Obedience: The Mark of a (True) Christian

What is a True Christian?

In order to understand what will be said here, it is necessary to understand what is required to be a true Christian – the biblical definition.  In America, it is often claimed that if one “accepts” or “receives” Jesus as Savior they will have eternal life.  They sometimes go on to say that if one has ever sincerely done that they can never lose their salvation.  In other cases they claim that if one believes that Jesus died on the cross so their sins can be forgiven, that person will be saved.  All such statements are heresy.  There are no statements in Scripture to support those claims.

The clear message of Scripture is “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).  Paul taught, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9),  “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'” (Romans 10:12-13), “The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23), “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (Romans 5:1-2),  “We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have now received reconciliation (Romans 5:11), “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9), “Just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might rein through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:21), “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21), and “We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord” (2 Corinthians 4:5).  Peter said, “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord” (1 Peter 3:15) and “Jesus Christ is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36).  For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living (Romans 14:9).

Six hundred twenty-four times Jesus is referred to as Lord in the New Testament.  Only sixteen times is he referred to as Savior; God the Father is referred to as Savior eight times.  Where do you think God intended our emphasis to be?

The response/relationship is different, depending upon whether one receives Jesus Christ as Lord or “accepts” him as Savior (whatever that means).  One would expect that a person who “accepts” Jesus as Savior would be filled with gratitude and appreciation that Jesus took upon himself the punishment which would otherwise be due him or her.  But the person who receives Jesus Christ as Lord bows the knee before him, acknowledges Jesus to be his master and King, the Lord over all he is, and asks how he may serve his Lord.  He seeks to know his master’s will as set forth in Scripture.  He lives his life to please his Lord and master.

The saving relationship with Jesus may be summarized as follows:

Jesus is Lord of all who will be saved;  Jesus saves those for whom he is Lord!

We Must Submit to Jesus’ Lordship!

Recognizing that many would claim to follow him without submitting to his Lordship, Jesus asked, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).

In a chilling teaching, Jesus warned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!'” (Matthew 7:22-23).

In the passage just quoted, there is no mention of faith or belief.  The people claimed to have prophesied, driven out demons and performed miracles, those things done by believers with those gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Their actions were evil.  They did not do the will of God.  Jesus said he never knew them.  They were condemned.

Jesus Spoke and Did the Will of God

Consider what Jesus said about his ministry:   “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38).  “My teaching is not my own.  It comes from him who sent me.  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 7:16-17).  “He who sent me is reliable, and what I have heard from him I tell the world” (John 8:26).  “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me” (John 8:28). “I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. . . . So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say” (John 12:49-50).

 Jesus asked, “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?  The words I say to you are not just my own.  Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work” (John 14:10).

 “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (John 14:24).   “The world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me” (John 14:31).

The Will of God

What is the will of God that Jesus warned (in Matthew 7:21) all must obey who would enter heaven?

Because God instructed Jesus what to say, and because Jesus obeyed perfectly, whatever Jesus said was God’s will.  Every teaching, every command, every miracle, all were done by Jesus because God the Father instructed him to do it and he did exactly as he was told.  Everything Jesus said and did was the will of God.

“Teach Them to Obey All I Have Commanded You!”

When Jesus was about to ascend to his Father, he gave his disciples their assignment:  “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Why should new disciples and Christians obey Jesus?  They should obey because Jesus is the Lord of all true Christians – those who will be saved.  If Jesus is their Lord, it is an oxymoron not to obey him.  He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords.  Christians are his servants and bond-slaves.  Our role and duty is to obey our master – the Lord Jesus Christ.

A second reason God (through Jesus) commanded new disciples be taught to obey everything Jesus commanded was this:  Everything Jesus taught and commanded was the will of God.  As we saw earlier, no one will enter the kingdom of heaven who does not do the will of God (Matthew 7:21).

Salvation Related to Obedience!

Jesus taught, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.   Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. . . . I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (John 8:31-32,51).  We will be set free from slavery to sin and death (Romans 6:6).

The author of Hebrews stated of Jesus, “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9).

John taught, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.  The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.  But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:3-5).

Now we know the reason behind his command to the church regarding new disciples to  “teach them to obey all that I commanded you.”   As the church obeys Christ’s command, it teaches new disciples to obey the will of God.  By our obedience to Jesus’ command we make available to new disciples the key to salvation itself and the special blessings for those who obey Jesus’ commands.

