Note: My good friends Alex and Macon and I have been talking about what is the proper motivation for obedience. Before reading my response, it might be helpful to read their thoughts. Alex's can be found at http://piebaldlife.blogspot.com/ (look for the four posts on obedience), and Macon's can be found at http://paulstokes.blogspot.com/ on the Wed., May 31 post "Whither Gratitude?")
What is the proper motivation for obedience? Is it gratitude? Faith in future grace? Both? Or are we asking the wrong question?
As I hear us talking about a motivator for obedience, it sounds like we are giving ourselves a lot of credit and lot of responsibility. I believe that obedience as it is being discussed here is a secondary choice that can be accomplished in the flesh, and it is not the primary choice. (*Note: When I say “accomplished in the flesh” I am defining flesh as any way that we meet our needs or live our lives apart from God. Our obedience from God can be accomplished on our own effort, not in dependence on Christ, and all that we do of our own strength will be judged and revealed for what it is. See 1 Cor. 3:10-15. A non-Christian can be obedient and follow Godly principles.)
When presented with a problem/temptation, we tend to see it as, “Hmm, should I take my kid’s last piece of candy while they sleep and hope they forget about it in the morning or should I not?” In this discussion, our current options for obedience would be to leave the candy for our child, and we would use our chosen motivators to obey. On one hand, we could say, “Jesus, thank you so much for loving me before I even knew you. Thank you for your love for me, and now I respond to that love in obedience.” On another hand we could say, “Jesus, thank you so much for the hope that I have in you. I believe that by dying to my desire for candy, there will be a provision of future grace in some way for me as a result of that choice, and now I obey in that hope.” Or we could combine the two and say, "Lord, thank you for loving me and saving me from sin. Because of that love you showed me, I trust that you will continue to be good to me as I obey you now and in the future."
But the ultimate issue at that point is not whether or not I choose to obey. It is whether or not I choose to abide and trust Christ as my life. If I am abiding in Christ, believing Him to be my life, then I will obey. Every time. Without fail. Period.
Now, before you think I have gone Gary Birdsong on you and am preaching sinless perfection, let me assure you that I am not. I do not obey perfectly; I certainly sin. But my sin has very little to do with whether I make the right choice or whether I had a good enough motivator, and has everything to do with what I believe about my identity in Christ and how seriously I take verses like Galatians 2:20 (I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. This life I live in the body I live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me) and 2 Corinthians 5:17 (if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old has gone and the new has come). To choose sin is to act inconsistently with my nature in Christ and is to choose to believe a lie that there is something in this world that can give me the life that only Jesus has. And I already possess that life of Christ in me. (Note: These are only two of the verse that I could cite about the Believers identity in Christ and participation in His life now; see also Romans 6:1-13, which speaks of our death, burial and resurrection with Christ; 2 Cor 4:10-12; Colissians 3:1-14).
Alex referenced my love for 2 Corinthians 5:14, which begins, “For Christ’s love compels us.” I certainly love hearing and teaching that verse from a gratitude perspective, remembering the love of Jesus and letting that lead me to respond in loving obedience. But perhaps we could read that verse even more literally, remembering that the very life of Christ is in us. Christ’s love literally does compel us, because He is in me and I am in Him. His love is now my love. I am loving because Christ in me is loving.
The book of Ephesians is a wonderful presentation of the Gospel and all that we have in Christ, and Paul spends the first three chapters reminding us of the Good News, the love of the Father through the Son. And then in chapter four he begins calling Believers to live in response to that good news, aka obedience. This could seem a lot like a motivation of gratitude, but in chapter 5, verses 8 and 9 he says, “For you once were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord – live as children of light.” Paul calls us to obedience from our identity – light should not behave as darkness. It is hypocritical and inconsistent with our nature. We are light in the Lord, so live that way.
For years the verse “Be holy as I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15) motivated me to seek holiness because I needed to measure up to God’s standard (who ever could do that?). But in Christ, it is no longer a command to be followed but a reality to be expressed. Jesus is Holy. Jesus is in me. Therefore, I can BE/LIVE holy, as He in me is holy. (Many thanks to Shawn Morrison for showing me this a couple years ago)
So if we are new in Christ and holy in Christ, why do we still sin as Believers? The reason is that for years we have learned to meet our own needs in independence from God’s life, even when we have known Christ. We have not realized and believed that Christ is our life and that He will supply all of our needs, according to His riches in glory. And so we think that obedience is up to us, just like the rest of our lives, and this is a form of independence from Christ, not trusting in Him and abiding in Him as life. We, in a sense, have daily the same choice that Adam and Eve had way back in the garden – we can eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and try to motivate ourselves to obedience, or we can eat from the tree of life, Jesus Christ, and allow His life to be ours which will lead us to obey.
Alex cited Galatians 5:19-21, a long list of sins that could keep us from the kingdom. Paul has a similar list in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, listing sins that keep the wicked from inheriting the kingdom. But then in verse 11 he says, “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. " Their identity had changed.
Obedience flows from identity and exposing lies with truth. I don’t have to live like the wicked anymore because that is no longer who I am. So, going back to the candy analogy, the Believer’s response is, “Lord Jesus, I know that your life is in me, and I trust you to live through me as I yield my will to yours. I trust that you alone have the life that I long for, and so I ask that your obedience be mine as I depend on you for all things.”
There was only One who was obedient, the Lord Jesus Christ. He was obedient on our behalf so that we could have access to His perfect obedience at any time, if we would but ask and believe.