by Al Maxey

Issue #598 ------- November 15, 2013
Those he commands move only
in command, nothing in love.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Earning Salvation By Obedience
A Few Reflections On Why Disciples Obey

At the very outset of this study let me hasten to assure the readers that I am in no way suggesting that obedience is unimportant or that it has no place in our relationship with our God. One would have to be utterly ignorant of the contents of Scripture to affirm such a doctrine. A number of people in recent years have accused me of teaching that we do not have to obey God; that if we simply believe in Him we can coast into heaven while still "doing as we please" in our daily lives. I knew a preacher several decades ago who, in a conversation with me, told me that he proclaimed to his congregation, "As long as you believe, you can live like the devil and God will still accept you." In my opinion, there are serious problems with that kind of teaching. This is not what I teach. There is no question, at least not in my mind, that our Father expects His children to live in accordance with His will for them. Whether one chooses to characterize this as obedience or compliance or submission, it is nevertheless a divine expectation conveyed throughout Scripture. Thus, I am not declaring, nor have I ever declared, obedience to be unnecessary or irrelevant to our spiritual sojourn here on earth. The question is not: "Is obedience necessary?" Clearly, it is. The real question we must address is: "Necessary to what?" What purpose does obedience serve? What does obedience accomplish? Why do disciples of Christ Jesus obey? And what do they obey? By asking these types of questions, and seeking to grasp the answers from our examination of the Scriptures, we will perhaps gain a better understanding of the nature and purpose and practical parameters of obedience.

This past week I received an email from a Reflections reader in which he wrote (in part) the following: "I listen regularly to a Church of Christ preacher who stresses obedience in his sermons. While being obedient to God is what all Christians should be doing in their lives, it seems to me that this preacher makes one's obedience a salient part of being saved (and staying saved). Isn't there a danger of muddling the Gospel message, and of obscuring what Jesus accomplished for us at the cross, if we add anything to the finished work of Jesus at the cross? The message of this preacher seems to be: By means of what Jesus did at the cross, PLUS what WE do (obedience to commands, water baptism, good deeds, being as sin-free as we can manage, and so forth), we co-redeem ourselves. Is this typical Church of Christ theology, or just mostly the doctrine of the most conservative among you? In a recent sermon, this preacher said: 'You can't buy salvation. You have to earn it by being obedient to God.' He is right in saying you can't buy salvation, but then he defaults back to his doctrine of 'saved by obedience.' I would love to hear your take on this."

Perhaps the place to begin such a response is to look at the word "obedience," especially as it is presented to us in the New Covenant writings. Generally, when one is told that he or she must "obey," it brings to mind some command or point of law that one must not question; "do it or die." Thus, one can "obey" such a command from another, yet neither agree with it nor respect or love the one issuing it. I remember in the military that we were informed, in no uncertain terms, that we were to "obey without question, whether you agree or not, and whether you like me or not." Thus, obedience (in such scenarios) did not truly come from the heart, it was a matter of doing as one was told in order to avoid the consequences of disobedience. In such cases, obedience is largely motivated by fear, not by love or respect. Is THIS truly what God is looking for? -- disciples who "do as they're told" and "don't ask questions"? Well, that IS "obedience." But, is that the type of obedience that God seeks from His children? Sadly, there are children living with abusive parents who obey the dictates of these parents "to the letter," for they fear the beatings that will come if they do otherwise. They are "obedient," but they loathe their parents and long for the day they can be free of them. I think we can all agree that such a view of "obedience" is not even close to the NT concept.

But, what IS the NT concept? The Greek words utilized in the NT are: "hupakoe" (noun = "attentive hearing; compliance, submission, obedience") and "hupakouo" (verb = "to listen/hear attentively; to submit, comply, obey"). The word is a combination of the preposition "upo" ("under") and the word "akouo" ("to hear; listen"), thus signifying one who listens to another with respect, placing themselves under the guidance of that individual; heeding what they say. As disciples of Christ, we place ourselves willingly under His authority, and we listen to what He says, and observe what He does, so as to conform our attitudes and actions to His. Obedience under this new covenant of grace, therefore, is not subjecting oneself to LAW, but rather submitting oneself to the personification of LOVE (Jesus), and seeking to comply, in our own attitudes and actions, with the pattern of His attitudes and actions. Obedience under a covenant of grace, rather than a covenant of law, is a willing submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives, who works to transform us into the image of God's beloved Son. It is not about following rules and regulations, it is about following Jesus. Thus, when we place ourselves in submission to Him, we declare our willingness, with the help of His indwelling Spirit, to increasingly live in imitation of Him. The legalists will insist that obedience is to be found in precisely following procedural patterns (as in a "worship service," for example), whereas genuine NT obedience is to be found in lovingly following the pattern of the Lord Jesus Himself.