Obedience:  Not Sinlessness

If we were able to obey the will of God perfectly, as Jesus did, we would be sinless.  Unfortunately, we were born with original sin.  Jesus was not.  No matter how hard we try not to sin, it seems we will never be perfectly free from sin.  John said, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives” (1 John 1:10).  But John also said, “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him (1 John 3:6).

John also said, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  Jesus is our high priest.  Of him it is said, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin.   Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

God knows our heart attitude.  It is God’s will that from our heart we do our best to know and do his will.  Peter taught, “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do;  for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16).  Are we attempting to know and do the will of God as best we can – not half-heartedly, now and then, but with our whole heart seeking to please God and do his will?  God requires our best effort.   If we’re not doing our best, if we are casual in our attitude toward sin, we cannot truly repent from our heart.  Doing God’s will includes believing in forgiveness for our sins when we repent from our heart!

Conformed to the Likeness of Jesus

Romans 8:29 states, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”  God predestined a qualification for all who will be saved – they must be conformed to the likeness of Jesus.  As shown above, Jesus did and said the will of God; we also must do the will of God in order to conform to the likeness of Jesus.

Being conformed to the likeness of Jesus is a theme of Scripture.  At 1 John 2:6, we find:  “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.”  Paul taught the Ephesians they were “to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22), “Be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1), “grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15), “be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18), “walk in the light as he is in the light” (1 John 1:7), “Live as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8), “he who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous” (1 John 3:7), and “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11).  For a more comprehensive discussion of scriptures supporting this theme see the question, “Did God Predestine Some to be Saved?”

Receiving the Holy Spirit Is Dependent Upon Obedience!

Jesus said,  “If you love me, you will obey me” (John 14:15).  He then continued, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of Truth” (John 14:16-17).  

Peter recognized that truth as he defended the disciples before the Sanhedrin:  “We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:32).  

Likewise the Apostle John affirmed the same truth in his epistle:  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 (1 John 3:24).

It is possible to receive a deceiving spirit – not the Holy Spirit – upon professing faith but not submitting and yielding to Jesus as Lord and committing to obey his commands.  Remember the warning of Jesus:  “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’   Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'” (Matthew 7:22-23).  Such people remained evil.  Jesus never knew them.  They appeared to have the gifts of the Spirit, but it was not the Holy Spirit; it was a deceiving spirit.

Love for God – Obedience to His Commands!

Jesus observed a necessary relationship between love for God and obedience:   “If you love me, you will obey me” (John 14:15).  The Apostle John said the same:  “This is love for God:  to obey his commands” (1 John 5:3).

Jesus told us what the first and greatest commandment is:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:38).   Jesus would also say, “Obey God’s commands – the will of God – with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

Jesus emphasized these truths again and again:  “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.  He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him” (John 14:21).  “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” (John 14:23-24).

Jesus said, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love” (John 15:10).  “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14).

The Apostle John showed the relationship of confidence before God, receiving from God and obedience:  “Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God  and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him” (1 John 3:21-22).

Love One Another

Jesus said,  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

The Apostle John also emphasized that we must love one another.  He then defined love for one another as obedience to Jesus’ commands.  He said, “I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another.  And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love” (2 John 5-6).

Here we have beautiful circular commands.  Walk in love.  But to walk in love means to obey Jesus’ commands.  Jesus’ primary commands are to walk in love.  To walk in love means to obey Jesus’ commands.  Etc.

The Two Greatest Commandments

Jesus was asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36).  

Jesus replied: “‘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 22:37-40).

Consider how remarkable these commandments are when combined with the prior two sections.  We find love for God is obedience to his commands; love for one another is obedience to his commands.  Thus we could restate Jesus’ reply into the following:

“Love the Lord your God by obeying his commands 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 by walking in obedience to God’s commands.  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Obedience Not Difficult

I commonly hear the objection that it is difficult or impossible to obey.  Where did that come from?  Jesus said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).  

The Apostle John assured us, “His commands are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).  

Even in the Old Testament God assured the Jews, “What I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach” (Deuteronomy 30:11).

If, as we have learned, no one will enter the kingdom of heaven who does not do the will of God, who do you suppose would be telling us that we cannot obey, that we cannot do the will of God?  Let us test the spirits to see whether they are from God (1 John 4:1).  Isn’t it the father of lies who would try to deprive us of salvation by telling us we cannot obey?

No Divided Loyalties Permitted

Why do some people have such difficulty living the Christian life?  Jesus told us:   “No one can serve two masters.  Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24).  The person trying to keep one foot in the world and the other in the Kingdom will have great difficulties – Jesus said it cannot be done!

