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Jesus calls us to a level of intimacy that can only be sustained by his constant presence in our lives. He says, “Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace” (Matthew 11:29-30 MSG).
Jesus is real, and so our response to him must be real. In other words, we can’t just say we have faith; we must show our faith by doing what God tells us to do. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an influential theologian who was martyred under the Nazi regime, says, “For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.” (Quote source here.)
Back in September 2012, I wrote a blog post on a book titled, “The Dangers of a Shallow Faith,” by A.W. Tozer (1897-1963), complied, edited and published in 2012 by James L. Snyder, and near the end of that post I quoted the following from the last chapter of the book (p. 205):
The great deterrent to victorious Christian living is the idea that once we accept Jesus Christ as Savior and believe that John 3:16 is all there is to it, our life now is on automatic pilot and we can just sit back and enjoy the ride. This is the source of a great deal of disillusionment that leads to discouragement in the Christian life.
There is no such thing as automatic pilot in our Christian experience; every step is an operation of faith that will be fiercely contested by the enemy of our soul. This kind of automatic pilot thinking leads to spiritual lethargy. Breaking out from the tyranny of spiritual lethargy–whatever the cost–should be the number-one priority of every Christian (p. 205).
“Every step is an operation of faith that will be fiercely contested by the enemy of our soul.” But do we believe that? We don’t if we are running on automatic pilot and not taking seriously what Jesus said in John 14:23, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” In fact, I Peter 5:8 admonishes us to “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Obedience is not just an option to be considered but a mandate to follow for the protection of our souls.
In a chapter titled, “Christian–Or Only a Student of Christianity?” taken from another book titled, “The Size of the Soul,” by Tozer, speaks to the issue of our obedience by answering this question: “Are you a Christian in fact or merely a student of Christianity?”:
It will help us to locate ourselves spiritually if we face up to the rather ungracious question: “Are you a Christian in fact or merely a student of Christianity?” A lot will depend upon the answer, and if ever we should be frank, it is when we examine ourselves to see if we be in the faith. Multitudes tread a hazy path to death because they will not bring themselves under the searching eye of God. They prefer to assume everything is all right, though so to assume is always dangerous and may be deadly.
No one has any right to believe that he is indeed a Christian unless he is humbly seeking to obey the teachings of the One whom he calls Lord. Christ once asked a question (Luke 6:46) that can have no satisfying answer, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”
Right here we do well to anticipate and reply to an objection that will likely arise in the minds of some readers. It goes like this: “We are saved by accepting Christ, not by keeping His commandments. Christ kept the law for us, died for us and rose again for our justification, and so delivered us from all necessity to keep commandments. Is it not possible, then, to become a Christian by simple faith altogether apart from obedience?”
Many honest persons argue in this way, but their honesty cannot save their argument from being erroneous. Theirs is the teaching that has in the last fifty years emasculated the evangelical message and lowered the moral standards of the Church until they are almost indistinguishable from those of the world. It results from a misunderstanding of grace and a narrow and one-sided view of the gospel, and its power to mislead lies in the element of truth in contains. It is arrived at by laying correct premises and then drawing false conclusions from them.
The truth is that faith and obedience are two sides of the same coin and are always found together in the Scriptures. As well try to pry apart the two sides of a half-dollar as to separate obedience from faith. The two sides, while they remain together and are taken as one, represent good sound currency and constitute legal tender everywhere in the United States. Separate them and they are valueless. Insistence upon honoring but one side of the faith-obedience coin has wrought frightful harm in religious circles. Faith has been made everything and obedience nothing. The result among religious persons is moral weakness, spiritual blindness and a slow but constant drift away from New Testament Christianity.
Our Lord made it very plain that spiritual truth cannot be understood until the heart has made a full committal to it. “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17). The willing and the doing (or at least the willingness to do) come before the knowing. Truth is a strict master and demands obedience before it will unveil its riches to the seeking soul.
To sum it up, saving faith is impossible without willing obedience. To try to have one without the other is to be not a Christian, but a student of Christianity merely.(Source: “The Size of the Soul,” Chapter 35)
A willing obedience on our part is not to be confused with legalism (see article on on GotQuestions?org on how to avoid the trap of legalism at this link). And obedience is essential to the Christian faith. In answering the question, “What does the Bible have to say about obedience?” GotQuestions?org states the following:
The Bible has much to say about obedience. In fact, obedience is the essence of the Christian faith. Jesus Himself was “obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). For Christians, the act of taking up our cross and following Him (Matthew 16:24) means obedience. The Bible makes it clear that we show our love for Jesus by obeying Him in all things: “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15).
