The Arabian is the oldest known breed of horse, dating as far back as 2500 BC. Bred by the Bedouins, nomads who made the vast, bleak desert their home, Arabian horses were highly valued as the primary mode of transportation in war and peace. As such, the horses had to be meticulously trained to endure and, ultimately, survive in the harsh environment. It is said that Bedouins disciplined their horses to such a degree that even after several days without water, their Arabians could be led to a river’s edge and still refrain from drinking until their master had signaled permission.1
To the Bedouins and their horses, obedience was a determining factor in whether they lived or died. To this day, the Arabian horse is lauded for its devoted affection to its master and its intelligence in heeding him.
Interestingly enough, it seems quite the opposite within the Christian faith. The mere mention of obedience drums up accusations of legalism in opposition to grace, the Cross, and love. You’ve heard it before: “We’re under grace, not the law.” “The Ten Commandments were nailed to the cross.” “God doesn’t care on which day we go to church.”
So, let’s study this. Does obedience have any role at all in the plan of salvation? Is teaching about obedience to God and keeping His commandments unnecessary—or worse, a denial of the faith?
We’ll start with some basics. The fact of the matter is that we, the human race, need to be rescued. We’re slated to die the worst kind of death, eternal death, as the penalty for sin, and we’ve “all sinned” (Romans 5:122). According to the Bible, “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). In other words, sin is breaking the law.
Which law? Read James 2:8–11: “You commit sin” (verse 9) when you break the Ten Commandments (verse 11). The Ten Commandments are God’s special “covenant” (Deuteronomy 4:13) or, according to one biblical lexicon, God’s “divine constitution.” So, sin is disobeying the constitution, or law, of God. The whole reason we’re waiting on “death row” is because of our disobedience to God. That’s interesting. Since disobedience brings eternal death, does obedience bring eternal life? Disobedience is the problem, so does that make obedience the solution? Let’s find out.
Amazingly, God did not leave us to our ill fate. He provided a rescue mission in the form of the plan of salvation: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Christ’s purpose on this earth was to save us from eternal death and give us eternal life instead (John 5:24; 10:28; 11:25, 26). Christ is our Savior: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9). The Bible cannot be plainer: We are saved by God’s grace, not because we follow a set of rules. We are saved because of what Jesus Christ does, not because of anything we do. This is salvation by grace versus salvation by works. Although disobedience is the problem, obedience is not the solution. Jesus is.
responding to grace
Imagine you lived in an impoverished, war-torn country on the brink of self-destruction. But you had a friend who had emigrated to America; now he is risking life and limb to get you out too. Finally, he gets all the documentation you need, plus a ticket on the last boat out of the country before it collapses. He’s traveled to this country to bring you back himself. He shows up on your doorstep, bruised, bloodied, and broken, having maneuvered past enemy troops, land mines, bombings—you name it. In his hand, he clutches those precious documents and that golden ticket. And when you open the door, he presents you with those papers for which he has bled, suffered, and sacrificed. You hug him and thank him, but then you turn him out and go back to watching your favorite TV program.
Would that make any sense? Had you escaped certain annihilation at that point? How did you treat your friend who went through so much to save you?
- “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
- “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9, 10).
How do people respond once they are made aware that Christ saved them because He loves them? The apostle John says: “We love Him [God] because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). And what happens when people love God?
- “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word” (John 14:23).
- “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3).
- “This is love, that we walk according to His commandments” (2 John 1:6).
Put simply, the essence of true salvation is to obey God because we love Him. By contrast, obeying God in an attempt to earn salvation is legalism.
the image of God
The fact of the matter is that even if we love God with our whole hearts and minds, we will never be able to keep God’s commandments in our own power. David pleaded, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). To any sinner who does the same, our Savior responds: “I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10).
We’re talking about a change of character. You are “transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2). The Holy Spirit re-creates you in the image of—in the character of—Jesus. And Jesus never sinned (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15); He never broke the law.
The Savior’s life is set forth as perfect proof that we—through Him—are also able to completely obey God: “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: ‘Who committed no sin’ ” (1 Peter 2:21, 22).
the end-time focus
A time prophecy in Revelation 12, which spans 1,260 years, places us squarely in the end times. The Bible prophesies that during this time, “the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 12:17). “The dragon” is a symbol for the devil (verse 9). In these last days, the devil is targeting those who obey God’s law.
Revelation 13 then sounds the alarm against “the mark of the beast” (verses 11–18). God’s last warning against the beast’s mark exhorts all believers: “Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12). Finally, Revelation closes with this promise “Blessed are those who do His [God’s] commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14).
The Bible is pulling no punches. God wants you to know unmistakably that obedience to His law is center stage in these last days.
the litmus test
Do you know what true obedience to God is? It’s love. It’s the external outpouring of what is already in your heart. True obedience matches the inside to the outside. When God gives you a new heart and puts a new spirit in you, He causes you to walk in His statutes; you will keep His judgments (Ezekiel 36:26, 27). This is how you become the righteousness of God “in” Christ.
- “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17).
- “He [ Jesus] became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9).
Obedience to God isn’t the means of our salvation; it is the litmus test of our salvation. It distinguishes the saved from the lost. We are not saved because we obey God; we obey God because we are saved.
This is the full and inseparable plan of salvation, “for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Romans 2:13). You cannot pick and choose which parts you like best. You are saved through not only Christ’s death but also His life, by what God did on the cross and what He does in your heart.
Obedience to God’s law is not legalism; it’s the indispensable step that so many are missing in their understanding of God’s grace.
It’s like a drug-addicted teenager whose parents find her overdosing on the bathroom floor. The parents rush their child to the emergency room, where, after several agonizing days, she miraculously awakens from her coma. The teen is grateful for this second lease on life and horrified by what she has become. She goes to her parents to plead for forgiveness and beg for help to get clean and sober. Do you suppose that in response, they say, “Oh, don’t worry about it, honey. You just keep on using and abusing. The next time you overdose, we’ll just run you to the hospital again”?
Is that a solution to the problem? Of course not. The solution is for the child to never use drugs again. There needs to be a permanent change, an actual, tangible transformation of behavior that stems from a sincere and ardent desire within the child. That’s what the plan of salvation is for us. God is our heavenly Father who wants to completely cut out the sin that has brought us to the brink of certain death. Your response—either obedience or disobedience—is your decision.
a battle to obey
Of course, obedience typically is not an easy thing. It involves a battle against self. Even in Gethsemane, Jesus struggled with self to the point of perspiring blood—ultimately praying, “Not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). The Bible describes the battle between self and sin as a war, fight, wrestling match, and race (1 Corinthians 9:7; 1 Timothy 6:12; Ephesians 6:12; Hebrews 12:1). The secret to winning the battle is God’s power. He will assist our human efforts to do His will.
The Bible is clear: “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). “He [Christ] condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3, 4).
Obeying God out of love for Him is proof positive that you’ve accepted His gift of salvation by grace. It is the highest demonstration of your love for God. And it matters in these last days more than ever.
Doug Batchelor is the speaker and director of the Amazing Facts media ministry, headquartered in Granite Bay, California.
1. This article is condensed from “How to Be Obedient Without Being Legalistic,” amazingfacts.org.
2. Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version.