Obedience: an unfortunate casualty of the ‘gospel’

Has anyone else noticed the ‘gospel-centered’ movement that is sweeping across the country?

Everywhere I turn I find myself being confronted with ‘gospel-centered’ theology in ‘gospel-centered’ books about ‘gospel-centered’ living.

I’m a big fan of the gospel and a great believer in being gospel-centered.  I think we have an epidemic issue of legalism in America, with much of our culture casting obedience in the role of savior instead of Jesus.

My only fear is that in our attempt to convey the centrality of the gospel, we’ve moved obedience out of the role of savior and off the stage altogether.

Obedience has become the unofficial enemy of the gospel. 

If you value obedience you’re an ‘older brother’; a Pharisee.  Gospel-centered, grace filled sinners care about faith in Jesus, not obedience.

I’m confused about when faith and obedience became separate.  I’m confused because the Bible seems to talk about them as if they are the same thing.  In fact, Jesus seems to talk about them as if they’re the same thing.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)

I say that I’m confused, but I’m not really.  I’m kind of just saying that for rhetorical emphasis.

It makes perfect sense to me that as the pendulum swings away from legalism it would swing toward a view of the gospel that devalues obedience.

It’s happened like this before.  Paul dealt with this exact issue with the Galatian church.

The Galatians started following the rules because they thought that would get them closer to God.

Paul goes crazy about this.  At one point in the letter he literally says that he’s not even sure the Galatians are Christians.  He says that if they think keeping a set of rules will make them good enough for God, than they are proving that they don’t know God.

Legalism says that your obedience gets you to God.  This is the opposite of the gospel.  Obedience is cast in the role of savior, instead of Jesus.

The gospel says that Christ’s obedience gets you to God.  Jesus is the Savior.  Trusting in Jesus for your righteousness or right-standing with God is the key to salvation.

But Paul doesn’t end the letter after clarifying Jesus’ role in salvation.  He goes on to clarify the role of obedience.

Paul describes obedience as evidence of salvation.

While legalism says that obedience earns you justification, the gospel says that justification bought for you obedience.

walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh…Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

There are only two ways to deal with this verse.

1) Paul is just prone to exaggeration.

2) The blood of Jesus purchased for us more than just a moment of faith and more for us than eternal life.  It purchased for us the indwelling Spirit who overflows in obedience.

I guess I have to go with option 2.  Mainly because there are a ton of other people, including Jesus, who talk about obedience like it’s a condition of salvation.

I know that word condition makes you want to throw up in your mouth, but don’t freak out.  The thing is, you already believe in conditional salvation, right?  You believe that you have to call on the name of the Lord to be saved.  You have to confess Jesus as savior in order to be a Christian.

Christianity is not a worldview where there are no conditions to get man to God.  It’s a worldview with tons of conditions, and a God who meets both sides of the conditions.

I’m not talking about a works-based view of the gospel.  I’m talking about a gospel-based view of works. 

What Christ purchased for us on the cross was more than a momentary trusting in Him.  He bought us a persevering and ongoing faith that enables us moment by moment to obey the commands of God.

That’s the difference between the new covenant and the old covenant.  God said – you can’t be saved by the Law, so you know what I’ll give you – a new heart that will cause you to obey me.  Note: He didn’t give us a new heart that would save us regardless of how we acted.  He gave us a new heart so that we could obey and be saved.

Your obedience to the commands of God WILL NOT SAVE YOU.  But, if you are not obedient to the commands of God, you will not be saved. 

Look, I don’t have an agenda here.

I have nothing to gain by elevating obedience, and honestly, a lot to lose.

I’ve screwed up in ways I never dreamed; I’m probably the most disobedient hypocritical Christian I know.  I hang out in the pig pen most of the day, and even after Jesus picks me up and brings me home, as soon as He sets me down, I’m off again.

I’m not the girl you have in your head. If you knew the darkness in my heart you’d want the internet police to shut down my blog forever.

But I stand on the Word of God and I believe it’s true.  Even the crazy things that are inconvenient and that don’t fit with my worldview.  Even the parts that seemingly condemn me.

I want to be gospel-centered.  I want my heart to be so gospel-centered that in spite of all my failure I believe He’s not finished with me.  I want to believe He bought for me the power to obey. He will save me, not in spite of my actions but through my actions.

9 thoughts on “Obedience: an unfortunate casualty of the ‘gospel’

  1. I guess the question is… is there a way for us to “do” obedience? I feel like you are saying that we are MADE obedient – like that verse says, it is caused by the new heart Jesus has given us. If we strive, or are pushing, or “faking it until we make it,” aren’t we are working on our own strength, rather than living out of the gospel?

    I guess I feel that the things you mention are not exactly “conditions” of salvation, but rather evidence of salvation. Some are saved, and some are not saved, and those who are saved will confess Jesus as Savior and walk in obedience (with some slip ups at times, but not in habitual sin) because their salvation, Christ in them, causes them to.

    I think it’s one of those tricky tensions in the mystery of who God is that we can never fully understand in our limited human selves. Like… the kingdom – it’s already, but not yet. Jesus – he was human and divine. The trinity – it’s 3 but 1. God is both just and merciful. Etc, etc, etc. We affirm these things but there is always a bit of mystery to how they are all actually true at the same time.

  2. Amen! I am finding my heart and life, my marriage and parenting, are being revolutionized in wonderful ways by gospel-centeredness. But I’ve had to fill in the huge blank so often left by gospel-centered teachers.

    Folks, obedience is NOT only the result of “gratitude for what Jesus did.” Gratitude is wonderful and essential, but if that’s the only motive for obedience, you’ve failed to grasp one of the gospel’s most essential points.

    Until a person recognizes that his own sin is his worst enemy, that it is the reason Hell exists, and that it is so dreadful that the Godhead believed it was worth the horrors of Calvary to deal with it, he is not believing the gospel.

    Jesus came to save his people from their sins. If someone has no interest in being saved from sin, he’s not believing the gospel.

    1. The gospel becomes truly precious good news to people who are learning to see their sin for the awful thing it is. There is joy in obedience when a person is learning to see sin for the awful thing it really is. That’s how to “do obedience.” I’ve got a long way to go…still plenty of idols that need to come down, stubborn strongholds that the Lord is working on despite me, more than I care to admit. But I’m glad He’s doing it, and praying that He’ll help me to love Him more and hate sin more each day…knowing that He purchased that very thing for me at the cost of the precious blood of Christ. There’s power in the true gospel!

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