"OBEY is Not a Four-letter Word"

June 28/09 1Jn 2:3-6, 3:19-24


What would you say is the dominant note in Christianity? Would it be faith? Hope? Love? Grace? Any of those words might readily leap to one's mind to sum up the essence of our belief in Christ; but the word 'obedience' would probably not. In theology, 'law' is often contrasted with 'gospel', as the Old Testament is contrasted with the New Testament. John could say at the beginning of his gospel, "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (Joh 1:17) So law and obedience may be considered as being in contrast to grace; but this can lead to sloppy thinking, and presumptive sinning, if we forget that God's grace is meant to lead us to righteous behaviour. Paul wrote in Romans 5(20), "The law was added so that the trespass might increase.But where sin increased, grace increased all the more," then a couple of verses later anticipates the question, "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?" (Ro 6:1) But just because we're forgiven doesn't lessen the need for obedience. In fact Paul summed up his personal sense of mission this way: "Through [Jesus Christ] and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith." (Ro 1:5)

Erwin McManus is pastor of the Mosaic church in Los Angeles. Once a man who was considering becoming a member asked him if Mosaic was a law church or a grace church. McManus sensed a trap and answered, "Well, of course we're a grace church." The man replied, "I thought so.I was concerned that you were one of those law churches that told people they had to tithe." McManus responded, "Oh, no, we're a grace church. The law says, 'Do not murder.' Grace says you don't even have to have hatred in your heart; you can love your enemy. The law says, 'Do not commit adultery,' but grace says you don't even have to have lust in your heart for another woman. The law says, 'Give 10 percent,' but grace always takes us beyond the law. You can give 20, 30, or 40 percent. We would never stop you from living by grace." The man looked at him and said, "Oh" - which McManus describes as 'a profoundly theological response.'


Some might consider 'obey' to be a 'four-letter word' - not fitting in well with other Christian doctrinal concepts such as faith, grace, and love. But surprisingly the book of 1John, renowned for its emphasis on "God is love," features obedience very prominently.

Perhaps we associate the word 'obey' with stern parenting during our early years; the underlying tone to 'obey' might be 'do it or else'. If a child asks 'Why?' the parent might retort, "Because I said so!" A naked appeal to power and authority, not to mention a hint of threatened punishment if obedience didn't happen pronto.

Lawrence Kohlberg was a theorist in the field of psychology who proposed six stages in his theory of moral development. At the 'pre-conventional' level of moral reasoning, people judge the morality of an action by its direct consequences. Stage 1 is 'obedience and punishment driven': an action is perceived as morally wrong because the perpetrator is punished. "The last time I did that I got spanked so I will not do it again." Stage 2 is 'self-interest driven': it's the 'what's in it for me' position, in which right behaviour is defined by whatever is in the individual's best interest.

The Bible calls humans 'souls', nepheshes in the Hebrew, little bundles of wills and wants bound up in a package. Will-yearnings and wilfulness can start to show up in young children early on, giving rise to temper tantrums and the expression 'the terrible twos'. As youngsters find their voice and start to express their wishes, parents find themselves having to discourage bad or dangerous behaviour, sometimes without being able to explain things understandably. Recently our son and daughter-in-law put photos on Facebook of taking our 23-month-old grandson and his similarly-aged cousin for a ride on one of those little kiddy-trains that go round and round on a small track. After they had sat Isaiah and Rowan in a little rail-car together behind the locomotive, Isaiah started to fuss, so they took him out. But it wasn't that he didn't want to ride: once they sat him up in the locomotive where there was a steering wheel, he was quite happy. It didn't matter to him that poor Rowan was left to ride by herself back behind; he just wanted to be up front at the wheel where the action was!

How typical of our human will. 'We want what we want when we wants it.' We ask selfishly, 'What's in it for me?' Parents may find it a real challenge to teach children obedience when there's a clash of wills; at times, faced by unreasoning rebellion, punishment may be painful but necessary.

