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I believe with all my heart that we can do nothing to merit eternal life. We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. God accepts and declares us righteous not because of our good deeds, but because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We cannot earn God’s favor. We depend entirely on his gospel grace.

Full stop. Period. New paragraph.

We can also be obedient.

Not flawlessly. Not without continuing repentance. Not without facing temptation. Not without needing forgiveness. But we can be obedient.

Obedience is not a dirty word for the gospel-centered Christian. We are saved from the wrath of God by sovereign grace, and that sovereign grace saves us unto holiness. Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ has redeemed us from all lawlessness to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:14).

More Spiritual than the Bible

Sometimes in a genuine effort to be honest about our persistent imperfections we make it sound like holiness, of any sort, is out of reach for the Christian. But this doesn’t do justice to the way the Bible speaks about people like Zechariah and Elizabeth who “were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Likewise, Jesus teaches that the wise person hears his words and does them (Matt. 7:24). There’s no hint that this was only a hypothetical category. Quite the contrary, we are told to disciple the nations that they might obey everything Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:19-20).

God expects the Christian to be marked by virtues like love, joy, and peace (Gal. 5:22-23) instead of being known for sexual immorality, idolatry, theft, and greed (1 Cor. 6:9-11). No Christian will ever be free from indwelling sin, but we should no longer be trapped in habitual lawlessness (1 John 3:4). “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10).

Filthy Rags?

That’s true, you may say, but in the end all our righteous deeds are nothing but filthy rags. There’s nothing we work we can do that truly pleases God or can be considered righteous in his sight. I’ve probably explained Isaiah 64:6 with similar words, but I don’t think it’s quite right. The “righteous deeds” Isaiah has in mind are most likely perfunctory rituals offered by Israel without sincere faith and without wholehearted obedience. In Isaiah 65:1-7 the Lord rejects Israel’s sinful sacrifices. There is nothing really righteous about these deeds. They are an insult to the Lord, smoke in his nostrils, just like the ritual “obedience” of Isaiah 58 that did not impress the Lord because his people were oppressing the poor. All that to say, we should not think every kind of “righteous deed” is like a filthy rag before God. In fact, Isaiah 64:5 says “You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.” It is not impossible for God’s people to commit righteous acts that please God.

John Piper explains:

Sometimes people are careless and speak disparagingly of all human righteousness, as if there were no such thing that pleased God. They often cited Isaiah 64:6 which says our righteousness is as filthy rags. It is true–gloriously true–that none of God’s people, before or after the cross, would be accepted by an immaculately holy God if the prefect righteousness of Christ were not imputed to us (Romans 5:19; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21). But that does not mean that God does not produce in those “justified” people (before and after the cross) an experiential righteousness that is not “filthy rags.” In fact, he does; and this righteousness is precious to God and is required, not as the ground of our justification (which is the righteousness of Christ only), but as an evidence of our being truly justified children of God. (Future Grace, 151)

A Double Danger and a Triple Testimony

It is a dangerous thing to ignore the Bible’s presumption, and expectation, that (a certain kind of ) righteousness is possible. On the one hand, some professing Christians may be deceived, thinking that personal holiness isn’t really necessary and therefore it doesn’t matter how they (or anyone else) lives. On the other hand, some Christians may be too reticent to recognize that they actually do good things. We can think it’s a mark of spiritual sensitivity to consider everything we do as morally suspect. But this is not the way the Bible thinks about righteousness. As Piper puts is, “our Father in heaven is not impossible to please. In fact, like every person with a very big heart and very high standards, he is easy to please and hard to satisfy” (152)

There is no righteousness that makes us right with God except for the righteousness of Christ. But for those who have been made right with God through faith alone, many of our righteous deeds are not only not filthy in God’s eyes, they are exceedingly sweet.

Obedience is possible, prescribed, and precious.


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Comments:


50 thoughts on “Obedience is Possible”

  1. Thanks Kevin, this is terrific and timely.

  2. Chuck Colson says:

    Thanks, Kevin. I appreciate your fidelity to the Scriptures in thinking about obedience. It is refreshing, and truly gospel-centered.

