Personal Righteousness: The Importance of Obeying God's Commandments
Charles Henry, Jr.
God has blessed my wife and me with four children, and, like most parents, we have learned that it is not always easy to influence children to change inappropriate behavior. But when you consider how slowly and usually reluctantly all of us who are God's children correct our behavior, it should come as no surprise to us that our children follow suit. Even though our children resist obeying us at times, it is encouraging to see them giving us a good, honest effort to do what we want.
How should we look at the larger issue of trying to obey God? Believe it or not, the idea of trying to obey God is becoming almost heretical in some Christian circles today. There are even seminars and conferences being offered today that deliberately minimize the importance of obeying God's law.
There are two critical questions that all Christians should ask themselves regarding these matters:
(1) Should we try with all our being to obey God's law, defined as all of his commandments harmoniously revealed to us in the Scriptures, with the goal of doing good works and pleasing God?
(2) What should we expect to happen if we ignore God's moral prescriptions and our responsibility to obey them?
An Important Distinction
Before I address these questions more fully, it is important to point out the vast difference between trying to obey God's commandments in order to become right with him (that is, to gain his love and approval) and doing so because we are already right with him (through faith) and we want to express our gratitude to him. We should be exerting ourselves diligently to conform our thoughts and feelingsour very beingto the likeness of our Savior. Consistent Christians do this because of who they are, not because of who they want to be. I'd even go so far as to say that frequently we succeed in doing good and pleasing God. Paul says as much in Romans 7:25: "I myself with my mind am serving the law of God."
My point is that we should try to obey God's law as an outgrowth of our faith in Christ. I know some have gone so far as to say that any attempt to obey God's law is legalistic and counterproductive to a vibrant and joyful Christian life. They say that such attempts lead to unhealthy guilt, self-righteousness, and self-justification (that is, trying to become right with God through our works). However, there is a world of difference between trying to obey God so that you may become his child and avoid eternal punishment, and trying to obey him from the heart because you are his child and love to please him and want to avoid the temporal discipline that disobedience can bring. The desire and ability to obey God come from our new nature. It is natural for Christians to obey God.
Obeying God's Law
Let me begin to answer the questions I posed earlier. Should we endeavor to obey God's law, as revealed in the Scriptures, with the goal of doing good works and pleasing God, or is such an effort spiritually unhealthy? Does God command his people not only to try to obey his law, but to succeed in doing so? No one in this life will ever become sanctified to the point where he is always obeying the law. But we as Christians should expect to gain victories over sin and progress in personal righteousness as we live out our lives. The Bible has much to say about this.
First of all, we must be attentive to God's law. This is not optional! "But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night" (Ps. 1:2; see also Deut. 6:5-7).
In Matthew 5:16-20, Jesus says not only that we are to be attentive to the law, but also that we are to succeed in both keeping and teaching it. We who have been regenerated by the Spirit of God are to obey both inwardly and outwardly, unlike the scribes and Pharisees. In John's gospel, the Lord repeatedly emphasizes the importance of obeying his law as evidence of our relationship with him: "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15; see also 14:21, 23-24a; 15:10).
Similarly, the apostle James tells us to put aside "all that remains of wickedness" and to be "doers of the word" (James 1:21-22; see also 2:24-26).
Paul, the apostle who says so much about God's grace, also points out what our responsibility is, in and by that grace: "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12-13; see also 1 Thess. 4:1-3a).
The apostle John agrees: "And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, 'I have come to know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected" (1 John 2:3-5; see also 3:6-10).
A thorough reading of Psalm 119 and the books of James and John, along with many other passages, can help us to have a fuller and balanced understanding of our responsibility to obey God's law. We must not so overemphasize God's grace that we exclude or negate our responsibility in and by that grace to obey him. But as we seek to obey God's law, we must never begin to trust in our righteousness for salvation. We should lay any guilt that we have, after repenting of our sin, on Christ alone. A proper balance of law and gospel is essential for healthy Christian living.
The Consequences of Disobedience
The implications of the answer to my second question are equally important. What should we expect to happen if we ignore God's moral law? If we are Christians, we should expect God's corrective discipline. The quality of our fellowship with God is closely linked to our obedience to him. The level of our intimacy with our heavenly Father is conditional. Ancient Israel's peace and prosperity was constantly linked to their obedience to God's law. The same pattern continues in the New Testament. For example, Jesus said, "If you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions" (Matt. 6:15). Husbands who mistreat their wives will find that their prayers are hindered (1 Pet. 3:7). Those who misuse the Lord's Supper "are disciplined by the Lord" (1 Cor. 11:28-32; see also 5:1-5).
Our heavenly Father will never forsake his chosen people. But just as a godly human father must at times severely discipline his children whom he dearly loves, so our heavenly Father must administer some very painful measures at times to teach and correct his children (Heb. 12:4-14). We should not be alarmed or surprised by God's discipline, but embrace it. When we feel far away from God, he may be disciplining us, so that we will repent and draw closer to him, our only hope.
An increasingly popular excuse for not taking sin seriously today is that everything a Christian does is sinful anyway. The problem, some say, is that Christians give too much attention to overcoming their sins. We can find joy, they say, only if we ignore our sin and just rest completely on God's grace. But Paul addresses this kind of thinking in Romans 6:1: "Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?" His answer was an emphatic no (verse 2). Not to resist sin is to embrace it. Christians cannot be morally neutral. We have no license to sin.
Romans 1:18-25 describes what happens to one's conscience as one ignores God and his revealed will for mankind. This has been popularly described as a seared conscience. A professing Christian who has a seared conscience caused by continually ignoring God's law is in a very precarious position. He risks either death from God's discipline, or damnation because he isn't truly a believing Christian.
I do not doubt that true Christians sometimes get caught up in the sin of trying to work their way to heaven. However, Scripture does not support any downplaying of God's law or of our responsibility to obey it, as the solution to this problem. Instead, such approaches will ultimately become the source of even greater problems.
The solution for a Christian who is lacking faith and joy in his life is not to ignore his sins or to stop trying to overcome them, but to do just the opposite. We must look to Christ again and again, making diligent use of the means of grace, continually repenting of our sins and embracing God's lawloving it as much as God himself, and deeply and diligently desiring, praying for, and seeking its fulfillment in our life. We should persevere in our faith in Jesus Christ, once and for all delivered to us, no matter how gloomy things may look from this world's perspective.
So what should be our attitude about recurring sin in our lives and the sadness it brings? What if we seem to be gaining no victory over a sin and are therefore deeply saddened because of this? Do we give up and conclude that we've tried too hard to please God? Do we focus more on trusting in Christ, as though trusting in him were separate from obeying him? Do we focus on not being concerned about our reputation? The Lord Jesus in Matthew 5 commands us to be concerned that others see that we are following him, obeying his revealed will, and bringing glory to God. Do we focus on some vague goal such as walking in union with Christ, as though that were any different from trusting and obeying him?
Should we run to other teachings that do no more than salve our conscience and plant the seeds of antinomian philosophy? Are the teachers of such things offering anything from the Bible that we cannot obtain from gathering with God's people and attending to the faithful preaching of his word? God has primarily established the visible organization called the church, in its many forms, to teach his people.
Let all who belong to Christ continue to pray for and grow in their desire, ability, and efforts to trust and obey him through his grace alone. Let's not leave the teachings once and for all time delivered to us. There is nothing new under the sun. God's law and his good news should be preached perpetually until the Lord Jesus returns. Let's turn away from any other kind of teaching.
The author is an elder at Grace Fellowship OPC in Philadelphia, Pa. He quotes the NASB. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2000.