When Obedience Gets in the Way

Obedience to God’s commandments is a vital component of real Christianity (John 14:15). Disciples of Christ are those who hunger and thirst after the righteousness of God’s kingdom (Matthew 5:6). We want to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). We were chosen by God to be “holy and blameless” (Ephesians 1:4).

However, there are certain types of “obedience” that undermine God’s grace and the work of Christ in salvation. Here are four ways that obedience can actually be a hindrance to true spirituality:

1. When obedience is performed in order to merit eternal life. Many people today believe that they must live a morally good life if they want to “make it” to heaven. However, obedience performed to merit eternal life is contrary to the Bible’s emphasis that we are justified by faith alone and not by works (Titus 3:5-7). As sinful human beings we have failed to meet the standard of God’s perfect righteousness (Romans 3:23-24). Only Christ’s perfect life and atoning death are acceptable in God’s sight. Christians do good works from life, rather than for life (Ephesians 2:8-10).

2. When obedience is performed in order to attain assurance. Evangelical obedience has its place in assuring us of God’s work in our hearts (1 John 3:7). But obedience that is performed with the primary goal of assuring us of salvation perverts the God-ordained foundations of our sanctification, namely: 1) gratitude to God for redeeming us and 2) love to God for bringing us out of darkness and into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). When obedience is performed out of a self-centered motivation for assurance, we place ourselves in an exhausting hamster-wheel that leads us away from real joy and freedom in Christ.

3. When obedience is performed as penance. God forgives us on the basis of free grace alone (Psalm 32:1-2) in Christ alone. We cannot “make up” for our sins by “doing a little good” today. When a person seeks to obey God in order to expiate the wrongs they have committed in the past, they are actually undermining the work of Christ on the cross where sin was dealt with once-and-for-all (Hebrews 9:15). Christians understand that their obedience in no way atones for sin—our sin-stained robes can only be washed through the Lamb’s blood (Revelation 7:14). Evangelical obedience is the fruit of embracing the gospel of Christ.

4. When obedience is performed to be seen by others. “Beware,” Christ said, “of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them…” (Matthew 6:1). The communal nature of Christianity poses a particular danger—are we doing religious things (like praying) to be approved in the sight of men? Or, as spiritually destitute people, are we praying because we really need God’s mercy? Do we serve so that people will approve of us, or are we serving because God’s grace has cheered our hearts, and we desire the reward that comes from him?

Christians need to avoid these common pitfalls of false obedience as we ask God to work graciously in our lives to be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29).

Mark Hogan, pastor of Pilgrims Reformed Baptist Church (a new church plant in Valley City, ND)