  3. Matt says:

    We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit, and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.

    Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreproveable in God’s sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.

    Westminster Confession (and the 1689 London Baptist Confession) 16:5-6

  4. Jeremy says:

    In the neo-Calvinist model, the Law is viewed as this extremely high, perfect standard that no person will ever be able to satisfy unless Jesus intercedes. In the Jewish model, the Law is viewed as completely reasonable, and is not burdensome, but rather a gift. You will find many people as declared righteous by God in the Old Testament, and there is not one single mention of them believing in Jesus for that.

  5. Damion says:

    One thing I have learned over the years of following Christ is that the beauty grace is easy to accept but tough to live out in my thought process and actions. I am thankful that we serve a merciful God who is slow to anger and quick to forgive.

  6. Matt says:

    I would say that “Obedience is Possible” is not quite right. God doesn’t lower his standard of absolute perfection and holiness. Also, anything we do is going to be tainted with sin. So it isn’t that obedience is possible, it’s that our obedience is accepted for Jesus sake. HUGE difference there. Because we are in Christ, our obedience is acceptable, not because there isn’t imperfection or fault in it, but because they are done in union with Christ. Look at your self and your obedience long enough in the light of God’s holiness and law and you’ll be thrown into despair because you could have always done better! You need just as much grace, mercy, and forgiveness from God right now as you did before you became a Christian. The Biblical teaching is that the believer is simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and a sinner). That’s why I posted Westminster Confession 16:5-6.

  7. Reg Schofield says:

    “You will find many people as declared righteous by God in the Old Testament, and there is not one single mention of them believing in Jesus for that.”

    If this is so Jeremy , that the following of the law pleased God to declare one righteous , then why did Jesus have to come and die on a cross , be raised again for our justification.Just wondering what you mean.

  8. Mark says:

    “You will find many people as declared righteous by God in the Old Testament, and there is not one single mention of them believing in Jesus for that.”

    Jeremy,
    Old Testament saints were indeed saved through their faith in Christ. Of course their understanding of Christ was not nearly as clearly articulated for them as ours is. However, if we read Hebrews 11, we see all these saints being declared righteous for their faith in what is to come. Their faith was based on a promise yet to be fulfilled. None were saved by adherance to the law. Although we see Christ revealed in scripture, we too act in faith of our future salvation when Christ returns and we see His glory in all it’s fulness. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

  9. Mike says:

    Nice post, Kevin. I believe you accurately summarized the biblical position on how holiness follows our justification.

  10. Michael Snow says:

    Love and obedience are inextricably interwoven because
    all the commandments of God are summed up in the law
    of love.
    —F. F. Bruce

    Epigram of chapter one in Love, Prayer and Forgiveness: When Basics Become Heresies

  11. Olive says:

    God gives eyes and ears to see and hear what you are saying. You have put into words things I know are true.
    Thanks, Kevin.

  12. Patrick Anthony says:

    I’m going to have to agree with Matt on this one. I think you have too much emphasis on obedience here. It reminds me of Galatians where Paul says, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Obedience is not something you can just pull up your bootstraps and do. Some have the kind of natural fortitude to be able to do so and honestly, some people just don’t and can languish and flail about for years trying to live up to the standard you have laid out here before giving up. And the danger for those who do have the fortitude to live up to this kind of standard of obedience is pride.

    Our salvation did begin by the Spirit and sanctification recapitulates salvation. In order to obey we must gaze at our sinfulness. We must take it all in, as much as we can handle and gaze at the gospel at the same time. If we do, we’ll discover that God’s grace and love are as deep as our sin and as we see more of our sin, we see more of the gospel. Obedience cannot be our primary goal but only an outpouring of the gospel. In fact, I think our tendency is to use obedience and good works as a way to avoid having to look at the depths of our sin, thus shrinking the cross and missing out on the wonder that we are, as Matt pointed out, simul iustus et peccator.

  13. Blair Kilgallen says:

    First post on GC. I really appreciate your contributions, Kevin.

    As one who identifies with those who believe our righteousness is as filthy rags, it’s easy to get conflicted and hung up when it comes to thinking whether or not my deeds are pleasing and righteous in the sight of God.

