Obedience: Our Quandary

Scriptural Obedience, Dr. Marvin J. Hudson, c2013
Part 1- Humanity’s Quandary
Two Extremes
Obedience…what a troublesome word. We all have recognized its demands upon our lives at some point. Some of us will recall those dynamic services when minister spoke of obedience and we trembled at our own inadequacy. Others of us may recall being taught that the path of Christ was simplicity and obedience was merely letting go of you in order to trust more in Him.

Perhaps these two understandings of obedience represent polar points, both of which may leave the door open for extremism.  The first tends to lead us toward various forms of legalism as we wrestle with what we perceive to be the demands of a holy God.  We find ourselves confronted by the same quandary that people from Moses to Luther have faced.

On the other hand, God’s Word demands of us a standard if we are to enter into His presence.  Indeed, His very nature requires us to come before Him with “clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:4).  We are faced with a literal “do or die” situation.  Yet, as soon as the Law of God confronts us, we face a terrible reality: we simply do not have the means at our disposal to obey this perfect Law.

Repeatedly we grasp the regulations of the Law only to fall short of their demands.

The frustration we experience at this point often leads to two different reactions: We either struggle even harder to keep this Law of God , and thus become a modern Pharisee, or we may, as Luther stated, fall through despair into even greater sin (Theology of Luther. Althaus).

For most of us, this frustration leads to the former alternative. We monitor our every action to insure that we either become or remain “holy”.   We refrain from any activity which we feel will retard our spiritual progress.

At this point a great danger appears.  As time goes by, many of our decisions as to what will, or will not, retard our progress, becomes dogmas that bind us with a near unbreakable stranglehold.

Nor does the danger stop there, for we tend to believe in these dogmas so strongly that we insist that they apply to others as well.  The result is frustration and surprise.  We are frustrated, because deep down, we are never quite convinced that we are achieving the goal through this form of obedience. In spite of all that we do, we are never quite as holy as we desire.

Secondly, we are surprised because others do not accept our dogmas joyfully; especially younger generations. This should not surprise us, as there is little joy in legalism.

The second of our two approaches mentioned in the first sections of this discussion, at first glance, appear to offer great promise. After all, we have seen that legalism did not work as we may have wished.  Further, we have seen that legalism did not work as we may have wished.  Further, we know that the New Testament teaches that Christ came to set us free from the Old Law of death which was ,in reality, the same system of frustration that many Christians have tried to follow.

This second approach receives eagerly the idea that Christ was and is our substitutionary avenue to righteousness and thus the theme of obedience tends to be deemphasized.  The great danger here is that in this direction we find all manner of incorrect positions ranging from apathy to antinomianism (the denial of any divine Law). Such thinking often leads to apathy disguised as “tolerance” or “broadmindedness.”  No matter what we do or do not do, we have a comfortable “out” in that our theology tells us that we must not expect to be perfect and we may simply continue to pile our actions at the feet of Jesus only to return to the same life-style.

These two extremes  - legalism and license- are two ends of a spectrum and illustrate the difficulty the Church has faced for centuries.  Every Christian will struggle to find the middle road that will ultimately lead to real joy and stability in the Christian life.

The goal of this discussion is to see if that middle road where law and grace are in harmony  meet is mapped as we try to search out the Biblical concepts of obedience.  At the end of the journey, hopefully, will be an understanding of obedience from both Old Testament and New Testament perspectives.  Along the way, an examination of the complementary nature between the obedience  and some to avoid.

God’s Demands, Humanity’s Prerogative
It is significant that the matter of obedience is dealt with from the very first chapters of the creation account. Adam’s relationship to God included the fundamental principle of obedience.  This obedience was enjoined to Adam in the context of Liberty. As early as Genesis 2:16-17 we find the instruction, “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of goo and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.”  Here is the tremendous reality: Adam holds within his the potential to obey or disobey. What incredible consequences rest upon simple obedience. How far reaching was the result of Adam’s decision.  The outcome of this historic drama is a key element of basic Bible literacy. Humanity has reaped the results of the fall of Adam ever since.

What is crucial for us to see is that this obedience was a matter of trust and free will. This fact is often overshadowed in our concern with the simple fact of the Fall itself.  While obedience was a component of the relationship of humanity to God, and an essential one, the real heartbeat of humanity’s relationship to God was the principle that we identify by such terms as trust, love, faith and so forth. This dynamic principle was the basis of the kind of relationship God has always desired with His creation.  This relational principle appears repeatedly as one traces the concept of obedience through scripture. It was also dramatically changed by the Fall and the result was catastrophic for humanity.

Fallen Humanity: The Crippled Creation
It would be easy to become destracted in exploring the how and why of Adam’s fall in the garden, but it is the result s of that Fall where our focus should turn.  All that follows through the Old and New Testament rests on the actions subsequent to that decision to not obey.

In brief, humanity received disfellowship from God. Humanity no longer enjoyed the benefits of the Garden life described in Genesis.   Indeed, when God came to walk in the Garden, Adam and his wife found they were unable to stand in His presence (Genesis 3:8). The perfect trust was destroyed and the human relationship with nature was negatively affected, where once all had been available as easy bounty, now all was to be obtained by hard toil (3:17-19).

Most importantly, humanity changed. From an estate of innocence, humans discovered they were driven by base desires that warred with their better selves.  Over time it became clear that the first human’s initial inclinations were often their worst inclinations.

Paul expresses this condition of the fallen human in Romans 7:19: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which would not, that I do.”

Theologians have referred to this as a “depraved” nature, meaning that as humans we are firmly caught in a trap from which we cannot escape.  It is the trap of God’s demand for perfection and our inability to achieve it.

We may summarize humanity’s situation. We are the Fallen Man and Fallen Woman.  We have all sinned against God and deserve the penalty of our rebellion, which is death. There are no resources at our disposal to pay this ‘debt of sin’ and reconcile ourselves back to God. Further, we are consistently powerless to change our course of conduct. We are guilty and we are continually becoming guiltier.  We stand in the rain of a fallen world, hands raised, and scream through the ages, “O wretched man that I am! WHO will deliver me?”

Who indeed….

To be continued
[Author's note. I am revisiting some work - consider this 12 part series, a work in progress and subject to change!]

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