Recently, my pastor taught from Romans 7, speaking of Paul’s inability to keep the law of his own accord and his realization of his need for a Savior. In the culmination of his teaching on the law, my pastor made a wonderful application about our obedience to God’s law: out of Christ, we cannot obey the law to merit God’s favor due to our sin nature; inside of Christ, we cannot be more loved of God by trying to prove how good we are through our obedience; thus our obedience can have only one motivation, our love for our Savior.
The Purpose of the Law
Scripture teaches us that the law is our guardian, or schoolmaster, leading us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). It is the reflection of the perfect nature of God Himself. God does not give us the law simply because He had the desire to make up a list of dos and donts. In order to be in fellowship with God, we would have to be perfect as He is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Thus the law is God’s standard of perfect righteousness. Anything less than utter moral perfection keeps us from His presence. This is because He cannot look on sin without judging it. To do so would be a grave injustice. In His divine forbearance, he allows us to continue in this earthly existence until the time of deaths. But none will escape His perfect justice on that day.
However, we often try to think of the law as something we can achieve, a means of meriting the favor of God. We see this played out in the gospels as Jesus took the Pharisees to task for adding their traditions to the law. Ceremonial cleansings, Sabbath limitations on what was considered work, tithing and more were subject to extensive writings by the Jewish leaders. They defined every aspect of the law to such an extent that they believed it was actually possible to merit the salvation of God by their very works. Christ repeatedly rebuked them for their traditions as it actually laid further burdens on the Jews, but did nothing to lessen the load. In doing so, the religious leaders barred the way of salvation to those who followed them.
The purpose of the law is not that we can achieve moral perfection before God. Scripture is again clear that, outside of Christ, every person is a slave to sin (Romans 6: 17, 20). We were born with a sin nature, therefore, we cannot help but sin. It has been said that we are not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners. Christ made this evident when He spoke of the fact that it is not what is outside of ourselves that we take in that makes us unclean. Rather, it is that we are unclean in our hearts which works itself out in what we think, say, and do (Mark 7: 18-23). That is why He taught that it is not only the outward acts of adultery and murder that were sinful but also the very inward lusts and anger that we feel as well (Matthew 5: 21-22, 27-28). Therefore, the law’s purpose is that it exposes our utter inability to be morally perfect like God. For every command we fail to follow, we only expose that the condition of our heart is evil continually.
Thus the point of the law is not to give us the “how to” of making it to Heaven. Instead, it is the means by which we come to know we are utterly incapable of meriting the favor of God and are deserving of His wrath. Unless we have Someone who intervenes on our behalf, the law only illuminates that we have no hope of eternal life. Thus, it is the spotlight which points us to the Cross of Calvary where there is One who took the penalty for our sins.
In Christ Alone…But We Can Still Earn It, Right?
The cross is the place of the great exchange (Romans 5: 12-20). Jesus, the Son of God, fully God and fully Man, willingly laid down His life, taking the full wrath of God for sinners. It is at the cross where justice and mercy meet. Christ had no sin of His own for which He was crucified. He was perfectly sinless, having always obeyed the will of His Father. Yet, Christ allowed sinful men, who were deserving of His condemnation, to whip Him mercilessly and nail Him to a cross to die. This was a penalty for the worst of criminals. It was not only the most painful means of capital punishment but the most humiliating. Why would the Son of God endure such ignominy? Because such is the wages of our sin (Romans 6:23). It is what we deserve for the rebellion we have committed against our Creator.
In His love for us, while we yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). His perfect love for us was played out in that Jesus took on Himself the full wrath that we deserve for our sins. And after being in the grave for three days, He rose again, defeating sin and death. Those who see the vileness of their sin through the law and repent, putting their full faith in the completed work of Christ, receive forgiveness for their sins. Not through any merit of their own, but because not only took our sin on Himself but because He gives us His righteousness. Now the believer not only has his sins paid in full, but he is made perfect in the eyes of God. It is as if the believer perfectly kept every aspect of the law, down to the smallest detail, because Christ Himself has done so.
