Obedience and the Love of God by David Dunham

The weight of expected obedience on the children of God can be overwhelming. Even a cursory reading of the book of Leviticus can be discouraging. And there are demands put upon New Testament believers as well. Peter, after all, quotes Leviticus when he says that we are to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:16). It can tempt the imperfect believer to despair. We can avoid despair by understanding that our obedience is not about earning God’s love, but expanding ours.

Understanding the role of good deeds in the life of the believer has been a challenge since the time of the early church. Paul wrote to correct the Galatians who were struggling with it, and James wrote to correct the church which was ignoring it. Within Evangelicalism we can tend towards these two same extremes. The antinomians among us will downplay obedience, claiming that since we are saved by grace it makes no difference. Paul strongly disagrees (Rom. 6:1-2). Many Christians, however, still live as though God’s favor is dependent on what they do. They become functional legalists in the sense that they are seeking justification by means of good works. This misunderstanding of obedience manifests in a number of different ways.

It appears in the form of commitments. The person who believes that they must continue to earn God’s love can’t say “no” to anything. They commit to every task, every mission, every request. They feel responsible for everything and everyone, and so they exhaust themselves in busyness.

It appears in the form of guilt. The truth about our good performances is that they can always be better. There are tasks that get left undone and some that we simply don’t perform well. This heaps great mountains of guilt on those who believe God condemns them for each task and each failure. They feel guilty for their parenting, for their evangelism, for their spending, for their friendships, and more. Most of this guilt is actually “false guilt.” That is to say, it’s not raised in their heart by the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Rather, they feel guilt for things which God does not hold them accountable.

It appears in the form of fear. The legalistic person also has a tremendous amount of fear. Fear, in particular, that they will fail. For, if your relationship with God is contingent upon your obedience then there is no room for error. A legalist must be faultless.

Finally, it appears in their spiritual abuses. Because everything about their faith depends on what they do, then the end up misusing God’s given means of spiritual growth. Scripture reading, prayer, tithing, church, evangelism, and more all become a hammer meant to beat themselves (and others) into submission. Furthermore, these spiritual “disciplines” are meant to garner them favor with God. If they fail to read the “right” amount of Scripture in the morning then God will not bless them that day. If they fail to pray “long” enough or “passionately” enough then their prayers are hypocritical, and God rejects them.

All of these beliefs and practices view obedience as the means of earning brownie points with God, and they fail to understand both God’s love and our obedience.

 God’s love is His free gift to sinners. Paul goes to great lengths to communicate this point in Romans. In Romans 5:1-8 we read that God’s love has been “poured out into our hearts” as an act of grace, given to us while we were helpless sinners. We read:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

How do we know that God’s love is not based on our works? Because it was given to us when we had none to speak of. God loved us while we were sinners, and poured his love out into our hearts when we were “still powerless” and “ungodly.”  From the very beginning God’s love has been for sinners, not for saints (Luke 5:32).

He makes the point even more pointedly in Romans 9. Whatever one believes about the nature of predestination, Paul at least makes clear that it is not contingent upon foreseen good deeds. Using the example of Jacob and Esau he says that God chose them for himself before either had “done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand:  not by works but by him who calls” (Rom. 9:11-12). The point is, once again, to illustrate the greatness of God’s love. It is not based on us, but on Him.

Any views of God’s love that make it contingent upon our obedience misunderstands God’s love. The work of Christ opens up God’s love to us. We minimize and undermine the greatness of His sacrifice when we restrict God’s love to our efforts. Obedience certainly matters in the Christian life, but how could God love us more than He already has in giving His Son? God gave up His Son for us while we were sinners. Do we really believe that He will then cut it off from us because we failed to tithe this month? Such a view of His love distorts the very heart of the gospel.

If then we can’t lose the love of God, what is the role of obedience in the life of the believer? How should we understand what we do? Our obedience is not about earning God’s love, but it is about expanding ours. Jesus himself made this connection between our love and our obedience. He said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). John echoes these same sentiments in 1 John 5:3 and 2 John 1:6. In other words, we study the Bible not because it makes God love us more, but because it helps us to love Him more. Failing to read our Bibles does not change God’s love for us, but prolonged failure to study God’s Word will cause our affections for Him to grow cold. We learn more about God, who He is, what His promises are, and how we relate to Him from studying the Scriptures. We learn more about His faithfulness and compassion as we pray to Him. We learn more about His greatness and beauty as we sing our praises to Him. All these so-called “disciplines” are aimed at expanding my knowledge and therefore love of God. Even in keeping the laws of God we find that our love for Him can grow. The Psalmist can say, “I shall delight in your commandments, which I love” (Ps. 119:47). The whole law, Jesus tells us, is summed up in the command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind” (Matt. 22:36-40). The law of God, as hard as it is for us to believe, is good for us. Obedience to it is about helping us to love God.

How we think about these things changes everything about how we live. God’s love for us is not contingent upon our obedience, but our love for Him often is. Obedience is meant to drive us deeper into love and affection for God. We obey not that He might love us, but that we might expand our love for Him. There is tremendous freedom, then, in the Christian life as we come to realize that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:39). It also changes the way we seek to obey: not out of duty, but with gratitude and delight. Thinking rightly about our obedience changes everything. We strive to obey, not because it causes God to love us more, but rather because we are growing in our love for Him.

David Dunham is an associate pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He is a graduate of Ohio University (BA) and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv).

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