Jesus Died To Make Obedience Possible, Not Optional

Justification—being declared righteous before God—is possible only by grace through faith. You can heap all your good deeds upon one another and climb them to heaven, but if you aren’t clothed in Christ’s righteousness, God will toss your self-righteous self right out of his presence. Our sinfulness runs too deep for any of our deeds to be purely righteous (Isaiah 64:6), and the guilt we bear for our trespasses is beyond our ability to absolve. The blood of Jesus is the only hope any of us has. Seeing all that Christ is for us and trusting in him to save us is the only means by which we can be declared blameless. Christians glory in being justified as a gift by the grace of God alone—not their own works or morality (Ephesians 2:8-9).

However, in every generation there have been ignorant and unstable people that take the message of God’s grace through Christ and, as Peter wrote, “twist it to their own destruction.” They, as Jude once wrote, “pervert the grace of God into sensuality.” Leave it to the ever-descriptive Paul to put it bluntly: For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.”

These fleshly-minded people seem to understand the freeness of God’s offer of salvation but don’t understand—or willfully ignore—the purpose for which God saves people. Ephesians 8:2-9 is one of the most quoted passages of Scripture because it beautifully highlights how utterly grace-based redemption is. But verse 10, which details the purpose for every Christian’s redemption, is so often neglected.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” – Ephesians 2:8-10 (emphasis mine)

God’s salvific intention since day one has been to create a people who would love him and obey him from the heart. The Old Covenant failed to produce these kinds of people, though. God gave a Law (the Ten Commandments/Mosaic Law) but the people to whom it was given were unable to keep it because their hearts were spiritually lifeless and enslaved to evil. However, this was no shock to God. He gave the Law knowing full well the people would be unwilling and unable to obey it. His purpose in the Mosaic Law was to show the world how deep humanity’s sin runs and how badly we all need a new heart (Romans 3:20)—a need that he would meet in the New Covenant.

Jesus, the mediator of this New Covenant, sacrificed himself to cleanse sinners from their guilt and clear the way for the Holy Spirit to be poured into their hearts. When he ascended to the Father, the Spirit was unleashed from Heaven to do what mere religion could never do: create new hearts. Through the atoning work of Jesus and by the regenerating power of the Spirit, God fulfills the words he spoke by Ezekiel: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” – Ezekiel 36:26-27

Jesus doesn’t cleanse people from sin so that they can continue to lead sinful lifestyles; he cleanses people from sin so that they can be raised to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). Every born again person will walk in increasing submission to the moral law of God, not because they desire to “get saved”—they are already completely forgiven, cleansed, and righteous by the blood of Christ—but because the love of God has been poured into their hearts by the Spirit. Fueled by Holy Ghost-wrought gratitude and affection, they progress in holiness throughout the duration of their lives. This is true of every born again person.

But this is where people butt heads. Some professing Christians just aren’t down with the mandatory-ness of a transformed life. They believe walking in [imperfect, but growing] obedience to God is an optional aspect of the Christian life. They say there are rewards in Heaven for the obedient, but people who claim allegiance to Jesus while living lives characterized by unrepentant sin will get into Heaven just as well. My only problem with this is what Jesus actually said . . .

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” – Matthew 7: 21-23.

Jesus didn’t come to enable anyone to live a life of disobedience to God—he came to forgive our disobediences and enable us to obey! Not only does Jesus say he will boot the “lawless” out of his presence, but in the Sermon on the Mount, he actually takes holiness to a deeper level than the Mosaic Law ever did! He blows past the external prohibitions of the Law and digs into the heart of the matter. The Law said do not commit adultery; Jesus said don’t even look lustfully at a woman. The Law said do not murder; Jesus said don’t hate your brother. The Law said an eye for an eye; Jesus said if a person slaps you, turn to him the other cheek, also. Jesus didn’t lift God’s expectation for obedience—if anything, he intensifies it! He took holiness to the heart-level because soon the Holy Spirit would be in the believing person’s heart, renewing, softening, and enabling real righteousness.

Does walking in progressive levels of obedience save us? No—we are saved by grace through faith alone. But walking in good works is the unavoidable evidence of genuine conversion. Just as we breathe in free air that gives our bodies life, when we receive the grace of God in Christ, our souls become alive to righteousness. We will not be perfect in this life. Our pesky flesh will continue to harass us. We will struggle to obey God. We will sin. But our hearts will groan over our sin (Romans 8: 23) and hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6). We will long for the day when God completes his transforming work and cleanses us from the presence of sin. But until that day, we will fight with all our Spirit-might to walk in the good works God has prepared for us. We will not turn the grace of God into licentiousness. We will not live the kind of life that tramples upon the crucified Christ. We will strive to obey the Lord’s command given by the apostle Paul:

“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” – Romans 6:12-14

  • Lyle Nelson

    I do so very much less than I should be doing here, and I cannot really begin to explain why. I guess it’s too easy to rely on the truth that God knows we can’t obey him perfectly. But that’s no excuse for not doing the best I can. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Kieran Joseph Kelly

    Matt, I don’t know if this is what you are meaning, but it kind of sounds like it. You say that every born again Christian will walk in increasing submission to the moral law of God, but is this necessarily true? I understand that this should be, and usually is, a sign of a true born again Christian, but what about those who have decided to turn from what they know to be true? What about those who continue to do wrong even though they know it is wrong, but in there stubbornness and sin filled life decide to instead keep their backs turned to God (assuming they committed themselves to God in their younger years)? Just curious as to your thoughts and others’ thoughts on this. Thanks again for a great read!

