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Two Kinds of Churches Part 5: Is Obedience Our Focus?

Teaching that people have unfinished business holding them hostage from a holy, obedient life often raises the question about the place of obedience in the transformational church. We are asked, “Aren’t believers just supposed to obey? Doesn’t Jesus tell us that if we love him we will obey his commands (John 14:15)?” Unwittingly the questioner is revealing his or her belief that it is obedience which leads to transformation. People like them continually push others around them to focus on obedience as the goal of their faith journey. To suggest to them that there is a different path to holiness is to remove the one tool in their obedience model toolbox that they believe will keep people from destroying themselves. They honestly fear that failing to demand obedient living will lead people to crash and burn at best, and at worst, to wander away from the faith.

I know that fear. I have watched people I care about choose sin over surrender, even when they knew it would lead to their destruction. But it would be unfair to say that few of them really worked hard at being obedient. Some were infinitely better than I was at obedience. Some stayed in the obedience arena more doggedly than I compared to many of my pitiful attempts at gaining holiness through obeying. But the point is, in the end, they failed in the obedience game. Failure is the end game of anyone who ever believed that they could become holy if they just worked hard enough at obedience. Believers who try to bring about deep change in their lives by just being obedient will discover the horrible truth that obedience neither ends their ability to slip nor quiets the lying accusations of the enemy. And when your whole faith system as a church is built on the faulty foundation of personal obedience, at the crunch it can be pretty devastating.

As the greatest ever TED talk unfolds in the upper room, Jesus tells his disciples that for them to be able to carry out the kind of obedience that indicated their love for him, he will send them the Spirit (John 14:16-18). In other words, he is saying that the Spirit is the power source for obedience—not them. To emphasize this point, Jesus uses a common agricultural illustration. He explains that if they, the branches, want fruit produced in their lives, they will need to stay connected with him, the vine, who is the source of their life (John 15:1-8). The word Jesus uses for this connection, ‘remain,’ captures the idea that the life-giving power for their faith journey will come naturally as they rest in this unbreakable relationship. This is the clearest picture of the difference between Jesus’ call to obedience and the biblical Pharisees’ call to obedience. The Pharisees also wanted people to live obedient lives, so they set up all kinds of fences to keep the herd from straying into sin. Don’t do this. Stop that. Stay away from those people, places or things. Holiness in their world depended on human effort. For Jesus holiness depends on the transformative power of the Spirit.

Transformation leads to obedience, not the other way around. Transformational churches know that the focus of the faith journey is about pursuing intimacy with God; that we can know Him better because he has given His people the spirit of wisdom and revelation (Ephesians 1:17). People in this kind of church have discovered that if they pursue intimacy with God, they will discover He is the one that shows them what the life is about and also gives them to power to live out that life. Obedience is always the by-product of intimacy with God, not the pathway to it.

But the issue of transformation goes much deeper than obedience. It goes down to healing—to freedom from performance—to restoration from the effects of the Fall—to becoming the person we were created to be. Transformation addresses the unfinished business of our lives. If God is not intent on transforming us, then we are on a miserable journey of the survival of the fittest. But He is intent on this and has already determined that everything we see in Jesus will be produced in us. Jesus stands as the image of every brother and sister he will have when the dust clears. Right now God is at work in you and me…not just someday. And God is at work in every one that names Jesus as their Savior.

-Steve Smith