Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Obedience and Desire

For it is God who is working in you, 
enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose.
Philippians 2:13

The question I was asked about obedience, which I referenced in my last post, was this: "Is it obedience if you do the right thing for the wrong reasons? Can practicing obedience change a person’s heart?" Closely related to these questions is the phrase "Fake it until you make it." As I considered these over the last few days, I realized they all had a common theme: the difficulty in obedience when it does not match desire.

Without Faith, You Cannot Please God

Hebrews 11:6 teaches a bold truth. "Without faith, it is impossible to please God." Paul takes it a step further in Romans 14:23 (ESV): "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." A related idea is 1 Corinthians 10:31: "Whatever you do, do everything for God’s glory."

These verses together show us that everything unbelievers do is sinful, even acts that the Bible would describe as good. Until God saves us and puts His Holy Spirit in us, we are constantly violating 1 Corinthians 10:31 because our actions are not motivated by a desire for God's glory. That is why God describes our best acts as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

Furthermore, this applies to believers who are holding on to sinfulness as well. Obedience in the Bible is "submission to what is heard." By definition, a believer's heart that is in rebellion in one area of his or her life is not submitting to God. As such, any act of external conformity not driven by an internal submission to the Word and the desire to glorify God is simply that: conformity. It is not obedience.

Does Feeling Follow Action?

I'm sure many of you have heard this phrase before, that feeling follows action. There is some small measure of truth in this. Most of us have either experienced or heard about those producing good or even godly habits by persevering through the "I don't want to"'s.

Ultimately though, the idea that we can produce a spiritual change within ourselves through force of our own will is antithetical to the core message of the gospel. We all start in the same place, as sinful people in need of a Savior. We do not seek God on our own (Romans 3:10-12). In our flesh, we are unable, not just unwilling but unable, to submit to God (Romans 8:7). Our flesh does not suddenly want God just because the Holy Spirit now resides in us. Rather, the remainder of our post-conversion lives is spent at war with our flesh (Romans 7:15-25).

True change only comes when, by the power of the Spirit, we submit our hearts to the authority of God's Word and allow our minds to be renewed and transformed (Romans 12:2). God knows that we do not want to do this on our own. That's why, as Paul tells us in Philippians 2:13, God not only enables us do what He wills, He gives us the desire to obey as well.

There is no action we can perform that can make our sinful flesh desire God. That is not to say that God does not use obedience to further change our hearts. He certainly does. But ultimately, we want to obey and are able to obey because of the work He is doing in us, not because of anything we do by ourselves.

Fake It Until You Make It?

Some of you might then ask the question, "Well then, if I don't feel like obeying, should I just not obey?" We inherently recognize that to not be true, and so this idea of "fake it until you make it" has taken hold.

When Jesus was praying in Gethsemane, Luke 22:44 records that He was in such anguish about experiencing the physical and spiritual torment of the cross that He sweated drops of blood. He did not want to go through that. But He did His Father's will, in His Father's timing, and with a heart submitted to His Father's command (Luke 22:42). That is obedience.

The danger of this "fake it" phrase is thinking that obedience is supposed to be easy. Jesus did not desire to be crucified, but His obedience was not fake. What He did desire was to see His Father glorified. It is in that priority of desires that we find the truth about obedience.

As previously referenced, Romans 7:15-25 teaches us that we are at war with our flesh. For any given command we are seeking to obey, it is very likely that we will not want to, at least at first. But the fleshly desire to sin that is made to submit to the God-given desire to glorify our Father can result in obedience.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

Why is there so often a disconnect between desire and obedience? Here are some conclusions I have drawn from thinking about these questions:
  1. Some people try to obey God without knowing God. Only you and God know your heart, but if you do not desire God's glory, and if in a general sense you do not desire to obey His Word, then you may not know Him at all.
  2. Some people who know God still try to obey by their own power. Don't try to overcome sin by force of your own will. Rather, heed Paul's exhortation in Romans 12:2 and seek transformation through a change in the way you think. Ask God to grow the desire to obey Him in your specific area of struggle.
  3. Some people believe true obedience will always be easy. Look to the example of Jesus in the garden. Also, understand that as an infinite God expresses His character through finite beings, we will naturally have different gifts and passions. A lack of zeal in a specific area does not absolve disobedience, but it does not cheapen obedience either.
Above all, remember this: there is great joy to be had in obedience. What God wills in any and every situation is always better than what the world or your flesh can offer. Jesus endured the cross because of the joy of bringing glory to God and salvation to His Church (Hebrews 12:2). After nearly 30 years of faith, I can say unequivocally that in every step I take closer to Jesus, I find that He is infinitely more beautiful and satisfying than everything I have left behind.

How happy is the man
who does not follow the advice of the wicked
or take the path of sinners
or join a group of mockers!
Instead, his delight is in the Lord’s instruction,
and he meditates on it day and night.
He is like a tree planted beside streams of water
that bears its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers.
Psalm 1:1-3

Friday, June 26, 2015

Have You Died to Sin?

