Biblically, What Is True Obedience?

Obedience is one of the essential duties demanded from every man. In one way or another, every book of the Bible teaches man to obey God. Ecclesiastes 12:13 summarized this truth by saying that the duty of man is to fear God and keep His commandments. However, although obedience is very important, most people do not obey God, nor do they understand what true obedience is. And even many (both Christians and non-Christians) of those who claim to be obedient are disobedient. One of the things that cause disobedient people to believe that they are obedience is a lack of understanding for true (biblical) obedience. Many have defined obedience in the way that suits their own moral standard rather than fitting God’s standard. For example, many define obedience as doing what one is told to do. Biblically, obedience is greater than just doing what you are told to do. I am highly persuaded and in absolute favour with the definition of obedience that is provided by Central Africa Baptist College and Seminary (CABC), having obedience as one of their core values. CABC defines obedience as, “Doing what I am told to do how I am told to do it when I am told to do it with the right heart attitude and spirit toward the authority that is asking me to do it”.  I believe that such a definition is faithful to the biblical understanding of obedience. In this article, I intend to explain what true obedience is by unpacking the CABC definition of obedience. I will end by drawing implications of having a correct (biblical) understanding of obedience. The goal is to help the reader to assess whether he or she is obedient or not, and to point the reader to his/her disobedience and his/her need for forgiveness and salvation (rescue) that is found only in the Lord Jesus Christ alone, and to call the reader, especially the genuine Christian to true obedience.  Having said that let me go straight to the task at hand. My only plea is one, and that is, do not take yourself out of the picture I am talking to you!

Obedience is DOING what you are told to do

Obedience is DOING what you are told to do either by doing what you are commanded to do, or by not doing what you are forbidden to do. Obedience is an active action; it is not a passive action, being acted up-on. There are those who teach that doing God’s will is just an act of “let go; let God” (an idea that obedience is just God doing His work in you without your participation). That is not biblical obedience; yes it is God who works in us (believers) both to will and to fulfill; yet, it is us believers who work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12, 13). Obedience is an act of you doing, fulfilling, what you are told to do. An action can be in form of thought (thinking), speech (speaking), and action (manual working e.g. cleaning, walking, driving, typing, reading, etc.). In whatever form of acting, it is you doing the work actively. If you are instructed to believe the truth, it is you who should believe. If you are told to speak, it is you who must speak. If you are told to go clean, it is you who will do the work of cleaning.

Obedience is doing A SPECIFIC THING that you are told to do

To obey is to carry out a specific given command. As I said earlier, obedience is doing what you are told to do either by doing what you are instructed to do, or by not doing what you are forbidden to do. For example, when God instructed Adam saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16–17), obeying this command meant doing what God told him to do (eating freely from all the trees in the garden), but it also  meant not doing what God has forbidden him (not eating from the tree of knowledge good and evil). Thus to obey mean to carry out a specific given instruction. By clear implication, this means that for you to obey, first you need to know and understand the specific instruction given to you.  Thus, in order to obey the revealed will of God, we need to learn this will of God. The will of God that we need for life and godliness is revealed to us in the Scripture/Bible (Deuteronomy. 10:4; 29:29; 2 Peter. 1:3–5; 16–21; 2 Timothy 3:15–17). The moral demand of God is also written in our hearts; consequently, when our consciences are functioning correctly they agree with the moral demand of the Scripture as our consciences accuse/condemn us when we have violated God’s will and excuses us when we have acted according to God’s will (Romans 2:12–16). The whole point here is this: we must know and understand the will of God in order to obey it, and we can know God’s will for our lives; so, we have no excuse for disobeying God’s will. Even in seeking to obey right instructions of our parents/guardians, leaders, and employers, we must first know and understand their instructions in order to obey them.

As we have seen in the commandment that God gave to Adam, disobedience (sin) leads to judgment and punishment which is death (Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23). So, we must seek knowledge of God’s will in order to obey God. We should also avoid obeying instructions of men or of other creatures that are against God’s commands.

