Obedience is not an act to please God as though you could gain His favor. Your obedience comes from a heart of joy that has been transformed by the gospel. You obey out of a heart of gratitude for the works of Christ.
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Mable struggled all her life with people pleasing. She said she could not remember a time when she was free from thinking about what others thought about her. The way she dresses, the car she drives, the technology she carries, and the house she owns are controlled to some degree by what others think about her.
A Peek into Her Life
- She is fanatical about fitness because of her keen awareness of what a “nice looking body” should be.
- She stretches the truth because her real stories are not as interesting.
- She is afraid to bring a bag lunch to the office because everyone else eats out. She’d rather go into debt.
- She exhibits passive anger toward her boyfriend because he pressures her to have sex. She believes he would leave if she did not acquiesce. She feels significant with a boyfriend, even at the sacrifice of her conscience and character.
Her counselor quickly discerned her problem as fear of man (Proverbs 29:25). He told her that she needed to be more concerned with pleasing God than others. And from there, the counselor laid out a plan of prayer, Bible study, and service-oriented activities so she could practice a lifestyle of pleasing God.
The mistake the counselor made was not carefully explaining what pleasing God meant to a people-pleasing idolator. Mable embraced a performance-driven, people pleasing lifestyle decades ago.
When she was told to please God rather than others, it was not difficult for her to do. Pleasing others was her strength. Unfortunately, she did not know what pleasing God meant so she did what she does best: She ratcheted up her obedience.
Who Can Please God?
And a voice came from heaven, You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased. – Mark 1:11
Everything Jesus did pleased God. Christ came to do the will of the Father, and He perfectly completed the task. The Father received the finished work of Christ, which opened a new way for you to please God: you accept the works of Jesus rather than relying on your own (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Without faith it is impossible to please him. – Hebrews 11:6
Pleasing God is not about what you do, but about resting in the only One who could please God. Even on your best day, with your best works, you would not be acceptable to God (Isaiah 64:6). Mable is a Christian, who is trying to please God by performing for Him.
Before she met with her counselor, she tried to please others, as noted by the bullet points above. After she had met with her counselor, she switched to trying to please God, as indicated in the examples below. Mable did not change. She only switched who she wanted to like her.
- She says she feels more spiritual by “going to church” as though being filled with more of God comes through her works for God.
- She says if she misses her prayer time, Bible reading, or church attendance, she feels less spiritual. She reads 4.25 chapters each day, even while brushing her teeth so she can check it off her list.
- Mable believes if she has her morning prayer time and things go well during the day, it was because she gained God’s favor by her prayer-time-obedience.
- In her “work-to-please-God” schema, the opposite is also true: If she does not have her prayer time and things do not go well for her, she feels as though her lack of prayer (works) caused her day to go poorly. Sometimes her friends affirm her retributive theology of legalism when they observe her bad day and say, “You must not be prayed-up today.”
As you can see, when her biblical counselor gave her a list of things to do to please God, Mable was initially excited about her new list. People pleasing, self-reliant, performance driven people love lists.
After a while, she could not juggle her new list of spiritual disciplines with the rest of her life. Eventually, discouragement set in. Then depression. The self-imposed demands were too much. From her perspective, God was not pleased with her, and her poor performance was proof.
Mable’s functional theology was an effort to manage (manipulate) God’s pleasure by what she did rather than what Jesus did. Her understanding of Christ’s work was limited. She believed the gospel was for her salvation while her obedience was for her sanctification.
What About Obedience?
Obedience is, of course, important for the Christian. The key idea is to make sure your obedience is not an effort to please God, but a response to your faith in God. This idea is the context of Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “We make it our aim to please him.” (See 2 Corinthians 5:9)
Paul hoped the Corinthians would understand that pleasing God was a walk by faith rather than a walk by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). The context of the passage was Paul’s appeal for them to trust Christ rather than the things they could see. (See 2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
If the Corinthians trusted (faith) Christ the way Paul outlined, they would please God. Obedience is the biblical response from a person who is trusting Christ. It pleases God when you trust Him, and because you trust Him, you obey Him. The logic would flow like this:
- You trust God.
- God is pleased that you trust Him.
- As a response to God’s pleasure, you obey Him.
Mable needs to start over again. She needs to understand that pleasing God means to trust the finished works of Christ. God has a good opinion of Mable if she is trusting His Son for salvation and sanctification. She must inculcate this truth into her brain.
Because she is a Christian, she is “in Christ,” and she cannot be any more in Christ. Being more obedient does not make her more in Christ. God pleasure in you does not ebb and flow.
She must guard her heart against the subtle deception that what she does through obedience can merit a better standing before God. This temptation is her biggest struggle because she is an insecure, people pleasing, co-dependent, performance-driven person.