One could say there are parallels to this 'obedience and punishment-driven' approach to morality with fear-based motivation in the Old Testament, particularly the Pentateuch and the history of the monarchy. Deuteronomy 28 lays it out clearly and repeatedly that the Israelites will be blessed if they obey and cursed if they don't. Moses lays it out in chapter 30(15-18): "See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess." (De 30:15-18)

But Jesus and the apostles clarify that there is a lot more to obedience than it just being fear-based. It's not just a matter of avoiding disobedience so you don't get punished - heaven as a 'fire escape' sort of thing. 1John 5:3, "This is love for God: to obey his commands." Really? Love is spelled O-B-E-Y? Are the two so closely linked as that?

But John's just echoing what He heard the Saviour teach. Jesus had said in the 14th chapter of John's gospel, "Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me...If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching." (Jn 14:21,23f) See the close connection the Lord makes between loving and obeying?

In our scripture texts this morning, where it says, 'obey ...commands', the word 'obey' is not really there in the Greek. The inspired writer chose the expression "keep ...commands", or more literally, 'keep on keeping ...commands.' The term for 'keep' originates from a word meaning to 'watch', 'to attend to carefully' - from a root meaning "view attentively, view mentally, consider". Perhaps in today's idiom we would say, if we love God we will pay close attention to His commands, we'll concentrate on practising them.

Obedience and watchfulness come in varying levels of attachment. Suppose you're driving down the road some day, not paying a whole lot of attention; the AA battery in your MP3 player has just died so you've got one hand on the wheel and with the other hand are trying to replace the battery with a fresh one (not that I'm recommending you try this!). You maybe veer a little bit from side to side but, as long as you stay in your lane, what's it matter? Then you glance up and realize you're being followed by a black-and-white cruiser that has suddenly loomed up out of nowhere. All at once your attention level dramatically spikes. You concentrate on your driving, both hands on the wheel. You do your best to 'keep the commands' of the law of the road, because you don't want to be dinged with an expensive ticket. You glance more frequently than usual in the rear-view mirror, hoping the cruiser will either pull off or turn around. That would be 'fear-based' obedience - motivated by avoiding punishment.

Second example: you're leading the Holstein calf you've been training all year as a 4H project around the ring in the competition at the local fair. You want to do well to win the prize, if possible. It's not so much fear-based, though you'd really rather she didn't get spooked by some dog barking and run off with you chasing her. Mostly you're just doing your best, paying attention to where she places her feet in standing to match a classic pose, so the judge will give you a good mark; though you don't actually know the judge from a hole in the ground. The motivation's a little more honourable, but it's not personal.

Third case: little Susie is practising for the piano recital coming up next week. She wants to please her parents who will be watching from the second row. There's still a bit of pressure to perform out of the fear of shame and embarrassment if she messes up. Susie's a little nervous about getting a brain freeze and forgetting her notes. But she genuinely want to please her folks, and the teacher who's been so patient with her mistakes. The obedience, the time put in practising, is well-motivated.

Fourth example: Your parents have been living off a half-time single income for a couple of years. You love music and seem to have a gift for it but lessons are expensive. Out of the blue, this nice old couple who have become 'adoptive grandparents' recognize that natural talent and offer to pay for piano lessons for you. How you've appreciated their kindness and the hours of tutoring your teacher has provided! You've been diligent in practising each day to make the very most of this unexpected opportunity. Then one day when they're over visiting, you have the chance to play some of the pieces you've learned for them. There are no onlookers, just you and these dear friends of the family with whom you're very comfortable. To play for them is sheer delight, you smile as you see the pleasure on their faces and their toes tapping in time to the beautiful music. This is what those hours of practising and repetitive scales have been leading up to; you don't want to stop because your gift is being appreciated by those who have sacrificed to help your musical skill develop. No fear of judgment; the notes flow forth from your fingers as an offering, an expression of thankfulness for all they've done. The motivation is no longer punishment or 'what's in it for me': the look on their face is reward enough for your effort.

