this or that, then you will (or at least might be) saved, reach enlightenment, or please the gods.” So Christianity is entirely different. My wife Christie once gave a teaching on the distinctive of Christianity, and in her preparation, she actually called local mosques and temples to hear from them directly about what they believe, and what she found was that unmerited grace and forgiveness were completely absent. If you look at any other religion, performance and works are required to participate in and enter into their eternal perspective. So, I agree that a relationship with Jesus is not about following rules.
But with that said, we must be honest and say that Christ does have expectations for his people. There are ethical boundaries, expectations of spiritual maturity, and then simply just some straightforward commands. So yes it is about a relationship, but every flourishing and healthy relationship has rules and boundaries. The way we should view the commands, expectations, guiding principals, and boundaries that we are told to follow by Jesus and his followers is that the laws of God lead only to life. Obedience and submission to these laws allow us to experience faith, life, and relationships in their fullness.
So how do we avoid legalism in our obedience? I believe it is changing our perspective on how the laws of God operate in our lives.
One illustration might be helpful in making sense of this.
When I was a kid we lived on a very busy street in northern Colorado. We were in a new housing development so traffic and construction both posed dangers for kids in the neighborhood. So, my dad built a fence for the backyard. Over time we put up a trampoline, a club house, the seasonal slip and slide, and we also played paintball. Though I, being the youngest brother usually was not playing paintball bur rather being target practice for my older brothers. But anyways we had so much fun playing in the backyard. We had a lot more joy playing in the backyard than we would playing by the busy street. Now, I could look at the fence in one of two ways:
- It was restricting my freedom – My freedom was restricted within the fence. I could allow this view to frustrate me and cultivate a rebellious spirit out of my desire to have more freedom. In fact, I did once. I snuck out one night, hopped our backyard fence, and went to a skate park. But that night I got a little lost, out of comfort zone, and when my dad found out, things didn’t turn out well for me. I say to illustrate the point that when we step out of the boundaries that God has given us, things just don’t turn out well in the long run.
- It was enhancing my freedom – The fence provided a place where joy could be found without risking our lives by the busy street. I could have had freedom outside of the backyard, but in reality, it would have been short lived and heartbreaking because someone would have gotten hurt. But, the fence actually increased my joy as a kid.
From this, we see that God has given us healthy parameters for Christ-like living and our obedience to God, his will, and Word results in flourishing and blessing. Now, when I say blessing, I don’t mean health and wealth, but rather the ability to see and experience the power, presence, provision, and promises of God. This obedience is a result of what God has done in us through Christ.
The Christian mantra for obedience is that our obedience is from salvation not for salvation. When we place obedience to the rules before relationship, we fall into legalism. Bible scholar Wayne Detzler captures this when he says, “For a Christian keeping God’s commandment is a labor of love, not legalism…We are not saved by keeping the commands, but we keep them because we are saved.”
What are we to obey?
Well according to Jesus and Paul, the summary of law that we are given to obey is to love God and love our neighbor. We see this in Matthew 22 and Galatians 5. We really cannot effectively love others in the fullness that Jesus would like us to until we are actively loving God. The closer we are to God the more clearly, we see others as he does…people with a redemptive potential in Jesus Christ. Just a side note, the Bible teaches that our neighbor includes our enemy and those who don’t believe what we believe. A great example is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a pastor and theologian during the rise and brief reign of the Nazi regime who essentially gave his life in purist of saving Jews and attempting to dismantle Hitler’s leadership. Just a couple days after Hitler became Chancellor, Bonhoeffer was on the radio speaking out against his leadership, and over the course of sometime Bonhoeffer was arrested as a spy and conspirator and executed. The Jews did not share Bonhoeffer’s conviction that Jesus is God, but he had a deep conviction of what it meant to lay down his life for his neighbor. We see this most clearly in Jesus, as Romans 5:10 says that we were once enemies of God, but His son Jesus laid down his life that we might be reconciled. One of the most practical things we can do to love God and love our neighbor is to ask ourselves some guiding questions before making decisions… Does this honor God? Does this express love and seek the well-being of my neighbor? Obedience to God is centered on how well we love him and others.
How do I be obedient to his will if I don’t know what it is?
The Bible teaches that there are certain ways that we connect to God to discern his will. Here are a few:
- Know that you have the Spirit to guide you. So ask God for clarity, be patient, and wait expectantly. This is an important thing to remember because so often we look for God to move externally in various ways, when God is within us internally.
- Know God’s Word. God speaks to us primarily through His Word, and you’d be surprised to see how God can confirm or deny things to your spirit through Scripture.
- Seek godly counsel. If you are wrestling with being obedient to God’s will or trying to discern what his will is, then gather a couple of trustworthy people in your life and discuss it with them. Consider and contemplate their wisdom and advice.
- Take a step. So long as there are no red flags, nothing unbiblical, take one step in the direction that you are feeling led.
God will guide you as you seek the Spirit, His Word, His people, and respond by taking one step at time.
A personal story follows.
More Like Jesus #1: Who Do You Say That I Am? by Cody Whittington
Modeling Good Behavior by Doug Hartzheim
Growing in Grace by Cody Whittington
God’s Word: Rules vs. Grace by Christianity Today
5 Steps to Meditating on Your Bible by The Gospel Coalition
Keeping Your Devotions Daily: Legalism or Not? by Citizen’s Press