Obedience is doing what you are told to do HOW you are told to do it

God in the Scripture did not just tell us what to do; He also told us how we should do it. Unlike the will of men which is imperfect, God will is good, pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:2). God does not make mistakes. His instructions are always perfect; they do not need revision or update. Therefore, in obeying God, we must do what God told us to do, doing it the way God told us to it. For instance, concerning marriage, God did not just tell us to marry, but He also told us how marriage should look like. God clearly commanded men that marriage should be between one man and one woman (Genesis 1:26–26; 2:18–24; Mark. 10:6–8). God also clearly explained how a husband and wife should relate to one another (Ephesians 5:21–33). Therefore, in obedience to God, marriage ought to be pursued according to God’s will and lived according to God’s will (the inspired Scripture). And even those of us who are single, we must live our single lives according to God’s Word (1 Thessalonians 4:1–8). Concerning church ministry, God did not just told us to preach the gospel, He also told us how we should fulfill the mission of the church (Mathew 28:18–20; 2 Timothy 2:22–26; 4:1–5). We must do what God told us to do, doing it how God told us to do it. Partial obedience is disobedience. The good illustration of the danger of incomplete obedience can be found in the story of Saul; King Saul was rejected by God because he chose to carry out God’s clear instructions by his own terms and method (1 Samuel 15–16). Furthermore, God killed Nadab and Abihu for trying to serve Him in their own way (Leviticus 9:1–10:3). Dear friends, let this truth sink in, that incomplete obedience is disobedience, and disobeying God’s Word leads to judgment and punishment.  

Thus, in whatever sphere you find yourself (church, home, workplace) we must not be pragmatic (using whatever means that seem to work), but things should be done correctly and in-accordance with God’s implied and explicit revealed will. We must do what we are told to do, doing it how we are told to do it.

Obedience is doing the right thing in the right way at the RIGHT TIME

Obedience is doing what I am told to do how I am told to do it WHEN I am told to do it with the right heart attitude and spirit toward the authority that is asking me to do it. The timeless God owns time. He created His creation in time (Geneses 1; Exodus 20:11). He fulfills His plans in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4). He acts in time, and the right time (Genesis 15:13, 14; Exodus 2:23–25; Ecclesiastes 3:1–8). He commands people to do things on time (Jeremiah 29:10). God cares about time; we must imitate Him, and thus obey His instruction on time (Ephesians 5:1, 2, 15, 16). God instructions should not be obeyed on our own time; we must do God’s work at the time that God asked us to do them. This is very important, especially in our African continent where many people seem to care more about the event and care less about time. We must obey God on time. If God say it must be done today, we should do it today. If He said it must be done always, we should do it always. If He says it must be done after other things are in place, we must obey God. If God says you must repent and believe the gospel today, you must do it day (Hebrews 4:7, 8). Obey God on time! We must listen to God’s Word and obey God urgently. Even in obeying right instructions from human authorities in our homes, churches, workplaces, and wherever, we must do what we are told to do, doing it when we are told to do it. Of course we should not be slaves of time; however we should not be careless about time. We should not just go to church meetings; we must go there on time. Furthermore, we must go to work on time and finish work on time. We must carry out projects on time (starting on the right time and finishing on the right time). This tendency of doing God’s works on our own time is a serious sin that we must all acknowledge, confess, repent-off and seek God’s forgiveness. Dear friends, obeying God means doing what God told you to do, and doing it on time.

Obedience is doing what you are told to do with the RIGHT HEART-ATTITUDE AND SPIRIT toward the authority that asked you to do it

True obedience is not reaction to threats, by force or by manipulation. True obedience is willful and joyful submission to the given instruction. It is doing what you are told to do, doing it, how you are told to do it, and when you are told to do it without complaining and without grumbling (Philippians 2:12–15). A person who is doing what he is instructed to do, doing it unwillingly is disobeying. A person who is doing what he is told to do with a grumbling and a complaining spirit is disobedient. In the words of John Murray, true obedience is not mere actions, true obedience involves disposition, will, determination, and volition (1955, p. 22). So, we must obey with our hearts and minds before we obey with our hands, feet and lips. By implication, doing what you are told to do with the right-heart attitude and spirit means that one should do the right thing with the correct motive. Doing right things with wrong intention is both wrong and dangerous. Ananias and Sapphira were killed by God because of trying to give money to the poor with wrong motives and then lie about it (Acts 5:1–11). Scripture says that we must do all things for God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17). We are created by God for His own glory, and we existed to glorify Him (Colossians 1:16). Even our salvation is ultimately for God’s praises and glory (Ephesians 1:6, 12; Revelations 4:11; 5:12). Furthermore, it is God who enable us to obey Him (Philippians 2:13). Thus even our obedience to human authorities must be for God’s glory. Wives are to submit to their husbands for the God’s glory; husbands are to love their wives for God’s glory; children are to obey their parents in the Lord for God’s glory; employers are to treat their employees well for God’s glory; employees are to submit to their employers’ godly instructions for God’s glory (Colossians 3:17–4:1; Ephesians 5:20–6:9). We must labor in praying and in preaching the gospel as God commanded us, doing it for the salvation of souls and ultimately for the glory of God. In helping the poor and in serving others as God commanded us to do, we must do it willingly and joyfully out of love for Christ, and for God’s glory (Mathews 5:16; 1 Peter. 4:7–12). Doing right things in order to gain good reputation or honor is not true obedience. The above description of obedience is the true (biblical) meaning of doing what you are told to do with the right heart attitude and spirit toward the authority that asked you to do it.This is what biblical obedience looks like. Clearly you can see that it is not that easy as many think. Personally, this reveals my disobedience and my need for a Savior. What about you? Are you obedient to God?

