A Righteousness by Faith #4: What does obedience have to do with it?

If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. John 14:15-17

After a presentation on transformation, one participant held up his hand to ask, “But don’t you believe people are supposed to just be obedient?” At another training event, another challenged me to explain why Jesus said if you love me, you will obey my commands. After a different seminar, one of the leaders of the church told his pastor that what I taught suggested that believers do not have to do anything.

I know where this kind of pushback comes from. I have heard some ‘grace’ teachers who seem to suggest that holy living is not about repentance and seeking to be obedient. They maintain that since all our sin—past, present and future—has been forgiven through the cross, there is no need to confess it, but just go on in freedom. Somehow, people are left with the impression that one can live life any way he or she chooses while hiding behind ‘grace.’

This rendition of a righteousness by faith is not what Jesus was offering his disciples. He was giving the greatest TED talk in history while celebrating his last Passover meal with them. After Judas left to sell his soul for thirty pieces of silver, Jesus gets down to the core truths of his transformational gospel.

What is sometimes missed in John 14-16 is the new covenant foundation. Jesus has already announced that the promised new covenant was being inaugurated that day with his blood sacrifice. (I say ‘that day’ because the Jewish concept of a day was evening and morning, not the other way around. He would be crucified and buried before the day was through.) What the new covenant forged was an unbreakable-to-the-death relationship. Covenant is always about relationship, about becoming family, about caring for and protecting those participating in the covenant. In the Old Testament, the defining word for this relationship was hesed, which generally translates ‘a loyal love displayed through loving kindness.’ The word for the new covenant relationship Jesus established is agape. Like hesed, agape is about loving those with whom you are in covenant, doing good to them as an expression of your will and not because they have earned it.

And in this verse, Jesus is telling his closest disciples, who are now his covenant kinfolk, that if they are in this covenant with him, if they agape him, they will keep, i.e. obey, his commandments. But this is no demand for a valiant effort on their part, an updated version of performing your way to holiness. That ship had sailed under the old covenant.

Under the new covenant, obedience is now an empowerment issue. Notice how Jesus immediately connects agape and obedience with the Spirit’s presence in them. This theme of love, obedience and the empowering presence of the Father, Son and Spirit continues to weave its way throughout the entire talk.

So what does obedience have to do with the new covenant? It is the product of a relationship that is rooted and established in agape. It is the expected outcome of a righteousness that is by faith, because not only do we enter into this new covenant by faith, we see righteousness formed in us by faith. Nor is it merely the product of our best efforts to love Jesus or of our desire to please him. None of us who have been affected by the Fall are able to keep up our end of the covenant. The pull of the flesh and the lies of the enemy can and do overwhelm our promises to obey all the time. The best decision we can ever make about obedience is to admit that only the Spirit can transform each of us into a righteous person. And then decide by faith to surrender to his empowering work in us. This is what Jesus means when later he talks about abiding in him. Which will be a topic for another blog.

-Steve Smith