It was in the third grade that I learned an important lesson in obedience. We were working on math. A friend of mine showed me that in the back of the book you could find the answers to the math problems. Math not being my strong suit, I took advantage of this gold mine (why the book authors put the answers in the back is another question). I merrily wrote down the answers, looking in the back of the book frequently.
Suddenly, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Gibson, loomed over me. She bent over and said something that has stuck in my mind since that day. “Tommy,” she said, “I don’t want you to do that. You’re not that kind of boy.” It was a lesson in obedience and honesty that was burned into my heart by that experience. And honesty has been important to me ever since.
THE FRUIT, NOT THE ROOT
But obedience is often misunderstood. I suppose that it arises from the legitimate desire to please our parents and stay out of trouble. “Obey and live,” you might say. Obedience was rewarded; disobedience was punished. Without careful instruction and practice, we can get the idea that we are loved if we obey and not loved if we do not.
Understood correctly, obedience is the fruit of a loving relationship with God, not that which establishes the relationship.
This quid pro quo concept of love can easily carry over into the life of faith. Obey God’s commandments and be loved. Disobey and be punished. But this is not the concept of love taught in Scripture. Always in Scripture obedience follows redemption. It is the response to God’s loving action, not the cause of it. The Ten Commandments illustrate this well. While we often start in Exodus 20:3 to memorize these principles of life, the discourse actually begins in verse 1. “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’” (Exod 20:1–3).1 Before Israel could learn to obey God, it first had to have a relationship of gracious redemption with Him. This experience the Lord provided by bringing them out of Egypt with a mighty outstretched arm (Exod 3–15). It was an unforgettable experience that changed their status from slaves to free people. It fundamentally modified their conception of themselves from an oppressed underclass to the people of God.
It was in this new status that God addressed them at Sinai. The Ten Commandments addressed them as an assembled congregation, but also as individuals. In each case in the “Ten Words” the “you” is singular, stressing the individual relationship to God that the commands imply. It is not simply a whole group that is supposed to obey. It is you, I, each and every one of us.
Just here it is important to recognize that our obedience to God in no way removes our sins. It is God who provides salvation through Christ our Lord whose death on the cross washes away our guilty debt before God. Obedience does not remove or pay for sin. It never has and never can. That is because sin is an affront to the holiness and goodness of God. It is breaking the fundamental principles that guide the moral universe. Breaking His law places a blot on our life that we cannot remove. Only Christ can remove sin (Mark 2:10; Rom 5:6–10). If we think of adding on obedience to somehow atone for sin, we add on to the sacrifice of Christ. And if you add on to Jesus, you actually subtract from Him. That is, you say by such a move that His sacrifice is not enough, that more is needed—your deeds.2
Understood correctly, obedience is the fruit of a loving relationship with God, not that which establishes the relationship. We love our children before they can ever obey. We provide for their needs, clothe them, clean them, care for them before they can ever respond with obedience. Just so, God has cared for and cleansed us as we turn toward the smile of His grace. This relationship of experiencing His love leads to the fruit of the Spirit in our life, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22–23). Paul adds, “Against such things there is no Law” (v. 23).
If obedience does not earn our salvation or remove our sin, then why obey? Consider a child who is cared for by loving parents. All his needs are met—food, clothing, housing, education, a loving environment. But the child does not want to obey the reasonable rules of the household, does not want to clean his room, wash dishes, be home on time. Something is wrong. It is as though all comes in but nothing goes out. Parents do not provide for the child in order to produce obedience, but rather because he is their child and they love him. But if he does not obey he upsets the fine balance of the home relationship. Receiving but not giving produces a stunted, even broken, development of character.
This is why obedience is a necessity in Christian life (Rom 12:1–2). Without it we become centered on self, inwardly stunted and unresponsive to the needs of others around us. The grace of God is meant to change our natural inward focus toward an outward focus in service to others (John 13:34–35; Eph 2:10). Here is where true obedience resides. Consider examples from the Ten Commandments: “Do not steal” (Exod 20:15). Stealing is taking from others what rightfully belongs to them. It is the appropriation of their goods for my ends. It develops within me a selfish spirit that actually shrinks my ability to recognize and appreciate those around me. It shrinks my soul. “Do not commit adultery” (Exod 20:14). To do so breaks terribly the bond of love and commitment between husband and wife, leading to distrust, painful disappointment, deep shame, and terrible hurt.
JUDGED BY OUR DEEDS
It is a consistent teaching of both Old and New Testaments, Moses, Jesus, Paul, John, and other Bible writers that we are saved by grace but we are judged by our deeds. “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it” (Deut 30:16). “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl 12:14). “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10). “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done” (Rev 22:12). “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to Me” (Matt 25:40).
So, this seems quite strange. We have noted the clear biblical teaching that we are saved by grace through faith apart from works. We also saw that obedience cannot atone for sin and that it is the fruit of a faith relationship with God. Then why are we judged by our deeds? Doesn’t that contradict these clear biblical teachings? The answer, surprisingly, is no, it does not contradict righteousness by faith. How so? The answer is found in biblical anthropology.
Biblical anthropology is very wholistic. We say, “You do not have a soul; you are a soul” (cf. Gen 2:7; the man became a living soul, nephesh in Hebrew). One of the corollaries of this biblical teaching of wholeness is the doctrine of the state of the dead. The dead do not know anything because at death the dust returns to the earth and the breath of life returns to God (Eccl 12:7). The soul stops existing because it only exists as the combination of the dust of the ground and the breath of life from God.3
What does this have to do with “saved by grace but judged by deeds”? Just this. Since we are a whole, a unity, what is on the inside expresses itself on the outside. You do and say what you are. If I have faith in Christ in my heart, it will show itself in my deeds. Grace and faith are the root; service to others is the fruit. If there is no fruit, it is because there is something wrong with the root. Consequently, our deeds (or lack thereof) are an expression of our inward faith (or lack thereof). For this reason God judges us by our deeds.
Obedience is the privilege of the Christian—to grow in knowledge and service for our Lord. Its sweetness is to fill our lives. “Oh how I love your Law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps 119:97). “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). “You are My friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12). The Christian walk is meant to be a happy, cheerful life, ever growing more like our Lord, walking in His footsteps, following His example of lifting up others around us. May God work that experience in my life and yours.
1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV.
2 This was the problem described in Colossians 2.
3 It is like a box constructed of wooden planks held together by nails: remove the nails, set the wooden planks to one side, and the box no longer exists, because it is a combination of the wooden planks and nails.
Thomas R. Shepherd, PhD, DrPH is a Senior research professor of New Testament at Andrews University, USA.