True obedience is by God’s enablement

Although man was created in the perfect nature that could obey God, after the fall, man lost his ability to obey God without God’s enablement (Genesis 1:27–31; 3). A fallen man is living in disobedience (Genesis 6:5; 8:21); a fallen nonbeliever cannot truly obey God (Romans 8:5–8). The unconverted heart of the nonbeliever hates God and godliness (Jeremiah 17:9, 10; Mark 7:21), and no one can please God without saving faith (Hebrews 11:6). The only heart that can submit to God’s will willingly and joyfully is the converted heart (Ezekiel 36:25–27). Thus in order to truly obey God’s will, you need to be converted, and you need to be made a new person; you need to be born again. You need to be saved through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and then receive God, the Holy Spirit who enables you to obey God (Acts 2:38; Romans 8:9–10; Ephesians 1:13–14). In other words, true obedience is a manifestation of self-control, which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). For those of you who are not yet saved, obedience starts by acknowledging your sinfulness and inability to obey God’s will without God’s enablement; then you repent from your rebellion and turn to God through faith in Jesus Christ who obeyed God’s will perfectly and paid the price for your sins by His sacrificial death and vindicated it by His resurrection (Romans 4:24–25). Through Christ God will forgive your sins and gives the Holy Spirit who will enables you to obey God (John 3:14–18; 36; 6:29). If you do not come to Christ who has died for the sins of His people so that you will receive forgiveness of sin, salvation, and peace with God, you will die in your sins and pay for your sins forever in eternal hellfire (John 3:35–36).                           For those of us who are saved, we must daily turn away for our sins, and ask God for daily grace to enable us to obey His perfect will by the help of the Holy Spirit who indwells us (James 4:4–10). We must put to death our sinful desires and submit to the leading of the Holy Spirit as we are obeying God’s Word in the Bible (Romans 8: 12–14; 13:14; Galatians 5:13–22; Colossians 3:5, 6). Since it is God who enables us to obey God, being obedient should not make us proud; instead, it should make us humble and cause us to praise God for His grace, giving glory unto Him, and plead for daily grace to live godly lives (Philippians. 2:12–14).

Implications of having a correct understanding of biblical obedience

While there are many implications, let me highlight fifth of these implications.

  1. We must listen attentively in order to obey – when we are listening, we must listen to what, how, when and why of the instruction. Where we are not clear, we must ask for clarification. We must seek knowledge and understanding before we attempt to obey. We must study the Scriptures prayerfully in order to understand God’s will and then obey it. 
  2. We must obey the right instruction. Now that you know what obedience is, obey God and other authorities that God set above you; obey other authorities under God’s absolute supreme authority. A believer’s life must be marked by obedience. He who continues to live in disobedience is not truly saved (1 John 2–3). Are you obedient to God? Are you obedient to the godly instructions that are given to you by the authority over you? Whether it is in the local church, at homes, at the work place or in the society at large, you must be obedient. Obey what is in accordance with the will of God (the Bible). When you are being instructed by a certain authority to do what is against God’s will (the Bible), do not obey such ungodly instruction, for in such situations, you choose whether to serve God or men (Acts. 4:17–20; 5:27–29).
  3. Acknowledge your disobedience and seek forgiveness and salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ. Click the following link: to read more about salvation. For nonbelievers, your first true obedience is repenting from your sins and then believe Jesus Christ (John 6:28, 29).
  4. We believers must pray for daily enablement to obey God, for God’s glory. God honors obedience, and He punishes disobedience. We are prone to wander away from God; we must pray for God to enable us to submit to His perfect will willingly and joyfully, especially when it is cost (hard or risk) to obey God’s will. We should remember that God is always with us (Hebrews 13:5; Isaiah 43:1–3) to guide us and to help us in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).
  5. We must give clear instructions. Our teachings, preaching, and other instructions should not just tell people to do things. It should tell people what they should do, how they should do it, when necessary, and why they should those things. This is how God communicate to us dear friends. We must imitate our God even in our communication.

After all has been said, the end of the matter is this: we must “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14). We should not do what God has forbidden. You and I should do what we are told to do, how we are told to do it, when you are told to do it, with the right heart attitude and spirit toward the authority that has asked us to do it.

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