    When it comes to serving my wife of 34 years, I like to please her (that came later in life). Although I may not always be up to it, I do like to make my wife happy by making the bed in the morning or at least before she comes home in the evening. I admit part of that is sometimes fear based, if I don’t. But generally, I like making her happy and I know she appreciates it. I don’t believe she thinks I am a woeful scum for my (good) efforts.

    On the other hand, there are times when, if my wife doesn’t see me putting dishes in the dishwasher, it didn’t happen. So, I am tempted to wait for the right moment. I sometimes want applause for looking good, too. In good humor, I don’t think that’s taking away from God’s glory.

    The point is that my motives are always mixed and honestly I seldom take time to figure it out. I am just happy she is happy with me half the time. And, every now and then, I get the applause I am looking for.

    Back to whether our deeds can be pleasing to God: I find it encouraging to defer to Matt 5.16, “let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven”.

    I think the “seeing” implies there is something reflective of the Father’s love in what we do for others, however hidden and distorted our motives may be at times. God is pleased with my efforts especially as I trust him to empower my weaknesses and enable my giftings (I know the gospel says he doesn’t love me anymore more than he already does).

    I think there is another good point to make regarding this (a point which I’m sure God accepts as pleasing and righteous). It’s also very likely that in not inwardly acknowledging that my deeds are righteous and good before God, and instead outwardly coming across as inordinately modest in someone’s presence, that I will inadvertently denigrate the glory of God and miss an opportunity to inform others of how our Father in heaven is also caring and loving and good in his care for us.

    Lastly, I believe the term Matthew uses for God as Father here is intentional. Unbelievers and believers alike need to see and know that what we do to encourage them by our words and deeds is reflective of our relationship with a loving heavenly Father. So that in the future, by the grace of God, they may enjoy that same Fatherly relationship with a greater realization of His love for them. It’s a wonderfully scripted playwright in which God’s lovingkindness to us, through the cross, results in us desiring to do rewarding righteous good deeds for others which, in turn, brings attention to our heavenly Father.

    My first post probably made up for all the passed opportunities.

  14. Mitchell Hammonds says:

    Obedience… I have good days and I have bad days. Thank God for His grace that is greater than my sin that is there on either day. So with my mind I serve the law of God and with my flesh the law of sin… this is the Christian life.

  15. J. Dean says:

    I like how Luther said it: God does not need your good works; your neighbor does.

    Good works and obedience don’t save. But neither are they optional. They are a sign and evidence of conversion, much like a wedding ring is a sign and evidence of a person’s marriage. The ring doesn’t make you married, but it tells others that you are married.

  16. Stephen Shead says:

    Another Luther quote:

    “O it is a living, busy active mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.” (Preface to Romans)

  17. KB says:

    @Matt & Patrick,
    I’m suspicious that you’re positing a false dichotomy. You’re right, our works are accepted in Christ, but that doesn’t mean obedience to is impossible. After all, the work of sanctification makes us really and personally holy. If obedience isn’t possible, how can we be said to be holy? Only by imputation? That’s the error of Antinomianism.

  18. Jonathan says:

    I’m not sure if anyone who has addressed Jeremy has truly dealt with his comment yet. He does not see things like ‘Law’ and ‘righteous’ in the same way you neo-Reformed folk do. Thus, it makes little sense to critique his comment until you’ve established which starting point is valid.

    It is hard to disagree with his point that in the Old Testament a person was seen as righteous based upon whether or not he adhered to the Law of God. Furthermore, if one were to look up dikaiow (‘to justify’ or ‘to declare righteous’) in the LXX, he would be hard pressed to find an instance in which God or anyone else pronounces someone righteous who is in fact utterly unrighteous and wicked (which is how most people read Paul’s use of dikaiow). And if you want to talk about Genesis 15:6, that’s fine, just reconcile that with the fact that Psalm 106:31 uses the exact same phrase word for word concerning Phinehas, who did something a bit different than simply believing.

    On another note, if one does hold to the position that a person is pronounced righteous apart from any of their actual obedience and only the imputed righteousness of Jesus, then I suggest it makes little sense to speak of obedience still being “necessary” or “required” soteriologically. If salvation is simply going from the unrighteous category to the righteous category because someone else paid the bill, then obedience is entirely, and objectively, unnecessary for salvation. Evidential language might work, but then you’d have to see if it makes sense with how the scriptures talk about it. Does this statement square with how the scriptures talk about God’s salvation? “Obedience is the evidence God needs to determine who he will save apart from obedience.”

    The salvation (i.e. the eschatological consummation) made ready and perfect by Christ only applies to people who obey BECAUSE they actually obey (Heb. 5:9). Why do they obey? Because they believe this to be the case: that God rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Heb. 11:6).

  19. Matt says:

    @KB

    You said,

    “You’re right, our works are accepted in Christ, but that doesn’t mean obedience to is impossible.”

    God demands perfect obedience. Absolute moral perfection is the standard. Perfectly obeying God all the time, in thought, word, and deed. That kind of obedience is not possible, because we are sinners. Sinners by definition sin. Sin is disobedience. As long as we are still sinners, we can’t give God the perfect obedience he deserves. If you say that this kind of obedience is possible, then you scare me.

    You also said,

    “After all, the work of sanctification makes us really and personally holy. If obedience isn’t possible, how can we be said to be holy?”

    Sanctification is a process. The work of the Holy Spirit is to make us more and more holy. But this work is never completed this side of eternity. As long as we live, we will still be sinners. You can’t obtain perfection this side of heaven. The Spirit may make you more holy then you once were, but compared to God, you’ll still be unholy.

    You said,

    “Only by imputation? That’s the error of Antinomianism.”

    Obedience implies a standard to which we obey. That standard is the law. We must obey the law. However, we are NOT made holy by our obedience to the Law. Why? The law demands absolute perfection, and we can’t give that. If you say we are made holy by obedience, that is rank moralistic, pharisaic, legalism.

    We are made holy by the Spirit who works through the Word and the Sacraments. The Spirit’s work in and through the Word and the Sacraments creates and strengthens our faith in the promises of God. Then, because of God’s goodness towards us, we bear fruit and grow in holiness.

    This is not Antinomianism. Antinomianism says that we don’t have to obey the law. You’ve got your ticket punched, now go live like the devil. They say that we are not under obligation to live our lives in conformity to God’s perfect moral standards. That is not true, and not what I’m saying. We have to obey the law. Just because I don’t think we are able to actually obey the law perfectly, doesn’t mean I don’t think we still have to obey it. It’s the law. You must obey it.

    The law partially serves as our guide to show us what a good work is, and what God’s will for us is. However, no matter how hard we try to obey the law as Christians, we will always fall short, and thus need to be brought back to the Word and the Sacraments again.

  20. KB says:

    @ Matt,
    You ought to read to understand and not react…it’s helpful in these types of discussions.
    I said nothing about “perfect obedience.” Neither have I said anything about changing God’s moral standard. I’d suggest going back and reading my comment, dealing with the comment, and comparing it to the Westminster Standards you so freely quoted from earlier, particularly WCF 13.1, 16.1-7, 19.5-7; WLC 75, 76, 97; WSC 35.
    Cheers!

  21. Matt says:

    @KB

    I wasn’t “reacting”, and I’m sorry I came off that way.

    Any talk of obedience to the law will lead towards perfect obedience. The law doesn’t demand any obedience, but it demands perfect obedience. Imperfect obedience according to the law is disobedience, and results in death and cruse. Yes, I agree that a mark of a Christian is his progress in holiness and obedience. But any obedience he gives is marked and tainted with sin, like everything else and the blood of Christ cleanses even his obedience. That was my point.

  22. KB says:

    @ Matt,
    From how I’m reading you, obedience=perfect obedience. To use Westminster categories, I agree this is true of the covenant of works. Is this true under the covenant of grace?

  23. Patrick Anthony says:

    @KB

    I totally get what Matt is saying. He did come across a little heated but let me see if I can help clarify things here (I probably won’t be able to but I feel compelled to try!).