Obedience is defined as “dutifully complying with the commands, orders, or instructions of one in authority.” Using this definition, we see the elements of biblical obedience. “Dutifully” means it is our obligation to obey God, just as Jesus fulfilled His duty to the Father by dying on the cross for our sin. “Commands, orders or instructions” speaks to the Scriptures in which God has clearly outlined His commandments and His will. “One in authority” is God Himself, whose authority is total and unequivocal. For the Christian, obedience means complying with everything God has commanded because it is our duty to do so.
Having said that, it is important to understand that it is the spirit of obedience, not the act of obedience, that is important. The Pharisees relentlessly pursued acts of obedience to the law and by doing so became self-righteous, believing that they deserved to go to heaven by what they had done. Heaven, to them, was a reward owed to them for their good deeds, but the Bible tells us that, to God, all our righteous works are as “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). The obedience that was lacking in the Pharisees was brought to light by Jesus, who exposed their heart attitude. Their hypocrisy in obeying the “letter of the law,” but not the spirit of it, characterized their lives, and Jesus rebuked them sharply for it: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which indeed appear beautiful outside, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so you also appear righteous to men outwardly, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Matthew 23:27-28).
Today, man is not called to obey the Law of Moses. That has been fulfilled in Christ. Man is to obey the “Law of Christ,” which is a law of love for one another (Galatians 6:2;John 13:34). Jesus Himself put it in perspective when He answered the question put to Him by Pharisees, “‘Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the prophets hang on these two commandments’” (Matthew 22:36-40).
If we love God, we will obey Him, not always and not perfectly, but our desire is to obey Him and our lives give evidence of that desire. When we love God and obey Him, we naturally have love for one another. Obedience is commanded by God, not only because it glorifies Him when we obey, but because it is the best for us. Obedience brings joy, comfort and peace in a world where such things are hard to find, mainly due to disobedience and rejection of God and His Word. (Quote source here.)
It is our love for God and Jesus Christ that brings about our obedience (genuine obedience and not the type caused by fear or legalism). And it is the Holy Spirit that empowers us to be obedient to Jesus’ commands. In fact, it brings us now full circle back to what Rick Warren had to say at the beginning of this post when he referred to Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV):
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
The phrase “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” is part of a larger passage (Matthew 11:28-30), in which Jesus tells all who are weary and burdened to come to Him for rest. He isn’t speaking here of physical burdens. Rather, it was the heavy burden of the system of works that the Pharisees laid on the backs of the people that Jesus was offering to relieve. Later on in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will rebuke the Pharisees for laying heavy burdens on the shoulders of the people (Matthew 23:4).
The “yoke of the Pharisees” is the burdensome yoke of self-righteousness and legalistic law-keeping…. Jesus was saying that any kind of law-keeping is burdensome and amounts to a “heavy yoke” of oppression because no amount of law-keeping can bridge the gap between our sinfulness and God’s holiness…. The good news is that Jesus promises to all who come to Him that He will give them rest from the heavy burden of trying to earn our way into heaven and rest from the oppressive yoke of self-righteousness and legalism. Jesus encourages those who are “heavy laden” to take His yoke upon them and in so doing they will find rest for their souls. The yoke of Jesus is light and easy to carry because it is the yoke of repentance and faith followed by a singular commitment to follow Him. As the Apostle John says, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
This is what Jesus says in v. 30. His yoke is easy and his burden light. Now, we might think that there is really no difference between the commandments of Jesus and the Jewish Law. Isn’t the same God responsible for both? Technically speaking, yes. If anything, one might argue that the commands of Jesus are even more burdensome because His reformulation of the Mosaic Law in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) actually goes above and beyond a mere outward conformity to the Law and deals instead with the inner person.
What makes Jesus’ yoke easy and his burden light is that in Jesus’ own active obedience (i.e., his perfect fulfillment of the Law of God), He carried the burden that we were meant to carry. His perfect obedience is applied (imputed) to us through faith, just as His righteousness was exchanged for our sin at the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21). Our obedience to Jesus then becomes our “spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). Furthermore, we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit who works in our lives to mold us into the image of Christ, thereby making the yoke of Jesus easy and His burden light. The life lived by faith is a much lighter yoke and a much easier burden to carry than the heavy and burdensome yoke of self-righteousness under which we continually strive to make ourselves acceptable to God through works. (Quote source here.)
While that definition is a little heavier then I planned to get into in this blog post, it is stating some very good news in that a life lived by faith and obedience is an easier yoke and a lighter burden then trying to live it under our own power and/or self-righteousness and/or excusing-making which we tend to lean on all too easily.
I’ll end this post with some very good news from I John 5:1-5:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith . . .
Who is it that overcomes the world?
Only the one who believes . . .
That Jesus is the Son of God . . . .
YouTube Video: “Born for This” sung by Mandisa: