Do We Have to Obey God? By Stephanie Wilcox

Do We Have to Obey God? By Stephanie Wilcox

There’s a line in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which a man obeys a command from an authority figure with this response, “With duty and desire we follow you”. Now the context here is a situation of an abuse of power, and even still he willingly, without artifice, proclaimed an attitude of total obedience to his superior. I have often thought of that line as I considered my need to obey God’s Word. Because here’s the thing: true authority deserves our obedience as duty and desire. But this isn’t an obedience we have to fear or stick up our noses at. God is not on a power trip. He is the true authority because He is the Author and Sustainer of life, He is worthy of our obedience.

Obedience is not the natural position of my heart. Many of my good friends are firstborns, and the desire to obey, and to please others with compliance is a struggle they’ve often shared with me. I am a classic non-conforming middle child. I love the freedom to do things my way and still struggle not to toe the line or question every authority figure. Over the years I have frequently wondered if I really have to obey the Lord, and it was a struggle of my earlier years of faith. However, every time this question arises in me, it's been met with the grace and beauty of the gospel.


The Gospel & Obedience

 I remember as we dealt with early disobedience issues with one of my children, an older woman challenged me to not extend so much grace to my child but to mirror God in dealing strongly and quickly with the child’s sin. She said to expect obedience immediately, and with a cheerful heart. While this is my goal, that my children would willingly obey right away, I actually expect that they’ll act like sinners. I do not demand that which they are still learning to do. And this I believe is also something we see of our Lord.

There’s a scene in Exodus 34 that’s a stunning picture of God’s loving-kindness and His grace towards His children. Following God’s deliverance of Israel from Eygpy, He met with Moses on Mt. Sinai to give him the 10 Commandments–laws that would provide a framework of holiness and blessing for God’s people. But during this sacred meeting on the mountain, the people waiting below got antsy and gave into tremendous sin. When Moses didn’t show up when they expected, they demanded that Aaron (Moses’ brother and a priest) build them a golden calf to worship. To say God was angry over their rebellion is an understatement. He almost wiped them out entirely and started fresh with Moses. Instead, God responded in this way: 

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation”(Ex. 34:6-7).

And then He renewed His covenant with them.

This is the gospel. 

God doesn’t ignore or disregard our sinful disobedience to Him by sending Christ as the once-and-for-all sacrifice. He rightly recognizes us as sinners— expecting from sin—in desperate need of a Redeemer and Helper, and He initiated grace because of His deep love. He sent Christ to atone for our sins, and upon His ascension to Heaven, Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit as our Helper—to sanctify us from sin and conform us to the image of Jesus.

No doubt, God desires our immediate obedience, our willing submission to Him as sovereign king, but He knew that we needed help. Ezekiel was a prophet who wrote to the Israelites living in exile as the result of their ongoing rebellion against God. God spoke through him of the great hope that would come when He would take their hearts of stone and transform them into living and beating hearts of flesh. This is the work of regeneration that the Spirit does on our behalf. But I especially love this assurance that God spoke through Ezekiel, “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:27) The Spirit has been sent as our Helper and Counselor to aid us in the long work of obedience. 

But on the flip side of this grace is another aspect of the gospel and the blessing of obedience: it preserves us from the consequence of sin. We don’t really like to think about this, do we? But the reality is that the gospel also assures us of judgment for the unrepentant. Scripture doesn’t give us an incomplete view of our Lord but reminds us that God is mercy, just as He is righteous and just. Because He is just, He does give consequences for sin. The Israelites provide ample opportunity for us to see God’s grace and His faithfulness, but they also allow us to see the ways that God does require our obedience. What shows this more poignantly than the exile ( 2 Kings 17)? God promised an exile if Israel continued to live in rebellion, but mercy if they repented. He kept His word. Perhaps the most significant blessing of obedience is the blessing of living free of the consequences of sin.

As you strive for a life of obedience (aware that you will stumble at times) what expectations do you hold for yourself? Do you hold grace for yourself as you learn and grow in righteousness? Do you encourage yourself to run to the help of the Spirit? What about that new believer in your Bible study or church? Is it what you’re expecting and offering to your friends or children? As we think about biblical obedience let’s not forget how the gospel encircles us with grace. We don’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and will ourselves to obey. We avoid legalism, refusing to submit to a works-based faith. We flee from judgmentalism—condemning those obeying differently. We do recognize that in Christ we are new—putting off our old ways of sinful disobedience—and we walk in the newness of life we have in Christ (1 Cor. 5:17). 

Friend, we have the beautiful opportunity to know our Lord, having been given access through the atonement of Christ. And in knowing Him, as recipients of His tremendous grace and that same loving-kindness He extended to the Israelites in the wilderness, we can obey not from fear or mere duty, but with desire and love. We recognize Him as Supreme Authority and also our compassionate King. We can recognize that obedience is hard but that we have a great Helper through the Holy Spirit. In this, we remember the grace of the gospel. This is true for you, for that new believer, for a family member, your husband, or your child. The gospel always and ever meets us with grace and offers us tender aid in walking in righteous obedience. Praise God!

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