Is Salvation Earned by Obedience?

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At the very outset of this study let me hasten to assure the reader that I am in no way suggesting that obedience is unimportant or that it has no place in our relationship with our God. One would have to be utterly ignorant of the contents of Scripture to affirm such a doctrine. A number of people in recent years have accused me of teaching that we do not have to obey God; that if we simply believe in Jesus we can coast into heaven while still “doing as we please” in our daily lives. I knew a preacher several decades ago who, in a conversation with me, told me that he proclaimed to his congregation, “As long as you believe, you can live like the devil and God will still accept you.” In my opinion, there are serious problems with that kind of teaching. This is not what I teach.

There is no question, at least not in my mind, that our Father expects His children to live in accordance with His will for them. Whether one chooses to characterize this as obedience or compliance or submission, it is nevertheless a divine expectation conveyed throughout Scripture. Thus, I am not declaring, nor have I ever declared, obedience to be unnecessary or irrelevant to our spiritual sojourn here on earth. The question is not: “Is obedience necessary?” Clearly, it is. The real question we must ask is: “Necessary to what?” What purpose does obedience serve? What does obedience accomplish? Why do disciples of Christ Jesus obey, and what do they obey? By asking these types of questions, and by seeking to grasp the answers through careful, prayerful examination of the Scriptures, we will perhaps gain a better understanding of the nature, purpose, and practical parameters of obedience.

I recently received an email containing the following statement: “I listen regularly to a Church of Christ preacher who stresses obedience in his sermons. While being obedient to God is what all Christians should be doing in their lives, it seems to me that this preacher makes one’s obedience a salient part of being saved (and staying saved). Isn’t there a danger of muddling the Gospel message, and of obscuring what Jesus accomplished for us at the cross, if we add anything to the finished work of Jesus at the cross? The message of this preacher seems to be: By means of what Jesus did at the cross, PLUS what WE do (obedience to commands: i.e., water baptism, good deeds, being as sin-free as we can manage, and so forth), we co-redeem ourselves. Is this typical Church of Christ theology, or just mostly the doctrine of the most conservative among you? In a recent sermon, this preacher said: ‘You can’t buy salvation. You have to earn it by being obedient to God.’ He is right in saying you can’t buy salvation, but then he defaults back to his doctrine of ‘saved by obedience.’ I would love to hear your take on this.”

Perhaps the place to begin a response to such a query is to look at the word “obedience,” especially as it is presented to us in the New Covenant writings. Generally, when one is told that he or she must “obey,” it brings to mind some command or point of law with which one must comply without question: a “do it or die” divine edict. I remember in the military that we were informed, in no uncertain terms, that we were to “obey without question, whether you agree or not, and whether you like me or not.” Thus, obedience (in such scenarios) did not truly come from the heart, it was a matter of doing as one was told in order to avoid the consequences of disobedience, or to gain the approval of a harsh master. In such cases, obedience is largely motivated by fear, not by love or respect. Is this truly what God is looking for? Does our Father desire children who “do as they’re told” and “don’t ask questions”? That is a type of “obedience,” but is it the type of obedience God seeks? I think we can all agree that such a view of “obedience” is not even close to the teaching of the New Covenant scriptures.

So, what is the expectation of our heavenly Father? The Greek words utilized in the New Covenant writings are: “hupakoe” (noun = “attentive hearing; compliance, submission, obedience”) and “hupakouo” (verb = “to listen/hear attentively; to submit, comply, obey”). The word is a combination of the preposition “upo” (“under”) and the word “akouo” (“to hear; listen”), thus signifying one who listens to another with respect, placing themselves under the guidance of that individual; heeding what they say. As disciples of Christ, we place ourselves willingly under His authority, and we listen to what He says, and we observe what He does, so as to conform our attitudes and actions to His (Philippians 2:5; Romans 8:29).

Obedience under this new covenant of grace, therefore, is not a subjecting of oneself to a rigid system of law, but rather a submitting of oneself to the very personification of LOVE (Jesus) and seeking to comply, in our own attitudes and actions, with the pattern/example of His attitudes and actions. Obedience under a covenant of grace, rather than a covenant of law, is a willing submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives, who works to conform us to the image of God’s beloved Son. It is not about following rules and regulations, it is all about following Jesus. Thus, when we place ourselves in submission to Him, we declare our willingness, with the help of His indwelling Spirit, to visibly display His attributes in our daily lives. Those who are law-bound will insist that obedience is to be found in the precise following of procedural patterns (as in a “worship service,” for example), whereas genuine NT obedience is to be found in lovingly following the pattern of the Lord Jesus Himself.

As we increasingly grasp God’s grace and the true significance of obedience, realizing that we now live in a dispensation of liberty not law, we will appreciate the wisdom of this new order. We will have passed beyond the notion of salvation by rule keeping, to the reality of salvation in relationship with the Lord. Thus, as children of a loving Father, the concept of “obedience” within the context of this new covenant is more accurately conveyed by the term “submission” (which suggests, more properly, attentiveness to, with the intent to imitate, the attitudes and actions of the Son). This forever removes our “obedience” from the realm of LAW and places it firmly (where it belongs) in the realm of LOVE. God is love, and when we place ourselves in submission to Him, “heeding attentively” the personification of the Father in the Son by loving as He loves, we are thereby “obedient” to Him. If the entirety of law and all the prophetic writings is summed up in LOVE (as both Jesus and Paul declare), then our “obedience” and “submission” and “compliance” is perfected in LOVE. It is these who are truly “obedient” (in submission) to Him.

I really like the statement by an ancient Jewish rabbi who stated, “Obedience to the law is not our salvation, it is the fruit of our salvation.” This rabbi realized an important truth: men do not obey in order to be saved; men obey because they are saved.” Placing ourselves willingly in submission to our Redeemer is not an act by which we hope to secure His favor, it is rather an act/attitude of gratitude for having been granted His favor. God’s grace is a gift; it cannot be earned. It is received by faith, and we then spend our lives in loving submission to Him for that gift, a submission that surrenders our very lives to His leading and to the transforming work of His indwelling Spirit. It is this latter that constitutes the NT teaching on “obedience.” For those willing to give themselves in submission to that leading, and who are willing to be transformed by His Spirit, Jesus stands forever as the source of their salvation (a salvation not secured by their own acts or actions, but by His).

The aforementioned preacher stated in his sermon, “You can’t buy salvation. You have to earn it by being obedient to God.” Sadly, this is what some preach (even within Churches of Christ), yet it could not be more untrue. Salvation is a gift, and a gift cannot be “earned” (that would make it “wages due”). Thankfully, more and more within the Stone-Campbell Movement are abandoning this teaching. We are not saved by compliance with commands; we are not redeemed by our response to rules and regulations. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Yes, as saved men and women, we will seek, by the power of His Spirit, to live in compliance with and submission to His example. As He loved, we will seek to love; as He was merciful, we will seek to be merciful; as He was kind, benevolent, forgiving, compassionate, so we will seek to be. In so doing we “attentively hear” the proclamation of His life and teaching, and we submit. Again, this is not done in order to earn salvation, it is done because we are already saved, and we simply seek to show that reality in our daily lives. This is the “obedience” one finds promoted within the pages of the New Covenant writings. Liberation, not legislation, is the watchword; love, not law. May God help us to perceive this reality, for failing to do so only leads us back to enslavement to religious regulation, and therein lies the pathway to our own spiritual demise.

If you like Al’s writing, check out his website and email list.

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