When we come to grasp God's grace, and when we finally perceive the true significance of obedience, and when we realize we now live under a dispensation of liberty, not law, we will appreciate the wisdom of this new order. We have passed beyond the notion of salvation by obedience to regulation, to the reality of salvation in relationship with the Lord. Thus, "obedience" (which too often leaves the impression of LAW) is probably more accurately conveyed by the term "submission" (which suggests, more properly, attentiveness to, with the intent to imitate, the attitudes and actions of the Son). This forever removes our "obedience" from the realm of LAW, and places it firmly (where it belongs) in the realm of LOVE. God is love, we are told, and when we place ourselves in submission to Him, "heeding attentively" the personification of the Father in the Son, by loving as He loves, we are thereby "obedient" to Him. If the entirety of law and all the prophetic writings is summed up in LOVE (as both Jesus and Paul declare), then our "obedience" and "submission" and "compliance" is perfected in LOVE. It is these who are truly "obedient" (in submission) to Him.

I really like the statement (in the graphic at the beginning of this article) by the rabbi who stated, "Obedience to the law is not our salvation, it is the fruit of our salvation." This rabbi realized an important truth: men do not obey in order to be saved; men obey because they are saved." Placing ourselves willingly and lovingly in submission to our Redeemer is not an act by which we hope to secure His favor, it is rather an act/attitude of gratitude for having been granted His favor. God's grace is a gift; it cannot be earned. It is received by faith, and we then spend our lives in loving submission to Him for that gift, a submission that surrenders our very lives to His leading and the transforming work of His indwelling Spirit. It is this latter that constitutes the NT teaching on "obedience." For those willing to give themselves in submission to His leading, and who are willing to be transformed by His Spirit, Jesus stands forever as the source of their salvation (a salvation not secured by their own acts or actions).

The above mentioned preacher stated in a sermon, "You can't buy salvation. You have to earn it by being obedient to God." Yes, this is, unfortunately, what some within my faith-heritage preach (and it is what many in other denominations preach and teach, as well). It could not be more FALSE. Salvation is a gift, and a gift cannot be "earned" (that would make it "wages due"). Thankfully, more and more within the Stone-Campbell Movement are abandoning this heresy. We are NOT saved by compliance with commands; we are not redeemed by our response to rules and regulations. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). Yes, as saved men and women, we will seek, by the power of His Spirit, to live in compliance with and submission to His example. As He loved, we will seek to love; as He was merciful, we will seek to be merciful; as He was kind, benevolent, forgiving, compassionate, so we will seek to be. In so doing we "attentively hear" the proclamation of His life and teaching, and we submit. Again, this is not done in order to earn salvation, it is done because we are already saved, and we simply seek to show that reality in our daily lives. THIS is the "obedience" one finds promoted within the pages of the New Covenant writings. Liberation, not legislation, is the watchword; love, not law. May God help us to perceive this reality, for failing to do so only leads us back to enslavement to religious regulation -- and therein lies the pathway to destruction.

Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Texas:

Thank you, Al, for all you do for the cause of Christ and for all of us who are trying to serve Him. I admire your diligent work so much. I would like to order the following CD sets, for which my check is enclosed: Encouragement for the End Times (Parts 1 & 2), The Nature of Man and His Eternal Destiny, and From Law to Liberty: "Reflecting on our Journey away from Legalism and into Freedom in Christ." Thank you so much!

From a Reader in Texas:

My friend and I like hearing your sermons, which you have made available on your congregation's web site (Click Here). I especially appreciated the one in which you talked about what you would say if you were preaching your last sermon. After listening to that one, I told my friend (we listen to them together, even though my friend is in Missouri and I am in Texas), "He knows Jesus!" I particularly appreciated what you said in the last few minutes of that sermon!

From a Minister in Georgia:

I myself was once a legalist, but I am now moving away from legalism and looking to the grace and mercy that God shows mankind. Don't you just love how some of our legalistic brethren try turning the NT writings into a "letter of the law," and how they "book, chapter and verse" everything to death?! Keep up the good work, Al. I enjoy your writings, as well as listening to your sermons. Maybe one day we can all move closer in realizing that the NT is not a book of LAW -- it is a book of love and grace and mercy.

