What Does it Mean to Obey?
All true Christians know that they should obey the Lord, and because they have been born again, all true Christians—to one extent or another—want to obey the Lord. But I wonder how many believers understand what tangible obedience looks like in all the different contours of the Christian life. Holiness, after all, isn’t the natural state of the human heart, and it certainly isn’t the natural work of human hands.
Many might think of obedience as the sheer power of the will—the moral resolve to do the right thing. And to be sure, there is a very real “working out” of salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). Will and moral resolve are part of obedience, but not the whole picture. There are many aspects of what motivates true obedience. The Bible provides multiple angles and perspectives that are intended to motivate and empower a believer’s true holiness, many of which we do not often even consider. The Bible offers more motivations for obedience than merely “demonstrate your gratefulness for the cross by being obedient”—although that assuredly is one of them.
The Bible offers a fully-orbed theology of obedience. And this theology explains that obedience is not just an opportunity for the believer, but an inevitability. True believers will be drawn and allured into obedience to the Word of God, no matter how slow or unsteady that process might be.
But when we live in ignorance of all that the Bible has to say about obedience, we cut off all of the life and nourishment the Bible offers in this area. And we limit ourselves to willpower and resolve in our fight for holiness. Those might last for an hour or week, but this is a long game. And our resolve will fizzle if that is all we have.
This article is intended to begin to pull out just a small sampling of all that the Scripture has to say about obedience. To cover the entire New Testament in a blog article is impossible, so my scope is limited to the letter of 1 John. What motivates true obedience?
True Obedience is Motivated by Hope
When I say hope, I mean in particular: a hope of Christ’s imminent return. In 1 John, John writes: “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (John 3:2–3, italics mine).
Notice what John does in this verse. He connects the hope of the coming of Christ with believers’ sanctification. When we long for the day that Christ returns, we inevitably “purify ourselves” just as He is pure. Just as when a driver looks to the left while driving his car will inevitably and subconsciously drift left, the same is with Christ. When we fix our eyes on the day that he is coming for his own, our lives begin to drift into Christ-likeness.
The more we cultivate an appetite for the reality that Christ will bring to the earth when He comes—including the transformation of our very bodies (“we will be like Him”)—the more we will long for a foretaste of those changes now in the present.
So to grow in purity, we must look to the day when trumpets blast and Christ comes, and let this grow in us a hope that all will be made right. And this hope produces deep ruts of obedience in our daily lives.
True Obedience is Produced by Love
What I mean by this is not just any love, but a love for God Himself. 1 John 5:3 reads: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.” Here we see that affection for God produces subjection to God. When we love God and prize Him for the treasure that He is, His commandments go from being a burden to a blessing, from drudgery to delight. Christ Himself said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:30).
Therefore, if we want to grow in obedience to God, we must grow in love for God. But how do we do that? Daily meditation upon His beauty from the pages of Scripture.
True Obedience is Focused on Truth
True life-change and transformation comes only when the Word of God is at the center of change. John makes that clear in 2:3–5: “We know that we have come to know Him if we keep His commandments. The one who … does not keep His commandments is a liar; whoever keeps His Word, in Him the love of God has been perfected.”
Obedience is only ever authentic when it is tied to what God has said in His Word. Unless the truth of God’s Word has the supreme and central place in our lives and affections, we cannot truly obey in the way we must. We can’t obey what we don’t know, and we can’t conform to what we’ve never read.
Therefore, if we want to see the gradual work of renovation and the budding of holiness in our lives, we must have a kind of intravenous, drip-line relationship to the Word of God in tenacious, moment-by-moment dependence.
True Obedience is Dependent Upon Christ
The New Testament describes the Christian life as being one of abiding (John 15:4–5). It is the picture of a branch drinking life from its vine. Where one begins and the other ends is unclear. The two are connected, and the life of the branch is dependent upon the vine. This is at the very heart of sanctification.
But what does it mean to abide? It’s a deep dependence upon the power of Another—namely, Christ Himself. This is precisely what Christ Himself meant in John 15 when He used the metaphor of branches abiding in the vine. Just as branches are helplessly dependent upon the supply of the Vine to bear fruit, so we (i.e., the branches) moment-by-moment look to Christ (i.e., the Vine) for His power to do what He commands.
John displays this very same reality in 3:6: “Everyone who abides in Him does not sin.” Notice this astonishing claim: abiding in Christ = not sinning. If you abide in Him, you won’t sin against Him. This is a promise and the very heart of sanctification. And what is abiding in Christ other than moment-by-moment, desperate dependence upon Christ? What is abiding other than clinging to His Word in meditation and dependence (cf. Josh 1:8; Ps 1:2; John 15:7).
John and the Bible are clear: true obedience comes not merely through “grit your teeth” power of the will, but when we have that IV-dripline connection to the Word as we go throughout our day. This is abiding, and it is the catalyst for true holiness.
True Obedience is a Result of New Birth
If you think about it, self-righteousness is the essence of insanity. Why would I say that? Because every act of obedience is the result of our new birth. Obedience is the by-product of our new life in Christ which, before our conversion, was simply not possible. When God awakened us and caused us to be born again (cf. John 3:3, 5; 1 Pet 1:3), he infused into our souls the power and desire to obey, which before that moment, did not exist.
John describes this very reality in 2:29 when he says, “everyone who practices righteousness has been born of Him.” Notice, that the “practice of righteousness” is a result and manifestation of our new birth. In 3:9 he uses shocking language when he says: “No one who is born of God practices sin,” meaning, being born again results in a life of imperfect, but consistent victory over sin.
At the end of the day, the pattern of our obedience probably resembles morse code, with dashes and dots and imperfect gaps. But the great news is, every tiny dot and dash of holiness in your life is a tangible manifestation of the supernatural—that you are born again, and that Christ is at work in your life. In turn, this keeps us humble and joyful, because every act of obedience is a gift of sovereign grace.
True Obedience Looks to Christ Even When it Fails to Obey
Unfortunately, genuine believers continue to sin. But believers respond to sin in a different manner than unbelievers. When believers sin, they look to Christ, who supplies everything they need to forgive, cleanse, and then untangle them from that sin. In 2:1, for instance, John said these jolting words: “My little children, these things I am writing to you so that you may not sin.” As in, not sin not ever. As Christians, we must have a zero-tolerance policy with the sin that lingers in our lives. One by one by one we must take aim at our pet sins and root them out.
John immediately follows these jarring words, however, with this profound comfort: “if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins.” Even when we sin, John says, the Son is right there with the Father, actively pleading the case for our innocence. What is the evidence for our innocence? Not our performance, but rather His sin-bearing death alone.
We’re not forgiven just because God says we are, but because when we confess, the Son actively intercedes before the Father and pleads our case. When we sin, we must look to Christ in confession and trust that His blood will cleanse (1:7) and the Father will forgive (1:9). And as we look to Christ, we can have the absolute assurance that the Father ever welcomes the advocacy of His Son. And what this does is give us the strength and freedom to fight our sin, knowing that even if we fail, we do not need to win back the Father’s love.
That is what true obedience looks like “beneath the hood,” as it were. This is a theology of true holiness. It is motivated by the hope of Christ’s return, produced by love and affection for God, in conformity to the truth of God’s Word, dependent upon the power of Christ, flowing from the reality of our new birth in Christ, and ever looking to Christ, even when it fails. And the more we know and prize these precious realities in our lives, the more we will see our lives begin to change. And when that happens, the beauty and glory of Christ is put on display.
Jerod is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary and the lead pastor at Christ Community Bible Church in Arlington, Texas.