Warning: If you are not practically resting in your identity that Christ gave you by His finished works, you can subtly slip into an obedience lifestyle thinking what you do pleases God as though there is some merit system based on your works.
Obedience Is Born out of Faith
Obedience is what a person who is trusting Christ does. Obedience is not something you work at as though you need a list. Obedience flows out of the ontological realities of the heart. It is the consistent and expected life of a person who is born again (James 2:17).
James taught that if you are a Christian, the fruit of obedience will grow from your life. Faith without works is dead. Obedience is an assumption. It’s an expected response for every believer. It’s the “if, then” continuum.
Some may argue this is quietism or passive obedience. If that is the argument, you’ve missed the point. That would be like saying because I am a human, I passively grow. You will not grow by inactivity. You must make practical and intentional choices to eat if you want to improve but those things do not make you human. The reason you make those choices is because you are a human.
I prefer the term gospel-motivated works as a way to define obedience. I would want to direct Mable regarding her motive for obedience rather than merely trying to give her a list of obedient things to do.
Her counselor did not do this. He tried to make Mable switch the object of her obedience from people to God. Mable did not need to change the object of her obedience. She needed to change her motives for obedience.
- Her original motive was to please people with her performance.
- She switched her motivation to please God by her performance.
Jesus said if you love Him, you will keep His commandments (John 14:15). Of course, you would. That is the assumption. That is what James was saying (James 2:17). The operative phrase is if you love Him. The reason you love Christ is because He first loved you (1 John 4:19). It would break down like this:
- Christ loves you.
- Therefore you love Him.
- Out of that love you obey.
It relieved and encouraged Mable to know she did not have to please God to gain His good opinion. She understood how her standing before God was as secure today as it was when He first acted upon her. Mable’s Bible knowledge began to change. She needed more time to change her “functional knowledge,” or how she lived it out daily.
Her life was consumed by people pleasing, which made her unclear about gospel-motivated obedience. It was a complete paradigm shift because of how her legalism shaped her toward a God-pleasing lifestyle.
Call to Action
Let’s go back to my human analogy. If you are a human, there are several assumptions with being human. For example, people eat, sleep, walk, talk, learn, and grow. If a human did not do these things, he would break down in some way. Being a Christian is similar.
Below are five “Christian assumptions” that all Christians do. These things do not make or keep you a Christian but are by-products of being a Christian. I’ll make five “if you are a Christian, you will (fill in the blank)” statements and I’ll explain them below.
- If you are a Christian, you will show mercy to others.
- If you are a Christian, you will be quick to forgive others.
- If you are a Christian, you will love others.
- If you are a Christian, you will not look down on others.
- If you are a Christian, you will glorify God in your suffering.
Gospel Motivated Mercy
Then his master summoned him and said to him, You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow-servant, as I had mercy on you? – Matthew 18:32-33
There is an assumption from the master that this guy should have remembered what happened to him in the courtroom. If he had recognized and respected the gospel, he would have gone out and modeled (obedience) gospel-mercy to a man who owed him far less than what he owed. The master was asking him a question that you may paraphrase this way:
Because I had mercy on you through the gospel, you should have done the same for your friend. You should have been obedient. That is what I would expect from my children.
Call to Action: Are you harsh to people as though what you have done to Christ is of lesser significance when compared to what others have done to you?
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:31-32
Paul taught how you tie your motive for obedience to the gospel. You should not be bitter or angry or a slanderer because of the model you see through Christ, who forgave you. A person who respects the gospel will forgive, which is a proper act of obedience.
Call to Action: How does God’s forgiveness of you impact how you use your tongue toward others?
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. – Ephesians 5:25
A husband who understands the gospel will love his wife sacrificially. He will learn, love, and lead her. His sacrifice (obedience to God) for her will be unending, and his affection for her will be unceasing.
Call to Action: Compare your love for your wife to the love Christ has for you. How do you need to change?
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy. – 1 Timothy 1:15-16
Paul considered himself to be the chief of sinners. He was #1 in his book. The individual forgiven of much is thankful of much. The most grateful Christians are those who never forget that God did not get a good deal when He got them. Humility is an act of obedience, born out of a right understanding of the gospel.
Call to Action: Who do you look down on? What kind of person or people do you hold to a lesser evaluation?
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. – 1 Peter 2:21
It is the Christian’s privilege and opportunity to share (obedience) in the sufferings of Christ. The more you understand the suffering aspect of the gospel, the more you will be motivated to glorify God while you suffer.
Call to Action: How does your suffering motivate you to obey Christ?
Also published on Medium.