    First you said I am setting up a false dichotomy. I assume you mean a dichotomy between obedience and salvation. My intention was not to do this. I totally affirm that increased holiness is a necessary mark of a Christian. However, it is important to distinguish what is motivating the increased holiness. Is it something we strive with much effort to demonstrate in order to prove that we are saved? Or, is it something we do as a response to daily understanding the depth of our sinfulness while simultaneously understanding that God’s grace is deeper still?

    Then you said “our work is accepted in Christ but that does not mean obedience is impossible.” I guess we’re going to have to figure out what we mean by obedience. You said in your last post that you didn’t say anything about perfect obedience. However, I’ve understood the kind of obedience that Kevin talks about in his blog (which we’re all responding to) to be the kind that says, “Ok, you’re Christians now and because of the law you know everything you should be doing and since you have the Spirit you have the power to do it – so go do it!” I think this position leads people to either pride or despair because the law sets a pretty high standard that, if we’re honest, none of us go a moment without failing to keep it. If we think we do, we get prideful and if we see we can’t, we despair that we’re even saved… and some who despair give up.

    The you said, “After all, the work of sanctification makes us really and personally holy. If obedience isn’t possible, how can we be said to be holy? Only by imputation? That’s the error of Antinomianism.” Who does the work of sanctification? Us? I don’t think so. The Spirit sanctifies us, all we can do is open to and make ourselves available to his work. Our obedience is not what makes us holy. Our holiness is owed completely to the work of Christ. We are found in him holy and blameless. We are really and personally holy only through imputation, however, that does not necessitate antinomianism. Matt correctly articulated antinomianism so I don’t need to. I am not affirming the shirking of law – but what is law for? is the law there to show us how to live after becoming Christians? Yes, to some extent, but that is not its ultimate purpose. It is there for the same reason as before – to be a tutor for us to Christ. Even after becoming a Christian our thought should be, “wow!! I still can’t obey! Thank you Jesus for what you have done!!” And as we understand the law more and understand the depth of our sin more then we are amazed more by grace and our obedience is a joyful and imperfect response to God’s love.

    Obedience is something we strive for – but unless we are doing it as a response to his amazing love, it will be a burden too big to carry. And we shouldn’t be surprised at how terribly we actually do obey, we should be able to look at our sin and claim the truth of our justification and the peace that comes from knowing that there is no condemnation for us b/c we are in him and let the joy that comes from that reality propel us forward.

  24. jeremiah says:

    It is possible to obey God and please Him in how we (His redeemed regenerated children)live our lives. Any brief word search shows this to be true. What is the fear in what Kevin is saying here?

  25. KB says:

    @ Patrick,
    1. The dichotomy is not in regard to salvation (defined narrowly) and obedience. We’re justified by faith alone in Christ alone apart from works. Matt said “So it isn’t that obedience is possible, it’s that our obedience is accepted for Jesus sake.” I see no reason why this must be an either/or. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion to say this confuses justification and sanctification.
    2. You’re right, we need to define obedience, because it seems the underlying assumption of you and Matt is that obedience means perfection. Do you disagree with Augustine’s classic four-fold state of man, that has always been cited approvingly by the Reformed?
    3. “Who does the work of sanctification?” Hasn’t it always been held by the Reformed that justification is a monergistic work, and sanctification a synergistic (Phil. 2:12-13)? The former by imputed righteousness, and in the latter by infused grace (see WLC 77)?
    4. “We are really and personally holy only through imputation, however, that does not necessitate antinomianism.” Here you’re going to find some disagreements. “Antinomians maintain, that believers are sanctified only by the holiness of Christ being imputed to them, and that there is no inherent holiness infused into them, nor required of them” (Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, 194). You’ll have to do some more convincing that this position isn’t antinomian.
    5. “Is the law there to show us how to live after becoming Christians? Yes, to some extent, but that is not its ultimate purpose.” Again, I’d see this as a false distinction. The Reformed have rightly advocated a three-fold use of the law, and I’m not sure why we have the liberty to subvert the third use to the second use…unless we’re going to be Lutherans.
    Cheers! :)

  26. KB says:

    Cheers! :)

  27. Matt says:

    @KB

    Perhaps this will help you understand why I disagree. You made the passing comment, “unless we’re going to be Lutherans”, and that’s the rub. I’ve been called by members of my church, a “Crypto-Lutheran”. So perhaps that explains why I’m seeing things slightly differently then you do.

