People often treat God like He is some sort of “good fairy,” sprinkling His “fairy dust” of blessing upon us if we obey and withholding it if we don’t. But that is a wrong view of the importance of obedience, the wrath of God, and the goodness of God.
Because the Bible is really always the best place to start, let’s first look at the lives of people in Scripture to find out why obedience is so important.
By God’s word to Abraham the Israelites were promised their land long before they received it – that is why it was the “Promised Land.” Their inheritance was already in place, their destinies mapped out according to God’s plan, but there was one requirement they had to fulfill in order to walk in the good things God already had in store for them: they had to obey. Of course, we see how this works out: they end up wandering in the desert for forty years while the disobedient, unbelieving generation dies out and a new generation is raised up to inherit through obedience all the promises of God.
‘For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, while it is said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was [God] angry for forty years? Was it not with those who had sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.’ (Heb. 3:14-19)
Do you understand what happened to the Israelites? They did not enter into their inheritance because they did not have enough faith to walk in obedience. Today most of us don’t have a specific piece of land that we have been promised as our inheritance – indeed the whole concept of inheritance may seem rather foreign – but as God’s children we each become heirs of the good things God has planned for us. Like the Israelites, however, we in our foolishness tend to choose disobedience, rejecting the gifts we have been freely offered and causing ourselves to fall under God’s wrath.
The example of Saul could possibly be even more heart-wrenching. The nation of Israel wanted a human king, so God did as they asked, though He warned them of the long-term consequences of their choice (1 Sam. 8). Saul was Israel’s first king, and he ended up making some choices that had dire results. However, though we may talk about Saul as being a poor king, Saul was the man God chose to reign over Israel (1 Sam. 9:15). This is where the whole idea of “predestination” comes into play. It is a rather intimidating word, and there is much conflict in the Church over whether we are “predestined” or have “free choice.” I do not pretend to understand it all, as even Paul said in Romans that he didn’t comprehend all of the matter, but I would like to offer a couple thoughts. Numerous passages of Scripture make it clear that God predestines us for certain things – Romans 9 being the major one – but at the same time we were created for freedom, freedom to choose. We should not think of this as freedom to do whatever we please but rather as freedom to choose what is right. We are always free to choose obedience.
Though Saul could have chosen obedience, he chose disobedience. Because God knows all things He knew what Saul would ultimately choose, but out of love He still gave Saul the chance to do the right thing and obey. To the Israelite nation God said, ‘“If you fear the Lord and serve Him and obey His voice, and do not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then both you and the king who reigns over you will continue following the Lord your God. However, if you do not obey…but rebel…then the hand of the Lord will be against you”’ (1 Sam. 12:14-15). Obviously the people didn’t take this warning very seriously because the chapter after God issued it we find Saul violating God’s commands and the people allowing him to do so! God so deeply longed to bless Saul, and Saul cast aside God’s good plans for the momentary ease of disobedience. After this account, Samuel voices the great sorrow of the Father’s heart: God wanted to establish Saul’s kingdom forever but now could not because of his disobedience. Instead ‘“the Lord sought for Himself a man after His own heart”” (1 Sam. 13:14). This man was David, a man who was not perfect and made mistakes but nevertheless earnestly desired to walk in obedience to God – he was a son of obedience.
Continuing Saul’s story from 1 Samuel, after Saul attempted to make up for his unlawful keeping of enemy livestock by saying he was going to sacrifice them to the Lord, the prophet Samuel told Saul, ‘“….To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams”’ (v. 22). Saul then begged Samuel, “…[F]orgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord” (v. 25). Samuel, however, upheld God’s word of judgment that Saul was no longer God’s chosen king for Israel. It was not that Saul made a poor choice so God decided to take away his blessings; it was that Saul had already determined in his heart to disobey God and so was no longer able to take part in the good plans God had for him. Like the Israelites and Saul, we often are sorry after we disobey when we really should have just obeyed in the first place. We are quick to do wrong but slow to accept unfavorable outcomes, at which point we express our regret in hopes of avoiding the consequences of our actions.
Growing up, whenever I disobeyed and then tried to display my true remorse, my daddy always told me, “I do not want you to be sorry; I want you to obey.” (Think of this in light of my story about running into the road; there wouldn’t have even been a chance to be “sorry” had I not obeyed.) Out of love, then, my parents had to discipline me for wrongdoing; and God must do the same thing, for when there are no consequences, we are wont to continue sinning once the initial remorse or fear of punishment wears off. Hebrews 12:1-13 makes it very clear that “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (v. 10) and that this discipline will result in “a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (v. 11).
I can truthfully say that obedience saved my life. One Sunday afternoon when I was twenty months old (yes, months) I ran into the middle of Burton, which, if you don’t live in West Michigan, is a very busy street. My daddy shouted, “Sabra, stop!” And what did I do? I stopped, because I was taught to always obey Daddy. I stood there in the exact center of the road, completely still as traffic rushed heedlessly by, until my daddy could stop the cars and come out to get me.
I had to learn obedience through discipline and correction; but had my parents not taught me that, I would not be alive today. I had to learn obedience as a daughter of my earthly parents, and I must do the same with my heavenly Father. Even Jesus, “though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:8). Does that ruffle your theology a bit? It still amazes me that Jesus had to learn obedience.
As fully adopted children of God the Father, we have the privilege of sharing in the discipline even as we share in the inheritance.
Going back to Hebrews 12, we read, ‘“For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.” If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons’ (v. 6-8; emphasis mine). This means that if we don’t receive God’s correction unto obedience, we don’t belong to the household of God. Illegitimacy cares with it the stigma of not belonging, of not being equal to the true children. Without obedience there can be no belonging.
The importance of obedience, then, is firmly rooted in this intricate mingling of the discipline and the inheritance. The problem, however, lies in the fact that most people don’t really have a desire to obey God – and I am talking about Christians here! Now that we have that established, I am sure you want to know what the consequences of disobedience might be: what’s the big deal with disobedience? Isn’t it just our free choice?
More accurately we should be asking this question:
If we don’t obey, do we have any inheritance from God?
The next part of this post will explore the answer.