    • Alan

      First of all, Kieran is like the coolest name.

      The narrow way is given by God to increase the measure of Christ in our life, and the invitation of Jesus is that we follow him. But it remains both an invitation and the only way. There’s a lot at stake if we don’t go on with God in this life. Romans 8 says spiritually there’s no life within if we live to the flesh, and Hebrews 4 says we’ll fail thru disobedience to enter the rest which is in Christ. If that’s not enough, there’s this from Hebrews 10 which should put the fear of God in anyone:
      “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
      When we get to heaven, the Father will look for the measure of His Son in each of us and the only way to the increase of the measure of Christ within is thru following Jesus.

      • Kieran Joseph Kelly

        Thanks Alan, I like the name my parents gave me too 😆 Also, thank you for your response. I totally see what you are getting at. My main issue in trying to understand it all is just because as someone who knew God and then strayed so far from him, I myself just wondered what it would have meant if, knowing things the way I did while in that state, I had not returned to Christ before my own death. So that raises the question to me just what that might mean for any other brother or sister of Christ who may also be struggling with their own faith right now. I just find it a very interesting thing to think about considering the fact that once we have been washed clean through the ultimate sacrifice of Christ, and of course the acceptance of that fact, there is nothing that can tarnish us nor take us out of His hand. I praise God every day I remember just what He has done for me, and thank Him for helping me out of that state in my own life.

        • Alan

          It’s faith that will get tested again and again on this journey. And part of that test is, when we’ve sinned and fallen following Jesus, whether or not we really believe that God is able to do what he says in our life. Does the blood of Jesus alone have power to cleanse me right now, again? And does it? These things we believe in are not just topics for our minds, but living spiritual realities. Truth in Christ is living and has power to set free. His blood has power to cleanse, and thru faith we can enter into the reality of that and find ourselves really cleansed when we’ve sinned, cleansed from sin, cleansed from an evil conscience that is always weighing us down, conscious of our sin.
          We will be brought to this point again and again where the only thing that will get us thru and make us to stand is looking to Christ and away from ourselves. That is the work of God in us, that we believe with our heart in His Son. So often the hard times we have after we’ve sinned are due more to the fact that we believed more in our own goodness as Christians than in Christ. Following Jesus, sin is a great vehicle to discover how prideful we really are. God has already made us alive in Christ and so much of this walk is being brought into the reality that what is true in Christ is true in us. His Spirit is here as the power and energy of God to guide us and bring us into that place where Christ is all.
          I guess the discouraging news is that until these bodies are redeemed they remain flesh with the pounding desire to do anything and everything against God. The better news is that God has already made us alive in spirit to his reality and given us new hearts with this amazing capacity called faith to be able to enter in that reality. The great adventure Jesus calls us to when he invites us to follow him is to enter into what’s true and in reality be like him in this world. As to what it might mean for those struggling with faith, if they are in Christ, Christ will prove himself true in the struggle and they will go on with him. Those in Christ who don’t go on will find their time here filled with doubts and fears, alive to the reality of God but never able to enter into rest.
          Kieran, may God continue to bless you on this journey.

  • Brandon Burrell

    Amen. Thanks Matt. God chastens those He loves, and prunes us so that we can bear more fruit. God bless you.

  • Alan

    There’s a phrase that’s in the first and last sentence of Romans, “…to bring about the obedience of faith”. In both contexts, obedience that comes from faith is where we are to be. Romans 10 says it’s with the heart we believe and Romans 6 says “thanks be to God that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart…”
    It’s not so much that we believe what God says as much as we love what he says. Obedience isn’t merely following marching orders as much as answering the desire of God’s heart in the things we do. Like David’s mighty men at great risk getting water from the well of Bethlehem because David longed for it, obedience and faith are with loving hearts. Even Jesus’ “if anyone will keep my word…” isn’t merely obeying. Keeping includes first guarding his word with your heart.
    The obedience of faith that’s the goal of the New Testament is the answer to God’s desire from the beginning. “…what does the Lord require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you for your good?” According to Jesus, it remains the greatest commandment to love God with everything that’s in us.

    • Alan

      There’s a better example of obedience that’s from love. Remember God’s testing of Abraham in calling him to sacrifice Isaac, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning…”
      Obedience is in going, loving obedience is rising early to go.

  • David Wells

    For his own welfare, the person who believes that walking obediently is an optional aspect of the Christian life has not had the “Ezekiel 36:26-27” experience and his salvation must be questioned, despite the risk of your being labeled legalistic or pharisaical. And you will.