This follows on from my series “Why be good?”
Kath has been writing about obedience and asking what’s helpful in seeking to love an obedient life. It’s a good question, because people in the Bible seem pretty thrilled by the idea. The Psalmist sees the law as eminently loveable (Psalm 119:97), Paul calls it “holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). Jude, Peter, James and Paul all introduce themselves as “Slaves of Christ” in their letters. They love obedience! They have seen an awesomely attractive vision of life and they’ve submitted themselves to it with joyful abandon.
We don’t like obedience – as a rule. (If it were a suggestion, we’d be much more amenable).
Why don’t we like it?
- We’re not any good at it. I’m always inclined to hate something I’m bad at. (I’m afraid there’s no real solution to this one – we’ll always be really bad at obedience. All of us. Until we die. But it’s we who are bad, not the law).
- Obedience feels like it’s taking us away from the good life. We imagine that God has set up an arbitrary set of hoops for us to jump through. We imagine he’s not really interested in goodness, in justice, in flourishing, in cosmic shalom. We fear that he just sets little tests for the world in order to sort out the pious wheat from the irreligious chaff. It rarely occurs to us that God has laid out “The Good Life” for us. We consider it to be merely “The Hard Life.”
- Law sounds like the opposite of love. Somehow someone convinced us that law and love are on opposite sides of an unbridgeable chasm. They must have had their bibles firmly shut at that point because law and love go together everywhere you look in Scripture. But, according to the caricature, over there are law people obsessing over irrelevant duties, but over here, we’re just liberated lovers, leading with our big, warm hearts. In this world, the word obedience definitely belongs over there. But notice too – in this world, both sides of the supposed chasm are far from self-forgetful gospel faith.
- Works seem like the opposite of faith (rather than the fruit). In our minds, we set up the difference between gospel faith and legalistic religion like this: YOU are faithlessly busy. I am trustingly inactive. God prefers my internal “faith” to your external “works”. Notice though, that this understanding is actually Christless – it makes me the Saviour, through my cognitive contribution. But the gospel is that we’re saved in spite of our inactivity and in spite of our busyness – we’re saved by Christ. It’s not really our faith that saves us (as though God prefers internal mental assent to external physical acts!) It’s Christ who saves us and sets us on our feet as children of the same heavenly Father. Now that we’re in the family, how could obedience be a dirty word? All of a sudden obedience makes sense.
- Obeying God seems besides the point, perhaps even Pharasaical. If, in the gospel, my goodness is irrelevant to my standing with God, we very quickly ask the question “Why be good?” We rarely round on the question and ask an equally incredulous: “Why on earth be bad??” (We don’t react that way because we’ve bought into lie no. 2 – we think that badness is a kind of delightful naughtiness). Positively speaking, it rarely occurs to us to answer the “Why be good?” question with an emphatic: “Because goodness is good!” Or “Because Father knows best”. Or “Because the life of Christ works through us!” Or “Because there’s a world out there to bless!”
Once the incentive of heavenly reward is absent we seem to lose whatever interest in obedience we might have had. But that’s not a sign that we’re too focused on the gospel. The very opposite – it’s a sign that we haven’t allowed the gospel to properly re-calibrate our thinking.
It’s the legalist who sees obedience as an arbitrary set of hoops to jump through. Legalists are like the older brother of Luke 15 – happy to prove themselves by jumping through the hoops. The licentious are like the younger brother of Luke 15 – happy to find themselves by casting such burdens away. But both of them completely misunderstand obedience. We should think of obedience as one way – a beautifully attractive way – of characterizing ‘the father’s house.’ Yes it is a place of love, blessing, security, celebration, joy, mercy, peace, etc, etc. But it’s also a place where the beautiful will of the Father is done.
On this understanding, legalists are like the older son, self-righteous in the field. The licentious are like the younger son, lost in the far-country. The true position is to be a sinner robed, in the father’s household. But just imagine that younger son, the morning after the feast. With what eagerness he will serve his father now! He’ll get it wrong. He’ll have to learn. But obedience in the father’s house is not a dirty word, it’s the very atmosphere of home.
It’s true that there is a slavery on the near side of sonship and that is spiritual death. But there’s a slavery on the far side of sonship and it is life and peace.