Too often in our world—and especially here in the United States—we tend to view almost everything as optional. Sadly, even obedience to God has become optional. What’s worse is that it is often those who profess to be Christians who promote this idea. Very often in the church world today obedience is seen as a synonym for legalism. The argument goes like this. If you say that there are things that those who believe in Jesus must do or must not do, then you are saying that we are saved by works and not by faith in Jesus. Those with this mindset tend to act as though obedience to God is optional. Now they may say that obedience is best but it is certainly not a necessary result of salvation.
Yet in Scripture we find that God views even partial obedience as disobedience and disobedience the same as rebellion and witchcraft (1 Samuel 15:1-23). The argument against this is to say that the events in 1 Samuel 15 were Old Testament and since we are in New Testament times we are under grace and not the Law. Therefore, while obedience may be important it’s not a necessary result of salvation. But what does the Bible say about this?
“Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. 4 He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 1 John 2:3-4 (NKJV)
Meeting and knowing God is a life changing event. A person who meets God and genuinely knows God will never be the same. John says that part of the difference will be in regards to obedience. John’s words are so plain and clear that we want to soften them up. Yet they are so plain and clear that we can’t soften them up if we want to remain faithful to Scripture. How can we be sure that we know God? When we desire to obey Him and we make that desire come to pass. Our desire to obey God and our being obedient to God testify that we really do know God.
John goes on to say that the opposite is true as well. John says that one reason people don’t obey God is because they don’t know God. In his brutally straightforward way, John says that a person who says they know God but doesn’t obey God is a liar and the truth is not in them. That the truth is not in them means that they are not saved and do not have eternal life. A.W. Tozer once said, “Salvation apart from obedience is unknown in the sacred scriptures.”
John lays it out so plainly that there isn’t a lot I can say to make it any clearer. However there is something I want to clarify so that this doesn’t become a burden that we can’t bear or something that causes genuine believers to despair. It’s important for us to understand what one guy called gracious obedience. Gracious obedience is God’s desire for us to exhibit a loving and sincere spirit of obedience. Although it is marked by defects, it is still accepted by God and its blemishes are blotted out because of what Jesus has done on the cross. The obedience that God is after is not a legal obedience done in order to be righteous. We don’t obey in order to be good enough for God. That just isn’t possible. It is a gracious obedience that is done because He has made us righteous. Since God has made us righteous, since He has saved us, we seek to obey Him. We don’t obey to be saved. We obey because we are saved.
God is not expecting absolute perfection. He knows that we are always going to struggle with our sinful nature. As a genuine believer, you don’t need to live under constant fear that if you ever do something wrong God is going to break your leg or you will lose your salvation. God is looking for willingness and a desire to obey Him. Those who have a genuine saving faith will have a desire to obey God and His Word, even if there are times when they fail to follow through with this desire. Our obedience testifies that we have eternal life because it testifies that we know God.
So is obedience optional for the genuine believer? No it’s not. A person who guiltlessly ignores, rejects and rebels against the commands of God should question the genuineness of his or her salvation.
For further study read and compare John 3:1-21 and James 2:14-26. What does it mean that faith without works is dead in light of the fact that those who believe in Jesus are given life?