    There does seem to be an ongoing debate within the Reformed world today on this issue.

    Here are two interesting articles on this subject:

    http://www.mtio.com/articles/aissar6.htm
    http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/scaersanctificationinlutherantheology.pdf

  28. KB says:

    @ Matt,
    Seeing things slightly differently? *If* you agree that the only holiness one has is imputed holiness, then you don’t just disagree with me, but you disagree with the Westminster Confession that you originally quoted from. I guess I was operating under the assumption that you agreed with that document. It’s fine if you don’t, but at the end of the day it’s not Reformed (c.f. WCF 19.6).
    Cheers!

  29. Elyse Fitzpatrick says:

    Isn’t it true that knowing that we are justified and therefore have perfect righteousness in Christ already because of His work, makes us desire to obey? And isn’t it true that our obedience, which is never perfect, more importantly never meritorious, is perfected by the righteousness of the Son and offered to the Father as good works that please Him? The good works that we do in faith fueled by love for God (because of what he has already done for us) do please Him…but only because they are perfected by Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

  30. Philip Lazar says:

    Like Isa 64:6 and Jer 17:9 is the most missued verse. In the light of Ezek 36:26 and 2 Cor 5:17. Regenerated person heart is obedient heart it’s not a rebelious one Rom 6:17. The power of Gospel rest on obedience of faith Rom 1:5 and 16:26.

    Philip Lazar, Pastor
    India.

  31. Patrick Anthony says:

    @KB

    First I’m going to respond to your last post to me and then I’m going to boil down my point and use less words and I hope I can communicate it here.

    1) I am not beholden to what Augustine thought or what is written in the Westminster Confession. A saved person will be in the process of sanctification and as such, there will be a greater degree of holiness and they will obey the law to a greater degree as well.
    2) I don’t think obedience means perfection – and I’ve never said we can’t obey, shouldn’t obey or that obedience is unnecessary. Obedience is a sign of true conversion (see point 1)
    3) While I will grant that there is some mystery and synergism in the sanctification process, I think the verse you cited (Phil 2:12-13) only proves my point – that God is the one at work in us. Our working out of our salvation does not sanctify us. We can do nothing to make ourselves truly holy. Obedience is not necessarily a sign of true inward transformation or character change. We can have many reasons for obedience that are more about us than God.
    4) My position is not antinomian. See point 1.
    5) The three fold use of the law – a) to mirror God’s righteousness. b) restrain evil. c) reveal what is pleasing to God. I did not subvert the 3rd use to the 2nd use.

    Here is my point:
    1) If we tell people they can obey, like Kevin did hear, then they are going to be either very surprised when they find out they can’t. Or, they’re going to think they can and become prideful. This is why I cited Galatians in my first post: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” The Galatians thought they were saved by grace and once they were saved, they then had to perform the works of the law to sanctify themselves. This leads to either despair or pride. This is why Paul takes them back to the gospel and demonstrates that their sanctification is by the same process as their salvation (i.e. seeing the depths of their sin and responding in gratification to God’s grace). This process gives us a good motivation to pursue holiness (i.e. a heartfelt response to God’s love in our lives which produces a love for him making us desire to obey) and it also helps us to deal with our constant disobedience (if not in action, then in thought and motive). If you’re going to write an article stating that we can obey (which I ultimate agree with), you can’t leave out this important nuance.
    2) I don’t know about the three fold plan for the law that the reformers came up with… I only know what Paul said, which is that the law is a tutor to lead us to Christ. The law mirrors God’s true standard, it restrains evil (only b/c of the dread of punishment) and it shows us how to live… But then we find out we can’t do it!!! which takes us to Christ.

  32. Patrick Anthony says:

    @Elyse

    Well said. You said everything I’ve been trying to say in one short paragraph.