From a Minister in Alabama:

I am listening to your CDs on An In-Depth Study of the Epistle to the Galatians, which I ordered from you. I am now on lesson #4, and I really like them! It is scary to think that legalism is actually that "other gospel" about which Paul speaks in Galatians. It is so easy to get caught up in that mindset.

From a Retired Missionary in Michigan:

I'm about to stir up some thinking here in our congregation. I plan to use your SUPER "Reflections" in our Small Group to answer the question: "What happens when we die?" Also, please send me a copy of your CD titled The Nature of Man and His Eternal Destiny. I'll put a check in the mail. This all started when I mentioned to the group that I did not want anyone preaching at my funeral (I'm in my mid-80's) that I'm already present in heaven, thus bypassing the resurrection and judgment. Let me "sleep" until then!! Again, you have my VERY deep appreciation for your labor on behalf of "The Family."

From a Reader in Georgia:

Well done, Al, on your article "Salvation by Hope" (Reflections #597). I loved how you took a false premise and turned it into such a wonderful picture of our future with Christ. The idea of one day waking up to the process of my physical body's redemption and beholding the face of the Lord Jesus brought tears to my eyes. As always, I appreciate your diligent effort to explain the meanings of troublesome or unclear Greek words such as "elpis" -- i.e., that it isn't just some flippant possibility, but rather a confident expectation/assurance. Good stuff, Al. Also, I won't soon forget Goldsmith's quote: " darker grows the night, emits a brighter ray..." I think that might be good encouragement for us all when being attacked or criticized for speaking the Truth. Have a blessed week, my friend.

From a Campus Minister in Tennessee:

You and I are Facebook friends, but we've never met. I enjoy reading your Reflections. Although I do not always agree with you, your writings DO provoke deep thought. Thank you for that. I've changed many of my views since growing up. However, in today's postmodern climate, I often just feel more confused as each day passes concerning what is right in God's eyes. What concerns me are those ultra-conservatives (some of whom can be very self-righteous and condemning) who continue to "decide the eternal fate" of non-conservatives, and also those non-conservatives who present themselves as "more enlightened" than others. Then there are those who, like me, are "strugglers" in the middle. Dr. Jeffery Stevenson has helped me with regard to this, perhaps more than any other. He asked the class one day, "Do you believe in moral grace?" We answered, "Yes." Then he asked, "What about doctrinal grace?" The class was somewhat silent. He then said something like, "If you are counting on God's grace in moral matters, and are expecting to receive it, why would you discount God's grace in doctrinal matters for those who may have misunderstood some of His teachings?" That got me to thinking. I had always expected God's grace to cover me in moral failings, but I guess I felt I was good in the doctrine department. Dr. Stevenson helped me to realize that I need grace in both areas, just like all the "others" out there I had thought needed it more than me.

From a Reader in California:

I don't comment on all of your articles; in fact, I only respond to very few. That is because ALL of your articles are very (and I could use 2 or 3 "verys" here) enlightening, insightful and informative. I think you know how I feel about you: that I have the utmost respect for you as a husband (the way you still love and adore your wife after 40 years together) and as a father and grandfather (the way you dote on your children and grandchildren). I love it! I actually have comments I could make on all of your articles, but my comments would probably become so repetitive that you would just skip over them! I'll just say this: I really like the subjects you choose to share with us, and I appreciate the fact that you make yourself so accessible to your readers; you do not hide from them (as many writers do), not even from those who disagree with your views. May God bless you and your family, and thank you for your service to this country, sir.

From a Reader in Texas:

We really need less preachers in the pulpits of the Churches of Christ spouting their "binding" legalistic opinions regarding topics that the Bible does not even address, and more preachers like you in the pulpits, or else the Churches of Christ are going to continue to see a massive decline in membership! I grew up in a very legalistic Church of Christ, and I don't miss it at all. They eventually caused me to go see if the Baptists were any better. After much moving around, we are now back with a Church of Christ here in ------, TX that is a breath of fresh air. I must tell you, though, that when we lived in Georgia years ago, and as I was considering leaving the legalistic Church of Christ congregation there and going over to the Baptist Church, I had some misgivings about leaving. I had learned of your web site from some there, and so I wrote to you about this issue. You sent me some Scriptures that really helped me to make up my mind. So, we did indeed leave and started worshipping with the Baptist Church. It was there that my husband (who grew up a Presbyterian) became a true Christian and was immersed, and it was during this time that we turned a true corner in our walk with the Lord as a married couple. I have you, at least in part, to thank for this, and so I wanted to thank you for all your studying and for your personal walk with the Lord that has helped lead so many others to Him! May God continue to bless you in your ministry to Him.

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