What should we say then? Should we continue in sin so that grace may multiply? Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 
Romans 6:1-3

Someone asked me recently about the nature of obedience and its relationship to salvation. As I was researching the question, my mind wandered to those who take "by faith alone" to the extreme. There are those who believe that all you have to do is pray a prayer at some point and then you receive your Get Out of Hell Free card for life. They then take this idea as a license to sin, claiming all the while that in their life of sin, God's grace will still save them.

As we see in Romans 6 here, these people have been around from the beginning. Paul's response to them was this: "How can we who have died to sin still live in it?" The simple answer is that we cannot. John makes that abundantly clear:

6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. 8 Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. 1 John 3:6-10 (ESV) (emphasis mine)

The tragedy in all of this is there are people who simply don't know this or refuse to accept it. They believe that a life of a sin is compatible with a saving faith. The Bible tells us in many places that there are people who think they are saved and really are not. Matthew 7:21-23 says there will be those turned away from the very gates of heaven who believed at the time they died they had a saving faith. Jesus says He will tell these people He never knew them.

If we think hard enough, we all know people who fall into that category to varying degrees. There was a contemporary of Billy Graham named Charles Templeton. Both were evangelists in the 1940's. God undoubtedly used Mr. Templeton to save many people. Yet in the end, he died an atheist. 

On a more personal note, I had a friend and mentor in college who had been married for something like 15 years. They were a model of faith, did ministry together, and had moved hundreds of miles from home to plant a church. One day, his wife just went crazy. She turned her back on everything she believed, began having an affair, and eventually divorced her husband. 

It doesn't matter how long you think you've been walking with God or how many good things you have done in His name. None of us are exempt from the need to constantly examine our lives and ask this question: Do I look more like Jesus today than I did last week or last month or last year? Philippians 2:13 says that God gives those that are His both the desire and the ability to obey Him and do His work. If you truly belong to God, if you are truly covered by the blood of Jesus, you have died to sin, and you will be conformed to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29). 

Let no one misunderstand what I am saying. There is absolutely nothing we can do to earn our salvation. The Bible emphatically teaches that we are saved by faith alone. But no one can be saved by a "faith" that is alone apart from the evidence of obedience. There is no such thing as a "carnal" Christian. Either your faith is changing you to look more like Jesus, or it will not save you. There is no middle ground.

Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do the things I say?
Luke 6:46

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, 
so also faith without works is dead.
James 2:26

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Immediate Obedience

It happened again. I was coming out of Wendy's last week, and a man stopped me to ask for my help. He wanted to know where the nearest DMV office was so he could purchase a license. Up until that point he had been unable to afford one, and he needed to know how to get there by bus. I stopped and talked with him and pulled up the information he requested on my phone. So far, so good.

Somewhere in that process, I heard the Holy Spirit plain as day tell me, "You need to give him a ride to the DMV." But, I had just bought a frosty as part of my lunch and didn't want it to melt. I needed to get back to work. He reeked of cigarette smoke. Blah, blah, blah. As I was getting back in my car, I remembered that I had an outreach Bible, and I thought something like, "Well, at least I can give him a Bible," like it was some sort of acceptable compromise to not obeying. But as I got back out to do that, he was already on his way to the bus stop. Another missed opportunity.

But it didn't stop there. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, God gave me another chance. I saw this man at the bus stop and I heard God again, "Go give him a ride." But I kept driving. Like the biscuit story, God convicted me to the point of submission, and I turned around to go back to pick him up. But this time, God decided to teach me a lesson, as the man was no longer there waiting. In a three minute span, the bus must have come and picked him up.

God showed me something in that. My mom used to tell me growing up that obedience is "doing what you are told when you are told to do it." I would later learn that there is a third element, doing so with the right heart attitude (Philippians 2:14). But it is the immediacy of obedience that God pressed on me.

My 3 1/2 year old son has a frustrating habit. At the end of each day, before he goes to bed, we have him clean up his toys. It is always a battle. Sometimes it is outright tears and meltdown. But sometimes he shifts into bargaining mode. "But I don't have to pick up these blocks. I will just pick up my cars." (Declarative statements like that are his way of asking.) And when I tell him no, you really do have to do what I told you to do, the meltdown eventually follows.

One word the Bible used for "obedience" is hupakoƩ. It means "submission to what is heard." Do you dig in, whine and complain when God tells you to do something? Do you try to bargain with Him? From the moment you hear God tell you to do something, you have about 3 nanoseconds to submit to what you heard. If you don't, you are in a state of disobedience.

There are a lot of things my son does that bring a smile to my face. One of the chief among those is when I ask him to do something and he immediately says, "OK, Daddy", gets up, and obeys. In that obedience, that immediate submission to what he heard, I know he is learning a valuable lesson that will serve him well later on in life: When your Father says, "Go," your best response is an immediate "OK, Daddy."

You are not guaranteed multiple opportunities to obey. Like Peter's denial of Jesus, I disobeyed God multiple times in this encounter. When I finally did relent and sought to comply (compliance and obedience are not the same), God showed me that in my disobedience I missed an opportunity to be used by Him. I urge you not to make my mistake.

Today, if you hear His voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.
Hebrews 3:15

This is how we know that we love God’s children 
when we love God and obey His commands. 
For this is what love for God is: to keep His commands.
1 John 5:2-3