I’ll never forget the conversation my wife and I had with a troubled teen several years ago. She grew up in a very dysfunctional, chaotic home with little structure. She said, “I wish someone had given me rules to live by.” Now most kids don’t say these words. I’ve yet to hear one of my children thank me for the rules in our home. But make no mistake, humans crave order and accountability.
Often Christians dismiss rules, as if the most joyful kind of life is the life without restraint, as if grace means we are free to live enslaved to our desires. But the gospel teaches a different way. Here are three ways Christians misunderstand obedience:
1. Jesus came to get rid of the law and thus to get rid of religious rules.
This teaching is based on the idea that the God of the Old Testament was mean and vengeful but that Jesus corrected all that and taught about love. But it helps to read what Jesus actually said about the law. “Don’t think I came to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them,” he says in Matthew 5:17. What’s more, he affirms the Old Testament down to every last “jot and tittle”(Matthew 5:18).
Jesus’s beef with the Pharisees and scribes were not that they were too committed to the Old Testament but that they were not committed enough. They refused to see in the story of Israel and the sacrificial structure the symbolism and signs that point to Jesus as their fulfillment. They saw the law as a way of justifying themselves before God, which is why they added onerous regulations. They weren’t necessarily concerned about their own holiness, but about justifying themselves before God.
The message of the gospel is that the law doesn’t save; it only serves as a mirror, reminding us of our sinfulness and need of a Savior. Jesus came not to get rid of God’s good moral standards by which he orders the world, but to redeem sinners as new creation people who then live holy lives, empowered by the Spirit of God.
2. It’s about Rules Versus Relationship.
In some ways it is true in that we are not made righteous because we follow the rules (because we can’t) but because Jesus was righteous and followed all the rules on our behalf. Yet there cannot be a relationship without rules. For example, I’ve been married to my wife Angela for seventeen years. The basis for our marriage is not a contract, but a nurturing, growing relationship. And yet there are quite a few rules involved. In fact, the rules of our marriage are so important we chose to stand in front of hundreds of people and recite them to each other. We will stay married and faithful “in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, as long as we both shall live.”
This is pretty restrictive and yet the boundaries of our marriage—faithfulness, devotion, love—create an environment where love can flourish. Have you ever tried any kind of relationship without rules? Without any kind of boundaries? There is no trust. You don’t have a relationship actually. You have an acquaintance.
God created us to live in relationship with him and has given us rules by which we best flourish. Jesus himself said that the true test of love for him is not pithy expressions but concrete obedience. “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Action is the acid test of love. My father said he loved me, but I saw that he loved me when he got up every morning before dawn and went to work to support us. So it is with us, we prove our love for Jesus by doing what he asks us to do.
3. God is a lover, not a rule-giver.
I’ve heard quite a few people say things like, “The God I know is less concerned with how you live and more about that you love.” But the Bible says that one sign of fatherly love is discipline, the giving of guidelines and standards that keep children from danger and in the path of flourishing. Consider Hebrews 12:4-12 where the writer tells us that the mark of a good father is that he instills discipline in his children.
You don’t even have to be a Christian to understand this. How would you feel about parents who let their children run into the street without consequences or have access to the Internet unfiltered all day or who didn’t make their kids bathe? Would you think they are good parents? Or would you think they are neglectful? We know, intuitively, that affection is not the only aspect of good parenting. Love requires us to put limitations, restrictions and rules for our kids because we love them more than they realize. So it is with God. This is why David could write poems about how much he loved God’s law (Psalm 119:97-176). It’s why the biblical writers across the testaments spoke of how good God’s law is (Psalm 19:7-9; Romans 7:12; 1 Timothy 1:8).
We can trust that God’s laws are good for us and obey them with confidence. The Creator who made us in his image for his glory knows more about what makes us flourish than we do. Obedience is not just about saying no to ourselves. It’s about saying yes to the freedom of living according to God’s good design.