1Jn 2:5: "If anyone obeys his word" - keeps or practices it - "God's love is truly made complete in him." A commentator notes, "Obedience is the result and proof of love, and also gives love the opportunity to flow over the whole life."


Our passage outlines 5 advantages or rewards that come with obedience. First, Assurance of Relationship. 2:3, "We know that we have come to know Him if we obey His commands." Second half of v5, "This is how we know we are IN Him;" 3:21 refers to having 'confidence before God'. And 3:24 also talks about the relationship aspect: "Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us." When we keep God's commands, it's an indicator we are related to Him, connected to or 'in' Him.

Second, obedience helps in Avoidance of Hypocrisy. Truth matters; this week in the news, North Korea was trying to pin the Korean War decades back on an invasion by the United States, while historically it was actually North Korea that was the aggressor, invading the south. Propaganda twists the truth. One of the most common charges made against church folk by outsiders is that we're hypocrites, not practising what we preach. Obedience supports the truth in helping avoid hypocrisy. 2:4,6, "The man who says, "I know him," but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him...Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did." If you say you're a Christian, better act like one! That's obedience. Else you seem more in the camp of Satan whose native tongue is lying (Jn 8:44). 3:18f adds, "let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.This then is how we know that we belong to the truth..." Obedience is necessary for our religion to be true, not just a show; obedience proves we're the "Real Deal", not hokey, phoney, or flakey.

Third, obedience provides Advancement in Loving Maturity. 2:5, "But if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him." Remember the difference between obeying because the police cruiser is following, rather than practising because you want to play your best for those dear friends who've covered the cost of your lessons? Keeping God's ways can deepen our love for Him, and discover the satisfaction of putting His power to work through serving others.

Obeying even when it's hard can be a sign that love is achieving its fullest expression, it's being made complete. CS Lewis wrote, "The Father can be well pleased in that Son only who adheres to the Father when apparently forsaken. The fullest grace can be received by those only who continue to obey during the dryness in which all grace seems to be withheld." Obeying in the tough times matures us, deepens God's love in us.

Fourth, obedience offers an Answer to Accusation. 3:18-20 says that loving with actions is "how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us.For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything." In times of self-doubt, when the Accuser starts whispering negative thoughts in our soul, our simple acts of obedience provide ammunition that blows apart doubts: yes we really ARE God's children - it shows in the fruit of our hands, that service done in kindness to others as we responded to the leading of God's love.

Fifth and last, obedience paves the way for Accepted Prayer. 3:22, we "receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him." Carrying out God's will shows His aim is your aim. So of course, when that's the case, He's going to grant your prayer requests, because you're wanting what He's wanting, you're pleading for the success of God's projects; you're just His steward managing the putting in place of resources as He desires.


Rick Tobias is celebrating 25 years with Yonge Street Mission; he's the CEO, but truthfully, he never wanted to work with Yonge Street Mission! Before coming to YSM in 1983, Tobias worked with the urban poor in Atlantic Canada. He never actually applied for the YSM job. He recalls, "I was forced into it.I didn't want to work exclusively with the poor, didn't want to live in Toronto and didn't want to work for an old rescue mission." When he started, the mission asked for a 5-year commitment and he vowed to leave after 5 years and a day!

But something about the job resonated with Rick Tobias to the point that it became a calling. He gets joy from working with people who are radically committed to justice, mercy, and compassion. A board member notes, "Rick understands the poor and disenfranchised like no one else, and he can articulate it so well...Rick's a humble leader who knows what he doesn't know and is quick to seek advice and counsel."

Obedience is a big factor that's kept Tobias at a job for 25 years that he didn't plan to stay in longer than five. He says, "At the end of the day I believe to the core of my being in call...The bottom line is that it isn't about fulfilment or happiness, it's about obedience to Christ's call on my life."

May the Lord guide each of us in obeying His voice, doing what's pleasing to Him - and so discovering what it means for His love to be truly made complete in us. Let's pray.