Even worse, loving the world shows you are not of the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ at all.  John said, “Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).  James’ language was even stronger:  “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?  Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

A Different Kingdom

Jesus said of his disciples, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it” (John 17:16).  Neither he nor his disciples are of the world.  Jesus said the same to Pilate:  “My kingdom is not of this world. . . . But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36).

Is this why Paul says, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).  An ambassador is a representative from another country; true believers are ambassadors of Christ’s Kingdom – from another place, not of this world.

Peter called true believers aliens and strangers in the world (1 Peter 2:11).  Likewise, the saints recorded having a saving faith admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth (Hebrews 11:13).

Which kingdom do we belong to?  Are we aliens and strangers here?  Or do we love the world?

The Cost of Obedience:  Suffering for the Kingdom

Jesus warned us about what it would be like to follow him.  He said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. . . . They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me” (John 15:20-21).  Did they persecute him?  Indeed, they crucified him.

Jesus warned again, “In this world you will have trouble (John 16:33).  And do the saints have trouble?   Scripture records the saints were tortured, faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.  They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated . . . . They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground (Hebrews 11:35-38).

Paul knew this and stressed it to Timothy:  “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12).  

Then Jesus said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).  What did Jesus do on his cross?  We are called to daily die to sins and live for righteousness (1 Peter 2:24).

Can we be saved without living a godly life in Christ Jesus?  Have you been persecuted for your faith?

Which Law Does the Christian Obey?

Jesus answered that for us in his great commission:  “Teach them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).  Paul called the new law “the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Jesus brought us a new covenant:  “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:20).  Not only was there a change of covenant, there was a change of priesthood.  God declared of Jesus:  “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 7:17, quoting Psalm 110:4).  “For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law” (Hebrews 7:12).

Paul taught that “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4),  “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,  by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations” (Ephesians 2:14-16) and  “He forgave us all our sins,  having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14).  See complete article under the question “Which law does the Christian obey?”

Faith and Obedience

Is this a teaching of salvation by works?  Aren’t we saved by grace, through faith? (Ephesians 2:8).  Yes, we are saved through faith, not works, lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:9).   But can a saving faith exist that is not evidenced by deeds?  Is not obedience the principal – essential – evidence that we really believe?  Paul called us to the obedience that comes from faith! (Romans 1:5).

Consider what James said about the relationship between faith and deeds:

 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save him? . . . In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. . . . Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.  You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? . . . .  “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.  You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. . . .  As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.  (James 2:14-26).

Judgment by God and Obedience!

In a passage not included in reliable early manuscripts (according to the NIV), Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16).

Almost all of the other passages which speak about God’s judgment consistently refer to deeds.  The Apostle John related his vision:  “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it.  Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them.  And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened.   Another book was opened, which is the book of life.  The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.  The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done (Revelation 20:11-13).  “Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds” (Revelation 2:23).  “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done” (Revelation 22:12).   “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.  God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’  To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.  But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” (Romans 2:5-8).

Is there a conflict here?  Didn’t Jesus say those who believe and are baptized will be saved?  Why then the emphasis upon obedience, deeds, and “what they had done”?  There is no conflict.  God knows that many times people do not believe what they claim to believe.  Ultimately, we act in accordance with what we really believe.  Actions do speak louder than words.  God looks at our actions to determine what we really believe.

Challenge to the Church

Is the church teaching new disciples to obey the teachings and commands of Christ – the will of God?   Have our churches taught their “old” disciples to be obedient to the commands of Christ?  Christ’s teachings and commands are found in the Gospels.  Are there regular Bible studies of the Gospels in our churches so that we may teach our parishioners and new disciples to obey all that Christ Jesus our Lord commanded us?

If not, why not?  Are we, the church, disobedient to our Lord’s command to “teach them to obey all that I have commanded you”?  Have we lost our way?  Have we come to love the world and forgotten that we are strangers and aliens in this world?  Are we majoring in the minors and ignoring the great, explicit command of our Lord?  Is this why we no longer impact our society as its conscience for good?

Are we guilty, as a church of fraud and deceit?  Do we fully inform a person of the price of following Jesus – that only he who gives up everything he has can be his disciple? (Luke 14:33).  Do we lie and claim that only a heart-felt acceptance of Jesus as Savior is necessary for salvation?

If so, may we repent and obey so that we may not be condemned for our disobedience.  May we obey and be blessed for our obedience.  Jesus said, “Whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).

May the church, through obedience to our Lord’s command, raise up true believers in the Lord Jesus who will be vibrant, strong, obedient, and who will persevere in their faith — disciples who will be the salt of the earth.

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