When we receive salvation from Christ, we are receiving the full and perfect love of God Himself. We can never be more loved by God now or in the future because the Father’s love for the Son is perfect. And because we now have the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, we have the perfect love extended to us. This is the beauty of the cross, the great exchange that makes us the beloved of God.
The problem with us as Christians is that, while we have a new nature, we tend to still struggle with our old way of thinking. Where we once may have thought we could merit salvation from God through works, we now think that we can coax God into greater love or blessings by being really, really good. James teaches us that faith without works is dead (James 2: 20). And Paul made it clear the law still has a place in the life of the believer (Romans 3: 19, 6: 1-2). So it is indeed necessary that we seek to live our lives in obedience to the commands of God. Yet, we tend to think that our obedience earns us some kind of approval from God.
We can tend to believe that our times of study, prayer, worship, discipleship, etc. make God happier with us. As a result, we will credit any blessing in our lives to the fact that we have been obedient in these areas. Yet, when we fail to adhere to the spiritual disciplines we attribute any tribulation in our lives to these failures. As a result, we tend to think God blessed us because we were obedient, and gave us a smack down when we’re not. We find ourselves in another form of legalism that leads us to wrongly believe that God can still be bribed into blessing us through our good works.
This is not to say that God does not demand our obedience, or that He will not discipline us in our times of sin. Most certainly God desires to have us be conformed to the image of His son. And He will bring discipline into our lives when we sin against Him (Hebrews 12: 6). However, this is not a matter of quid pro quo. God isn’t nicer to us when we’re good and mad at us when we’re bad. He already loves us perfectly and has given us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3). Thus, His discipline is to draw us into a close relationship to Himself, purifying us and purging us of the sin that lingers in this flesh. We must disregard the notion that we can buy a greater love from God by our works. Christ already purchased that in full at Calvary, therefore, we are free to enjoy his great love and mercy now and into eternity.
So Why Should We Worry About Obedience?
In his letter to the Romans, Paul called on the church to pursue holiness and forsake unrighteousness. He rightly asked how believers, who had once been slaves to sin, continue in the very transgressions from which Christ freed them (Romans 6: 15-19). Continual repentance and the pursuit of holiness is not a work in which we merit salvation or approval from God. It is the conforming of ourselves to Christ, of whom we are now servants. And our desire to do so is motivated by our deep and abiding love for the One who set us free.
When Christ willingly surrendered His life at the cross, He took the wrath that we godless rebels deserve for our sins; past, present, and future. In other words, the price He paid for our salvation was the full wrath of God against every sin we would commit in our lifetimes. Every single one of them. Therefore, how can we have any desire to commit the thoughts and deeds, or speak the words which cause our Savior to be tortured and crucified? If we have no desire to obey the commands of our God, then we have no concept of what He did to redeem us. In the greatest act of love in all of history, Jesus willingly sacrificed Himself to save those who were yet in their sins. The only proper response to this act should be deep humility and undying gratitude from those who name Christ as Savior. Obedience should then be the result of our unceasing desire to be made like Him who died to purchase us.
When a condemned sinner turns from his lifestyle of sin and commits himself wholly to Christ in faith alone, He promised that the Holy Spirit would enter into that person and make them a new creation (2 Corinthians 5: 17). They are given a new heart, with new desires. The Holy Spirit then goes through the process of sanctifying the new man, conforming him to the image of Christ. The outworking of that sanctification should be that the Christian then pursues, out of love and humility, obedience to the commands of our Lord and Master. Thus, our good works are an extension of our salvation and sanctification, showing that God Himself has indwelt and changed us. Christians should care about obedience to God’s commands because it is that which helps us to see that we are bearing the fruits of the Spirit in our lives (Galatians 5: 22-24).
If there can be one takeaway from this article, it should be that you cannot in any way merit God’s redemption or approval by the works you commit through your own effort. However, if you are redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, one evidence of your saving faith is that God has worked in you an abiding desire to grow in your obedience toward Him. You will abhor the sin that condemned you more and more, and you will find yourself desiring to become more holy, just as He who saved you as holy. Christian, pursue good works, not that you may bribe God with some token effort, but that you may be conformed to Him that saved you by His precious shed blood.