  33. KB says:

    @ Patrick,
    Thanks for the clarification. I’m done now because I think we’re speaking past one another. Thanks for the charitable conversation.

  34. Patrick Anthony says:

    @KB

    Agreed. Take care.

  35. Patrick Anthony says:

    @KB

    Agreed. Take care.

  36. John Thomson says:

    Kevin

    A first class post. I am concerned that for some the indicative is occluding the imperative. The denial that obedience is possible seems to forget that we have a new nature that cannot sin (that is the nature cannot sin though we can and do). The life of God lives in the soul of man.

  37. Patrick Anthony says:

    @ John Thomson

    I am concerned that the imperative can occlude the indicative. The postulation that obedience is possible seems to forget that we have an “old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit.” Of course Paul tells us that we need to lay this aside and “be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” But how do we do this? How do we lay aside the old self and put on the new self?

    Do we do it by hearing the imperatives to obey and then pulling ourselves up in order to do so by claiming the reality that we are a new creation in Christ? Or, do we hear the imperative and then attempt to obey and then, if we’re honest, we fail (at least in thought and motive) – which drives us back to cross where the change happens… In a deep, intimate relationship with Christ at the foot of the cross…

    I get the fear that if we tell people they can’t obey then they’ll feel like they don’t even have to try since they can’t. But the truth is we have to tell people that they must obey and we have to show them what happens when they don’t obey… and then we show them the cross so they can continually go to it as they don’t obey. And there they will find that they are loved infinitely in spite of their sin and at the same time that they are more of a sinner than they ever thought they were. And obedience will be a response to God’s grace in the midst of this reality.

    Whereas if we tell people that there is a part in them that cannot sin because they are a new creation in Christ, etc without couching it in the reality of our flesh, then they will either feel that they are obeying and will become prideful, or they will, in honesty, find that they are not obeying and question their faith.

  38. John Thomson says:

    Patrick

    ‘How do we lay aside the old self and put on the new self?’

    The first thing we do is recognise this is an indicative before it is an imperative: we already have put of the old and put on the new. In fact, the Eph 4 passage is better expressed as an indicative.

    Eph 4:20-24 (Darby)
    But you have not thus learnt the Christ, if ye have heard him and been instructed in him according as the truth is in Jesus; namely your having put off according to the former conversation the old man which corrupts itself according to the deceitful lusts; and being renewed in the spirit of your mind; and your having put on the new man, which according to God is created in truthful righteousness and holiness.’

    The gospel imperative is ‘be what you are’.

    ‘I get the fear that if we tell people they can’t obey then they’ll feel like they don’t even have to try since they can’t. But the truth is we have to tell people that they must obey and we have to show them what happens when they don’t obey… and then we show them the cross so they can continually go to it as they don’t obey. And there they will find that they are loved infinitely in spite of their sin and at the same time that they are more of a sinner than they ever thought they were. And obedience will be a response to God’s grace in the midst of this reality.’

    I totally agree.

    ‘Whereas if we tell people that there is a part in them that cannot sin because they are a new creation in Christ, etc without couching it in the reality of our flesh, then they will either feel that they are obeying and will become prideful, or they will, in honesty, find that they are not obeying and question their faith.’

    I agree, but only if we fail to stress too the presence of the ‘flesh’. My concern in my comment, and I think Kevin’s post, is that too many are beginning to speak as if obedience is not possible. The impression is given by some that we must preach the indicatives it would appear at times almost to the exclusion of the imperatives. The imperatives are, we are told, ‘law’. Their effect is only to accuse and condemn not to inspire and guide.

    Yes the bible makes room for failure…

    1John 1:8-10 (ESV)
    If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

    Yet…

    1John 3:9-10 (HCSB)
    Everyone who has been born of God does not sin, because His seed remains in him; he is not able to sin, because he has been born of God. This is how God’s children — and the Devil’s children — are made evident. Whoever does not do what is right is not of God, especially the one who does not love his brother.

    Both are necessary for a rounded gospel.

  39. Patrick Anthony says:

    Well said John.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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